Travel the El Paso Mission Trail: Where the Real First Thanksgiving Took Place

When one thinks of the history of Texas, the first thing they think about is probably the Alamo, right?

But to get to the early history of the Lone Star state, head on over to the El Paso Mission Trail in west Texas.

Two historic churches, the Socorro and Ysleta, are still standing on the trail and operate as active parishes run by the Catholic Diocese of El Paso. Also still active is the San Elizario Chapel, once a place of worship for the Spanish military and later, the Mexican Army.

Just a few miles across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, stands the very first one – the Guadalupe Mission, also still operational.

Guests from all over the world visit, admiring the original statues in the white adobe-style buildings. One doesn’t have to make room in the budget for it, because all the sites are free.

“It shows roots and how our ancestors used to live,” said William Reyes, administrator of the La Purisima Catholic Church at the Socorro Mission.

Records from the El Paso Mission Trail Association report 500 colonists, led by Spanish explorer Don Juan de Onate, first traveled the Mission Trail in 1598. They were on their way to “the new world” from Chihuahua, Mexico, looking for treasurers and land for the King of Spain. The soldiers, their families and clergy traveled for weeks on the trail through the Chihuahuan Desert and crossed the Rio Grande. They encountered the indigenous people on the present day community of San Elizario.

After meeting the natives, “the mission was to evangelize people within the area on the mission trail,” said Reyes.

But first, the Spanish explorers gathered with the native people for a large feast and Catholic Mass, 23 years before the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock.

The mission trail continues to Santa Fe.

Visitors learn the entrance of the Spaniards to the area was overwhelming for the indigenous people, and it later turned bloody.

“Onate brought the horse, he brought technology, [and] he brought firepower. He brought religion, he brought disease,” said Al Borrego, owner of the Mission Trail Experience.

A revolt between the native Pueblo tribes and the Spanish took place in northern New Mexico in 1680. That led to several Spanish people and members of the Tigua and Piro Indians to move south to seek refuge and develop a community, as reported in documents by the El Paso Mission Trail Association.

The Ysleta Mission was built in 1681, built mostly by the Tigua Indians.

“They were the manpower,” said Borrego.

A staff member from the Tigua Cultural Center, located along the mission trail, said the Tigua people converted to Catholicism while still practicing their traditional indigenous spirituality.

The Socorro Mission was the destination for the Piro Indians fleeing the Pueblo Revolt. Inside is an original statue of St. Michael that Spanish explorers brought with them from Mexico.

Reyes said the wagon, pulled by an ox, got stuck in mud.

“The locals took it that St. Michael wanted to stay here,” said Reyes.

A serious flood in 1829 Rio Grande flooded the two missions and the San Elizario Chapel. The Socorro Mission also experienced a flood in 1740. They were rebuilt by volunteers.

The San Elizario Chapel was built facing north. Borrego told Fox News Latino it was built that way so during battles the sunlight would be in the enemies’ eyes; the Yselta and Socorro Missions were built facing the south to easily welcome people crossing the Rio Grande.

Another attraction in the San Elizario community is El Paso County’s first jail, built in 1849. Legend says it's the very jail Billy the Kid broke into and successfully released a friend held there. Both of them later crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico.

The sites along the Mission Trail in El Paso are less than 10 miles apart and can be seen by visitors in one day. Thousands of visitors pass through the trail each year. While it has been re-furbished, the purpose for the missions remains the same.

“Back then they were evangelizing the locals. Today - (it) continues to be the same thing,” said Reyes.

Patrick Manning is a Junior Reporter for based in El Paso.

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