Before going to Plymouth, the Mayflower group lived 11 years in the Dutch city of Leiden where they had fled to escape violent and endless religious and political wars. This affected their outlook on life in interesting ways. When the Pilgrims left England in 1607-08 they were not known as Pilgrims, but rather as "Separatists" who were out of step with both the Church of England and with the Calvinist "Puritans" who were trying to "purify" the Church of England of popeish influences.
These British Pilgrims sharply advocated church-state separation unlike British Puritans who wanted to turn Massachusetts into a theocracy. The Pilgrims also believed the heresy that women should be allowed to speak in church. They were far more tolerant of other faiths and open to the idea that their theology, like all human dogma, might contain errors. They did not burn witches. The influence of the Pilgrims on the future United States has been great. No fewer than seven American Presidents are direct descendants of the Leiden Pilgrims.
Eventually political tides turned in Leiden, inhabitants of the city became less tolerant of dissidents and reformers so persecution of the refugees returned which encouraged both the Pilgrims and the Puritans living in this adopted home to take their chances in the New World and so in 1620, The Mayflower sailed.
The Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 after having lost 46 members of their group the previous winter to starvation, cold and disease. Ninety-one native Americans participated in this Thanksgiving celebration with the Pilgrim settlers. I will tell the story of one of these natives down page. The menu included fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums and wild fowl. The celebration was not repeated for many years.
The reasons for this Pilgrim Thanksgiving were nearly identical to an Oct. 3 Dutch Protestant "thanksgiving." October the 3rd was the start of three days of sermons, games, militia exercises, and feasting which celebrated the end of the 1574 Spanish Catholic siege of Leiden, during which half the city starved. Thanksgiving there was a time to celebrate relief from certain starvation, political and religious persecution. In this picture, Leiden mayor Van der Werff is seen as offering his own body as food in an attempt to prevent the people from surrendering to the Spanish after the seige had gone on for nearly a year. The Spanish had tried to lure the citizens into surrender with promises, but the people of Leiden toughed it out. The Mayor offering the meat of his own body must have been a persuasive exhortation to resist. Finally, the Dutch army, led by William of Orange, deliberately flooded the fields around Leiden by breaking the dikes to force the Spanish armies to leave. The Spanish were literally washed away, and the siege ended on October 3, 1574. The Dutch army entered the city with food, bread with cheese and herring. The date on which the siege ended, the third of October (Leidens Ontzet or Leiden's Deliverance), is to this modern day celebrated every year with large scale festivities, and.... with bread and herring. As a reward for the Leideners' courage in resisting the Spanish, they were given a choice by their liberator, Willliam of Orange, of exemption from taxes or a University! Imagine a people who would choose a University over NO TAXES!! It is traditionally said that the citizens believed that a tax law could be rescinded, whereas the great universities of Europe had survived for many centuries.
Now back in the New World - how are the theocratic Puritans getting along? They declared Thankgiving, June 29, 1676, fifty five years after the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving, the Puritan governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts declared an official Thanksgiving Day of Thanksgiving. One cannot help but notice that one half century after the Pilgrims had been saved from certain death by the natives, the theocratic Puritans are now thanking God when their "Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed". The Puritans punished all who are not Puritans. The natives had been given reason, as we shall soon see, to exchange feelings of hospitality for hostility have begun taking an eye for an eye. As we all know, this conflict did not end well for the natives or Episcopalians, Quakers, and "Others" in the neighborhood. Non Puritans began to lose life, liberty, limbs, and ears.
I shall now tell the story of one Amerian Native of the era. I think the most important and certainly the most interesting man at the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving was a Wampanoag named Squanto. His life story is a fantastic one, nearly unbelievable and mythic and nothing like I learned in school.
When Squanto, discovered the Pilgrims in 1620-21, they were in dire straits. Their English crops of wheat and barley had failed. They had lost nearly half their members to disease and starvation. Imagine the Pilgrim's surprise when out from the forest came a man "stark naked, only a leather about his waist, with a fringe about a span long, or little more; he had a bow and two arrows, the one headed, and the other unheaded. He was a tall straight man, the hair of his head black, long behind, only short before, none on his face at all..." who spoke broken English. This was Samoset, of the Nausets. Samoset quickly returned with Squanto who spoke excellent English.
These were not "friendly Indians." Squanto was quite experienced in British ways. He had been kidnapped twice and sold into slavery by them. He spoke perfect English having lived the English life for 16 years. He probably spoke some Spanish as well, having learned it during captivity in Spain. The rest of the local natives had experienced trading furs and corn with Europeans, not to mention that European slave traders had been raiding their villages for at least hundred years. They were wary, never knowing which kind of European they were facing -- but it was their custom to give freely to those who had nothing and hold potlaches. It was believed that by giving there would be enough for all -- the exact opposite of the system we live in now. Potlatching was made illegal in Canada in 1885 and the United States in the late nineteenth century, largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it "a worse than useless custom" that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to "civilized" values.
It is all the more astonishing to me that Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive that winter when you consider that they were building their settlement on the ruins of his own people's settlement and their bones at Patuxet. Squanto, it turns out was a pragmatist and a survivor of many horrors. I think he tried to live in a dual world which was quite impossible in the end. I think that one of the main themes running through all Thanksgivings is "survival." Sometimes it is for "my survival at all costs" and sometimes it is for "thank God we all survived."
Imagine when you were 14 years old you were lured aboard a ship and then carried off to England where you were delivered to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, commander of the fort at Plymouth on the coast of England. How would that shape your future thoughts? Imagine the fear, the homesickness, the strangeness of Plymouth. Sir Gorges had a substantial stake in the Plymouth Company which in the First Virginia charter of 1606, was granted the southern part of Maine. Sir Gorges had a financial interest in extracting all the wealth he could from the territory and needed a guide, a man with intimate knowledge of the territory. Fourteen year old Squanto was that "man."
"We gave them a can of peas and bread, which they carried to the shore to eat. But one of them brought back our can presently and staid aboard with the other two; for he being young, of a ready capacity, and one we most desired to bring with us into England, had received exceeding kind usage at our hands, and was therefore much delighted in our company." Captain Weymouth
In 1614 (this is 6 years before the Pilgrims set sail for the New World) Gorges sent two ships, one commanded by Captain John Smith and the other by Captain Thomas Hunt, to the New World to prepare to start a plantation in New England and to trade with the Indians who were natives of the region. Squanto went along as an interpreter. It was agreed Squanto would help Smith for a short time, and then he would be permitted to return to his village. Squanto traveled with Smith as his interpreter. Finally, when Captain Smith was ready to return home, he gave Squanto permission to travel back to his village.
On his way back to his village, Squanto ran into Captain Thomas Hunt and his ship. Captain Hunt tricked Squanto to board his ship. Hunt was an especially evil man. He had planned to sell natives as slaves in Malaga, Spain. Squanto was imprisoned along with 27 other young Indians. This evil event triggered a series of revenges by both the natives and the English upon each other causing many needless deaths.
Once again Squanto crossed the ocean but this time in worse quarters than before. Conditions on these ships were dismal for everyone, but especially for slaves. Rats scampered across the damp hold where the Indians were chained. Scarce provisions, a stormy trip, and continual seasickness took their toll. Many slaves died and were buried at sea. One could imagine hatred building in Squanto's heart for the white man, but that did not happen. He was more interested in surviving this ordeal.
On arrival in the Spanish slave port of Malaga, all the natives were sold. Several reputable sources assert that nothing is known about his life in Malaga except that after two years he escaped and was able to find passage back to England. They point out that Squanto's ability to speak English probably gained him sympathy with English sailors who brought him back to England.
William Bradford who was governor of Plymouth while Squanto was there describes the events as follows:
He was carried away with divers others by one Hunt, a master of a ship, who thought to sell them for slaves in Spain. But he got away for England and was entertained by a merchant in London, and employed to Newfoundland and other parts, and lastly brought hither into these parts by one Mr. Dermer, a gentleman employed by Sir Ferdinando Gorges and others for discovery and other designs in these parts.
Some Internet sources maintain that Squanto was fortunate enough to have been purchased by a group of Spanish Franciscan friars in Malaga. The friars offered Squanto his freedom. Some historians contend that he converted to Christianity at that time, because the Friars treated him with care and respect. Those sources assert that after a period of time, the Franciscans helped him to board a ship back to England. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who knew Squanto very well as Squanto had lived in his house. Sir Gorges asserts:
Some local Friars, however, discovered what was happening and took the remaining Indians from Hunt in order to instruct them in the Christian faith, thus "disappointing this unworthy fellow of the hopes of gain he conceived to make by this new & devilish project".
To the Pilgrims, and most English and European peoples, the Wampanoags were savages, and of the Devil. They saw Squanto not as an equal but as an instrument of their God to help his chosen people, themselves.
Once Squanto returned to England, he stayed in the home of John Slany, treasurer of the Newfoundland Company. So Squanto was sent sailing again, this time for the New Foundland colony of Cuper's Cove. The year was 1618. Two years before the Pilgrims arrived in The New World.
By the time Squanto landed in New Foundland, Cuper's Cove had been in existence for 8 years. During that time the colonists had learned to survive the harsher climate conditions of the Atlantic cost line of North America. They used the abundant fish of the north Atlantis to fertilize their crops. Squanto later taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their crops the same way. One could ask, who taught the colonists these methods at Cuper's Cove?
In 1618 Squanto accompanied Dermer back to England to ask Sir Gorges permission to return home. This was Squanto's fifth crossing of the Atlantic. Sir Ferdinando Gorges wanted to use Squanto to help make peace with the Indians of the Coast in New England so it would be useful to return Squanto home. Captain Hunt's evil slaving had really made a mess of things:
Notwithstanding these disasters, it pleased God so to work for our encouragement again, as he sent into our hands Tasquantum [Squanto], one of those savages that formerly had been betrayed by this unworthy Hunt....There was hope conceived to work a peace between us, and his friends, they being the principal inhabitant of that coast....But this savage Tasquantum, being at that time in the New-found land with Captain Mason governour there...Master Darmer (who was there also, and sometimes before employed...by us) found the means to give us intelligence of him, and his opinion of the good use that might be made of his employment....
Squanto again worked for Gorges and Dermer by traveling along the coast with Dermer. May 1619 they arrived at Patuxet, Squanto's home, which had once had a population of 2,000 people. They found it was deserted with skeletons everywhere. One can only imagine the shock and horror that Squanto experienced upon his arrival, sixteen years after having been stolen from his beloved home. Imagine discovering that your family and everyone else you had known and loved were dead. Patuxet was in ruins. Clouds of black anger and hatred surely would have built in his heart and he would take revenge, but this did not happen. I think Squanto thought pragmatically, it was better to hang onto life, make the best of it even during long periods of adversity, than to die.
Two Wampanoag leaders, Massasoit and Quadequina told Squanto that a plague had killed all the people of Patuxet. Not only had Squanto's village been destroyed, but the plague (most likely small pox) had swept across the lands of the Massachuset and the Pokanoket Wampanoag, destroying whole communities, and reducing those surviving to ten to thirty per cent of the original population.
Thomas Dermer returned to Wampanoag Country in the summer of 1620 with Squanto and an Abenaki leader from Pemaquid (Maine) named Samoset. This is the Samoset who first walked into the Pilgrim settlement. Later in summer the people of Pokanoket and Namasket took Dermer prisoner. Squanto spoke on Dermer's behalf so he was set free. Captain Dermer later wrote that he would have been killed at Namasket without Squanto's intervention. He added,
"their desire for revenge was occasioned by an Englishman, who having many of them on board made great slaughter of them when they offered no injury on their parts."Squanto and Dermer then traveled to Martha's Vineyard, an island south of Cape Cod Bay. Near Capawack they met Epenow, a native who had been previously captured with Squanto by Captains Hunt and Smith. Epenow knew Dermer worked for the same Sir Ferinando Gorges who had kept him a prisoner until 1614, so it was reasonable he feared Dermer might have come to take him prisoner again. As a result, Epenow and his men attacked. Captain Dermer was wounded and several of his men were killed. Captain Dermer, although he was able to escape to Virginia, later died of his wounds.
Epenow held Squanto and Samoset prisoners because he did not trust them as he considered them traitorous traveling companions of Demer. Epenow turned his prisoners over to Massasoit. Squanto charmed Massasoit by fires at night telling him stories of his time in England and his travels. Then he tried to convince Massasoit that making peace with the English would be in his best interest. Since they had been weakened by the plague, Massasoit's people could not defend themselves against the Narragansetts, and they were now under the control of Narragansett leader Canonicus. Squanto told him that the Englishmen had powerful weapons. He also told them the lie that the Pilgrims kept the plague in a box and would open it if they were attacked, surely this must have seemed true enough after what had happened. If Massasoit and his allies decided to make peace with the Englishmen, they could use them as allies against the Narragansetts who were influenced by the French in the Canadian territories. In return, they would offer the Englishmen help if they had any enemies. He convinced Massasoit that by helping the English, Massasoit's people could be strong again, and not forced to be subservient to their Narragansett enemies. There was relative peace between the Pilgrims and the Massasoit's people for a number of years as a result of the treaties brokered by Squanto.
The Pilgrims first encounter with American Natives -
It was not the Wampanoa natives whom the Pilgrims first met but the Nauset. The Nausets observed from a distance, the Mayflower near land on November 9, 1620. While the Mayflower remained off Cape Cod, the Pilgrims went ashore near Namskeket.
The Nauset were alarmed when they saw armed men come ashore and search the area. The Nauset saw them take corn and other items that had been stored there. On December 6, ten of the Pilgrim men landed on the coast in a small boat, and set up camp. Finally, the Nauset, remembering the men (Samoset being one of them) who had been captured and taken away six years before, attempted to drive them away. They attacked and shot arrows at the Pilgrims in their camp, but left when the Pilgrims shot back with their guns.
The Pilgrims described this event that occurred on December 8, 1620 as follows:
"About midnight we heard a great and hideous cry, and our Sentinel called out 'Arm, Arm'. So we bestirred ourselves and shot off a couple of Muskets and noise ceased; we concluded that it was a company of Wolves or Foxes for one told us he had heard such a noise in New-found-land. About five a clock in the morning we began to be stirring. ..one of our company being abroad came running in and cried, 'They are men, Indians, Indians'; and withal their arrows came flying amongst us, our men ran out with all speed to recover their arms. .. "There was a lusty man and no whit less valiant, who was thought to be their Captain, stood behind a tree within half a musket shot of us, and there let his arrows fly at us. .... He stood three shots of a musket. At length one took as he said full aim at him he gave an extraordinary cry, and away they went all."
In Mourt's Relation, there is a description of a later meeting with an elderly native woman, Squanto now on the scene, serving as the interpreter and peace maker:
"One thing was very grievous unto us at this place; there was an old woman, whom we judged to be no less than a hundred years old, which came to see us because she never saw English, yet could not behold us without breaking forth into great passion, weeping and crying excessively. We demanding the reason of it, they told us she had three sons who, when Master Hunt was in these parts, went aboard his ship to trade with him, and he carried them captives into Spain (for Squanto at this time was carried away also) by which means she was deprived of the comfort of her children in her old age. We told them we were sorry that any Englishman should give them that offense, that Hunt was a bad man, and that all the English that heard of it condemned him for the same: but for us, we would not offer them any such injury though it would gain us all the skins in the country. So we gave her some small trifles, which somewhat appeased her."
The Pilgrims apologized, paid back the Nauset for the corn they had taken, and exchanged gifts. Then Aspinet and the Pilgrims made peace with one another.
In October of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with feasting and games, as was the custom in Leiden. Samoset, Squanto, and Massasoit and 87 other natives were in attendance. Since that initial sharing, Native American food has spread around the world. Nearly 70 percent of all crops grown today were originally cultivated by Native American peoples. What did the Europeans give in return? Within 20 years European disease and treachery decimated the Wampanoags. As discussed earlier, even before the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, eighty percent of the native population had already been decimated by plagues. The original Pilgrims attempted to maintain peace and be fair with the natives, however other Englishmen had evil in their hearts.
One Hundred Years Later -
In October of 1777 all 13 colonies joined in a Thanksgiving celebration. It commemorated the American victory over the British at Saratoga. This battle was a turning point in the colonists war against the British and proved that George Washington's men could defeat them. Not long after France, Spain and Holland all took notes and declared war on Britain as well. What had been a "rebellion" became a World War, the economic strain of which the British Empire could not sustain. This Thanksgiving was a celebration of victory in war, one of the same reasons, the city of Leiden gave thanks .
both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
Several other efforts were made at creating the holiday "Thanksgiving" by national, state and local governments. Finally, the author of "Mary Had A Little Lamb," Sarah Josepha Hale, credited as the individual most responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday persuaded Lincoln to proclaim "Thanksgiving" as a national holiday. The new holiday was considered a unifying day after the discord of the American Civil War. This Thanksgiving Proclamation was one of unity, repentance, forgiveness, and peace.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union. In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth." Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863
Today, even though most of us left the farm a generation or two ago, I think we regard Thanksgiving as a fall harvest festival when we celebrate the space between the end of the harvest and the beginning of a long cold winter by tasting a bit of everything we have put away to get through the coming cold dreary days. We are thankful for this bounty. Looking back through the mists of time we can see that there are many reasons for being thankful, relief from hunger, relief from persecution both religious and economic, for abundance, for freedom to enjoy one's life peacefully, for hospitality and conviviality.
In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The good people must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil. Where is the good person who will destroy the heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thanksgiving, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how all of our ancestors, who ever and where ever they may have been, survived evil through their ability to share and give. If we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then good will have crushed evil.