The first colonial Thanksgiving in the United States occurred near El Paso, not in Plymouth, Massachusetts. According to an obscure 17th-century book, conquistadors celebrated their arrival at the Rio Grande by sharing a huge feast with local Indians 23 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Don Juan de Onate, the grandson-in-law of Spanish explorer Cortez, led over 400 soldiers and their families on a torturous trek across the desert to look for a shorter route to Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to Sheldon Hall, presi-dent of the El Paso Mission Trail Association.

After over four months of traveling across the Chihuahuan Desert, often being forced to eat roots and berries and drink water from cactus, the weary pathfinders arrived near the present-day site of San Elizario, about 23 miles down river from El Paso. There, on April 30, 1598, the Spanish colonists celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

Local Indians brought the Spaniards large quantities of fish. Onate claimed the land for Spain and ordered that a small chapel be built; Mass was celebrated, and all feasted on fish, duck, and tortillas. Afterward, a group of soldiers performed a short play for the Indians. This may have been the first theatrical production on U.S. soil.

Published in 1610, the tale of the Onate Expedition was overlooked for centuries because few copies of the account, a rambling, narrative poem written by Captain Gaspar Perez de Villagra, survive. The story was discovered and translated into English in the last few years, giving El Pasoans the basis of their claim to the first Thanksgiving.

All of this has caused more than a little consternation in Massachusetts, where officials dismissed the claim as "poppycock." The result has been a lot of ribbing between the two states. Two years ago, a group of conquistadors and Spanish settlers from the Trail Association rode into Plymouth "to set the record straight." The group was promptly arrested by Pilgrims who charged the El Pasoans with "blasphemy" and "spreading malicious lies and rumors," and held them for a mock trial.

The following year, the Plymouth sheriff and two deputies arrived in El Paso to deliver a "Writ of Extradition" for the conquistadors, signed by the Governor of Massachusetts. The lighthearted argument has prompted an exchange between fourth-grade classes in

El Paso and Plymouth. One Massachusetts student wrote, "At night, the seals keep us awake barking on the rocks. Do you have seals in El Paso?"

El Pasoans celebrate the First Thanksgiving every year on the last Saturday and Sunday of April at the Chamizal National Memorial Park.

Of course, Pilgrims are welcome, too.

Picnickers watch as actors and actresses dressed in elaborate, 16th-century costumes reenact the wearisome journey of Onate and his colonists.

Activities during the two-day commemoration also include an array of fun and educational events for the entire family at the Chamizal National Park and San Elizario Presidio Chapel. Historical demonstrations, entertainment, and hands-on exhibits keep everyone busy during the celebration.

For information on the First Thanksgiving celebration, contact the El Paso Chamber of Commerce at 915/534-0500 or the El Paso Mission Trail Association at 915/534-0677.

Coming up this weekend...

Liberty Hill Festival, 30 miles northwest of Austin, includes tours of the sculpture garden at the high school, a Civil War reenactment, a barbecue cookoff, and a baked goods contest, Apr.29. 800/778-5442.

Eeyore's Birthday runs from 2-5pm, Apr.29 at Winedale and will be capped off with a performance of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at 7pm. 409/278-3530.

Wine and Roses Festival at Messina Hof Winery in Bryan turns grape stomping into a competitive sport along with music, hayrides, tours, car and horse exhibitions, and a cooking school, Apr.29, 10am-6pm. 409/778-9463.

Wilderness Medicine Workshop will be presented by Dr. William Forgey at REI, 12th and Lamar, Apr.29 at 10:30am. 474-2393.

Coming up...

Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican Independence Day on both sides of the border at Del Rio, May 4-5. 210/775-3551.

Texas River Marathon has canoeists racing down the Guadalupe River from Cuero to Victoria, May 6. 512/357-6113.

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