Learning from the Past: Thanksgiving

Reading Time: 3 minutes

by Jacob Dicken, Senior Director

Tisquantum was born sometime around 1580 to 1585 in the Patuxet band of Cape Cod Bay, part of the larger Wampanoag Confederation.  He came into the world in a tumultuous time for the peoples of Eastern North America. A new presence, European traders and explorers, had begun to comb the coastlines for resources and potential land grabs.  In 1614, a group of English explorers abducted Tisquantum and 4 other Wampanoag. Tisquantum soon found himself in Europe, where he was sold into Spanish slavery. But he was clever and quickly learned the local language and his whereabouts, managing to escape and catch a ship back to North America in 1619.

What he found was tragic: the entire Patuxet band had been destroyed by the horrors of smallpox.  I imagine the emotional toll on Tisquantum must have been utterly devastating. Nevertheless, he went on living as the last of the Patuxet and a member of the Wampanoag Confederation.  Versed in English and Spanish, he had a new and powerful role to potentially play as an intermediary between the Wampanoag and the European traders.

The world of the Wampanoag changed forever when, in 1621, a group of 102 English Puritans landed on the shore of Massachusetts in a great ship called the Mayflower.  The world they entered was one they seemingly could not survive in.  The Mayflower was low on food supplies and the people had little local knowledge on farming in America.  Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag, eager to make good relations with the English settlers, supplied them with extra food and Tisquantum taught them how to live in the land and to grow corn, the chief staple crop of many North American societies.

It was a collective feast between the Wampanoag and the settlers that we tend to remember in the United States as the first Thanksgiving.  This skilled diplomat Tisquantum ensured that it was all possible and formed a link between two world. The very Calvinist pilgrims gave thanks to God and the Wampanoag gave thanks to nature in their animist framework of understanding the world.

It was this one hero whom American schoolchildren learn about as “Squanto” who made everything possible.  English colonial survival in Massachusetts would not have been successful without his aid. Many of us celebrating Thanksgiving today in the United States would not be here if not for our ancestors’ survival of the harsh winter thanks to the aid of a helpful other.

What can we learn from this?  I believe that the most important thing we have to be thankful for is the care and aid of others–sometimes even of total strangers–who give so that all may find peace and plenty.  People are God’s most beautiful creations, beings who can understand the needs of others and choose to love them. We can all be heroes to someone in need and we can all give thanks for the care that others provide us.  Take time today to thank someone in your life who may not know that you are thankful for what they have done for you and think what you can do for people such as them who may need love themselves.

I wish I could end our story on a happy note, but in reality, despite the flowery tellings of the Thanksgiving story we learned as a kid, it ends in tragedy.  Tisquantum died of European disease in 1622, around a year after the famous feast. Chief Massasoit was successful in maintaining an alliance in his lifetime with the settlers, but relations soured after his death.  By 1675, the colonists were involved in what is remembered as King Philip’s War with the Wampanoag and the Narragansett. By the end of the war in 1678, the populations of both tribal confederations were almost completely destroyed.  A grim reminder of how we too often forget the needs of others who have aided us and take what we have for granted.

So this Thanksgiving, be conscious of your social relations and take time to love.  Be like Tisquantum, granting aid to the needy. Take the time of coming together to do something for everyone you meet.  In the face of the hardships some of us face in our lives, sometimes we need the support for others. And you can make a huge difference.

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