The Surprising Spanish History of Thanksgiving

Catherine A. Jones
 | November 23, 2023

Tired of the same old Thanksgiving dinner conversations? 

Spice things up this year by asking your friends and family where the first Thanksgiving was celebrated.

If anyone says it was in 1621, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, feel free to say “Wrong!”

More and more historians are pointing out that, contrary to popular belief, the first day of thanks was actually celebrated decades earlier than we thought. Maybe more.

And forget the English in Massachusetts. Spanish settlers in the Southern states were hosting meals and giving thanks long before the Pilgrims arrived. 

As for the turkey and stuffing, put those Thanksgiving staples aside too. Alligator and fish took center stage those days.

Let’s talk turkey – or not – and take a closer look at the history of this beloved holiday.

The Lone Star State’s Claim to the First Thanksgiving

“Around these parts, we say the first Thanksgiving took place 23 years earlier, with Juan de Oñate’s New Spain caravan and the native Manso people, near what is now known as El Paso, in April of 1598. And they didn’t eat turkey. They had fish from the Rio Grande (which was HUGE back then) and venison,” New Mexico-based writer Alisa Valdes wrote on Facebook this week.

Many historians, including those at the Texas Almanac, agree with Valdes’ declaration, stating for the record that the first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States took place in 1598 near El Paso. 

“An expedition led by Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate journeyed from Mexico and, after months of arduous travel, arrived at the Rio Grande near what is now San Elizario,” The Legislative Branch of Texas explains. “The exploration party and the indigenous people celebrated their accomplishment with a feast and Catholic ceremonies. …”

The Spanish explorer then ordered a day of thanksgiving on April 30, 1598, USA Today explains. On the menu that day was “meat and fish.”

The Texas House and Senate each have commemorated this historical milestone in 1990, when then Governor Rick Perry recognized April 30 as the official day of the “First Thanksgiving.”

And, for 20 years, the El Paso Mission Trail Association has conducted an annual historical reenactment of the event, and their work was honored by the Texas House in 2006.

There are also claims that the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated even earlier, held by Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado at a different location in the Lone State. 

“Accompanied by 1,500 men in 1541, he traveled through parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Kansas, and is said to have celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas,” explains.

But, move over, Texas, another Southern state claims it’s the home of the first Thanksgiving.

Florida Hosted the First Thanksgiving Too

According to some, the first Thanksgiving feast in North America was held in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565.

“Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, along with 800 Spanish settlers, founded the city of St. Augustine in Spanish La Florida in 1565,” USA Today writes this week. “As soon as they came ashore, the landing party celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving. Afterward, Menéndez laid out a meal on Sept. 8, 1565, and invited the native Seloy tribe, according to the National Park Service.”

According to Robyn Gioia, author of the children’s book America’s REAL First Thanksgiving, the Spanish colonists likely ate hard biscuits and cocido — a rich garbanzo stew made with pork, garlic, saffron, cabbage and onion — washed down with red wine. 

“The Timucua ate what was available to them locally and that could have included alligator, bear, wild turkey, venison, tortoise and food from the sea such as turtle, shark, mullet or sea catfish,” Gioia writes.

What They Didn’t Teach You in School

The origin of the national annual Thanksgiving Day tradition dates back to the nation’s first president, George Washington.

As the National Park Service explains, during the 18th century, British observances, “such as the annual reenactment of the Pilgrims’ harvest festival in 1621, became a national practice. After the United States became an independent country, Congress recommended one yearly day of thanksgiving for the whole nation to celebrate.”

In 1863, to unite the nation during the bitter Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday in November as a National Day of Thanksgiving, making it an official national holiday. 

The President urged prayers in churches and in homes calling on the “whole American people” wherever they lived to unite “with one heart and one voice” in observing a special day of Thanksgiving, and to “implore the interposition of the almighty to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it … to full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

So, the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast, along with some Presidential embellishments, became the most famous in our history books. 

But, thanks to many authors, like New Mexico’s Alisa Valdes, and historians, we now know the truth behind the holiday. 

“ … what’s not in dispute is this: The first Thanksgiving in what’s now the United States did not occur between Native Americans and the English, but rather Native Americans and the Spanish; and the native people of this land went above and beyond in welcoming in good faith and neighborly kindness the people who would eventually enslave them, kill them and steal their land. Let’s not lose sight of that, eh?” Valdes writes, summing it all up just in time for the holiday.

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Featured image: “Homage a Chespiritu” by Freddy Agurto Parra.
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