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Forgotten Thanksgiving Facts

By Rob and Cyndy Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #26, 1998.

Squanto, the world traveler, and other little-known facts about Thanksgiving.
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Rob and Cyndy Shearer

Did You Know . . .

  • The first words spoken to the Pilgrims by the first Indian they met were, "Welcome Englishmen. Me Squanto. Me want beer." They gave him some brandy, cheese, crackers, and a bit of roast duck.

  • Squanto was probably more widely traveled than most (if not all of the Pilgrims) having been to London and Spain and having sailed on one voyage of exploration with Captain John Smith (of Jamestown fame.)

  • Over half the Pilgrims (and 14 out of the 18 wives) died during the first winter.

  • Captain John Smith offered to serve as military commander for the Pilgrims - but they had already signed a contract with an English soldier of fortune in Holland named Miles Standish.

  • The Dutch were supportive of the Pilgrims and tried to win their allegiance by offering them free passage, free land, and a cow for each family if they would settle on the island of Manhattan and help to settle New Amsterdam. The Pilgrims rejected the offer and paid for their own passage, so that they could remain English citizens.

  • The Pilgrims' original destination was Virginia. But their captain was making his first crossing of the Atlantic. They sailed late in the season and were delayed twice by the need for repairs in the Mayflower's smaller companion, the Speedwell. When they reached the coast of New England, the seas and winds proved too treacherous to continue the journey south to Virginia. Providence had re-directed them to Massachusetts Bay.

The textbook and even non-textbook accounts of Thanksgiving have become rotten with political correctness. A quote from just one or two will illustrate:

"In celebration of this plenty, plans were made to hold a Harvest Festival. This feast, that we have come to call "Thanksgiving," would also celebrate the help the Indians had given the Pilgrims."
- N.C. Wyeth's Pilgrims,
text by Robert San Souci

In another book, The Timetables of American History, the only entry in the index for "Thanksgiving" refers to 1789, when, according to the book, "Thanksgiving" was first celebrated as a national holiday. No entry is recorded for the original event.

But even when these inaccuracies are set right, the story is seldom told with the drama and detail that it deserves.

Who were the Pilgrims? Most people get them confused with the Puritans. Their names provide a clue as to the essential differences, however. The Pilgrims were separatists who had given up trying to reform the established Church of England and withdrew to form their own, illegal assemblies. The Puritans remained within the church and strove valiantly to complete the task of reforming it and "purifying" it from the vestiges of Roman Catholicism.

England in the early 1600's knew nothing of religious toleration. All Englishmen were, by birth, members of the Church of England and subject to its discipline. It was a crime not to attend services regularly. The Pilgrims' separate assemblies were spied upon, their meetings forbidden, and their leaders often arrested for illegally preaching. It was this persecution that drove the separatist congregation of the little English village of Scrooby to decide to leave England. Their attempt to separate from the church of England had caused them endless heartache. They decided they had no choice but to leave England altogether. In 1608, 100 people (the majority of the inhabitants of Scrooby) sold their houses and most of their possessions and began the long walk to the coast of England. There they boarded a Dutch ship and emigrated to Holland.

Holland offered the Pilgrims toleration and religious freedom. They were allowed to organize their own congregation and conduct services as they wished. Finding work and housing proved to be relatively easy. But as the years passed, the Scrooby Pilgrims began to be absorbed into Dutch culture. This distressed them. They were also concerned about the uneasy peace between the Dutch and the Spaniards who had ruled the Netherlands for over a century. A temporary truce was due to expire shortly, and it looked as though warfare between Spain's Catholic troops and the rebellious Dutch provinces might break out again. And so, after 12 years in Holland, the Pilgrims made plans to emigrate a second time.

The Pilgrims (or Separatists as they were more widely known) had some important sympathizers in England. Their friends and supporters arranged for them to receive financial backing, a grant of land from the King, and a guarantee that their religious practices would be undisturbed.

The land grant specified that they were to establish a colony somewhere in the territory of Virginia. The circumstances of their diversion to New England have already been described. It was providential in several ways, though the harsher climate made life more difficult at first - especially during the first few winters. But the shore off which the Mayflower providentially anchored was deserted. It had been the home of the Patuxent Indians, but several years before the entire tribe had been wiped out by the plague. The Pilgrims found the remains of the Indians' fields and villages and many bushels of their seed corn, buried for safe-keeping in hand-woven baskets. The abandoned settlement was a mystery, but it was providential. The Pilgrims were able to settle an uninhabited parcel and were accepted by neighboring tribes as a tolerable replacement for the Patuxents. The chief of the nearest tribe, Massasoit, signed a treaty of friendship with the Pilgrims which was honored for 50 years.

Another providential provision for the Pilgrims was the friendship of Squanto, the "tongue of the English." Squanto had learned English from captains in the English fishing fleet and had journeyed to London with one of the captains in 1605. After nine years in England, he sailed back to America on an expedition with Captain John Smith in 1614 but after only a short time was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Spain by a black-hearted English captain. He was given his freedom by two monks who bought him at an auction and helped him to return to England. In 1619, he sailed for Massachusetts once again, only to find that all of his people had perished. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, he was living with the tribe of Massasoit. He and another brave, Samoset, both spoke enough English to be able to communicate with the Pilgrims and helped them take advantage of their first spring, summer, and fall planting seasons.

The Pilgrims desperately needed help. The first winter almost finished them off. Less than a month after the Mayflower reached Massachusetts, while William Bradford was leading an exploration party searching for a permanent settlement site, his wife drowned. Miles Standish's wife Rose died of pneumonia the first winter. 14 of the 18 Pilgrim wives died. In all, over half the community perished. Those who survived persevered. Standish and several others proved their mettle by carefully tending to the sick and nursing them back to help.

Initially the Pilgrims farmed communally with each family receiving an equal share of the harvest. This provoked grumbling and a general lack of enthusiasm, since those who worked more diligently received little reward for their efforts. By the second winter the Pilgrims had abandoned the communal arrangement and each family worked their own plot and harvested their own crops. Productivity soared. Those who were less diligent had the spur of hunger and poverty to encourage them to work a bit harder.

By 1630, while the political and religious situation worsened in England, Puritan leaders John Endicott and John Winthrop had established colonies at Salem and at Boston. Bradford and the Pilgrims were eclipsed by the large numbers of Puritans who took part in the Great Migration and populated the Massachusetts Bay Colony - with, which all its faults, was the first self-conscious attempt by Christians to create their own government based exclusively on God's Laws in the Bible. This form of government began with the Mayflower Compact, created and signed while the Pilgrims were still on their way to America.

That is why the first Thanksgiving was not a festival of thanks to the Indians (although the settlers were grateful for their help). It was a festival of thanks to God.

October 2006 Update from Casey Runyan This page contains a historical inaccuracy . . .

"The first words spoken to the Pilgrims by the first Indian they met were, "Welcome Englishmen. Me Squanto. Me want beer." They gave him some brandy, cheese, crackers, and a bit of roast duck."

While there is some truth in this statement, all historical records state that Squanto spoke excellent English, as a result of having been kidnapped and forced into slavery. The phrasing of "Me Squanto. Me want beer," teaches children that he was barely literate, and implies he was a drunk. There is only one published account, from 1975, that tells the beer story, so it is far from a widely acknowledged truth.

An online reference to Squanto's excellent English can be found here:

Additionally, academic articles by Lynn Ceci and Charles C. Mann can further substantiate this information. The Mann article has excellent information about the Native Americans and their earliest interactions with the Pilgrims.

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