THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICA

Some contemporary educators are of the opinion that the first thanksgiving in America was held as a feast with both Pilgrims and Native Americans present, the event being in remembrance of the manner in which the Native Americans supplied lifesaving help to the Pilgrims. The feast was held in honor of the Native Americans, to give them thanks for that helping hand.

The first item of that statement is entirely true, the second item partially true, and the third item entirely false. The occasion was a feast indeed – the two parties got along so well that they extended it for three days. The Pilgrims were indeed grateful to the Native Americans for their help, but as to the last item, the feast itself was held in honor of Providence from above, both by the Pilgrims to their Judeo-Christian God and by the Native Americans, some to their own deity and others to the same Judeo-Christian God of the Pilgrims.

There was a reason for them to be grateful to Providence, because there’s a story behind the way in which they got along. The Pilgrims were committed Christians fleeing from persecution, first in England and then in Holland, from a religion that they considered to be corrupt. They departed in the Mayflower in late August of the year 1620, and arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts in mid-November of that year. Their first Thanksgiving – to God – was held the following November, in 1621. Between their landing in America and that Thanksgiving celebration was a year filled with terror, sickness, starvation, warfare, and so much death that they were in imminent danger of being wiped out entirely.

The first Native Americans that they encountered were hostile, killing many and threatening the rest at every turn. It was a new country for them, they were short on survival skills, and whatever methods they did have familiarity with for acquiring food didn’t work so well in America. They were sickly, cold, starving and generally ill-equipped to go on as a hard winter set in.

At this point Squanto, a friendly Native American, arrives at their miserable, destitute camp. Still grieving over his own family, who were completely wiped out by disease during his extended absence, he adopts the Pilgrims as his own. Speaking perfect English, he befriended them and then proceeded to teach them the skills they needed to survive, some of which were intricate indeed. He then introduced them to other friendly Native Americans, who helped them further and with whom they got along so famously at the first Thanksgiving.

How did Squanto learn to speak English, and to be so thoroughly comfortable with their European manners and customs? One must remember that the Pilgrims may have been among the first to settle in America, but before them a number of other European ships came to the same shores to fish and trade. In the year 1605 Squanto was captured by one of these traders and brought back to England, where he spent nine years acquiring the language and customs of that country. He escaped, was recaptured, and escaped again to America at virtually the same time as the Pilgrims arrived, and arrived back at his own home not more than a few miles away from them, only to discover that nobody in his entire family had remained alive. Grief-stricken, he lost all desire to live – until, that is, he came across the destitute Pilgrims, at which point he was immediately struck with compassion for them. He adopted them as his own and in helping them he found a reason to remain alive.

Squanto, the Pilgrims and Squanto’s Native American friends were intelligent and thoughtful enough to see beyond the appearance of mere coincidence the loving Hand of God on them all. That is what they celebrated that first Thanksgiving.

[Note to the reader: The World Today Series will resume with the next post.]

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