In the spring of 1621, two natives were hunting near the beach at Patuxet in Massachusetts, now known as Plymouth. Samoset was a Wabanake and Squanto, a Wampanoag. The area was the site of Squanto’s former village, but his people had been ravaged by disease brought over from Europe by slave traders and the tribe had been wiped out.
Both Squanto and Samoset spoke English. They met originally in England where they had both traveled with explorers. In 1620 they had returned together to find only bones in the ruins of what had been Squanto’s village. The two men had since gone to live with another group of Wampanoags nearby.
Imagine their surprise that spring afternoon when they came upon a bedraggled group of English settlers living in Squanto’s former village. The first word alleged to be said by Squanto as he walked in to his occupied village and approached the strangers was, “Welcome.”
The English interlopers were in tough shape and would not have survived much longer. But Squanto decided to stay with them for several months, teaching them how to cultivate the plants they found in the new world, including corn which became their staple. He taught them how to tap the maple trees for sap. He gave them meat and furs, and taught them the medicinal value of some of the native plants as well. They learned to dig clams and other shellfish, and to use plants and animals from the sea as fertilizer for their crops.
By harvest time, the immigrants had much to be thankful for; they had been yanked back from the brink of disaster by the Indians. They now enjoyed sufficient food and new homes that the Indians had helped them build. Captain Miles Standish invited Squanto, Samoset, their leader Massasoit and their families to a celebratory feast of thanks. The Wampanoag men arrived with over ninety people in tow, as well as an abundance of food to contribute. The ensuing feast lasted for three days, and was a celebration of peace and friendship between the Wampanoag people and the English settlers.
The Pilgrims had escaped religious intolerance in their homeland and made a new life in the freedom of the new world with the help of the Wampanoags. Unfortunately, they forgot the hard lessons learned and began to impose their own religious prejudices on the natives. How terrible and sad that less than fifty years later, the settlers took up arms against their benefactors in King Phillip’s War. Squanto could not have imagined that his kindness to the Pilgrims would be the beginning of the end for the native peoples of North America.
As we celebrate all that we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, spare a thought for Squanto and the Wampanoag people. Without their help, the pilgrims would have perished and become a historical footnote, rather than the founders of a great nation.