Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope” is one of our most widely read and most often reproduced posts on These Stone Walls where it has become a sort of Thanksgiving tradition. Some readers told me last year that they handed out copies to the guests at their Thanksgiving table. Others sent links to everyone they know. The tale that post tells is not at all like the story of the first Thanksgiving in America that our grade school history books told. It’s a story of real pilgrimage, and it’s the truth.

It’s a truth, however, that has an even better Thanksgiving story than the one we knew – or thought we knew. The tale’s hero is the Native American, Tisquantum – aka “Squanto” – from a place on the shores of Massachusetts his people called “The Dawn Land.” The winds of change and the gravity of grace required much from Squanto before he stepped into the lives of the Puritan Pilgrims we are accustomed to honoring on Thanksgiving. The short of it is that Squanto rescued them from annihilation.

Here in the heart of New England, from where I write this post in a prison cell, there are some who take great personal pride in having ancestors who arrived aboard the Mayflower. For them, I offer my apologies in advance. This true story of Thanksgiving sweeps out to sea many of their prideful notions about the Mayflower Pilgrims, about heroism and endurance, about manifest destiny, and about the chain of events that enabled the Pilgrims to survive.

The story we learned as children about the Puritan Pilgrims who “fled religious persecution” for a journey to New England aboard the Mayflower in 1620 indeed has some elements of truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. The Native Americans – who preceded Europeans to New England shores hundreds of years earlier – were presented in our historical accounts as “savages,” dwarfed in stature by the technological advances of the arriving Europeans aboard the Mayflower. Historian Charles C. Mann countered that view in “Native Intelligence,” a fascinating article in Smithsonian magazine (December 2005). Mann described the Pilgrims’ 1620 arrival from the point of view of the local Wampanoag:

“Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the Natives, oddly dressed and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks.”

There’s a far greater tale of pilgrimage and thanksgiving embedded in the story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, and it’s a tale that I can relate to far more than that of the Puritans. In the story of Squanto, I encounter a hero who does the right thing in the most awful of conditions, and sometimes with even the most awful of motives. His home, called The Dawn Land, was destroyed by the same forces of history that so radically altered his life.

Squanto was a man who in the end gave thanks despite the wreckage wrought by the betrayals of others because he learned not to confuse his journey with his destination. He was a man who owed nothing to the Mayflower Pilgrims, but owed his life and freedom to the very Catholic Church the Pilgrims came here to be rid of. It is the most ironic of tales, and some have found it a worthy addition to their Thanksgiving traditions.

There are 203 appearances of the words “Thanks” and “Thanksgiving” in all of Sacred Scripture, and in their deepest meanings most are a lot closer to the pilgrimage of Squanto than that of the Pilgrims in our story. Whether you’re in America, or Canada, or Australia, or anywhere in the world, the story of Squanto is a lesson for anyone for whom the winds of change and the forces of this world have swept us off our feet.

I hope you won’t let this Thanksgiving season pass without visiting anew – or for the first time – “The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope.”

And if you’re in the mood for an account of Thanksgiving from the perspective of my current neighborhood, then also visit “Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving With Some Not-So-Just Desserts.”

But remember also the real source of all Thanksgiving tradition. It’s captured in a Psalm I could imagine Squanto himself praying on his strange odyssey through life:

“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me . . . Mark then you who forget God, lest I rend and there be none to deliver. He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me. To him who orders his way aright, I will show the salvation of God.” (Psalm 50:14-15, 22-23).