Most people know the basic story of the first Thanksgiving: the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth rock, the Native Americans helped them grow food, and they all gathered together in a feast of thanksgiving.
But what most tellings of the story leave out is the crucial role played by Squanto, the English-speaking Catholic Native American hero.
Wait, what? Why was there an English-speaking Catholic Native American near Plymouth when the Pilgrims landed?
Here’s the amazing story.
In the early 17th century, Squanto’s tribe came in contact with some of the earliest English colonists in the Americas.
He was captured and he taught English so he could serve as an interpreter. But in 1614, as John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) transported him, one of Smith’s lieutenants, Thomas Hunt, kidnapped him.
Hunt took Squanto to Spain to sell him as a slave. But some Franciscan friars saw what happened and saved Squanto. The Franciscans taught Squanto the Catholic faith and he was apparently baptized.
A free man, Squanto wanted to return home, so he went to London to try to get a place aboard a ship going back to the Massachusetts colony. In the meantime, he worked as a shipbuilder and greatly improved his English.
In 1619, Squanto was finally able to return home on a ship led by John Smith. Tragically, upon arrival he discovered that most of his tribe had died of a plague the year before.
It was almost as though God had prepared him perfectly for what happened next: just a year later in 1620, the Pilgrims arrived. They were English Calvinists who sought to build a new religious community apart from the Church of England. Little did they know that they would end up being saved by a Catholic!
The Pilgrims had little food and were unprepared for survival in the Americas. Squanto, who spoke great English and had a lot of experience with English culture, reached out to help, teaching them how to grow food in the new landscape. It must have seemed like a miracle to the Pilgrims!
He befriended the Pilgrims and became an important part of their community. At one point, another tribe kidnapped Squanto and a team of Pilgrims saved him.
Unfortunately, less than two years after the Pilgrims landed, Squanto became sick and died suddenly. Governor William Bradford, one of the pilgrims’ leaders, wrote this about him:
“Here [Monomoyick Bay] Squanto fell ill of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose, which the Indians take as a symptom of death, and within a few days he died. He begged the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven, and bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances. His death was a great loss.”