For generations, the dominant cultural narrative of America’s Thanksgiving holiday has told how a Native American man named Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to get food after they arrived on the Mayflower in Massachusetts in 1620. Having fled their native England, the new émigrés endured hardship and privation in both their journey and their adjustment to the new land. Those who survived in the early settlement are said to have gathered with the Native people in a feast of gratitude, establishing the time-honored tradition of having a “Thanksgiving” dinner on the fourth Thursday of November.
The historical details of this somewhat mythologized story are far more complicated—as was the life of Squanto, whose actual name was Tisquantum. He and his Indigenous relatives would have been quite familiar with the tradition of “thanksgiving” because it was, and still is, an essential aspect of their regular spiritual practices, one that predates by many generations the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
A member of the Patuxet Tribe of the Wampanoags, Tisquantum was likely born around 1580. When he encountered the Plymouth Colony settlers, he spoke English, having lived five years in Europe, including time at the home of a London merchant. He proved indispensable to the English settlers at Plymouth, but in the end was reviled by some of his own people for his role in brokering a treaty that undermined tribal sovereignty.
But without Tisquantum to interpret and guide them to food sources, the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims may never have survived.
“His is such a seminal backstory to Plimoth [historic spelling] Colony that the lack of historical reference to it is conspicuous,” writes Paula Peters, a journalist and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag, in an essay about Tisquantum, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. His name remains ubiquitous in Thanksgiving stories, but little is known of his life, family and tribulations prior to encountering the Plymouth Colony settlers.
Tisquantum Spoke English After Being Kidnapped to Europe
The Wampanoag, whose name means “People of the First Light,” and their ancestors had lived in Patuxet for at least 10,000 years. They hunted, fished and farmed corn, beans and squash when encountered for the first time by Europeans. Their non-hierarchical system of governance and nature-based spirituality bewildered the new settlers.
By 1619, the Wampanoag survived a devastating plague brought by European explorers called the Great Dying. The disease killed about two-thirds of their 70,000 people who had been living in 69 villages along what is now the southern Massachusetts coast.
So sudden and overwhelming was the sickness, that when the Mayflower landed, its passengers had to stride across the bleached bones of plague victims, writes Peters. Some of the colonists described the Great Dying as a providential act of god that made way for a flourishing of their Puritan faith.
Tisquantum escaped this scourge because, years earlier, he had been lured, along with about two dozen other Wampanoag, onto a British ship bound for a slave market in Spain, according to James Seelye Jr and Shawn Selby, historians at Kent State University and authors of Shaping North America: From Exploration to the American Revolution. He escaped with the help of Catholic Friars and made his way to London, where he lived with John Slaney, treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, which had colonized Cuper’s Cove in Newfoundland in 1610. Tisquantum likely used this connection to depart England for home, working on a ship for Captain John Mason, the Newfoundland Colony’s governor. He then found passage on another ship that brought him south, where he eventually made his way back to Patuxet.
Tisquantum was among 2 to 5.5 million Indigenous people enslaved in the Americas between 1492 and 1880, many of whom were sent to work in the Caribbean. According to Wampanoag historian Linda Jeffers Coombs, Tisquantum was one of only two tribal members who found his way back home from the slave ship that landed in Spain.
Pilgrims Likely Didn't Invite Native People to Their First Harvest Thanksgiving
On his return, Tisquantum was distraught to find his people decimated by plague. When he encountered the Mayflower's ragged survivors, he was an orphan himself. But he was uniquely poised to help them survive, and willing to help them form a vital alliance with his Wampanoag leader, named Ousamequin.
Tisquantum favored the English enough to teach them how to grow corn, and where and how to fish and hunt beaver. He also gained protection from the English at times from his own people. The treaty he helped negotiate between his people and the English allowed the Wampanoag to gain a powerful ally against their enemy, the Narragansett. But it also empowered the English with the dominant rule of law, while restricting the Wampanoag’s use and display of weapons at meetings. This treaty led to subjugation, and Tisquantum died while allied with the English—perhaps even poisoned by his own people in late 1622, writes historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.
It’s likely the Pilgrims didn’t actually invite the Wampanoag to the first harvest “Thanksgiving” memorialized in the now-popular American holiday. In fact, the tense days-long feast convened to put at ease some 90 Wampanoag warriors who had arrived at Plymouth fully armed in response to a volley of celebratory gunfire they had heard shot by the colonists.
Historical sources state that, once they realized the gunfire wasn’t intended as hostile, the Wampanoags killed five deer and brought them to Plymouth as their contribution to what has been described as a harvest feast, and perhaps a celebration of survival for making it through their second winter. “If you’re getting ready to eat, we will bring food for you. That’s who we are as people,” says Anita Peters, known as Mother Bear, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member. “But that feast was never repeated, and that should tell you something.”
Nakai Clearwater Northup, museum educator at Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, says the Thanksgiving holiday likely conflates several feasts held during the time period, including the Pilgrims’ celebration of their victory in the Mystic Massacre of 1637, in which 600 Pequots lost their lives in about an hour.
“This was the primary tragic moment in our history,” Northup said. “It laid the foundation for colonialism, and the first reservation was created right here in Connecticut. This laid the blueprint for the rest of our Native relatives for generations to come.”
Indigenous religions—which have long included the ubiquitous ceremonies of giving thanks for many food sources throughout the year—would be suppressed by the dominant culture of Christianity. Yet the spiritual practices of reciprocity and thanksgiving for the gifts of the earth, survive among the Wampanoag and many other Indigenous nations to this day.
“When I was young, we were taught by our grandparents and great grandparents to believe that the purpose of life is to be in a state of thanksgiving every day,” says Mother Bear.