Basques Hold the
First Thanksgiving in America
By Steve Bass
Long-time Astero reader Steve Bass of Bakersfield gives us a
re-telling of the first Thanksgiving story where of course you'd
expect the Basques to show up.
Also see his compiled chronology of Basques in the Americas at
One of our most honored annual traditions
is Thanksgiving. Most Americans celebrate this holiday on the last
Thursday of November. It is a continuance of the celebratory feast
begun in the fall of 1621 by the fifty-three survivors of the Mayflower
after their first year in a new land. It took place near Plymouth,
First Thanksgiving in
America? Our Thanksgiving celebration dates from 1621 when
the Pilgrims and local Indians joined together for a feast.
As it happens, it wasn't the first European Thanksgiving feast.
It is sometimes forgotten that Spaniards preceded the English in
what is today the U.S. The first European colonial
settlement was Florida's St. Augustine (1526), and in like
fashion the first European Thanksgiving took place in
what is today El Paso, Texas.
However, the first actual feast of
Thanksgiving in what was to become the United States occurred on April
20, 1598 in the area of present day El Paso, Texas. The feast was led
by the Basque Juan de Oñate during his expedition north from San
Gerónimo, Mexico to colonize New Mexico.
The story begins in 1525 when Christóbal de Oñate y Narria, born twenty
years previously in the Basque province of Bizkaia, came to Mexico and
the New World as assistant to the accountant of the royal treasury of
New Spain. Oñate rose quickly in politics, the military, mining and
ranching and was instrumental in the settlement of the Zacatecas area of
Mexico. Through his silver discoveries he became one of the wealthiest
men in Mexico.
In 1552 his son, Juan de Oñate y Salazar was born, literally, with a
silver spoon in his mouth. A child of frontier and colonial nobility,
he was quick to rise to an influential presence in New Spain. In the
late 1580’s Juan married the daughter of his father’s Basque business
partner Juan de Tolosa. Her name was Isabel de Tolosa Cortéz Moctezuma.
She was the granddaughter of the conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortéz and
Isabel Moctezuma, the daughter of the Aztec emperor.
||Don Juan de Oñate Salazar
(1552 – 1630) was an explorer, colonial governor of the New
Spain (present-day Mexico) province of New Mexico, and founder
of various settlements in the present day Southwest of the
United States. In the course of founding settlements, he
lead the first European Thanksgiving feast in 1598.
He founded the
province of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico and became the province's
first governor. Oñate soon gained a reputation as a stern
ruler of both the Spanish colonists and the indigenous people,
and consequently he was recalled to Mexico City for an inquiry
and he resigned his post. He remains a controversial figure
because of his treatment of others.
Making a very long story short, because of
Juan de Oñate’s political connections, social standing and extreme
wealth he was chosen by the king of Spain to finance and lead an
expedition to colonize an unknown area to the north of Mexico called
“New Mexico” which was thought to extend all the way to Newfoundland.
As was the Basque custom on the frontier, Oñate surrounded himself with
Basque friends and relatives and organized and funded an exploration
party that consisted of five hundred men; one hundred thirty of which
took their families along with them. They set off on their eight
hundred mile trip in January 1598. They brought more than seven
thousand head of livestock and eighty-three wagons and carts for food
and every type of provision they could carry. (On this trip Oñate
brought the first chili peppers and the first domesticated sheep into
what would become the US.)
After three months of extremely difficult travel over trail-less desert
with weeks of food and water rationing and, finally, after a stretch of
five consecutive days without water, the group reached the Rio Grande
River. Finding abundant water, game, fish and waterfowl, on April 20,
1598 Oñate led the members of his expedition in a Thanksgiving feast and
celebration to give praise for finding the life-saving river. This event
predated the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving in New England by twenty-three
At this location he named El Paso and then headed north to found the
area now known as New Mexico, become one of the founders of Santa Fe and
the first governor of the province. (There would be nine additional
Basque governors of the Spanish province of New Mexico.)
What is today
El Paso, Texas is the site of the first European celebration of
Thanksgiving that predated the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving in New
England by twenty-three years.
This fact does not diminish the Pilgrims' feast nor does it mean
we should change our November tradition.
The fact that these Basque-led colonists
actually held the first Thanksgiving in America does not diminish the
Pilgrims’ feast or accomplishments nor does it mean we should change our
November tradition. The Rio Grande celebration is simply another
anecdote regarding our history.
All of these early pioneers, no matter where they came from, encountered
and conquered enormous difficulties. Many ethnicities and cultures were
involved in this settlement process and most had or have some sort of a
celebratory or Thanksgiving event. Enjoy your Thanksgiving and the fact
that you live in such a free and bountiful land.
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Colonial Mexico, Zacatecas,1546-1700.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
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Caballero, 1625: A Look at His
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Juan de Oñate.
New Mexico History Website.
Oñate, pionero de Nuevo México.
Articles from the Albuquerque
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The Last Conquistador, Juan de Oñate and the
Settling of the Far
Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991