History tells us the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. With a menu of baked turkey, nuts and fruits and corn and potatoes, they celebrated the settlement of the New World with their new found indigenous friends.
What history doesn't tell us is this was probably the second Thanksgiving celebrated by Europeans on the North American Continent. The first time around this happened - guess where - on the banks of the great Rio Grande, very near the site of present day El Paso, Texas.
Here's the full story
In 1573 Spanish King Felipe II signed a document called the Colonization Laws of Spain. This document provided the incentive for adventurers to launch expeditions into New Spain to find wealth and to elevate their prestige with the Spanish crown. It also provided a detailed list of the many responsibilities of the explorers.
Don Juan Pérez de Oñate y Salazar was the son of a wealthy rancher and silver mine developer and the co-founder of Zacatecas, Mexico. Oñate was one of the richest men of the region because of his family's silver mines, their many ranches, and his involvement in the lucrative Indian slave trade. He also married a rich woman, Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, who was the illegitimate grand-daughter of the conqueror of New Spain, Hernán Cortés, and Isabel Moctezuma.
Using his influence as a gentleman and businessman, and by calling upon trusted friend Luis de Velasco, a Viceroy of the King of Spain, Oñate managed to secure the blessing of the King to launch his massive expedition. Viceroys had the power to grant favors, including recommendations to the King about who should be allowed to colonize untamed lands. In 1595, acting on behalf of King Felipe II, Viceroy Velasco gave the final word to organize the expedition and colonization project.
Getting the nod from the Viceroy may have elevated Oñate's prospects, but it also committed him to huge expenses and great risks. Oñate, at his own expense, had to arm, equip, and feed over two hundred soldier-colonists. He also agreed to take mining equipment, tools, seed, farming implements, blacksmithing tools, corn, trade goods for the indigenous population, medicines, a thousand head of cattle, a thousand head of sheep for wool and another thousand for mutton, a thousand goats, a hundred head of black cattle, a hundred and fifty horses, and a number of colonists and their caravan of goods and belongings.
The undertaking required financial backers in addition to the family resources and wealth to make the project possible. It also required the recruitment of daring and enterprising individuals. Such an undertaking, though steeped in honor and rich in reward if successful, was a dangerous and somewhat sinister march into the unknown frontier. The hardships that awaited were many and fierce. Each day's survival was considered a milestone in the long journey. The odds were stacked against it from the beginning.
Oñate led an impressively large force. Reports indicate that there were about 400 men, 129 of them soldiers, 150 of them with families and servants, and 10 Franciscans, bringing the total to 539 people; eighty-three ox-carts, twenty-four wagons and two of Oñate's personal carriages; and approximately seven thousand head of livestock. The huge caravan was reported to spread out three miles wide and three miles in length at the beginning of their long march into the desert.
The earlier explorers of the region had always chosen a route that turned east at the Rio de Conchas, now called the Rio Conchas, to follow it to its confluence with the Rio Bravo del Norte (now known as the Rio Grande), then turned northwest to follow the Rio Bravo into Nuevo Mexico. Oñate decided to ford the Rio de Conchas and strike out due north across the Chihuahuan Desert on a more direct route to the new territory.
Soon they encounter a harsher land, the dunes of Los Médanos de Samalayuca in the far northern Chihuahua desert. They traversed that area for four days without water. On the fifth day they arrived at the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande). The scouting party rushed to the lake and drank deeply, but two of their horses overindulged and died, and two more ventured too far into the current and were swept away and drowned.
After their torturous journey and the loss of seven of their horses, they found the water, the shade of willows and poplars, fish, waterfowl, and lush grazing for the remaining horses luxurious. They hunted, fished and cooked a great feast for themselves. And they waited.
The main caravan of the expedition, meanwhile, was making its own way to the Rio Bravo. On March 21, Oñate broke camp at Rio San Pedro and the led the expedition to an oak grove they named “Encinar de la Resurrección”, where there was enough water and grass for them and the animals. They constructed a small chapel in which to observe Easter Sunday. Thereafter, they traveled through a desolate landscape, void of water of plant life, and the expedition reached their breaking point when they stumbled through the desert and encountered a large freshwater marsh. This was to prove essential because their next obstacle was the Los Médanos de Samalayuca dunes. The dunes are an arid remnant of an ice age lake, and at 770 square miles is the largest drifting sand dune area on the North American continent. It harbors no water or useful vegetation of any kind.
On April 21, 1598, the exhausted expedition reached the banks of the Rio Bravo where they set up camp near the present day San Elizario, Texas. They soon found their scouts who had arrived several days earlier, and Oñate sent them out to find a place where the expedition could ford the Rio Bravo and cross into Nuevo Mexico. They traveled upriver to present day El Paso where they found a village of Indians they named “Mansos” and who they befriended with gifts of clothing.
Safe and grateful for the expedition's deliverance from the extreme hardships of the journey, Oñate ordered that the travelers construct a church with a nave large enough to hold the entire camp. Inside the church, on April 30, 1598, the first Thanksgiving celebration of European colonists in the New World was held. The Oñate expedition and their Manso guests celebrated their April 30th Thanksgiving with a feast of fish, “many cranes, ducks and geese”, and supplies from their stores. Little more was reported about the menu, but one thing is certain: at the First Thanksgiving there was no mention of turkey.