In 1619, a man headed down the coast of New England hoping to get to his home, which he had not seen in more than five years. An improbable chain of events had led him to this journey.
He had met Capt. John Smith, a central figure in the Pocahontas story, when he still lived in his birthplace of Patuxet — a small village on the coast of what became Massachusetts. Smith had returned to England on one of his ships, leaving orders that his second ship — under the command of Thomas Hunt — should finish loading a cargo of dried fish in Maine before sailing back across the Atlantic.
Hunt decided to augment the value of his cargo by stopping at Patuxet and abducting 19 Native Americans with the intentions of selling them at a slave market.
The man headed down the coast had been one of those kidnapped by Hunt and taken to Malaga, Spain, to be sold. There, his fortune would take one of the incredible twists and turns that marked his life.
Roman Catholic priests — acting in accord with Pope Paul III’s declaration that the Indigenous people of the New World “should not be reduced to our service like brute animals” — rescued him and the others.
He eventually got back across the sea, via a fishing vessel bound for Newfoundland. Still far from his birthplace, the man — who must have been one of the most persuasive persons in the annals of history — regaled an associate of John Smith with tales of the riches to be found in New England and convinced him to sail south.
By this point, he spoke English fluently but his native tongue was Massachusett, a variety of Algonkian (or Algonquin). In his language, his home was not New England, but could best be translated as “Dawnland.” He had been born as one of the People of the First Light, living with his family off the bounty of the sea.
The family moved a bit inland during the winter to avoid the storms that season inevitably brought. Unlike the tribes that lived farther north, the Patuxet (the tribal group that had given its name to his home) were able to plant a rich crop of corn, beans and squash, which they further supplemented by hunting and collecting nuts and berries. This incredibly rich diet, along with exercise and a relative absence of disease, had made the People of the First Light healthy and strong.
During his return to Patuxet, the homebound man would find that all had changed in his absence.
Tisquantum, aka ‘Squanto’
Starting in 1616, a plague had decimated the people native to the coast of New England who had little resistance to the diseases the former residents of a crowded England brought with them to the New World.
The returned man saw no evidence of the thriving coastal villages he remembered, so he insisted on landing and walking inland. He saw nothing but death; Dawnland had become a charnel house.
The English settler Thomas Morton described it this way: “And the bones and skulls of their severall places of habitation made such a spectacle” that they had become a “new-found Golgotha.”
When the traveler reached Patuxet, he found it had been abandoned. A new village, which the English settlers called Plymouth, had been built over its remains.
This man went by the name Tisquantum — a name that referred to the rage of manitou, the spiritual force at the center of his religion.
William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, called Tisquantum “Squanto” and it is by that name that millions of Americans know this key participant in what came to be regarded as our first Thanksgiving.
That Thanksgiving story, which has been passed down into American history and folklore, is a simple one.
The Pilgrims were part of a larger group of English Protestants referred to as 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 the English Church was irredeemable and 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 spent time living in Holland before deciding to leave Europe for the New World. They might have trusted in God a little too much because they arrived woefully unprepared to survive in their new surroundings. Only half of the persons who came on the Mayflower would make it through their first New England winter.
Tisquantum would help the settlers stave off famine by showing them how to plant corn, and his skills as an interpreter would help them to forge an alliance with the nearby 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 in the feast.
The Native Americans did not involve themselves with the Pilgrims just to be props in future pageants. The Wampanoag valued their trading status with the new colony. A metal hatchet was a far better cutting tool than a stone ax and a copper kettle was sturdier than the crockery they had traditionally used for cooking. In addition to these tangible benefits of trade, living close to, and trading with, the English settlers gave the Wampanoag a competitive advantage over their rivals, the Narragansett.
Ousamequin had first sent Tisquantum to Plymouth Colony in hopes of maintaining a close relationship with the Pilgrims.
Tisquantum had his own motives for helping the settlers. He had been captured on his journey back to Patuxet — the man simply could not catch a break — and held captive by Ousamequin. He knew that if he was found useful at Plymouth Colony, he could stay and avoid being returned to captivity. This plan worked and Tisquantum starting 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 had afflicted them. (He did not, of course. Neither the Native Americans nor the colonists were acquainted with germ theory.)
He also told the colonists that Ousamequin was planning an imminent attack on the settlement, but Gov. Bradford learned this was untrue and so did not launch a preemptive strike against the Wampanoag. Ousamequin found out about 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 kill 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 and 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 sprang was heavily 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 looked for signs of their salvation. Unfortunately, a deep concern about their own righteousness too often led to an obsession with signs of their neighbors’ transgressions.
H.L. Mencken once described their predisposition toward self-righteousness this way: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
We can see a modern form of Puritanism at work this time of year in calls to make Thanksgiving Day an occasion of mourning because of the American Indians involved in the traditional story and the subsequent effects settlers had on Indigenous peoples. It’s an ahistorical — not to mention insufferably self-righteous — notion. For one thing, the feast at Plymouth wasn’t really America’s first Thanksgiving; a number of feasts vie for that claim.
The 1863 proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln issued — at the height of the Civil War — to create the first national holiday of Thanksgiving didn’t reference the celebration at Plymouth at all. Neither did Lincoln’s 1864 Thanksgiving proclamation, which did, however, call for gratitude to the Almighty because he “has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration.” Surely freeing slaves and welcoming immigrants aren’t occasions for mourning.
Still not convinced? It can be hard to overcome the habit of self-righteousness — ask any Puritan. But before you give up on your Thanksgiving celebration, consider this one last thing.
When I was younger, and lived and worked on the Navajo Nation, I noticed many of my Navajo neighbors celebrating Thanksgiving. The Navajo Nation Council’s November 2021 message included this: “Let us come together safely as family and friends during Thanksgiving to share appreciation for the many blessings given to us. Use this time to enjoy some turkey and mutton, cheer on your football team, and gather in fellowship with your relatives.”
Let us use this statement as a reminder that Thanksgiving is a time not for mourning, but for enjoying our friends and family and being grateful for the blessings that have been sent our way.
Jeffrey L. Hudson is a retired teacher and a Marietta Borough Council member.