This month we remember the first Thanksgiving, celebrated by the English Pilgrims and their Native American Indian neighbors. In our celebration, we should remember the man who made that first feast of Thanksgiving possible. He was a Pawtuxet Indian and a convert to Catholicism named Squanto, and this is his story and the story of the foreign immigrants to his land that he saved from death and generously helped them build new lives in the land of his ancestors.

We often think that those brave people who came across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower to settle in the "New World" as old men and women. This assumption was not true. William Brewster, oldest of all the Pilgrims and "the others" was under 55. Most of the adults were in their 20s and 30s. About a third of all passengers on the Mayflower were children. There were no birth certificates, so it is difficult to know exact ages. Our best attempt is to guess using as clues everything written about the Pilgrims from their diaries and letters to the accounts their descendants wrote and the memoirs written years later by pilgrim William Bradford. We know from those journals that 27 boys and girls lived through the first year (only 9 children died). We also know that most of their mothers died and only 4 adult women survived. In total, only 45 out of the 102 who began the journey were left alive after the first winter in the new land, and the majority of the survivors were children under 16 years old.

The English Pilgrims had left their native land of England because they were not free to practice their form of Protestant religion without persecution. They had been living peacefully in Holland, but they were concerned that their children were intermarrying with the Dutch, and eventually the Pilgrim families would lose their English identity. They decided to immigrate to North American and found a colony where they would be free to live and practice their English Protestant religion.

An English businessman named Thomas Weston and his investors put up the money to finance the expedition to North America. The agreement every adult colonist had to sign set very hard terms:

Weston's terms were so harsh that very few Pilgrims signed up; therefore, to increase the number of colonists, Weston opened the colony to anyone who would agree to his terms.

The Pilgrims left Leyden, Holland in a ship named the Speedwell, an older ship in poor condition that they had purchased. The plan was to use the Speedwell for fishing the waters off the coast of North America after the company ship, called the Mayflower, returned to England. 50 Pilgrim men, women and children had assembled on the dock to make the voyage from Holland to England on the Speedwell. At the dock in Holland, their pastor, John Robinson, who was staying behind with the majority of their congregation, prayed for their protection on the journey. In his prayer, he asked God to guide and protect these "pilgrims of faith," and that is how they came to call themselves "Pilgrims."

When the Speedwell reached Southampton, England, the Mayflower (the company hired ship) was ready and waiting. Mayflower was a large freighter of 180 tons which had been used to transport wine from Europe to England for many years. At Southampton, the Pilgrims had the opportunity to meet the "strangers" recruited by Weston and the other investors. Some of the "strangers" they liked immediately and saw as an asset to the expedition of Pilgrims that included 9 or 10 families and single men. But other "strangers" the Pilgrims saw as a cause for concern. Some of the recruits, like the Billingtons and their two wildly unruly boys, caused nothing but trouble.

Both ships had to be well stocked with food not only for the trip across the ocean but for the entire first year in America since they would arrive too late to plant a crop in 1620. They planned to live on a diet of hardtack (a kind of bread/hard cracker), butter and salt-horse. Some of the families were able to add a few luxuries like dried fruits, sugar, and lemons. Keeping fresh water was a problem. Water, they were told, would soon become stagnant on a long sea voyage, so they carried barrels of beer. Beer was a common drink of the day (neither tea nor coffee had been introduced into England yet).

To look after the hundreds of barrels and casks of stored food and drink on the Mayflower, a "cooper" or barrel maker was hired. They found a pleasant young man named John Alden who said he would like the change to see the New World. Then, to take charge of any military defenses, they hired a professional soldier. He was a short, powerfully built, fearless red-haired man named Miles Standish. Miles and his wife Rose wanted to make new lives for themselves in the "New World."

The Pilgrims had to pack hundreds of items: kettles, skillets, bellows, bottles, cups, trenchers (wooden platters), bowls, tubs, bedding and linen, and special items for the babies. They also needed axes, hammers, hatchets, grindstones, anvils, lines and hooks for fishing, weapons and armor, seed to plant a crop, and enough clothes to last them for several years. Most paintings and pictures depict the Pilgrims wearing black clothing accented with white collars. This depiction is inaccurate. The Pilgrims chose clothing in rich, deep reds, wines, russets, brows and of course grey. No permanent black chemical dyes existed at this time, and so black was worn by the wealthy since as soon as a black garment was washed the deep black color washed out to leave a dull grey garment. Most of the people couldn't resist cheerful and elegant pieces of clothing. William Brewster, one of the leaders of the community, had his red velvet cape with black lace, Miles Standish had his short scarlet cloak, and another man wore a much-admired emerald green vest and waistcoat.

Spirits were high but so were anxieties as the two ships set out on a fine July day. It was considered a bad omen that almost immediately the Speedwell began to leak. They had to turn back and repair the damage. Again they set out. They had only gone about 300 miles when the Speedwell began to take on water again. The expert they hired recommended improvements to the Speedwell that would take months of repair work. The good summer weather was slipping away. Even if they got started immediately, they would not reach the New World before the winter storms set in. They did not dare to wait any longer, so the difficult decision was made to sell the Speedwell and to use the money for more supplies.

The Mayflower could not carry all the passengers from both ships, and there wasn't enough money left to charter another ship. A few families said they would be glad to stay behind, and a few more passengers who were weak or sick and families who had very small children were also asked to stay behind. All the rest of the men, women, children, and supplies were moved on to the Mayflower. With the addition of the other passengers, the Mayflower now carried 102 passengers (50 of them were Pilgrims).

Passengers occupied every available space aboard the Mayflower. The women and children had the few available passenger bunks in the one guest cabin. All the rest camped out as best they could. Some slept between decks and some boys and young men curled up in the bottom of the fishing boat stowed on the gun deck. The Mayflower was well armed. She carried large guns called minions which could shoot cannon balls at any attacking pirate ships. She also had smaller guns called sakers as well as a supply of muskets and cutlasses.

It was a rough crossing. One storm after another pounded the little ship. There was no heat, no toilet, and no bathroom. There was only one bucket for washing and another to use as a toilet. The children could not go up on deck because the sea was too rough. Mrs. Hopkins added to the number of children by having a baby. They named him Oceanus Hopkins. A second baby would arrive the night they dropped anchor off Cape Cod, a baby boy that was named Peregrine White. The brave passengers survived the trip with only one death: a young servant of the doctor. The crossing took 67 days and covered 3,000 miles at an average speed of 2 miles an hour. A storm blew them off course, and they arrived off the coast of New England instead of Virginia. The Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod on 7th or 9th of November, 1620. The passengers decided that their arrival in New England was providential and that settling on land not owned by the West Virginia Company would give them more control over their colony. Before leaving the ship, they drew up a document outlining the rules for governing the colony. This document is known as the Mayflower Compact.

The Pilgrim community was completely unprepared for the harsh New England winter. They found an abandoned Indian village and discovered kettles of dried corn the former occupants had buried. They settled into the abandoned Indian village and named their colony Plymouth after the port in England where they began their journey. They quickly erected wooden houses and tried to lay in a supply of food. More than half the community died that first winter. More children were left alive than adults in the early spring. The majority of children either lost one parent or were left orphans.

In March, an Indian named Squanto discovered the starving Pilgrims living on land that had once belonged to his tribe. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet Tribe. He was captured with several other Indian boys by the English at about age 10 and taken back to England where he learned English. The Indian boys were used by the English as interpreters to facilitate trade with Native Americans who inhabited coastal villages.

When Squanto was in his late teens or earth 20s, he was sailing as the interpreter on a ship captained by the hero of the Jamestown Colony, a man named Captain John Smith. When the ship anchored off the shore from Squanto's home, Captain John Smith allowed him to return to his village. About a year later, in attempting to initiate trade with an English ship, Squanto was captured a second time with several of his kinsmen and was transported to Malaga, Spain where the English captain put the Indians up for sale at the local slave market. Catholic monks heard about the plight of the Indians and collected enough money to purchase the freedom of Squanto and his friends. The monks took the Indians back to their monastery where they nursed them back to health. The Indians were invited to continue living with the monks, and the monks assured those who wished to return home that they would do everything in their power to help them. All the Indians stayed. They learned Spanish and converted to the Catholic faith.

After his Catholic baptism, Squanto felt God wanted him to return to his native land to bring the light of Jesus Christ to his people. Since the Spanish were at war with the English, it was necessary for the monks to raise funds to send Squanto overland to the Netherlands to secure passage to North America. When he arrived back in his home village, Squanto found it was deserted. He was broken-hearted to discover that his entire village had perished from sickness contracted from the white traders. Despite this terrible discovery, his great sadness and all the sufferings he had endured, Squanto did not lose his faith in Jesus.

The neighboring Wampanoag tribe offered Squanto sanctuary, and he lived with them about two years. It was in early March 1621 that Squanto heard from another Indian named Samoset that a small group of whites now inhabited his deserted village. Samoset told Squanto not to be concerned that these people had taken over the village of his dead family and kinsmen. He told Squanto that most of their number had perished during the winter, and the survivors were going to die soon because they were all starving.

Squanto may have considered that God had called him leave his friends the Catholic monks and to return to his homeland and the village of his birth to save the lives of these new residents. The day Squanto arrived at Plymouth Village the only food the Pilgrims had left was the small amount of Indian corn the Pilgrims had discovered from the supplies that the former Indian occupants had buried in their village. There was not enough corn for everyone, so the meal that day was to give each of the children five little cooked kernels of corn.

After visiting the colonists and seeing that they were starving, Squanto set about to catch large eels, which he cooked to make a stew to feed to the Pilgrims. At first they were all reluctant to eat the stew, but their intense hunger overcame their suspicion, and they all ate Squanto's eel stew. Squanto then immediately set about teaching the Pilgrims how to plant corn, to hunt deer and trap other animals, to catch fish, and to live in the new land. Under Squanto's guidance, the colony began to prosper. He also arranged peace treaties with the Native American tribes. All the peace treaties that Squanto negotiated brought peace between the English settlers and the native peoples for fifty years. The Protestant Pilgrims believed that Squanto was a gift from God.

In November, a year after their arrival, the Pilgrim community decided to give thanks to God for their survival by celebrating their first harvest in their new home. They asked Squanto to invite the Wampanoag tribe to celebrate with them. The Indians arrived with a gift of deer meat and wild turkeys. They stayed for three days, eating and engaging in games like foot races and wrestling contests. This celebration is what we remember as the first Thanksgiving feast in the new world.

The Pilgrims became very fond of Squanto and tried to convert him to their Protestant beliefs. As much as he liked his new friends, Squanto refused to give up his Catholic faith. He died of phenomena several years later, after having insisted upon leading a peace delegation to an Indian tribe living further to the west even though he was ill with a fever. More and more settlers were arriving at the Plymouth Colony, and they were expanding the settlement westward. Squanto knew it was necessary to secure a fair treaty for both the English settlers and the Native American tribes who were their neighbors for the two peoples to live together in peace. As he died in the care of his Protestant friends, he confessed his faith in the Eucharist and Christ's promise of his eternal salvation. Squanto was the baptized Roman Catholic Native American Indian who saved the English Protestant Pilgrims immigrants from starvation and death in the land of his birth.

When my family celebrates Thanksgiving, we begin our feast by putting five little pieces of corn on each person's plate in memory of the last meal the Pilgrim children had before Squanto saved them. We take turns naming five things that we are thankful for (as we eat each kernel), and then we say our family blessing over our food.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2017 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.