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Thanksgiving’s Texas Roots

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A painting depicting what some say was the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America, when Spanish colonists broke bread with the Mansos. | The University Of Texas At El Paso Library/Jose Cisneros

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Few places take Thanksgiving as seriously as Texas. The state claims not just one but two events as the original Thanksgiving, predating the officially recognized claims that tend to name the feasts in either Massachusetts in 1621 or Virginia in 1610 as the first. Texas even has a town aptly named Turkey in case there was any reluctance to recognize the Lone Star State’s admiration for the holiday.

In 1541, nearly a century before the pilgrims’ first celebration, an expedition led by Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado brought him to Palo Duro Canyon under the guidance of a Pueblo Indian the Spaniards referred to as “La Turque.”

It was here, on the day of the Feast of the Ascension, alongside Teya Indians, the Catholic priest and missionary Fray Juan de Padilla celebrated Mass — and for many — the first Thanksgiving.

Of course, El Paso sees it a bit differently.

According to the story, another expedition, this time led by Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1598. After reaching San Elizario in April of that year, Oñate and the rest of his expedition stopped to rest, all the while giving thanks for surviving an arduous trek through the Chihuahuan Desert.

Reportedly, Native Americans witnessed the expedition members performing a ceremony to claim the river valley and nearby lands on the Spanish king’s behalf.

During the event, it is believed that Captain Marco Farfán de los Godos produced a script depicting the conversion of local Pueblo Indians to Christianity. Some consider the subsequent dramatized performance the first drama performed on U.S. soil.

Since 1991, the county of El Paso has reenacted this first Thanksgiving celebration each year in San Elizario.

Without knowing which Thanksgiving was the original, Texas had opted to celebrate the holiday twice for many years. It was not until 1868, five years after President Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving, that the state began recognizing the nationwide date.

However, despite the federal government’s best efforts to unite the country in this shared holiday, Texas Governor O. M. Roberts, who served for years starting in 1879, still considered Thanksgiving a “damned Yankee institution.”

In 1941, Thanksgiving was moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday of November. Of course, despite the change at the federal level, Texas, for the most part, continued to honor the holiday on the last Thursday.

Usually, this still meant Texas would celebrate alongside the rest of the country. Issues only arose when November contained five Thursdays. Even then, Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who served between 1939 and 1941, stated that “the citizens of Texas have so much for which we should be thankful, we can very well observe two days of thanksgiving.”

Ultimately, however, Texas succumbed to federal pressure and, in 1957, Governor Price Daniel officially updated the holiday to the fourth Thursday.

Regardless, depending on who you ask, the Lone Star State is home to the original Thanksgiving… or rather, the original Thanksgivings.

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