Thanksgiving is a special holiday for many in the U.S. and its traditions include the holy trinity of American vice: football, gluttony, and credit card debt. Kidding aside, we have much to be thankful for here in Colorado and we even have our own stories of peaceful encounters between Europeans and Native Americans.
Colorado’s history, and the history of the West, is often overlooked in the context of American history. The narrative of American history focuses on the east coast: the arrival of the pilgrims, formation of colonies, their rebellion against the British, and their exploration of the West. However, that narrative overlooks the rich history of development in the West that occurred.
We’d like to share one of the first documented stories of an encounter between Native American’s and Europeans in Colorado. It was the fall of 1598 and Juan de Oñate, the first Governor of New Mexico who also married the great-grand daughter of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma, set off on an expedition to explore the territory north of New Mexico.
Upon seeing [many cattle Juan de Oñate] went on ahead with ten of his soldiers to a river six leagues from … the snow-covered range [Sangre de Cristo Montains]….He camped for the night at that river, and on the following day, on his way back to the camp, he found a ranchería in which there were fifty tents made of tanned hides, very bright red and white in color and bell-shaped, with flaps and openings, and built as skilfully as those of Italy and so large that in the most ordinary ones four different mattresses and beds were easily accommodated.
The tanning is so fine that although it should rain bucketfuls, it will not pass through nor stiffen the hide, but rather upon drying it remains as soft and pliable as before, This being so wonderful[, Juan de Oñate] bartered for a tent and brought it to this camp, and although it was so large… it did not weigh over [fifty pounds].
To carry this load, the poles that they use to set it up, and a knapsack of meat and their pinole, or maize, the Indians use a medium-sized shaggy dog, this is their substitute for mules. The drive great trains of them. Each, girt round it breast and haunches, and carrying a load of flour of at least one hundred pounds, travels as fast as his master….
The Indians are numerous in all that land. They live in rancherías in the hide tends hereinbefore mentioned. They always follow the cattle, and in their pursuit they are as well sheltered in their tents they could be in any house. They eat meat almost raw, and much tallow and suet, which serves them as bread, and with a chunk of meat in one hand and a piece of tallow in the other, they bite first on one and then the other, and grow up magnificently strong and courageous.
Back then, Juan de Oñate was impressed by how plentiful Colorado was, with thousands of cattle and buffalo. In Colorado today, we continue to give thanks for this beautiful land that supports us. Colorado was then and still is a special place for many.
–Quoted text from the “Account of the Discovery of Buffalo,” March 2, 1599; published in Spanish Exploration of the Southwest, 1542-1706, edited by Herbert E. Bolton (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916).
The snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains: