Late in November 1597 a colonizing expedition headed by Don Juan de O?ate left Santa Barbara in northern Chihuahua headed for what is now New Mexico. Four hundred men led the way, 130 of whom had wives and children. There were several priests, 83 wagons and carts, plus 7000 head of stock. They were planning to stay.
They reached the R?o Conchos and after a needed rest, started out again on February 7. Marching on northward over the barren desert of Chihuahua for several weeks, the last four days without water, the expedition finally reached El R?o del Norte (near the present-day San Elizario) on April 26, 1598. The Poet-chronicler of the march[,] Gasper P?rez De Villagr?, wrote that the river was a most welcome sight: "Horses approached the rolling stream and plunged headlong into it[.] Two of them drank so much that they burst their sides and died. Two others plunged so far into the stream that they were caught in its swift current and drowned." Some of the humans went almost as wild. The arrival was a "happy and joyous occasion," and all were in a thankful mood. Grateful for the completion of a perilous part of their journey, the abundance of water, and plenty of wild game along the river, the expedition set about preparations for a great celebration, The First Thanksgiving in what is now the United States of America, which took place on April 30, 1598.
The Great Colonizer, as O?ate has been called, thus brought the Spanish culture (and ultimately, that of Mexico) to what would become the Great Southwest shaping its growth and the development of the area for generations. These historic events preceded the English colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard, the French colonization of Canada, and the Dutch settlements in the Hudson River area by several years.