This Thanksgiving, share with your children the little-known but compelling story of Squanto’s enslavement, freedom, forgiveness and conversion to Catholicism.
by Maria Jansen
Growing up, I had the vague notion that Thanksgiving was a celebration of pilgrims and Native Americans coming together for a big feast on a sandy beach shortly after the Mayflower landed. I even mixed up the story with Christopher Columbus and thought this was the celebration of the discovery of America! Needless to say, I was no history buff.
As a young adult I participated in the Great Adventure Bible Study and started to see history for what it was — a story. And I love a good story. My history classes presented disjointed little snippets of the story (and not usually exciting ones) without ever weaving them together. Now, when I learn of an event, I see it as another piece revealed in a beautiful tapestry that will not be fully complete until the end of time.
All of that to say I recently learned how Catholicism played a huge part in the Thanksgiving celebration (which I now know did not include Columbus), and I find myself wanting to share it with everyone I know!
New Beginning, Different Voyage
This story doesn’t start with the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, or even with their planning to leave England. It starts with a different voyage and a different group, though also from England. Thomas Hunt, a lieutenant under John Smith of the famous Pocahontas story, captured Native Americans with the intention of selling them as slaves in Spain. Pope Paul III had put out a papal bull, “Sublimis Dei” (on the enslavement and evangelization of Indians), forbidding enslaving Native Americans. A couple priests intercepted Squanto and kept him from being sold on the black market.
He traveled with them, learning the Catholic faith and eventually being baptized. In an effort to help him return home, they sent him to London where he worked in the shipyard for three years before sailing to Newfoundland where his journey stalled out for another two years. There he met Thomas Dermer, a merchant from British Columbia, who agreed to sail him back to his tribe in America.
Because the Native Americans did not have immunity to diseases carried by the Europeans, the population was devastated. In some cases, entire tribes were wiped out. When Squanto and Dermer showed up, they found that every last member of his tribe had died. Searching further inland for survivors, they were then captured by the Wampanoag tribe.
Disease and Desperation
Due to overcrowding and unhealthy conditions on the Mayflower, the pilgrims had also been overwhelmed by disease, only half of those who had departed lived to see the shores of Plymouth. Arriving just before winter meant waiting until spring to plant and even longer to produce much needed food.
Out of desperation, the pilgrims stole a bunch of corn from the Wampanoag tribe, the same tribe that had captured Squanto just weeks before. Instead of attacking the pilgrims, who being close to starvation, would have been easy pickings, they sent Squanto as an intermediary.
Having become fluent in English during his years in London and Newfoundland, he was able to easily communicate with the pilgrims. He taught them skills that allowed them to survive that winter and thrive going forward. Eventually, Squanto contracted one of the European diseases and died, having asked those around him to pray that he might go to heaven.
Forgiveness and Faith
What touches me most about this story is that while he could have held a grudge against all Europeans for his capture and bringing diseases that wiped out his entire family and community, he chose forgiveness. He chose to help those in need, no matter what associations they had.
I have not found any children’s book about Squanto or the first Thanksgiving that highlights the Catholic connections, but I plan to insert these precious pearls of history while we listen to the audio drama “The Legend of Squanto” by Focus on the Family Radio Theater.