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Giving Thanks: The Conquistador Way

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By April M. Brown

Thanksgiving is a celebration of life’s blessings. A time to share an enormous feast with loved ones in honor of the year’s successful harvest.  

The Thanksgiving holiday has long been associated with the historical tale of a ship, the Mayflower, which carried a group of pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, Mass. in 1621. Few would associate the holiday with Spanish conquistadors, armored soldiers and Catholic friars.

However, journals from one of the first expeditions into El Nuevo Mexico describe an event that could have arguably been the first Thanksgiving held on what is now, American soil. This event did not involve turkeys, pilgrims or ships crossing the sea, but a group of colonizers led by Juan de Oñate traveling north — from what was then New Spain — in a procession of wagons, cattle and horses.

Three Years in the Making
The story begins in October of 1595 when Juan de Oñate was formally appointed governor and captain general of El Nuevo Mexico. Being a man of great fortune, Oñate was chosen based partly on his ability to personally finance the campaign.

Upon appointment, he set out to gather willing travelers for his expedition.  Recruits included people from Italy, Spain, Greece and Africa, along with a few women and children. All were enticed with the royal title of Hidalgo, for their efforts in the colonization of the new territory.

Just as plans for their departure were being finalized, problems arose to delay the anxious party.  The Viceroy initially appointing Oñate, was transferred to another country, leaving the position to a less enthusiastic candidate, who took the next three years to review the expedition contract. In addition, interested suitors petitioned for Oñate’s coveted position, further delaying the trip while the requests were under review. All the while, Oñate continued to finance the expedition, even as he waited for royal approval.

Faith and Hardships
Inspections were finally completed on Jan. 26, 1598, when the expedition was allowed to proceed north on what is now the famous El Camino Real. This impressive caravan included 540 people, 83 ox carts, 24 wagons, two royal carriages and 7,000 head of livestock — reportedly stretching three miles in length.
Traveling north across barren deserts and enduring days without water, the travelers never lost their faith.

In fact, there were several events along the way deemed as miracles, saving the faithful group in their desperate time of need.

One such event occurred during Easter Mass, when prayers were literally answered with a sudden burst of rain, relieving the weary travelers of their prolonged thirst. The storm provided enough water that some was collected and stored for the remainder of their journey.

A Spanish-Catholic Thanksgiving
With the help of Indian guides, the exhausted expedition crossed the Rio Bravo, where a make-shift church was erected to celebrate the group’s deliverance from months of extreme hardship.

It was in this church on April 30, 1598, the group celebrated a Catholic Mass of Thanksgiving.
After sermons, baptisms and plays, Oñate began the ceremony of La Toma — the taking. This ceremony marked the formal possession of El Nuevo Mexico “In the name of the most Holy Trinity” and “the most Christian King, our lord, don Felipe, the second of this name.”  

Upon reciting the ceremonial rights, Oñate affixed a holy cross to a live tree, legally finalizing the ceremony.
A celebratory feast of “many cranes, ducks and geese,” followed the rites. The famous Spanish poet Gaspar de Villagra describes the meal as, “a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed.”

After years of delays and months of hardships, there is no doubt this group of explorers had much to be thankful for that day.  

Some scholars argue that this event was the first Thanksgiving in the New World, but it is doubtful that images of pilgrims and turkeys will be replaced with conquistadors and geese anytime soon.
Whether or not it was the first Thanksgiving, one thing is certain. Both events shared a common theme of gratitude for life’s blessings and accomplishments, feted with a group celebration and feast.
Not much different than the formal holiday celebrated in American homes today — more than 400 years later.