Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The First Thanksgiving; or How Squanto Got Screwed

We in America make a lot of this holiday. I think it is because we don't really have many feast days on our calender because in America, every day is a feast day. It is easy to see, as every street has dozens of restaurants and multiple gyms to work off your indulgence.

It wasn't always like this.

While this has always been a land of opportunity, it hasn't always been a land of plenty. The pilgrims figured that out when they got here in 1620. These poor sods were doomed to failure when they climbed aboard the boat. When they left England they brought a motley bunch wholly unsuited to settling a new land. Would you set off for the wild with two tailors, a printer, a silk worker, a shopkeeper, a hatter, and several merchants, as well as lots of guys who listed their occupation as farmers but at the time that only meant that they owned land, not that they knew how to farm it. They packed a drum, a trumpet, sundials and candle snuffers, and one dude by the handle of William Mullins went to the trouble to bring 123 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots. I think his wife may have had some influence on his choice of baggage. The reason they stopped where they did is because they had run out of beer on the boat and were afraid to go any further. Not a single one of them could shoot or had the slightest idea how to acquire food. They were screwed from the start.

But they lucked out.

Sure, the pilgrims tried very hard to meet their neighbors, but every time they saw them, the natives fled. Make no mistake, these were smart natives. Most of the pilgrims had died off. Of the original 102 that had gotten on the ship, 54 remained, most were children. They got a lucky break and in February met a local by the name of Samoset. While Samoset wasn't from this neck of the woods and couldn't understand most of what was said, he did have a friend who knew the English language well, and with any luck his buddy could hook him up with a few of the new widows who were a large portion of the Plymouth settlement now.

Samoset brought his friend, Tisquantum. The pilgrims couldn't pronounce that, so they called him Squanto for short.

Now here is where the mystery comes in, as all good tales need a little mystery. Why would the newly named Squanto bother to help these idiots? They couldn't have had much to offer him unless he was really in the market for a slightly used sundial or candle snuffer. Squanto had every reason to dislike white people and resent their presence in his homeland and yet he helped them survive and thrive.

What could Squanto possibly hold against them you might ask? Well Squanto had gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop from white people before. In 1605 he hopped aboard a ship captained by George Weymouth. If he did this of his own free will or not is a matter of conjecture. If he did it because it sounded like fun, that denotes an adventurous spirit. If he did it because he was at the point of a sword, I would think that would reflect poorly on Mr. Weymouth, but then the world is full of bastards.

Regardless, he spent nine years in England doing odd jobs until 1613 when he signed on as interpreter for a gent named John Smith. No sooner did Squanto get home than Thomas Hunt, one of John Smith's lieutenants, decided to pack up some fish, corn, as well as Squanto and nineteen of his fellow tribesmen and ship them off to Malaga, Spain and put them all up for sale. This is the second white bastard that Squanto had run into.

Some local friars decided that Squanto and his buddies needed some religious instruction and took them off Mr. Hunt's hands. After a while, the resilient Squanto made a break for England. He lived with a Mr. John Slany for a few years, one of the few non bastards that Squanto ran into. From there he caught a boat headed for Newfoundland. He bummed around there for a while looking for a lift to North America but that never happened and in 1618 found himself back in England. Even then, travel agents weren't to be trusted.

In 1619 he finally caught a lift back to the New England coast just in time to find his whole tribe was wiped out by small pox that they had gotten from visiting white sailors. Everyone he knew and loved was dead. Then his buddy Samoset shows up and asks for him to try a double date with him and some newly widowed white women.

The amazing thing is that Squanto said yes. After fifteen years of being under the thumb of one white guy after another, Squanto decides to cut the pilgrims a break and helps them out. I can only assume that Mr. John Slany was a hell of a good guy and taught Squanto that all white guys ain't bad.

Because of Squanto alone, the pilgrims survived. He showed them how to plant, harvest, build and hunt, and he must have done it very well because any experienced turkey hunter knows that it isn't easy to bring down this fat, feathered Butterball, especially by an amateur. A turkey is perhaps one of God's dumbest of creatures who possess a brain almost the size of their eyeball, yet they remain one of the hardest creatures to bring down as they are armor plated with a coat of feathers that act as a flak jacket and are the most skittish of creatures who can be frightened off by an incoming butterfly.

Yet they had one at Thanksgiving, and from what I heard the cornbread and stuffing was awesome.

So to return to the mystery as to why Squanto would help these poor fools lost in the wilderness, it is anybody's guess. Why would he help a bunch of white people who couldn't help themselves after being treated as nothing more than an oddity and a slave for so many years? Perhaps it was because he didn't have anyone else, as his people were a fond but distant memory, and he was an outsider to all the local tribes. Here he was respected like a chief and his advice followed, after years of mistreatment. Perhaps that is what made him settle with these people.

I'd like to think that maybe he realized that we are all in this thing together, and we are here to help each other. That is something to be truly thankful for.

Shortly there after Squanto caught a fever and went to the great hunting grounds beyond, but we remember him every year as we sit down with family, or extended family, or friends, knowing that some one, some where gave enough of a damn to see us through.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone,


  1. First off, I recently learned more about them Pilgrims watching the bonus feature on Charlie Brown Thanksgiving than i ever have in public school, and Mr. Schulz's creation more-or-less gently confirms what you say, Doc: when founding a New World, bring along some hunters and carpenters and blacksmiths and less uppity religious snobs. Keep the intelligensia to the minimum.

    Now, the question of why Squanto WOULD bother with white folken is an excellent one that has ALSO been neglected in my public school training. I'd be curious as to what folken smarter than I would say to all of this...

  2. I started on this last Thanksgiving and let it gather dust until last night. Hope you like it.


  3. Ah yes, small pox. One of our many gifts we brought from the new world. We have always been a bunch of "givers", haven't we?

  4. wonderful book "Red, White and Black" by Gary B. Nash. Squanto helped the white man out of his own wish to gain power over the local indigenous tribes. He actually threatened the tribes with the white man's plague if they didn't comply. He gained a great status amongst the people. Well worth a read.

  5. Sure that fever wasn't syphillis from screwin' around with those newly-widowed white women? Wasn't much else to do back then I figure.

  6. Have you read Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates yet? I'm dying to.

  7. I think that when I go to my brother's for dinner, instead of telling my little nieces and nephews the story of the first Thanksgiving the way I usually do, I'll just read your post to them. It's far more entertaining and more honest.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Cap'n Ergo- I've seen the bonus feature and I thought it covered a lot more than I ever got in public school history class.

    Skyler's Dad- Yes, we are "givers" and we give until it hurts...everyone.

    Terry- I'm adding this book to my "must read" list. Thanks for dropping by. Always glad to hear from you.

    Genn6- No, there really wasn't anything better to do back then but I seriously doubt that one of the white women would have laid him as they were all bigots and prudes.

    Vikkitickitavi- I hadn't heard of Sarah Vowell before but after a little research, I'm dying to read this book and the one before it too. Thanks for the heads up.

    Bubs- This is the greatest thing that anyone has ever said about anything I have ever written. Thank you very, very much.

    Your friend,

  9. This was pretty amazing Doc and even days after your Thanksgiving and more than a month after ours, I remain thankful for you.

  10. Funny, they didn't teach us the rest of the Squanto story when we learned about him in first grade.

    I like how John Stewart described the Pilgrims: they fled England to come to America because they wanted the freedom to practice the most brutal and oppressive kind of Christianty ever known to man.


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