True History and Real Meaning of Thanksgiving
Children in the United States are taught in school that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. But that’s not quite true. They were actually missionaries who chose to come to the New World to plant the Gospel of Jesus in the wilderness.
As their governor and chronicler, William Bradford wrote: “They had a great hope and inward zeal of laying some good foundation…for the propagating and advancing the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world.”
They had endured vicious religious persecution in England and finally fled to Holland where they settled in the town of Leyden. There, they enjoyed religious freedom for 12 years. But it became clear to them that God wanted them to leave Holland and go to America.
So if their motivation to come to America was primarily about religious freedom, they could have stayed in Holland where they already had that. No, they weren’t running away from something, they were following their calling to become missionaries.
So they returned to England and boarded the Mayflower in early September to embark on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The crossing was wrought with devastating conditions. They ran into many horrific storms that threw them from side to side and violently pitched up and down within a very cramped space below deck. Adults and children alike were vomiting; with the stench of vomit, animals, and unwashed bodies, and with the sea water leaking in through the deck above, the conditions were almost intolerable.
After surviving 44 days of storms out of their 66-day voyage, the weak and sick passengers finally saw land on November 9th, 1620. The land they saw was Cape Cod. Even though it was not their original destination of the northern part of the Virginia Colony (today’s New Jersey Shore), the ship got caught in the shoals off the bottom elbow of the Cape and after fighting to get it released, they finally decided that it was God’s will for them to stay where they were and start a new colony.
In the midst of a blinding December snow storm, they were blown into Plymouth harbor. They came ashore at Plymouth and discovered the ground cleared and recently cultivated, but there were no Indians anywhere to be seen. And oddly, the area was strewn with human bones.
They built a common house where they could take shelter until they were able to begin building their own homes. But with their immune systems weakened by the rough voyage, they began to get sick and die. By March there had been a total of 47 deaths. They were in desperate circumstances because the food they’d brought on the Mayflower was all but gone.
But on March 16, 1621, a lone Indian appeared, walked up to them and said, “Welcome Englishmen!” The Pilgrims found out that his name was Samoset, and that he was a regional Indian chief who lived about 40 miles to the southwest, in Massasoit. The following week he appeared again, this time bringing with him a Patuxet Indian named Squanto.
Squanto, who also spoke English, offered them his services. He taught them how to trap eels in the mud flats of the bay, what berries were edible, what herbs were good for medicine, and how to trap beaver, which would later become a source of income for the Pilgrims. Most important of all, he taught them how to plant corn, and plant it the Indian way — by burying dead fish with the seeds, to fertilize the seedlings as they grew.
Squanto’s story, the Pilgrims would learn, was fascinating. As it turned out, his tribe, the Patuxets, had lived at Plymouth. But in 1617, a plague, probably brought by French fur-trappers from the north, had killed every member of the tribe. That explained why the Pilgrims had found the ground covered with human bones. Squanto had escaped the plague because he had not been there.
Squanto had been kidnapped in 1605 by an English fishing expedition and taken back to England, where he lived for 9 years in the home of a merchant named John Slanie. He’d learned to speak English well, and became accustomed to English food and ways.
In 1614 Squanto was brought back to America on another fishing expedition led by John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia fame. When it came time to depart, Smith ordered one of his captains, Thomas Hunt, to stay behind and trade for beaver pelts. But Hunt tricked Squanto and 19 other young braves into getting on board his ship. He took them prisoner and sailed to Malaga, a slave trading port on the south coast of Spain. There these American Indians were sold as slaves.
Luckily, Squanto was purchased by a monk who took pity on him. He lived with the monks for a year before getting his freedom. He worked his way back to England where he stayed until 1619, when a Captain Dermer brought him back to the New England coast in exchange for his services as a pilot in American waters. But when Squanto got back to his village site at Plymouth, he was shocked to discover all of his people were dead, killed by the plague two years earlier.
Heartbroken, he traveled 40 miles southwest to the tribal seat of the Wampanoag and Chief Massasoit, who took him in. He stayed with them until March of 1621, when Samoset had returned from Squanto’s village site to tell him that some English had settled there. Squanto suddenly had a new reason to live. He would go and help these white people.
In October, when the 20 acres of corn the Pilgrims had planted under Squanto’s tutelage had been harvested, the Pilgrims wanted to hold a celebration festival. They invited Massasoit and the Wampanoag, and of course Samoset and Squanto. Massasoit came a day early with 90 braves and women and children. Would feeding all these people deplete the supply of corn that the Pilgrims had been stored up for winter? Not at all, because Massasoit had his men hunt for the occasion and they brought 5 deer and also wild turkeys. There were fish from the bay, berries and other fruits, roasted corn and the Pilgrim women supplied vegetables from their gardens. The festival lasted 3 days, complete with bow and arrow shooting contests, foot races, and relay races. It was a good and peaceful time for whites and Indians together.
Probably many times during the celebration, the Pilgrims stopped to thank God for his miraculous provision of Squanto. If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been any reason for the celebration and Thanksgiving. God had sent this American Indian, who spoke English fluently, ate English food, understood English customs and ways, and knew about the Christian faith because of his time spent with the Spanish monks. He was the right man, in the right place, at the right time.
This is the true story of the first New England Thanksgiving!
*Based on an essay by Peter Marshall