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Thanksgiving, 2023

I like Thanksgiving. I’m not a fan of turkey but any holiday that encourages excess of food and beverage is all right to me. Besides, I can fall into a tryptophan-induced coma in front of a movie, television show, or football game with the best of them.

(Picture from here.)

But the idea of a historical Thanksgiving with Indians (that’s what they were called at the time) sitting down in friendly congress with Pilgrims is, at best, a sweet metaphor. At worst, it reflects a rapprochement that is most politely called fiction.

There is one character in all of this that, to me, stands out: Tisquantum, often called Squanto.

Tisquantum is portrayed as the Friendly Indian who helped the Pilgrims learn the skills they needed to survive, translated to the surrounding tribes, and pretty much made himself indispensable. This is, in fact, true, as far as it goes. But like so many things, it is a pale, shredded version of the truth.

First, in the years before the colonization of Plymouth, the New England coast was a vibrant community. Perhaps as many as a hundred thousand people lived in the area. Fields of maize and squash could be seen from offshore during the summer months. Behind them, were acres of chestnut and hickory trees—there is some evidence many of these were deliberately planted.

In 1605 and 1606, Samuel de Champlain visited Cape Cod with the idea of planting a settlement. He gave up on the idea: too many people were already living there.

What we call Plymouth was occupied by the Patuxet. All accounts of them suggest that they were a very successful agrarian and fishing community. They occupied the seaside during the summer and moved inland when the winter weather approached. Tisquantum was a Patuxet.

Some years before the Plymouth colony, Tisquantum met Captain John Smith as part of his sachem’s entourage. The meeting went cordial enough. Smith moved on to Maine leaving Thomas Hunt in charge. Hunt also invited the group on his ship and promptly kidnapped them, murdering those whom he couldn’t manage to stuff down in the hold. From here, Hunt took his prisoners to Málaga, Spain, to sell them as slaves.

This wasn’t unusual. A lot of Europeans dropped into the New World to pick up a native or two as if it were some kind of overnight truck stop.

The Roman Catholic priests in Málaga intervened—at that point, the Church opposed brutality towards the natives. Tisquantum was saved from slavery. He persuaded the priests to let him attempt to return home. He made it as far as London where he stayed with a shipbuilder who maintained him as a sort of souvenir. The shipbuilder had interests in Newfoundland and Tisquantum managed to get passage to a fishing camp there. Hey, only a thousand miles from home.

He persuaded another of Smith’s cohort, Thomas Dermer, to go down to New England with promises of easy wealth but that went south through positively byzantine circumstances and Dermer started to return to England but met his boss, Ferdinando Gorges, at sea. Dermer promptly turned back to New England.

When Tisquantum was kidnapped, the entire New England coast was alive with interlocking tribes, villages, and fields. He returned to desolation. The coast was empty. Homes were rotted and crumbling. The fields were untilled. Bleached skeletons lay exposed to the elements. As Dermer and Tisquantum sailed south from Maine to Massachusetts, they followed a blighted coast.

Tisquantum landed and went inland with Dermer to find his village. Save for him, the Patuxet were all dead. An epidemic had raged up and down the northeastern coast and killed as much as ninety percent of all natives. Disheartened, Tisquantum followed Dermer back to Maine but ended up walking back.

Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoag adjacent to the Patuxet was in terrible trouble. His community of twenty-thousand had been reduced to a thousand. His local village to sixty. Worse, his neighbors, the Narragansett, had not been terribly afflicted. Tisquantum was captured and sent to Massasoit. Thereby, Tisquantum tried to persuade Massasoit that the English could be allies.

Meanwhile, the Pilgrims—remember them?—landed and tried to make a colony in Plymouth. If there’s a group less prepared for their journey, I haven’t read about them. The Donner Party had nothing on them. Their fishing gear didn’t work in the waters of the bay. They had thought to be agriculturists but their seeds were inappropriate and they didn’t bring livestock. They had little idea what they were doing. And, finally, the Mayflower landed them in Massachusetts on November 21, 1620. This was back when winter was winter—not the easy winters we have up here now. This was snow and frozen ground. In my experience, November begins with a cold, brittle rain and goes from there.

The only way they could survive was by raiding the graves and village remains of—you guessed it, the Patuxet—for food stores. Anything. Half of them died.

Meanwhile, Massasoit gets word of these Europeans setting up shop on land he could claim as under his control but without any way of enforcing such control. Tisquantum keeps buzzing his ear about how the English could be useful. The kidnapping, murder, and other attacks by the English tend to make Massasoit skittish. He doesn’t trust Tisquantum so he gets Samoset, who has limited English but at least has something, to talk with these interlopers first. After this first interaction, Samoset returns, this time with Tisquantum who was much more fluent due to his five years abroad. Massasoit wanted to incorporate the Pilgrims into his own political agenda and fend off the Narragansett.

Tisquantum moved in with the Pilgrims. He did help them learn how to grow their own food using native seeds and techniques. He proved invaluable and the next fall, the Pilgrims had a good enough harvest that they could have a harvest feast. Massasoit attended (not necessarily invited but showed up because the celebratory gunfire might be an attack) with about ninety people. Both sides sat down and ate a lot of food.

I have this image where both sides are eating together and on the left side, the holocaust visited upon the natives before the meal, and on the right side, the holocaust visited upon the natives afterward.

Just a grudging bit of peace in the middle: Thanksgiving.

Note: a lot of the material for this post came from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I strongly recommend it. Tisquantum’s story, as presented, is highly abridged. The more detailed version in 1491 is vastly more interesting than this tiny excerpt. Any errors are, of course, my own and not Mister Mann’s.

I haven’t read the sequel, 1493, yet.

If it’s of interest, then I also recommend Wengrow and Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything, which I am currently reading.


2 thoughts on “Thanksgiving, 2023”

  1. You might be very interested in William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England — it’s an ecological study, but in order to talk about ecology he also has to talk about politics (e.g. the way the introduction of new diseases destabilized the power structures of indigenous communities, which led to things like Squanto’s prominence onstage) and concepts of property and more. It’s quite readable, too.

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