The Other First Thanksgiving

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.

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, Massachusetts.

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.

First Thanksgiving 1621

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 years.

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.)

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.

Bakewell, P.J. Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico, Zacatecas,1546-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Bannon, John Francis. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier 1513-1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974

Bolton, Herbert Eugene, Editor. Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916.

Chipman, Donald E. The Oñate-Moctezuma-Zaldivar Families of Northern New Spain. New Mexico Historical Review, October 1977 

Garate, Donald T. Juan de Oñate’s Prueba de Caballero, 1625: A Look at His Ancestral Heritage. Colonial Latin American Historical Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1998 

Juan de Oñate. New Mexico History Website. Hist.onate

Juan de Oñate, pionero de Nuevo México. Articles from the Albuquerque Journal, January 24, 1998.

Mallea-Olaetxe, Joxe. Cristobal de Oñate’s birthplace. Personal Communication. April 2008

Sánchez, Joseph P. Juan de Oñate and the Founding of New Mexico. Colonial Latin American Historical Review, Vol. 7,No. 2, Spring 1998.

Simmons, Marc. The Last Conquistador, Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the FarSouthwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991



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