Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, declared one by President Lincoln, in the middle of the bloodshed and slaughter of the Civil War. It celebrates a three day feast in 1621, when 53 English Separatists and 90 Native Americans, including and most especially their chief, Massasoit, and the translator and diplomat for both groups, Squanto, gathered together and enjoyed ‘wildfowl’, including possibly turkeys, and venison and squash and eels and Indian corn. This Jennie Brownscombe painting captures the way we’ve mythologized the event, though it gets every detail wrong. In fact there’s no suggestion that that first ‘Thanksgiving’ feast was a religious observance, so all the praying is wrong. It may not have even been considered by them a feast of ‘Thanksgiving’ at all. And the Wampanoag people in attendance did not wear headdresses. And so on. But something happened sort of like it, and that’s enough. The feast is mentioned rather briefly in two journals, and Separatists had a long tradition of ‘days of Thanksgiving,’ those are the raw materials out of which we’ve built a holiday, best celebrated by grade school kids, in full regalia, reciting dialogue on the level of “I’m a Turkey: kill me.”
When we think of Thanksgiving, we ethnocentrize it; we construct it in terms of ‘generous white folks’ sharing their bounty with unfortunate native peoples. Not so much anymore, perhaps, but that was the Thanksgiving we learned about in school; it was so good of us white folks to share. What we leave out is the plague. What we leave out is my favorite detail of the entire Plymouth rock narrative: the Mayflower seeing this one Indian on the shore, bringing him aboard, and listening, shocked, when he asked them, in perfectly idiomatic English, for a beer.
We don’t necessarily leave out Tisquantum, or, in Puritan mispronunciation, Squanto. But he’s not central to how we tell the First Thanksgiving story, and he should be; he should be front and center, the most important person in whatever picture we choose to draw, of the Pilgrims and Plymouth colony and that three day harvest feast. Plymouth would almost certainly have starved without him.
In fact, I’ve never understood why Squanto’s story hasn’t been made into a movie. He was Patuxet, his tribe part of a remarkable political confederacy created by, and co-existing peaceably with, the Wampanoag. He was a young married man, with a family, when he was captured by an English merchant ship under the command of a Captain Thomas Hunt, who had been a lieutenant to John Smith, of Pocahontas fame. Hunt was a slaver, and sold Squanto, and the other Indians with him, into slavery to Spain. He was then purchased by, and freed by Spanish monks, who tried to convert him to Christianity.
Squanto must have had a gift for languages: he learned enough Spanish, at any rate, to finally persuade the monks to let him try to get home, and he made it as far as London, where he worked for a shipbuilder named John Slany, who taught him English. But Squanto still was desperate to get home. He hired on with one merchant ship bound for America, but wasn’t allowed to get off the ship and make it home, and returned to England. He then found his way to another merchant ship, this one captained by none other than John Smith himself, which dropped him off in Newfoundland, from where he then made his way south to his home. (Smith’s ship was eventually captured by pirates, from whom he managed to escape back to England to write his memoirs).
So Squanto arrived home, after so long an absence and so many misadventures: home. Only to discover that his entire tribe, including his family and all his friends were dead. Killed by plague: now thought to be leptospirosis, a disease to which Europeans were immune. At that point, the Pilgrims show up, and Squanto agrees to help them. Native peoples caught a local fish, menhaden, which they used to fertilize their fields; they survived winter by fishing and by snaring eel. That’s how the Plymouth colony survived their first year; without Squanto, it’s unlikely they would have made it. And Squanto also translated and negotiated with Massasoit, of the Wampanoag.
Massasoit’s role is also interesting. His people had been devastated by the plague, with losses exceeding 90% of his population. The much smaller Narragansett tribe, however, neighbors and rivals, had been much less affected. He needed a buffer and an ally, or his people would be wiped out. This tiny band of Europeans may not have seemed like much, but they were what he had to work with; they were there, and as much in need of his help as he was of theirs, though he never really trusted them, nor them him. So the head of Narragansett Bay was given to the Plymouth colony, all negotiated by Squanto.
I keep going back to him: Squanto. What must that have been like, to find his way home after so many calamities, only to find his entire life destroyed, his family dead, his friends gone, his people wiped out. How must it have felt? Wouldn’t suicide have crossed his mind? Wouldn’t it have seemed natural to blame white people, all white people for his troubles? Wouldn’t some of us feel that God had betrayed us, that we hadn’t even been permitted the dignity of dying at the side of our wife and children? Why go on? What point is there to life at all, to fight so hard to come home, and to nothing but desolation?
But Squanto did not give up and Squanto did not succumb to despair. He took a people as ignorant as children and taught them how to survive, how to thrive. He shared the best of his knowledge and people; gave of it freely. And, though distrusted by Wampanoag and Pilgrim alike, he forged a peace between them that lasted for fifty years.
And then he died in 1622; poisoned by Massasoit, say some historians. And he begged the white people he had befriended to pray for him, hoping, according to William Bradford’s report, to go to the Englishman’s heaven. I hope he did.
So when we think of Thanksgiving, let’s remember Tisquantum, a man who had nothing for which to be thankful, a man who forged an unlikely and lasting peace nonetheless, a man who showed how, even in the midst of personal tragedy, we can still find some way to do good in this bad world. And Lincoln, who created a day of remembrance and gratitude in the midst of a bloodbath. To find a way, even in the middle of the most calamitous tragedy, to give thanks. Let that be the lesson of Thanksgiving.