Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving Banquet

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. 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 over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

One week to the day before Thanksgiving, on Thursday evening, November 20, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Thanksgiving Banquet of Central Baptist Church in Carthage. I’ve been a member of this church for 43 years but I’ve never had the privilege of providing a program for this particular event. I was invited by Associate Pastor Paul Gwinn who requested, since I am State Historian of Texas, if I could talk about Thanksgiving in an earlier Texas, perhaps even a little something about Thanksgiving in East Texas. 

Several years ago I wrote a book for fourth-grade Texas history students entitled Before the Pilgrims: The First Thanksgiving – El Paso del Norte, 1598. In 1595 Juan de Oñate was appointed by the Viceroy of Mexico to establish a northern colony called Nuevo Mejico. Early in 1598 Governor Oñate assembled his colonists – more than 400 men, women, children, and soldiers, along with 11 priests. There were 83 wagons and carts to haul baggage and provisions. Thousands of horses, cattle, oxen, sheep and goats comprised a vast livestock herd. On the trail the expedition stretched for four miles. 
More than 60 were in attendance at the
Panola College Ballroom.

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. After five days without water, the scouting party came upon the Rio Grande. They fished and hunted ducks and geese, and Native Americans from a nearby village brought a supply of fish and told of a passage to the northwest that would become known as El Paso del Norte. 

Associate Pastor Paul Gwinn
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 to God for safe delivery. A feast was planned, which would include the friendly Native Americans. On April 30 everyone dressed in their best clothing. Soldiers donned polished breastplates and helmets. Priests wore vestments laced with gold. Governor Martinez was resplendent in full armor. At a candlelit altar, the priests sang High Mass, and Father Alonso Martinez preached an appropriate sermon. 
Showing my State Historian cap

A captain from Spain put together a pageant about the expedition, with soldiers playing the various parts. At the end of the play the Native Americans knelt in the sand and were baptized. Trumpets were sounded as Governor Oñate stepped forward to claim New Mexico for Spain. Finally a bonfire was started, and fish and venison and ducks were roasted. A feast ended the first Thanksgiving – 23 years before the Pilgrims feasted and prayed at Plymouth. This momentous event took place on the south bank of the Rio Grande, but later the river changed course. Now the site is at San Elizario, Texas, where North America’s first Thanksgiving is commemorated and celebrated. An annual celebration also is held upriver at El Paso. 
Talking about leather helmet days

At the Central Baptist Church Thanksgiving Banquet, I told about the Pilgrim experience at Plymouth in 1620 and 1621, as well as later Thanksgivings in New England and Virginia, during the Revolution in 1777, during President Washington’s first term in 1789, and during the Civil War by the proclamation of President Lincoln. Then I related in detail the Thanksgiving of 1598, stressing the Texas connection, as I had been asked to do.

But I also had been asked to make a Thanksgiving connection to early East Texas. I talked about how – and why – schools and colleges did not begin classes until the second week of September, at the earliest. There were no activities before the start of school, so football teams of the leather helmet era (I held one up) did not organize until mid-September. A game or two would be played late in the month, followed by four games in October and a couple in November. The seven- or eight-game football season traditionally ended on Thanksgiving Day. At the college level in Texas, the most famous Thanksgiving game was the Texas Longhorns vs. the Texas Aggies. In our part of East Texas for years there was a Thanksgiving rivalry pitting the leather-helmeted Carthage Bulldogs against the Tatum Eagles. 
Cathedral at San Elizario - click to see historical
marker at right.

Happy Texas Thanksgiving from San Elizario to Carthage!

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