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Is El Paso the first place Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in America? The Mission Trail would like the reader to believe so. The idea that El Paso was the first place for a thanksgiving day of celebration began in the late 1980’s. For El Pasoans, the first thanksgiving narrative was first publicly claimed by Shelton Hall, president and founder of the Mission Trail Association. [1] The El Paso Mission Trail Association was founded in 1986. Its purpose is “to promote the historic nine-mile corridor between Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario,” according to its website. The group argues that the first traditional Thanksgiving Day celebration was not in Massachusetts but near El Paso some 23 years before the Pilgrims celebrated their day of thanks.

Although many who celebrate Thanksgiving Day each year believe that it was the first thanksgiving celebration in North America, the historical record does not support the common narrative. Most celebrants would say that the first thanksgiving was in 1621. It was held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation is what many believe. On October 3, 1789, George Washington proclaimed that Americans should observe “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” U.S. presidents followed the tradition of declaring a day of thanksgiving, except for Thomas Jefferson who argued that making Americans hold a day of prayer was contrary to the separation of church and state. It wasn’t until October 3, 1863 that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day would be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of each November.

Some attempts were made to change the celebration date to accommodate the merchants trying to increase Christmas sales and to accommodate football and parades. However, in 1941, a joint resolution of Congress made the fourth Thursday in November the official Thanksgiving Day. But were the Pilgrims the first to celebrate a day of thanks in America?

The El Paso Mission Trail would like readers to believe that El Paso was the site of the first Thanksgiving Day celebration. According to the association, Juan de Oñate celebrated the first thanksgiving in the Americas near present day San Elizario in 1598. [2] In 1997, the El Paso Times proclaimed in an editorial that Oñate must be included in the 12 Travelers project because he celebrated the “First Thanksgiving.” [3]

Today, the Mission Trail Association continues to commemorate the Oñate day of thanks annually after Easter. But Oñate was also not the founder of the first Thanksgiving Day as it is celebrated today.

The Native Americans

Arguing that the Pilgrims or Juan de Oñate held the first Thanksgiving Day in America ignores a fundamental and important historical fact. It is that the Native Americans held many feasts to ensure good harvests each year. As a matter of fact, Thanksgiving Day for many Native Americans is not a day of thanks, but rather a day of mourning.

For one American, Kisha James, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day begins a fasting for 24 hours. For James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, Thanksgiving Day is a day of mourning, not a celebration. For other Native Americans, Thanksgiving Day is a “painful reminder” of the history often glossed over in America. [4] One of them being the idea that Native Americans did not celebrate a day of thanks, before the Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Renée Gokey, a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma told The Washington Post recently that “Native people have always had, and still do have, either bigger ceremonies [or] seasonal ceremonies of gratitude. [5]

Like Columbus Day, and other American celebrations, Thanksgiving Day celebrations are centered on the myth created to glamourize America’s history and bury the colonization history that attempts to erase the people of color that inhabited America before the English imposed a narrative based on myth. Native Americans and their traditions – including days of thanksgiving – have been largely erased from America’s narratives who are focused on the mythology of glamorizing one version of history while ignoring the other versions of the historical record.

Even the myth of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving Day is not as clearcut as many would believe. The historical record has several other examples of Europeans celebrating thanksgiving with the Native Americans.

“The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving”

Even if we focus on Thanksgiving Day as a European day of thanks and even if we accept the argument that Oñate first celebrated near El Paso, Oñate and the Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to celebrate a day of thanks that included local Native Americans. The Episcopal Church claimed in 1919 to have held the first Thanksgiving Day in 1607 celebrating the arrival of ships from Europe bringing needed supplies to the colonists. The 1607 celebrations were held in Massachusetts Bay in then-Popham Colony. Several days of celebration that included the local Native Americans were celebrated at the colony. [6] In 1918, The New York Times declared that “the first Thanksgiving Day” was “not in Plymouth Rock or Boston, but the Popham Colony” in Massachusetts. [7]

Part of the narrative surrounding the Pilgrim lore of Thanksgiving Day revolves around the argument that that “first Thanksgiving” was a celebration of “Europeans and Native Americans sharing a prayer of thanks.” Accepting this argument, for the moment, allows us to ignore the debate over whether Thanksgiving Day is about celebrating the survival of the Europeans in a harsh new land or that the Native Americans never held celebrations of thanks. However, neither the Pilgrims nor the Popham Colony can lay claim to the first Thanksgiving Day.

The “real first Thanksgiving” was in 1568 near what is today Jacksonville Florida according to historian Michael Gannon. Gannon argues that Pedro Menéndez held a celebration to thank God for the safe landing of his group of survivors in St. Augustine. After a Catholic Mass, Menéndez celebrated by eating a stew of salted pork and garbanzo beans with the Timucuan people who helped the colonists build their settlement. This “was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent [European] settlement” in the United States, argues Gannon. Gannon’s book earned him the moniker of “the Grinch that stole Thanksgiving.” [8]

St. Augustine, which stands today, is where the Thanksgiving Day celebrations commonly attributed to the Pilgrims was first celebrated over 50 years before the Pilgrims.

However, it is not as simple as that, as El Paso and even Canyon Texas argue they held the first real Thanksgiving celebrations. Like the ongoing debates over slavery and America’s history, the Thanksgiving Day celebration has many who argue that the “the first English observance of Thanksgiving is what matters, since our government was formed by descendants of the English colonists, not the Spanish ones.” [emphasis in original] Even Gannon agrees. In 2007 Gannon told USA Today that “the English wrote the history and established the traditions” of America. [9]

Even that very narrow view of Thanksgiving Day does not belong to the Pilgrims because the Popham Colony held their English day of celebration about 14 years earlier than the Pilgrims. In fact, there were several English days of thanksgiving before the Pilgrims, including Jamestown (1609) and the Berkely Company colonists in 1619. [10]

So why are the Pilgrims so connected to Thanksgiving Day? Today’s Thanksgiving Day tradition was started with a letter campaign by well-known poet Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and who is credited with the poem Mary Had a Little Lamb. The Civil War was coming to an end and the nation needed healing from the war. Hale had spent 15 years imploring government officials to make the Pilgrim celebration an official holiday and Abraham Lincoln agreed on October 3, 1863. [11]

The genesis of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving Day can be traced back to the novel Northwood, written by Hale in 1827. Hale wrote in the novel that in New England it was “considered an honor for a man to sit down for his Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family.” On September 28, 1863, Hale wrote Abraham Lincoln a letter imploring him to have a “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” [12]

What most Americans celebrated yesterday is essentially a day of thanksgiving for the nation to heal from a civil war wrapped around the narrative that Native Americans and European settlers would coexist in the centuries that follow. Whether the reader believes that Oñate, or the Native Americans or the Pilgrims is the genesis of yesterday’s celebrations does not negate the reality that Thanksgiving Day is about an American holiday based on an English myth of what it is to be an American.

Footnotes:

  1. “Historians say Spanish deserve credit for first Thanksgiving,” Sidney Daily News, November 23, 1988, 1.
  2. “Historians say Spanish deserve credit for first Thanksgiving.”
  3. “12 Travelers project shows encouraging momentum,” El Paso Times Editorial, February 7, 1997, 8A.
  4. Brandon Drenon, “Thanksgiving: Why some push back against the holiday’s ‘mythology’,” BBC, November 24, 2022, (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-63735477).
  5. Olivia McCormick, “Thanksgiving didn’t start in 1621. It was a Native American tradition,” The Washington Post, November 23, 2022, (https://www.washingtonpost.com/kidspost/2022/11/23/thanksgiving-didnt-start-1621-it-was-native-american-tradition/).
  6. “Had The First Celebration,” The Journal, November 20, 1919, 3.
  7. Steve Collins, “George Popham, Ronald Reagan and Maine’s role in America’s first Thanksgiving,” Sun Journal, November 19, 2017, (https://www.sunjournal.com/2017/11/19/george-popham-ronald-reagan-and-maines-role-in-americas-first-thanksgiving/).
  8. Gillian Brockwell, “Thanksgiving’s hidden past: Plymouth in 1621 wasn’t close to being the first celebration,” The Washington Post, November 22, 2017, (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/11/22/thanksgivings-hidden-past-plymouth-in-1621-wasnt-close-to-being-the-first-celebration/).
  9. Brockwell, “Thanksgiving’s hidden past.”
  10. Brockwell, “Thanksgiving’s hidden past.”
  11. Brockwell, “Thanksgiving’s hidden past.”
  12. Peggy M. Baker, “The Godmother of Thanksgiving: the story of Sarah Josepha Hale,” Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum, 2007.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.