My long-range plans call for finding a book publisher interested in my Texas history blogs. With that goal in mind, I’m expanding my Texas coverage with a series of West Texas and Panhandle stories. This blog post was to be about the founding of the oldest Spanish mission in Texas and the first thanksgiving in the United States, both of which I thought had occurred near El Paso, a city on the far western edge of Texas. Immediately, I uncovered a wide range of stories that I have decided to share.
We often think of Spanish activity in Texas getting underway when the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle landed on the Texas coast in 1685. Concern that the French might have an eye on Texas prompted the government of New Spain to construct six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians and to serve as a buffer against encroachment from the French in neighboring Louisiana. In fact Spanish explorers started coming into Texas at present-day El Paso in the early 1580s, a century before the East Texas missions were built.
King Phillip II of Spain made Don Juan de Oñate the governor of New Mexico, before the territory
had been conquered. In search of riches, adventure, and political power Oñate personally financed an expedition, or entrada, meant to “pacify” the natives in New Mexico. He assembled 400 soldiers, 130 families and thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and other livestock. In early 1598 Oñate led his entourage on what he thought was a shortcut across the Chihuahuan Desert in Northern Mexico in search of a pass through the mountains into New Mexico. In late April, after four days of walking without food or water, the desperate travelers reached the Rio Grande where Oñate claimed all the surrounding land for King Phillip II of Spain. A few days later, they met native people who called themselves Manos, “peaceful one.” The friendly Indians led the Spanish to the place where the Rio Grande cut through the mountains forming El Paso del Rio del Norte—the pass of the north—the Spanish entryway to the West. The Mansos, who wore very little clothing, provided fresh fish for the Spanish and received clothing in return. Oñate invited the Mansos to be guests at a feast on January 26, 1598, celebrating the travelers’ amazing survival. The huge display of wild game and other food stuffs from the expeditions’ supplies created a feast of thanksgiving, which seems to be the second to be celebrated in the present United States. The first thanksgiving is claimed by St. Augustine, Florida, where on September 8, 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez held a feast of thanksgiving with the Timucua.
The entrada moved on into New Mexico, but when scouting parties failed to find gold and silver,
Oñate’s troops began demanding payments from the Pueblo population. The Acoma pueblo refused to comply and in 1599 the Acoma Wars ended with Oñate’s orders to kill 800 people, enslave another 500, and cut off the left foot of all men older than twenty-five. Numbers of amputees vary from twenty-four to eighty. The young women were sent into slavery. Oñate continued his exploratory travels as far as present Kansas, returned to found the town of Santa Fe, and was finally called back to Mexico City in 1606 to answer for his conduct. Although he was tried and convicted of cruelty to the Spanish colonists and to the natives, he was later cleared of all charges.
His treatment of the native peoples set the pattern of Spanish cruelty that continued until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the natives rebelled against their overlords. The Pueblos drove out the soldiers and the Spanish authorities, killed twenty-one Franciscan priests, and sacked mission churches. More than 400 Spanish colonists and 346 native people were killed, which sent hundreds of Indians and Spanish fleeing for their lives to the south. The Tigua (Tiwa) people were among the refugees who reached safety at the Paso del Norte. In order to serve the displaced population, Franciscan friars established the first mission and pueblo in Texas, Corpus Christi de la Isleta, in 1682 on the south bank of the Rio Grande. That same year Nuestra Señora de la
Concepción del Socorro was established for other native people who had fled from the Pueblo Revolt. Over the years, the Rio Grande flooded many times, changing course, and moving the communities that grew up around the missions to both sides of the river, even isolating them for a time on an island between two channels of the Rio Grande.
Despite the construction of the Spanish missions, the Indians from New Mexico brought their own way of life with them, and continued to control the political and economic activities of the new mission communities. The Franciscan friars were allowed authority only over the Indians’ spiritual life.
Into this mix of missions, native peoples, and Spanish settlers, San Elizario settlement was established, and the Presidio de San Elizario was built in 1789 to protect the area missions and the travelers on the Camino Real (Royal Highway) that ran from Mexico City through Paso del Norte to Santa Fe. While it was never a mission, the presidio boasted a chapel to serve the military personnel.
Today’s Ysleta church was completed in 1907 and the Isleta community was annexed into El Paso in 1955. The present Socorro Mission was completed in 1840, replacing the 17th-century structure destroyed by Rio Grande floods. The current church retains many of its original decorative elements, including the original beams, or vigas, which were salvaged from the old flooded church. Both missions and the San Elizario Chapel are on the El Paso Mission Trail.