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Texas Trails

published: November 26th 2021
by: Clay Coppedge

Thanksgiving as a
Texas thing
    Even if Texans wrote the history of Thanksgiv-ing, arguments would persist over where in Texas the alleged feast took place, and when.
    In one corner would be the group proclaiming May 23, 1541, as the date of the first Thanksgiving and Palo Duro Canyon as the site. Spanish explorer Corona-do would be the star of legend and lore, and we'd probably be eating leftover buffalo instead of turkey. In the other corner would be the people proclaiming an April 30, 1598, feast along the Rio Grande as the first Thanksgiving.
    Both stories center on travesty and travails and encounters with two of the most forbidding landscapes Texas has to offer—the Llano Estacado and the Chihuahuan Desert. Sur-viving a 16th Century trek across either landscape would be cause for thanks a plenty.
    The Palo Duro camp tells us that on May 23, 1541, a friar traveling with the Coronado expedition proposed a service thanking God for his mercy and bounty. Friar Juan de Pa-dilla promptly performed a Thanksgiving Mass, which a few baffled Teyas Indians witnessed.
    We know too that Coronado and his men suffered travails aplenty in their quest for Quivira, the richest of the Seven Cities of Cibola, and that Coronado enlisted the aid of an Indian prisoner the Spanish called La Turque (The Turk) because “he looked like one.”  La Turque took the 1,500 men along with scores of horses, cattle and sheep on a hellish, meandering tour of the Llano Estacado, a vast expanse of shortgrass prairie with no settlements, no trees, very little water and nowhere to fix a compass. Coronado and his men wandered in dazed circles for days on end, lost, hungry and thirsty on an endless sea of grass. In this most desperate of states, they made a final, harrowing descent into the Palo Duro.
    A hailstorm hit the canyon the first night and stampeded the expedition's horses and destroyed much of their equipment. Hunters ventured onto the plains to kill buffalo, but the hunters got lost. Helpful comrades built fires and blew trumpets to help them find their way back to the canyon. Most of them eventually returned.
    To this story, many historians add a touch of balderdash. They point out that grapes and pecans, said to be a part of the feast, did not grow in the Palo Duro at that time. “There is now some doubt whether this was a special thanksgiving or a celebration of the Feast of the Ascension. It was held in Texas but may have been on one of the forks of the Brazos River farther south," wrote Mike Kingston in an article written for the 1990-91 edition of the Texas Almanac.
    The Thanksgiving story of The Rio Grande River as the site of the first Thanksgiving centers on Juan de Onate, an aristocrat-turned explorer who set out to explore territories he had been granted north of the Rio Grande. In 1597, he bypassed a traditional route to blaze his own trail across the Chihuahuan Desert.
    The trek did not go well.
    First, there was the endless rain, which they prayed would stop. When it did it did, Onate and 500 people and several hundred head of livestock nearly died of thirst. They went the last five days of the 50-day journey with no food and no water. The expedition's arrival at the Rio Grande was its salvation.
    After recuperating for 10 days, Onate ordered a day of Thanksgiving. The feast consisted, we are told, of game hunted by the Spaniards and fish supplied by the natives of the region. A mass was said by Franciscan missionaries traveling with the expedition performed a mass. Finally, Onate read La Toma —The Taking—that declared the land drained by the Great River to be the possession of King Philip II of Spain.
    A member of the expedition wrote of the original celebration, “We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before.”
    Some historians call this one of the truly important dates in the history of the continent, marking the beginning of Spanish colonization in the American  Southwest.
    Others call it America's first Thanks-giving.

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