Amid the turkey, family and friends often associated with Thanksgiving, faith is sometimes lost. At Bethel Recovery for Women in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Dr. John DeMassa reminded a small but interested audience – before dinner – how the first Pilgrims and Native Americans gave thanks for a harvest and each other during an autumn day in 1621.
Today Thanksgiving is celebrated with parades, football and fancy dinners among family and friends. Our family attended the Stamford Thanksgiving parade and was delighted to find a number of wonderful floats, marching bands and a cheering crowd. The people packed in some four rows deep lining the street curb on both sides. Thousands flocked to the celebration coming on the train (as we did) and cars. As the floats went by, it was delightful to see the popular culture well represented, but unfortunately the historic Thanksgiving was forgotten. Viewers were thrilled to see popular cartoon characters, marching bands, classic cars with local and state politicians waving and an amazing trampoline act. Stylized figures of Squanto, Massasoit and Captain Miles Standish were no where to be found.
The following Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, NEST tried to help remember that autumn day in 1621 when some 53 Pilgrims or Separatists and “Strangers” gave thanks with about 90 Native Americans for the blessings of the harvest supply and good health enjoyed by the recovering English colony in Plymouth Massachusetts.
To understand the depth of their gratefulness, we first briefly reviewed the troubled past of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag who inhabited the general area of present day Plymouth Massachusetts.
The Wampanoag lived in the area of Rhode Island, Southeastern Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island. The name Wampanoag is more correctly attributed to a confederation of at least 50 tribes whose names are recognized by Americans living in the same area today (Mashpee, Nantucket, Chappaquiddick, etc). The Wampanoag were resourceful and successful in farming, hunting and trapping. They lived in mobile villages made up of rounded huts (the wetu).
Interestingly, the society was matrilineal meaning that status was conveyed to individuals through the women’s line. For example, in the event of a chief’s death, the next male successor could be chosen by a respected matron of the tribe. Women also selected counselors or elders of their own sex. Women were property owners and passed property to female descendants (Bill Marder, Indians in the Americas: the Untold Story, p.127). The practice was not only misunderstood by the early English colonists but efforts would be made to displace the practice for the traditional European patrilineal system by the 18th century.
Wampanoag beliefs were complex but centered about a kind of animism where nature was filled with spirits that were worshipped and respected. The animals, the earth, and the sky, were revered. During a typical hunt, tradition demanded that a piece of the kill was left behind as a spiritual offering. Sorting out the nuances of the Native American religion, and culture was rarely done and it is perhaps not surprising that caricatures were common in early depictions of the new world inhabitants. A European woodcut from the late 1500’s shows a naked Native American woman riding an armadillo while watching a battle where Native American men are roasting body parts of slain European soldiers (Marder, p.131).
Yet the story of the first Thanksgiving defied these harsh representations especially in the story of the Patuxet Tisquantum, also known as Squanto.
Squanto or Tisquantum teaching the Plymouth colonists to plant corn with fish.
(Picture left: Bricker,GarlandArmor. The Teaching of Agriculture in the High School.New York: Macmillan, 1911. Page 112.)
Squanto’s story begins with Captain John Smith, another well known figure in America’s early colonial period.
John Smith is remembered for being rescued by Pocahontas in Jamestown(1611) and subsequently continued his explorations mapping New England, which he named along with Plymouth. He hoped to form a colony in the region and as was customary attempt trade with the local Native Americans. Smith charged Captain Thomas Hunt with the duty of establishing a plantation and connecting with the tribes. It was later discovered that Hunt wanted no part of a peaceful coexistence with the Wampanoag. He invited some 24 Nauset and Patuxet Indians onto his ship and took them prisoner (1614). Hunt attempted to sell them as slaves in Spain. Hunt began selling some of the Indians in Malaga, Spain but his plan was foiled by a number of local monks who seized the rest introducing them to the Christian faith.
Things would turn worse for some of the local tribes. Outraged by the kidnapping violence broke out between the tribes and the English and French explorers. The troubles of the small tribes would be multiplied even more when tragically two devastating plagues swept through the region resulting in the extinction of the Patuxet (1618-1619). (Another source places the date of the plagues earlier in the decade.) Back in Spain one Patuxet however did survive – Tisquantum or Squanto.
Squanto, which is the Anglicized version of Tisquantum, had a long and circuitous trip back to his native village. He found his way to London where he learns English and becomes employed as an “expert” and interpreter on North American natural resources. He finally sets off for home (1619) with Captain Dermer with the New England Company who is charged with making peace and activating trade with the Patuxet and Nauset tribes. Peace however would not be necessary for the tribes were wiped out by the recent plagues.
Squanto finally arrives home – though only his brother Quandequina survived. Quadequina and Massasoit were the heads of the Wampanoag Confederation and with whom Squanto would live (1619). The stage was now set for Squanto’s most memorable contribution.
The Mayflower had successfully set sail from England after some departing delays (September 6, 1620). Its sister ship, the Speedwell, was apparently sabotaged while in England and stayed behind leaving the Mayflower alone to make the ocean crossing with 109 passengers. The treachery was perhaps unsurprising to the fleeing Pilgrims whom avoided numerous threats, harassments, imprisonments and worse during their flight fromEngland toHolland.
The Pilgrims were suitably named by the second governor of the New England Plymouth colony William Bradford (1621). Taken from Hebrews 11:13–16, they were like the people of the Old Testament who were “strangers and pilgrims” but longed for a better, heavenly (perhaps persecution free) country. Disagreeing with the state run English church would be enough to ensure an unwelcomed status. Such dissention brought fines, imprisonment or death. The group of Christians, known as the Separatists and later Pilgrims while in England were lead by William Brewster, John Smyth, Richard Clyfton, and Thomas Helwys.
What is it that got them into such trouble? One notable disagreement concerned baptism. The Separatists held that only confessing Christians should be baptized and strongly disagreed with infant baptism. They taught “believer’s baptism” by immersion which is pictorially symbolic of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The new life was thus voluntarily the product of a personal confession of faith and expressed corporately in the baptism ritual. Smyth is considered the cofounder of the Baptist Church with Thomas Helwys.
Because of persecution in England, Helwys, Smyth, Brewster and the others flee toAmsterdam and soon after Leiden in South Holland(1607/08). While the group practiced their beliefs free from harassment they became worried about the influence liberal Dutch practices might have on the displaced congregation. Further complicating life, some had troubles picking up the language and employment. By 1617 a critical decision was made to leave the Netherlands but the new destination remained uncertain for a time. New England seemed to hold the promise of a new life where the congregation might worship in peace and make a living. The idea was especially attractive since an English colony was established some years before in Virginia.
After much difficulty and negotiations with the Virginia Company two ships are retained for transport The Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Speedwell leaves the Netherlands for England with members from the Amsterdam and Leiden congregations- some older members are left behind fearing the difficulty of the crossing. They would follow later. To ensure success of the voyage and the colony, the Pilgrim leaders also employ “strangers” including craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants. Of the >100 passengers only 41 were Pilgrims. It is the larger ship, the Mayflower, that makes the crossing with the congregation to arrive in New England (November 9,1620).
Trouble seemed to follow the Pilgrims and company for upon arrival they failed to land in the Virginia territory. Difficult weather and sailing conditions forced them into the Cape Code area. Further complicating their plans the strangers insist that they had no contractual obligations since they were outside of the Virginia Company jurisdiction. A near mutiny by the strangers was averted when a contract was written up that would establish a new rule of law in the colony.
The Mayflower Compact (signed November 11, 1620) was written probably by William Bradford which allowed voting rights to 41 adult male passengers. The format followed the same used by the Separatists in establishing church government which outlined how to worship God and congregational interaction. It would be church self governance that formed the basis of democratic political self governance in the New World setting a pattern in American thought. John Carver is chosen to lead as the first Governor.
With a satisfactory arrangement among the strangers and Pilgrims secured, a number of exploration parties are dispatched to survey the costal areas. Some hostile encounters with the Nauset Tribe follow with no losses. Eventually they settle in the abandoned Patuxet region earlier named Plymouth by John Smith. They land on Plymouth Rock (December 11, 1620).
In the months to follow the Pilgrims build a small English style village with storehouses and living quarters. The harsh winter brings sickness which devastates the colony. The following year (1621) only 53 Pilgrims and strangers survive. With the help of the local Wamponogue a bountiful harvest is produced. Squanto played a large role in translating and serving an intermediary role between the two peoples. That autumn the Pilgrims decide to celebrate the harvest and invite their new friends.
Captain Miles Standish, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate families to join them for a celebration. About 90 men unexpectedly show up. Recognizing the lack of provisions for all, Massasoit orders his people to bring more food. Edward Winslow writes the nearest account of the harvest and celebration about a month afterwards (December 21, 1621).
Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
The list of foods at the gathering was likely much greater than those reported by Winslow. According to one source they likely also had “clams, mussels, lobster, eel, ground nuts, acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, squashes, and beans. Fruits and berries such as strawberries, raspberries, grapes, and gooseberries were available growing wild. Pilgrim house-gardens may have included a number of English vegetables and herbs, perhaps things like onions, leeks, sorrel, yarrow, lettuce, carrots, radishes, currants, liverwort, watercress, and others.”
The kinds of prayers offered during the three day celebration are uncertain but what is certain is that the Pilgrims were grateful for surviving the many severe trials and hardships. At the harvest celebration in 1623, the words of William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth, were recorded:
Governor William Bradford’s Thanksgiving Proclamation
In as much as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
William Bradford–Ye Governor of Ye Colony
Official date setting for Thanksgiving has something of a history but Roosevelt in 1939 moved the holiday to the second Thursday (from the last Thursday) in November in an effort to boost Christmas retail sales during the Great Depression. The plan was strongly opposed leading to a bill which he signed (1941) setting the date back to the historic last Thursday of November.
How should Thanksgiving Day be celebrated?
Each will keep it in their way but perhaps as believers connecting with the history of the first Thanksgiving some fresh lessons become available.
Hardship should not surprise us in life. As the Pilgrims before us and many believers before them both natural and man made difficulties abound. Should these trials and troubles overwhelm and negate the blessings we otherwise enjoy and all the more us who live in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world? However humble and seemingly insurmountable your circumstances, is it possible that your hardships will lay a foundation of blessing for thousands or even millions to follow? Christ has given us a purpose in life – to worship and serve. Among other things, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag provide a reminder of faithful service in the midst of adversity and thanksgiving and praise in the midst of blessing.
It is fine to enjoy the fowl, friends and family but take a moment to remember your faith.
We included in our time together a reading from Psalm 100 which was found in some of the surviving Pilgrims writings.
A psalm. For giving thanks.
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
NEST hopes that you too are blessed this Thanksgiving season.
Bill Marder, Indians in the Americas: the Untold Story