The Other First Thanksgiving

Unless you live in the American Southwest, the grade school version of American history* typically leaps from Columbus and 1492 straight to 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.  There is a vague awareness that the Spanish and the French were “out there” doing something, but the story focuses on the development of the thirteen British colonies.

In Fact, El Paso, Texas, makes a good claim to being the site of the first American thanksgiving feasr. **

In March, 1598, an expedition under the leadership of Juan de Oñate set out from Santa Barbara in the modern Mexican state of Chihuahua toward the northern Rio Grande Valley, where Oñate had been granted land by the viceroy of New Spain.  Instead of taking the normal route along first the Rio Conchos and then the Rio Grande, the group of 500 people and 7000 head of livestock set out across the Chihuahua desert.

The trip took fifty days.  For the first seven days, the expedition traveled through heavy rain.  For the rest of the trip, they suffered from heat and dryness.  Five days before they reached what is now El Paso, they ran out of both food and water.  They scavenged what they could in the desert, but it was the Rio Grande that saved them. After resting for ten days on the banks of the river, Oñate declared a day of thanksgiving, including a feast of game and fish.  One member of the expedition described the event in his diary:

We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before. . .We were happy that our trials were over; as happy as were the passengers in the Ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak, bringing tidings that the deluge had subsided.

 In fact, the feast wasn’t the main event of the day.  Festivities also included claiming the land of the Rio Grande Valley in the name of Philip II of Spain***–an event known as La Toma, literally The Taking.  Many historians consider this event the beginning of Spanish colonization of the American Southwest.  (Oñate’s party continued up the Rio Grande and settled in what is now Santa Fe.)

Since 1989, the El Paso Mission Trail Association has celebrated a day of thanksgiving on April 30 in commemoration of Oñate’s feast.  I don’t know about you, but that’s a holiday I could buy into.  Thanksgiving tamales, anyone?


* Which tends to be the default version in our heads.

**Or more accurately, the first European-American Thanksgiving.

*** Just to help you connect the dots:  Philip II was married to Queen Mary of England, the older sister of Queen Elizabeth.  In 1588, he ordered the ill-fated attempt on England known as the Spanish Armada.

The Beauty and the Sorrow

Over the course of the year, I read a lot of history. Some books I mine for facts. Some grab me with the story. And now and then a work of history simply blows me away. The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Swedish historian and war correspondent Peter Englund is a blow-me-away book.

Englund writes his narrative in the present tense, giving it an unusual immediacy, and relies heavily on the letters and journals of his characters.  (They are all remarkably articulate and thoughtful, even the twelve-year-old.)  Much of what he presents lies outside the scope of other works on the war.  Even familiar facts are presented with new twists.

Halfway between memoir and history, The Beauty and the Sorrow is both fast-paced and thought-provoking.  It deserves a place beside such classics as Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, and Robert Grave’s Good-bye to All That.

Give The Beauty and the Sorrow a try, and let me know what you think.

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Road Trip Through History: Colonial Williamsburg

On Tuesday, My Own True Love and I visited Jamestown Settlement.  Wednesday, we moved on to Colonial Williamsburg.

I considered not even writing about our day in Williamsburg.  I’m willing to bet that most of you have a picture of it in your head, even if you haven’t been then.  Besides, Two Nerdy History Girls do a better job of talking about the Williamsburg experience than I ever could.

So what changed my mind?  The contrast.  It’s amazing what a difference twenty-four hours and 165 years can make.

In 1610, Jamestown was a three-sided fort, designed to protect a handful of men against attack by Native Americans from land or the Spanish from the sea.  The settlers were still trying to figure out how to make their new colony profitable for the investors back home.  (They tried to grow silkworms and mine copper before they hit on tobacco.)  Their houses were built like village cottages, with wattle and daub walls, thatch roofs, and open hearths.  When the imported beer ran out, they drank water, with deadly results.

By comparison, colonial Williamsburg, flash frozen in 1775, looks almost modern.  There were shop-lined streets, with an ancestor of Starbucks where Patrick Henry preached revolution.**  It was possible to post a letter, buy a newspaper, and get a cup of coffee.  There were a couple of taverns where a man could have a meal. (Order the Old Stitch if you like dark beer.)  The city was not walled, though a substantial armory stood near its center.

Some of that modernity is an illusion.  (As one costumed interpreter told us, they can’t reproduce the smell.)  But the amount of change between Jamestown and Williamsburg was, if anything, greater than the amount of change between the American Civil War and today.  It’s easy to forget.

**He still does, every morning at ten o’clock.