By Mark W. Swarbrick
You have probably heard the story of the first Thanksgiving told the way I heard it in public school. It goes something like this:
The Pilgrims arrived in the new world ill prepared to live in the wilds of North America. They didn’t even know how to plant corn. Fortunately, the good hearted eco-conscious native Indians befriended the hapless helpless newcomers and taught them how to plant corn and fertilize it with dead fish.
Because of the Indians’ kindness they had a bountiful harvest. So, the Pilgrims invited the Indians over for a big feast to thank them for their kind help. And that, was the first Thanksgiving, a celebration to honor and thank the Indians.
That’s a nice multicultural story, but that’s all it is – a story. It is a myth fabricated for the palate and worldview of a modern humanistic culture. The real account is much more meaningful, exceedingly wonderful and instructional. Let me tell you the true story of the first Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims were a sect of the Puritans. They did not call themselves Pilgrims, but Separatists. Puritans believed the government affiliated Church of England still adhered to too many Catholic dogmas and needed reformation. Pilgrims, or Separatists as they were then called, took this a step further, claiming that the Church of England was still basically Catholic in doctrine and was so steeped in error that it was beyond being reformed.
The Pilgrims were particularly devout Christians. They used the Geneva Bible and did not trust the modern version authorized by the government – the King James Version. To escape persecution many Pilgrims fled to Holland, but found that environment too worldly for their tastes. They dreamed of establishing a Christian society in the new world. About 40 of them sailed to America, on-board the Mayflower, along with 62 other passengers.
Their destination was Manhattan Island, which they expected to reach in about a month. It was not to be. They suffered inclement weather in route which delayed them and ran their stores low. The crossing took 66 days instead of 30. The Mayflower made landfall at the desolate and wild shoreline of what is now Cape Cod, 250 miles north of their intended destination. This was a disaster, or so it seemed, but time would reveal it was providential.
They attempted to sail south to their destination, but storms, headwinds, dangerous shoals and howling winds prevented it. The Pilgrims, after much prayer, concluded that the Almighty intended for them to build their settlement in the region chance had taken them.
Using the ship’s boat, scouts selected from their party embarked on an excursion to locate a suitable location for their settlement. After a few day’s travel they camped in a small clearing on the shore. At dawn, as they huddled around the campfire preparing breakfast, arrows rained down on them from hostile Indians. Firing their muskets, they fled back to sea in their small boat.
That night they found themselves tossed in a violent ocean, assailed by a vicious squall. In the stormy darkness their tiny row boat began to come apart as the wind and waves drove them towards a jagged rocky shore. When it seemed things couldn’t be worse, from out of nowhere a giant wave appeared, lifted the boat high, and tossed them onto a spot of clear sandy beach, the only safe landing spot in the entire area.
They camped for the night, rested on the Sabbath, as the next day was Sunday. By Monday the storm had ended and they explored the area, finding a wide protected harbor with waters deep enough for the Mayflower. On it’s shores they found the perfect spot for their new home – an abandoned Indian village, complete with running fresh water and sufficient stores of grain to help them survive.
They assumed that the village might belong to a nomadic tribe that would return, but they had every intention of making peace and repaying the Indians for the supplies of grain they consumed. They would learn later that a plague, most likely viral hepatitis, had wiped out all the Indians in the immediate vicinity. God had miraculously deposited them in the one place where they could build their settlement without arrows flying at them.
Here they survived. Some of them did, that is. Forty-seven of the original one hundred and two did not survive the first winter. Thirteen of the eighteen wives died. Finally, spring came, but unknown to them a large tribe of Indians was aware of their presence and had been observing them secretly from the forest.
One day they were greatly alarmed when they beheld a single lone Indian walking boldly into their camp. To their great surprise he spoke English and he said he was there to help them. Amazingly God had deposited the Pilgrims in one of the only places on the continent where there was an English-speaking Indian.
His name was Tisquantum. The Pilgrims pronounced it “Squanto.” He explained that as a boy he was a member of the extinct tribe in whose village the Pilgrims had taken up residence. He had not died in the plague because he had been taken captive by a marauding English sea captain and taken to England. After nine years he obtained his freedom and was able to procure passage on a ship back to America.
While hiking along the shore to get back to his village, he was once again kidnapped, locked in the dark hold of a ship for two months. In Spain he was put up for sale as a slave along with all the other captives in the hold.
Sixteenth century Pope Paul III had decreed that the natives of the new world should be treated kindly. Therefore, some Spanish monks purchased Squanto in order to free him. They showered him with kindness and education. The monks helped him find passage back to America and his own people, as he so ardently desired.
Arriving home just six months before the Pilgrims arrived, he found his village empty. Everyone he knew was dead and gone. Like a ghost he lived alone in the nearby woods, forlorn, destitute and overwhelmed with sadness. Eventually he took up residence with the Wampanoag tribe where the chief quickly saw the advantage of befriending Squanto. The Pilgrims had just arrived and the chief knew that Squanto’s ability to speak their language would be a great asset.
The Wampanoag were at war with the fierce Narragansett tribe and they feared being attacked. The last thing they needed was war with Englishmen with firearms. They sent Squanto to speak to the Pilgrims and request a peace treaty. The Pilgrims signed a treaty with the Wampanoag, pledging the two groups to defend each other against any and all dangers. This maintained the peace for the life of the Pilgrims.
Squanto was fond of the Englishmen and chose to live with the Pilgrims, considering them his new family. In his travels in Europe Squanto had learned the method of using fish as fertilizer and he taught this to the Pilgrims, as well as exactly the right time to plant in that locale. He also showed them how to catch the edible eels that lived in the streams and when and how to capture the alewives, a fast swimming fish that ran up the streams at certain seasons.
Pilgrim governor William Bradford recorded in his journal that they all considered Squanto as more than a friend, but that he was “a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation.”
One-day Squanto was once again captured, this time by a band of renegade Indians passing through the area. The Pilgrims quickly assembled an armed militia and sent them on an expedition to rescue him. They were successful and Squanto was returned to his adopted Pilgrim family unharmed.
After a year with the Pilgrims Squanto took ill and before he died he expressed his desire to be able to go to the God in heaven that the Pilgrims worshipped. He asked Governor Bradford to pray for him. Before he died he made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
Thanks to Squanto’s help they had made peace with the natives and had received valuable instruction on surviving off the new land. But the Pilgrims were still having problems. The Mayflower Compact, the agreement they had all signed on to, provided that they would all live under socialism. No one would own anything, but all things would be held in common. Everyone would receive the same portion regardless of how much they had contributed.
It was pure communism, and it wasn’t working out. Some became lazy and worked meagerly or not at all. No one was driven to excel, since all incentive had been taken away. Instead of it being the equal distribution of wealth, it became the equal distribution of poverty. People were dying. They were literally starving to death and resentment was growing among those who did work hard.
After prayer and consideration, and reading in the scriptures that “he who does not work should not eat,” it was decided that God would have them abandon socialism and move to a capitalist economy. Everyone would own their own piece of land, their own home, and would own the produce of their own labors. Governor Bradford recorded that this was wildly successful. Everyone worked hard and had abundance.
The economy of the Pilgrims thrived so much that they not only had a surplus of food, they opened up trading posts to trade with the Indians and profited enough to pay off their loans that were owed for their passage to America.
As the Pilgrims contemplated all that had transpired they clearly saw the benevolent hand of God in all that had happened to them. God saw to it that were prevented from going to Manhattan. When about to perish in the sea, God brought a rogue wave to wash them onto the only safe piece of shoreline where they would notice the abandoned Indian village.
God put them in the one place where there were no Indians close by, and also the only area in America where there was a friendly English speaking Indian in need of a new family, and where there was a tribe of Indians eager to make peace with them.
Although others meant it for evil to capture Squanto, God meant it for good, to save him from the plague that wiped out his people, so that he would live and be used of God to help the Pilgrims, and thereby, himself find salvation in Jesus Christ.
The Pilgrims saw all of this as God’s providence. They thanked God also for helping them to learn that communism was not a wise way to manage affairs and that capitalism was more sensical, scriptural and resulted in a greater abundance for all.
The Pilgrims wrote down that they considered all these events as the fortuitous, providential working of God in their behalf. Now that their new capitalist economy had resulted in a bountiful harvest, they wanted to set aside a day to give thanksgiving unto God who cared from them through all their hardships.
They invited the Wampanoag to come for a big feast and celebrate God’s wonderful mercy along with them. About ninety Indians attended, twice the number of the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving is not what they called it, rather, thanks giving is what they did. The name would come later, but what they did on that day is give thanks to Almighty God.
168 years later, October 3rd 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have…requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed…Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted…to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence…”
Signed, George Washington
And that is the real history of Thanksgiving.