The Unlikely Hero of the First Thanksgiving
In the winter of 1620, the Pilgrims at Plymouth are struggling to survive. The long journey to America has taken a heavy toll on the weary travelers. They were not equipped to deal with the many challenges in the New World and nearly half perished in the early days of their journey.
In the midst of their struggle they humbled themselves and turned their hearts to God, praying for His mercy and Providence to protect them and establish their community.
Their prayers would be answered through a series of divine and tragic events that occurred years earlier in the life of a young native boy named Tisquantum.
It was the early 1600s, in the area that would soon be called Massachusetts. Tisquantum and his tribe were curious about the white men from across the ocean who would visit their shoreline from time to time. When the ships arrived, Tisquantum and others went to investigate.
During one of those visits, an English sailor, Thomas Hunt, not satisfied with his income and looking for dishonest gain, came to the region looking for opportunities. Hunt broke trust with the tribes and took Tisquantum and 23 other natives aboard his ship.
The natives were forced into the ship’s hull and taken across the ocean to Spain to be sold into slavery. Distrust for the white man grew in Tisquantum’s heart during his travel across the sea and he wondered why the Great Spirit would allow him to be so mistreated.
Tisquantum did not know what his future would hold and wondered if he would ever see home again.
Upon landing in Spain, the slave traders sold several natives. But Tisquantum was set free by a group of Spanish friars who disrupted the event before Tisquantum’s sale. The friars took him in, and he lived among them.
He learned how to speak Spanish and about their Christian faith, about the one true God of the Bible and his Son Jesus. They taught him their self-sustaining lifestyle, planting and harvesting crops. Tisquantum grew to love and trust the monks and life was good with them. But his desire to return home to his people, his tribe, never left him. He longed for the familiar places, the family and friends from whom he had been so violently taken.
He prayed to God that somehow, someday he would be able to return to his tribe.
God heard his prayers.
The friars devised a plan to get Tisquantum back to his homeland and to his beloved tribe. It would not be easy and it would take several years, but their plan was put into action.
He made his way to England where he lived with, and worked for an English businessman named John Slaney. Slaney and his Newfoundland Company were looking for opportunities to expand trade with the New England natives. Tisquantum had learned how to speak English fluently and would earn his way back to America working for the company as a translator.
Hope sprung up in Tisquantum, as he believed he would soon be home with his tribe.
He remained in England for a few more years, but Tisquantum’s hope never died. He’d been places that few in his tribe could even imagine and he longed to tell them about all that he’d done and seen.
Finally in 1619, everything was in place. Once more, he sailed across the ocean, this time his destination was home.
With his feet finally back on familiar soil, Tisquantum ran towards his village excited to be reunited with his loved ones. His heart was crushed by what he discovered. Plague had ravaged his people only months earlier and everyone had died. Of his tribe, only Tisquantum remained.
Confused and alone he pondered his existence, his purpose. Why had he endured the years of struggle and false hope in strange lands? Why did he make it all the way home only to find such devastation? Thoughts of death were not far from him.
He was accepted into the neighboring Wampanoag tribe but in his heart he knew he did not belong.
Word came to Tisquantum that a group of European settlers had set up their camp on the very site of his former village. They were English, Pilgrims; he spoke their language and knew their ways. He saw how they struggled to survive, how they prayed to Jesus for help, for hope. His heart went out to them and he longed to help them.
With the blessing of the Wampanoag chief, Tisquantum made his presence known. The pilgrims were filled with fear at the sight of him. So far relations with the native tribes had not been easy and tensions were high. As Tisquantum neared the entrance of the village he raised his voice and spoke in perfect English. He said, “My name is Tisquantum and this is Big Bear, we mean you no harm.”
The pilgrims were amazed at the sight and sound of him. They welcomed him in and he made his home with them.
In the spring, Tisquantum taught the pilgrims what he had learned from his own tribe and his time with the friars in Spain; how to plant crops and fertilize seeds. He was their interpreter and helped make peace with the Wampanoag, and other tribes in the area. Before long, he was more at home with the settlers than he was anywhere else. He lived with them and in many ways, became one of them.
In the fall of 1621, the harvest was abundant, the pilgrims were thriving. God had answered their fervent prayers through Tisquantum and in the process, healed his broken heart.
In November of that year, the pilgrim leaders held a great feast, giving thanks to God for providing for their needs. William Bradford, the leader of the pilgrims asked Tisquantum to invite the Wampanoag tribe to the Thanksgiving celebration. They came and joined the party for three days, and there was peace and joy in the region.
That day they gave thanks and prayed, “Brothers and sisters, we gather today with thankfulness in our hearts. The Lord in His mercy has planted us and established us here. We have seen times of adversity and mourning and scarcity. But now the Lord shows us a time of harvest and plenty. We are thankful for Squanto who has joined us in our pilgrimage here – to worship God freely. His path has not been easy, but the Lord was with him and sustained him, and brought him to this place before us. And he has been an answer to our prayers here – that the Lord would provide for us, provide a way by His mighty hand.”
“The hand of God is with you (Squanto) and has never forsaken you. The Psalmist tells us, ‘Give thanks to the Lord for He is good and His mercy endures forever.’ And today with our friends and our families, and our neighbors, we will declare this a great day of Thanksgiving. And we will celebrate, and we will praise the Lord for His mercy to us and His presence with us. Amen.”
Without Tisquantum’s help, the Pilgrims may not have survived those early, brutal years. Tisquantum put his faith in the God of the Bible and lived with the Pilgrims until his death. He became known as Squanto and his legend lives on today in the story of the first Thanksgiving: the Native American man whom God used to answer a desperate prayer from a desperate people.