When Americans hear “the first Thanksgiving” they think of the Pilgrims and Squanto and the terrible winter of 1621, etc. The only problem is that wasn’t the “first Thanksgiving” in our country. We all think it is, but only because we’ve been taught from books which select some facts and ignore others. Many of America’s early historians were descendants of Puritans who first settled in New England in the 17th century. This is why when we think of the first colonists in this country we too often forget the Jamestown settlement and immediately speak of the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. The same sort of thing has happened in regard to Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims’ “thanksgiving” was not the first. In fact, there were at least two formal thanksgiving ceremonies held in what was to become “America” prior to the one held by the Pilgrims (along with many other informal celebrations like that of the Huguenots in Jacksonville, Florida in 1564 and the one held in the Southwest by a group of conquistadores under Coronado in 1541). The second formal Thanksgiving was held by the Jamestown settlers on December 4, 1619 — almost a full two years prior to the one we all know about which was held in Plymouth in October of 1621.
But the first celebration of thanksgiving in America was held almost a full 23 years prior to the one in Plymouth. It occurred on April 30, 1598 and was observed by a group of colonists led by a man named Don Juan de Oñate.
Don Juan Pérez de Oñate y Salazar was born in Zacatecas, Mexico either in 1550 or 1552. His father, Don Cristóbal Oñate, was a successful rancher and silver miner in Mexico. Don Juan was friends with the Spanish Viceroy, Luis de Velasco. In 1595, acting on behalf of King Felipe II, Viceroy Velasco gave permission to Oñate to lead a colonizing expedition into the unexplored region of New Spain called El Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico).
As with all the early explorations, this venture involved great expense (all of which came out of Oñate’s pocket) and danger. If Oñate succeeded in his venture, he was to be appointed ruler of the lands he would colonize and be paid six thousand ducats a year.
But But Oñate had an even deeper motivation for taking on this venture. He wanted to bring the gospel to the natives of the region. “The work must be done because it is the will of God that all people be saved.” Oñate desired that the Indians “be bettered in commerce and trade; that they may augment the number of their occupations and learn the arts . . . that they learn to live like rational being and govern themselves with justice and be able to defend themselves from their enemies.” And for this reason he requested that the King assign “serious monks” to the party so that the conversion of the Indians might be possible.
Oñate assembled quite a diverse group of men, women and children. His party included people from Spain, the Canary Islands, the Balearic Islands, Italy, Guatemala, Portugal, Greece, and Cuba. There was one volunteer from Flanders as well as a few Chichimeca Indian slaves, Africans, as well as a number fellow criollos (Spaniards who had been born in Mexico).
Because of delays, the party was not able to leave until January 26, 1598. The expedition consisted of about 400 men, 129 of them soldiers, 150 of them with families and servants, and 10 Franciscans, bringing the total to 539 people.
The expedition arrived at Río Sacramento and set up camp there on March 19. The men constructed a small chapel the next day and held worship, praying for God’s blessing on their journey.
On April 8, the party reached the sand dunes of Los Médanos. The dunes stretch for 770 square miles and is the largest drifting sand dune area on the North American continent. It has no water or useful vegetation of any kind. They wandered around for several days seeking an alternate route but finally set out across the desert for Rio Bravo.
Finally, after many more hardships, on April 21, 1598, the exhausted expedition reached the banks of the Río Bravo where they set up camp near the present day San Elizario, Texas. Oñate sent out scouts to find a place to ford the river and they found a village of Indians they named “Mansos” whom they befriended with gifts of clothing. The Mansos directed the scouts to the ford and finally the colonists were able to arrive at their destination.
Safe and thankful for the expedition’s deliverance from the extreme hardships of the journey, Oñate ordered that the travelers construct a church which was done. Inside that church, on April 30, 1598, the first Thanksgiving celebration of European colonists in the New World was held.
Father Alfonso Martínez, led the members of the expedition in a “very solemn Mass” and then delivered a “famous sermon, well thought out” to give thanks to God for their deliverance from the hardships of the trail. After eighty-six days traveling over almost eight hundred miles of Northern Mexico, they had arrived at their destination and now were ready to begin their mission. They had “advanced . . . trusting in God to bring us with safety to the river’s shore. . . traversing vast and solitary plains where the foot of a Christian had never trod before.”
The Indians were not only invited to eat with the party but were told of the gospel of a Savior who came from heaven to a vast wilderness to give His life for the world. And the service concluded with the baptism of the tribe. The purpose of the mission was already being accomplished. They enjoyed a feast of fish, and “many cranes, ducks and geese” and supplies from their stores, but . . . no turkey.
The first Thanksgiving was as happy as the third and in many ways just as glorious. God’s power is shown through our trials and afflictions. His brings us through many dangers, toils, and snares, and works all of these together for our good and His glory and the extension of His kingdom.
Tomorrow give thanks for those faithful Christians who endured great hardships to found a place where Jesus would be honored and His gospel would flourish. And don’t begin your thanksgiving with the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Mention the Christian colonists of Don Juan Oñate and the faithful mission they started in New Mexico for the glory of God.