SAN LUIS VALLEY — While American school children have always learned the traditional celebration of the first Thanksgiving began with the Pilgrims on this country’s eastern seaboard in 1621, this was only one of several “thanksgivings” in America, and it was not the first.
Some 55 years earlier, expedition leader Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of St. Augustine, Fla. and Father Francisco López, his fleet chaplain, along with their crew, celebrated a feast of thanksgiving with Native Americans there after first offering a Catholic Mass. The largest cross in the Western Hemisphere, 208 feet high, now marks the location of this first offering of thanks.
Other thanksgivings may also have been celebrated by Coronado, as he moved throughout the Southwest, as well as Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto. Catholic and Hispanic contributions to American culture have received little notice in the history books in decades past.
A Thanksgiving unique to the San Luis Valley also was offered over two decades before the Pilgrim version of the feast. Valley residents celebrated their “First Thanksgiving” July 14 with a luncheon at the American Legion after sharing their history and prayers of Thanksgiving for their time together. The San Luis Valley Museum sponsored music by Los Cancioneros Del Valle for the special event.
Dennis Lopez, known for his vast and accurate knowledge of the history of the San Luis Valley, spoke about the celebration this summer at the San Luis Valley Museum. The following account of how the celebration came into existence was given by San Luis Valley Museum director Joyce Gunn.
“Many years ago, when I started working at the San Luis Valley Museum, I read a lot about the history of the Valley. I learned about the Spanish History from one of the Board Members, Dolores Chavez. As I read I asked many questions of her. She shared with me all of the many changes the Valley has gone through citing history and her own life.
“I read about the Spanish Inquisition, explorers in the New World, the cities of gold and Onante’s travels north from Mexico City to New Mexico. He led families north to find new homes in a new land with promises for a new future. What a massive undertaking!
“A gentleman stopped at the Museum and shared with me his knowledge of the Onante events. He said that the Mass of Thanksgiving took place Aug. 19, 1598 or 23 years before the Pilgrims. It made me want to learn more because I realized that the “First” Thanksgiving was NOT with the Pilgrims but with the Spanish.
“The Spanish had been exploring the Americas for years. Without their exploration and the stories going back to Europe, Europe would have probably never gotten involved in the “New World.” (Side note: St. Augustine, Fla. is the oldest city in the U.S.)
“My desire to have and celebrate the “First Thanksgiving” is to share history, not lost but overlooked. None of us can afford to diminish or set aside history of another group especially when it affects all of us. Our beginnings in the Americas are not the pilgrims, or the trappers or Jamestown. It is part of the history of Spain.
“They chronicled the Native Americans, the lands from the eastern seaboard to California. Understanding their history is like filling in several holes in our own European history. It is past time to learn, share and sometimes even agree to disagree but let us do it with tolerance, respect and understanding. So let us share the day, the family stories, the laughter and the smiles. We will all be better for it!”