Texas Mountain Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

Onate's Thanksgiving

Chamizal National Memorial, El Paso

The Pilgrims weren’t the only folks who cooked up a big feast and celebrated their good fortunes, whether it be family, victory, or just having plenty of food to go around (in the terms laid out by the hardships of earlier centuries, that meant farmers dodged a drought, the crops came in, and the game was fat and available). Spanish explorer and colonialist Don Juan de Oñate and his group of four hundred, while making his way to the future site of Santa Fe in New Mexico, ended up having a lot to be grateful for as well. Oñate, after receiving a land grant around Santa Fe from the Viceroy of New Spain, led his group from Mexico northward in 1598, taking with him four hundred colonists, eighty-three wagons, and over seven thousand head of livestock including horses, sheep, and goats. But rather than take the established route north from Santa Barbara, Mexico, following the Rio Concho to its confluence with the Rio Grande (in present-day Presidio/Ojinaga), then northwest along the Rio Grande to the Santa Fe region and his royally-ordained land grant, Oñate decided to try a short-cut, straight across the Chihuahua Desert.

But first he sent a scout, Vicente de Zaldivar, to determine a route that would provide water supplies across the desert short-cut. Zaldivar complied, but not without enduring severe hardships - including capture by Indians - along the way. Upon his return, he may have failed to mention the difficulties in his report to Oñate, a decision that may have more to do with job security than neglect. The route, now the highway between Chihuahua City and El Paso, proved equally treacherous for Oñate and his group. It was a fifty-day trek through a harsh desert environment where rain, then intense heat, plagued the colonists the entire way. The expedition ran out of food and water forty-five days in, making the final five-day march to the Rio Grande a life-threatening crossing for both the colonists and their livestock. Once they reached the river, the expedition spent ten days recovering from the ordeal, culminating in a celebration of their survival with a day-long feast that included local game and fish. During the celebration, a mass was performed by Franciscan missionaries, ending in Oñate claiming the surrounding land, occupied by local Native Americans, for the King of Spain. Today, the celebration and its attendant pageantry, a play written and first performed by members of the expedition, are re-enacted each year at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso.


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