Texas, Not New England, Probably Had the First Thanksgiving

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They say that everything is bigger in Texas, maybe even its history. Did you know that the Lone Star State is tied to the Thanksgiving holiday? That's right, that holiday on the last Thursday of November might have started in the South. 

One of the most beloved United States holidays (and some of the best food other than Christmas), the story behind the day of Thanksgiving always includes the European pilgrims in the Plymouth colony of Massachusetts who came over on the Mayflower and are starving in their first winter in North America. They get a little help from the Native Americans, The Wampanoag, and according to New England lore (queue the flashbacks to your childhood reenactments in school) are somehow able to communicate (in English) and become friends over a harvest feast. But it turns out El Paso, Texas might have played host to the first Thanksgiving celebration. In case you've paid a visit to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, just know their history of the Native People and Plimoth Plantation did not come first.

Depending on who you ask, this gut-busting national holiday might have really happened back in 1598 (not the 17th century like we've always been told, sorry Plymouth Rock). And the first Thanksgiving day didn't include any Puritans of Plymouth Plantation or Indians sharing their Thanksgiving meal. Sorry, no Squanto.

The story goes that Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate went on a fame and land seeking trek north from Mexico in 1598. He followed the Rio Grande to the new world with a group of about 500 Spaniards and ended up in San Elizario, modern-day El Paso.

Oñate's expedition, including women and children, went without supplies for a number of days. They traveled across the difficult landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert and barely survived. When they hit the water, an official thanksgiving feast was definitely in order. 

Oñate said a mass, a prayer of thanks and claimed the land for King Philip II of Spain. After the celebration he eventually settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which had already been established as part of the new world. 

El Paso residents have been reenacting this little-known nugget of Texas history since 1989 and they don't plan on stopping. El Paso Mission Trail Association hosts the annual event to preserve this piece of Texan history. 

The Texas society Daughters of the American Colonists also claim an original right to Thanksgiving in Texas. They claim the famous Coronado expedition held a mass and had a drink of thanks in the Texas Panhandle in 1541. Texans definitely have some bragging rights on the first Thanksgiving dinner. 

Historians also mark this as the beginning of Spanish colonization in the American Southwest. Some disagree that the Oñate feast was an actual harvest festival but it's clear that it was a feast of thanks (and survival). It seems New England has plenty of competition on her hands for the title of best first Thanksgiving story.

On the next national Thanksgiving holiday, as you're enjoying your pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce at dinner, just think about the state of Texas and the part it played in inspiring the annual harvest celebration on the fourth Thursday of November each year.

This post was originally published on November 16, 2016.

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Texas, Not New England, Probably Had the First Thanksgiving