Thursday, November 21, 2013

Long Before the Pilgrims

Long Before the Pilgrims

"Lone Star Historian" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published almost 40 books, half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine.  

Long before the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621, a similar feast of thanks was conducted in a region now known as Texas. In 1598 Mexican conquistador Juan de Oñate led an expedition northward to establish the colony of Nuevo Mejico. After surviving life-threatening hardships in the deserts of northern Mexico, the expedition emerged to safety at El Paso del Norte. To celebrate their salvation, Oñate and his colonists joined Native Americans in a feast on April 30, 1598 - the First Thanksgiving.

Our little book about the first Thanksgiving
was published in hardback in 2000, and
remains in print in softcover.

Several years ago I was urged by Ed Eakin, founder of Eakin Press, and by editor Melissa Locke Roberts to write this story for fourth-graders. Melissa skillfully guided me through the process of writing history for juveniles, and Eakin Press secured an experienced illustrator, Polsky Morgan. Since the story is an Hispanic adventure, I enlisted my oldest daughter, Lynn O'Neal Martinez. Lynn is the wife of Tejano Rudy Martinez, a banker from Corpus Christi, and they are the parents of two wonderful girls, my oldest grandchildren. As a college student Lynn studied Spanish, including a term in Mexico, and she became an elementary school teacher specializing in bilingual education.

Lynn O'Neal Martinez
translated our book with
the help of her students.
This photo credit should
go to her older daughter,
Chloe, while little sister
Jessie directed her mother
to raise her head and
smile more.

We decided that this book should be bilingual, with a page of English opposite a corresponding page of Spanish. After I completed this book in English, Lynn translated it into Spanish. At that time she was teaching fifth-graders at John H. Reagan Elementary in Dallas, where she was awarded Teacher of the Year honors. She read her translation to her students, who excitedly interrupted her from time to time. "Teacher! Teacher! Here's how we say that...."
Throughout the book a page of English faces a corresponding page of Spanish.
Illustrations were created by Polsky Morgan.

      Lynn's final translation combined formal Spanish with age-appropriate vernacular that was a major strength of the book. Of course, it was a delightful experience for me to collaborate with my daughter on a book. And Lynn's Tejano students, while working with their teacher on the translation, became familiar with a story of heroism and importance in Texas history.

Juan de Oñate was one of the wealthiest men in Mexico during the late 1500s. His wife was a granddaughter of conquistador Hernan Cortes and a great-granddaughter of the great Aztec chief, Montezuma. Oñate wanted to conquer a new frontier for Mexico, and he persuaded the Viceroy of Mexico, a personal friend, to appoint him as governor and captain-general of New Mexico to the north. Governor Oñate spent three years organizing a colonization expedition. He collected wagons and carts, supplies and livestock. Peasants were enlisted as colonists with the promise of the rank of hidalgo (from hijo de algo - "son of something"). Early in 1598 Governor Oñate assembled his colonists - more than 400 men, women, children, and soldiers. In addition there were 11 Franciscan priests. On the trail the expedition stretched for four miles.

Governor Oñate intended to blaze a new route northward. But on the deserts of northern Mexico the expedition ran low on food, water, and shoe leather. As the situation grew perilous, Governor Oñate sent eight men ahead to find water. At last they came upon the Rio Grande at a passage soon known as El Paso del Norte. They fished and hunted ducks and geese, and Native Americans from a nearby village brought a supply of fish.

By April 26, 1598, the entire expedition was encamped beneath cottonwood trees beside the river. Governor Oñate proclaimed that before the column crossed the river to march into New Mexico, there should be a celebration of gratitude to God for delivery. A feast was planned, which would include the friendly Native Americans. On March 30 everyone dressed in their best clothing: soldiers donned polished breastplates, priests wore vestments laced with gold, and Governor Oñate was resplendent in full armor. At a candlelit altar, the priests sang High Mass, and Father Alonso Martinez preached an appropriate sermon.

A captain from Spain put together a pageant about the expedition, with soldiers playing the various parts. At the end of the play the Indians knelt in the sand and were baptized. Trumpets then sounded as Governor Oñate steeped forward to claim New Mexico for Spain. Finally a bonfire was started, and fish and venison and duck were roasted. A feast ended the first Thanksgiving - 23 years before the Pilgrims feasted and prayed at Plymouth.

Statue of Juan de Oñate at the El Paso Airport.
Governor Oñate led his colonists north and founded the province of New Mexico. With the passage of years the river channel changed at El Paso, and eventually the former south bank site of the 1598 event became part of Texas. By the 1750s the community of San Elizario was forming on the historic site. When El Paso County was created in 1850, San Elizario became the county seat. (In 1883 the county seat was moved to El Paso following a controversial election.) The first county jail still stands in San Elizario.

An annual celebration of the First Thanksgiving takes place at the beautiful San Elizario Chapel (the current building was erected in 1882). In front of the chapel is a charming plaza, where Los Portales Museum is housed in a long adobe structure. On a recent trip to El Paso I turned south off of I-10 and drove into San Elizario. It was Sunday afternoon and the plaza was busy. At Los Portales Museum the staff was gracious and hospitable. I donated a copy of my book Long Before the Pilgrims to the museum library, and I've since learned that the museum ordered copies to sell.

San Elizario was the scene of most of the violent events of the El Paso Salt War. Not far from the chapel stands a two-story adobe building where a special detachment of 20 Texas Rangers was besieged for three days. At the center of trouble was the county judge, who surrendered to halt the siege. But the judge and two friends were promptly shot by a firing squad of Mexican nationals who had crossed the border. San Elizario has a dramatic past, and there are significant tangible remains that will prove of great interest to history buffs. 

For more information:
Oldest jail in El Paso County

Los Portales Museum

Site of Ranger HQ and siege

Old stagecoach station

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