In 1619, a man sailed down the coast of New England hoping to find his home, which he had not seen for over five years. An unlikely chain of events had led him to this trip.
He had met Captain John Smith, a central figure in the Pocahontas story, while still living in his hometown of Patuxet – a small village on the coast of what became Massachusetts. Smith had returned to England on one of his ships, leaving orders for his second ship – under the command of Thomas Hunt – to finish loading a cargo of dried fish in Maine before crossing the Atlantic again.
Hunt decided to increase the value of his cargo by stopping at Patuxet and kidnapping 19 Native Americans with the intention of selling them at a slave market.
The man coming down the coast was among those abducted by Hunt and taken to Malaga, Spain, to be sold there. There, his fortune would take one of the incredible twists that marked his life.
Roman Catholic priests – acting in accordance with Pope Paul III’s declaration that the indigenous peoples of the New World “should not be reduced to our service like brute beasts” – saved him and the others.
He ended up going back to sea, via a fishing boat bound for Newfoundland. Still far from his birthplace, the man – who was to be one of the most persuasive people in the annals of history – regaled an associate of John Smith with tales of the riches of New England and the convinced to sail south.
At this point, he was fluent in English, but his first language was Massachusetts, a variety of Algonquin (or Algonquin). In his language, his home was not New England, but might better be translated as “Dawnland”. He was born as one of the People of the First Light, living with his family off the sea.
The family moved inland a bit during the winter to avoid the storms that season inevitably brought. Unlike the tribes that lived further north, the Patuxet (the tribal group that had given their home their name) were able to plant a rich crop of corn, beans, and squash, which they supplemented by hunting and gathering nuts and berries. This incredibly rich diet, along with exercise and a relative freedom from disease, had made the people of the First Light healthy and strong.
When he returns to Patuxet, the confined person will find that everything has changed in his absence.
Tisquantum, aka ‘Squanto’
Beginning in 1616, a plague had decimated the inhabitants of coastal New England who had little resistance to the diseases that the former residents of crowded England brought with them to the New World.
The returning man saw no evidence of the thriving coastal villages he remembered, so he insisted on landing and marching inland. He only saw death; Dawnland had become a mass grave.
The English settler Thomas Morton described it thus: “And the bones and skulls of their various dwelling-places made such a spectacle” that they had become a “new Golgotha”.
When the traveler reached Patuxet, he found it abandoned. A new village, which the English settlers called Plymouth, had been built on its remains.
This man was called Tisquantum – a name that referred to the rage of the manitou, the spiritual force at the center of his religion.
William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, called Tisquantum “Squanto” and it is by this name that millions of Americans know this key participant in what has become our first Thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving story, which has been passed down in American history and folklore, is simple.
The Pilgrims were part of a larger group of English Protestants called Puritans, so called because they wanted to “purify” the English Church of its Roman Catholic influence.
Unlike the majority of Puritans, the Pilgrims were separatists who believed that the English Church was irredeemable and that the only way to live out their covenant with God was to leave it entirely. They were persecuted for their beliefs in their home country and lived in Holland before deciding to leave Europe for the New World. They may have trusted God a little too much because they arrived terribly unprepared to survive in their new environment. Only half of the people who came on the Mayflower would spend their first winter in New England.
Tisquantum would help the settlers stave off famine by showing them how to plant corn, and his interpretive skills would help them forge an alliance with the neighboring Wampanoag tribe and their sachem (chief) Massasoit, now known to historians as Ousamequin.
In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims held a feast of thanksgiving to celebrate their newfound food security. Members of the Wampanoag people, including Ousamequin, brought food and joined the settlers for the feast.
Native Americans did not get involved with the Pilgrims just to be props in future contests. The Wampanoag enjoyed their trading status with the new colony. A metal hatchet was a much better cutting tool than a stone axe, and a copper kettle was stronger than the dishes they traditionally used to cook with. In addition to these tangible benefits of trade, living near and trading with, English settlers gave the Wampanoag a competitive edge over their rivals, the Narragansett.
Ousamequin had originally sent Tisquantum to Plymouth Colony hoping to maintain a close relationship with the Pilgrims.
Tisquantum had its own motivations for helping the settlers. He had been captured on his return trip to Patuxet – the man just couldn’t pause – and held captive by Ousamequin. He knew that if he was found useful to Plymouth Colony, he could stay and avoid being returned to captivity. This plan worked, and Tisquantum began using his time with the Pilgrims to plot a coup against Ousamequin.
Always a great fabulist, Tisquantum told the Wampanoag that he knew where the settlers kept the substance that caused the disease that afflicted them. (He didn’t, of course. Neither Native Americans nor settlers knew about germ theory.)
He also told the colonists that Ousamequin foresaw an imminent attack on the colony, but Governor Bradford learned that was untrue and so did not launch a preemptive attack on the Wampanoag. Ousamequin discovered Tisquantum’s plot and sent a messenger with a knife to the pilgrims, demanding that they cut off Tisquantum’s head and hands and return them with the emissary. But he was too useful to be killed, and Tisquantum lived among the pilgrims until his death in 1622.
One of the reasons I love history is that it teaches so much about people, with all their strengths, flaws, and tenacity. I cringe when I see this kaleidoscopic study of the past reduced to black-and-white in order to reinforce an intolerant worldview.
The Puritan movement from which the Pilgrims originated was strongly influenced by the ideas of John Calvin. Among Calvin’s notable doctrines was predestination – the belief that God already knows which of his people will be saved. Since the fate of their soul was essential to them, the Puritans sought signs of their salvation. Unfortunately, a deep concern about their own righteousness has too often led to an obsession with the signs of their neighbors’ transgressions.
HL Mencken once described their predisposition to complacency as follows: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.
We can see a modern form of puritanism at work at this time of year in calls to make Thanksgiving an occasion to mourn the American Indians involved in traditional history and the subsequent effects that settlers have had on indigenous peoples. It’s an ahistorical notion – not to mention an intolerable self-righteousness. For one thing, Plymouth’s feast wasn’t really America’s first Thanksgiving; a number of parties dispute this claim.
The 1863 proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln issued—at the height of the Civil War—to create the first national Thanksgiving holiday made no reference to the celebration in Plymouth at all. Neither did Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1864, which however called for gratitude to the Almighty because he “has largely increased our free population by emancipation and immigration”. Freeing slaves and welcoming immigrants are certainly not occasions for mourning.
Still not convinced? It can be hard to overcome the habit of complacency – ask any puritan. But before you give up on your Thanksgiving celebration, consider this last thing.
When I was younger and living and working in the Navajo Nation, I noticed that many of my Navajo neighbors celebrated Thanksgiving. The November 2021 message from the Council of the Navajo Nation included this: “Let us safely come together as family and friends during Thanksgiving to share our appreciation for the many blessings that have been given to us. Take advantage of this time to enjoy turkey and mutton, encourage your football team and get together in communion with your loved ones.
Let’s use this statement as a reminder that Thanksgiving is not a time to grieve, but to enjoy our friends and family and be grateful for the blessings that have been sent to us.
Jeffrey L. Hudson is a retired teacher and member of the Marietta City Council.