published: January 27th 2017
by: Mike Cox
On April 30, 1598, members of Juan de Onate’s expedition had every right to be thankful.
For 50 days, Onate's 500-person entrada had endured the Chihuahuan Desert. It rained almost constantly during the first seven days of their trek north from Mexico. Then the desert returned to normal and the expedition soon began suffering from lack of water. Forty-five days into the trip, the Spaniards ran out of both water and food.
Finally reaching the Rio Grande at what would become El Paso, man and animal alike rushed to quench their thirst in the river – the stream running fast and fresh from melted mountain snow in what is now New Mexico. Two horses died from drinking too much, two others drowned.
It took 10 days at the Pass of the North for the expedition to recover from the hardships of the journey through the desert. On the 11th day, at Onate’s order, the Spaniards celebrated a day of thanksgiving.
“We built a great bonfire and roasted...meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before,” wrote one member of the expedition. “We were happy that our trials were over; as happy as were the passengers in the Ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak, bringing tidings that the deluge had subsided.”
What has not subsided and probably never will is debate over whether the feast at El Paso on that spring day more than 400 years ago should be recognized as America’s first thanksgiving. Actually, Texas already has recognized the fact. It says so right there in the official state-approved Texas history curriculum. And former Gov. Rick Perry duly claimed April 30 as “the official day of the First Thanksgiving for Texas.”
Others, of course, don’t see it that way. A website maintained by Plimoth (yes, Plimoth with an “i” instead of a “y”) Plantation Inc., which has a replica 17th century village at Plymouth, Mass., has a page dedicated to “Claim-ants For ‘The First Thanksgiving.’”
Onate’s El Paso feed is not even the first of the 10 claimants listed. That honor goes to another Spaniard, Ponce de Leon, who landed in what is now Florida during the Easter season of 1513.
Second on the list, and also earlier than the El Paso celebration, is Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s celebration of a Thanksgiving Mass on May 23, 1541. The year before, Coronado had led a 1,500-person entrada north from Mexico City, his quest the legendary Quivira, the grandest of seven supposed cities of gold.
While Coronado discovered no precious metal, he found plenty of hardship. On the up side, he did become the first European to see much of what is now the American Southwest.
The chronicler of the expedition recorded that Friar Juan de Padilla celebrated the mass, a service followed by a feast of roasted buffalo, grapes and pecans. (Some believe this celebration actually was in recognition of the Feast of the Ascension.) Whatever the occasion of the feed, not until the late 19th century did scholars begin trying to trace Coronado’s route.
For years, the consensus had been that the early Thanksgiving dinner had taken place in Palo Duro Canyon, in what later became the Texas Panhandle. More recent archeological research advances the possibility of Coronado’s expedition having been in Blanco Canyon in present Foard County, not in the Palo Duro. Others have even argued that the event took place somewhere on the upper Brazos River.
Boastful claims aside, the truth is that Thanks-giving as we know it today is indeed derived from the celebration of the fall harvest at Plymouth in 1621. The tradition grew. By 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a national observance of Thanksgiving.
Sam Houston, another tall Virginian, was Texas’ “George Washington.” He thought March 2 would make a fine Thanksgiving Day for Texas. Not only was that the anniversary of Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico, it just happened to be Houston’s birthday.
That holiday, however, took on its own flavor. In 1849, the way Texas Gov. George Wood saw it, the first Thursday in Decem-ber should be the day the new state’s Thanksgiving should be observed.
War-weary President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, but it was not until 1941 that Congress passed a law making the fourth Thurs-day in November the day to observe the holiday.
“We were first” claims and Congressional action aside, no one group or religion can hold a monopoly on the concept of simply being thankful for all the good things in life.
In 1836, as Texas colo-nists faced the largest army in North America, no one of European decent lived in what would become Brown County.
But the struggle against Mexico had a lasting impact on the future 956.9-square mile political subdivision along the as-yet-unnamed tributary of the Colorado that later came to be called Pecan Bayou. The Texas Revolution set in motion events that eventually shaped the county’s property lines and attracted some of the men who guided the county’s early governmental, religious and educational development.
The figurative trigger pull that changed history came when a rag tag assemblage of men with guns, who thought themselves an army, routed the previously victorious Mexican troops under Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
On May 4, 1836, not quite two weeks after the battle that assured Texas independence, Oliver T. Brown (no known connection to the future namesake of Brown County, pioneer Henry S. Brown) sat down to write his parents in Pennsylvania. He had come to Texas, he said, “to fight the Mexicans.”
“I have been in two battles,” the young man wrote, “one on the 20th of April [the skirmish preceding the main battle] the other on the 21st. You will find in print after some time. The most victorious battle ever fought in the known [illegible] to be down in the space of 18 minutes.”
Brown described the battle and then waxed on with equal enthusiasm about what he had been fighting for: Land.
“The recompense from the Government of Texas,” he began without pausing to plant commas, “$20 per month from the time we enrolled ? of a league of land which is 1111 acres 2/3 of a league of land which is 2900 acres will in all make about 4000 acres which is supposed in less than two years will be worth at least $2000. General Houston says we may rely upon it every man who was in the battle shall have two leagues of land but the above we are sure of.”
While some of those who charged the enemy at San Jacinto found extra spring in their steps in revenging the Alamo and Goliad, most fought for land and the liberty that would go with it.
“As to the country,” Brown continued, “it is a warm pleasant country. In the month of Jany. peach trees in full bloom - land very level tolerably well watered - prairie very extensive rich as can be. I think it is the best place in the world for a young man commencing on nothing to get rich.”
But Brown never got his piece of Texas. Last heard of guarding Mexican soldiers captured after the battle, he disappeared from history, his service at San Jacinto and his letter home his only known legacies.
Two men who played a role at San Jacinto ended up in Brown County: Greenleaf Fisk and Noah Byars. Fisk is listed as among those having been assigned to stay in the rear to guard the sick and equipment. Byars wasn’t there in person, but he literally had a hand in the victory. A blacksmith from Washing-ton-on-the-Brazos, he chopped up horseshoes and other metal objects to make the grapeshot used with such deadly effect by the two guns that came to be called the Twin Sisters.
Texas paid those who served in the revolution quite generously, at least in terms of what land is worth today.
According to Texas General Land Office, Texas conveyed 5,354,250 acres in 7,469 bounty grants to veterans of the revolution. Each three-month hitch netted 320 acres, up to 1,280 acres. Texas also offered 240 acres to men who guarded the frontier, early day Rangers.
Veterans could qualify for additional grants for taking part in a specific engagement. San Jacinto vets, including guards like Fisk, got 640 acres. Texas issued 1,816 of those donation warrants, amounting to 1.16 million acres. Soldiers who arrived in Texas after the March 2, 1836 declaration of independence and before Aug. 1 that year also qualified for grants of one league of land. So did permanently disabled soldiers and the heirs of those who fell at the Alamo or Goliad.
New York-born Fisk first saw the land he one day would help settle in 1838. He survived an Indian scrape and while he made several other trips to the area, he did not come to stay until 1860. That was four years after the Legislature created Brown County – at least on paper -- by carving land from Comanche and Travis counties.
Through his grants and cash, Fisk acquired considerable acreage in the county. And having fathered 15 children, he helped to populate it. When he died at 82 in 1888, the Dallas Morning News called him a man “of wonderful energy and enterprise.” Noting that he had donated the land for the original Brownwood town site, the newspaper pointed out that Fisk had held “...nearly every office within gift of the people, except sheriff and that he would not have.”
Byars made his contribution to the county as well, helping to organize the First Baptist church and spearheading the effort to establish a Baptist college in Central Texas. Howard Payne, the school he had envisioned, opened a year after his death – also in 1888.