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The Catholic Who Made Thanksgiving Possible

November 26, 2014 Frontpage No Comments

By RAY CAVANAUGH

When thinking of religion and Thanksgiving, Protestant Puritanism naturally comes to mind. Many are unaware that Squanto, the native who made Thanksgiving possible, was Catholic.
In more recent times, there has been some cynicism directed at the story of Squanto and the Pilgrims. The original Thanksgiving has been dismissed by some as a happy-faced myth designed to sugarcoat (especially for youngsters) initial relations between whites and Indians, before the whites proceeded to steal all the land.
Looking at how history turned out, this cynicism is in some ways understandable. But, to Squanto’s credit, he was as helpful as the legend conveys. For evidence, we need only to turn to the journal, Of Plymouth Plantation, written by William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony and a Mayflower passenger. Bradford’s account says that Squanto “became a special instrument sent from God for [the Pilgrims’] good.”
This “instrument sent from God” has been invoked often, but details about his life, particularly his early years, have remained cryptic. The date of his birth has been given as January 1, 1585 and January 1, 1592, but no one knows for sure. What can be said more confidently is that he was born into the Patuxet Tribe in the southeastern part of current-day Massachusetts.
As one might expect, he did his full share of hunting and fishing. Upon reaching adulthood, he also took part in a deceptively sophisticated world of political intrigues and, at times, treachery.
An unknown treachery came ashore in 1614, in the form of an Englishman named Thomas Hunt, who enticed some 20 Indians (including Squanto) on board his ship, only to have his crew take them prisoner. The ship then headed out into the Atlantic.
Squanto and his kidnapped companions reached the Spanish city of Málaga, where they were unloaded. Their malefactor, Hunt, began to sell them as slaves. It was then when some Spanish priests intervened. Perhaps they had been influenced by Sublimus Dei, a papal bull issued some eight decades earlier by Pope Paul III which prohibited the enslavement of native peoples from the Americas.
Though these priests could not afford the whole lot of kidnapped Indians, they purchased a few. Among these fortunate few was Squanto, who, instead of finding a lifetime of slavery, was baptized as a Catholic and provided with instruction about the faith.
Squanto spent considerable time with these priests, perhaps even a few years, but by 1617, he was living in the London residence of a John Slany. And in March 1619, Squanto finally boarded a ship bound for New England.
He returned home at last . . . only to find that an epidemic (quite possibly smallpox, to which the Indians had no resistance) had eliminated his village. This well might have been the bitterest homecoming in the whole history of coming home. Of course, Squanto’s village was not the only unfortunate one.
The Indian population of the whole region had been vastly depopulated. Compared to a decade earlier, “fewer than ten percent of its 20,000 or more former inhabitants were still living,” according to Neal Salisbury, who penned the essay, “Squanto: Last of the Patuxets.”
Even aside from all the disease and decimation, the Massachusetts coast was a tense place at the time the Mayflower ship and the Pilgrims arrived in November 1620. It hadn’t been long since a different ship, also from England, had come ashore, invited Indians on board, and, for whatever reason, shot them dead.
The Pilgrims at first did not help the situation. Not long after they arrived, they were stealing from Indian grain stores. In fairness, these thefts had little to do with malice, and a lot to do with desperation. During the course of the first winter, about half of the Pilgrims had succumbed to starvation or disease.
The next year’s winter seemed primed to take more lives, assuming these Pilgrims could even survive until then. Then, one day in March 1621, there appeared an Indian named Samoset. To the Pilgrims’ great surprise, he spoke to them in English, albeit a very broken English. He then promised to return with another English-speaking Indian. Several days later, he made good on his promise, returning with the Indian we know as Squanto, whose ability to speak English was far superior.
Squanto helped these Pilgrims obtain a peaceful understanding (however uncertain) with local Indian bands. Just as importantly, he instructed these Pilgrims on how to plant and harvest crops from the oft-uncooperative New England soil. This agrarian knowledge he shared undoubtedly led to the iconic 1621 Thanksgiving feast.
The days of celebration were short-lived for Squanto, however. There were prominent Indians who distrusted him. Because he knew English so well, he held a “potentially dangerous advantage,” according to Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower. Squanto could translate the Pilgrims however he wished, and very few (if any) of his fellow Indians would know if he was relaying the full truth. There was, in fact, a local Indian chief who demanded that the Pilgrims serve up Squanto.
It was late November 1622, when Squanto — returning from a diplomatic meeting involving Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians — fell ill with an apparent fever, and was bleeding from the nose. There has been considerable speculation that his predicament was due to foul play, specifically poisoning. Whatever the cause of his illness, Squanto died on November 30, 1622, after expressing his wish to visit the Christian God in Heaven.
He bequeathed his possessions to his English friends, all of them Protestant Puritans who, despite their own need for religious freedom, were not especially tolerant of Catholicism. One wonders if these Puritans even knew of their benefactor’s Catholic conversion.

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(Ray Cavanaugh has written for such publications as Celtic Life, History Today, and New Oxford Review.)

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