Thanksgiving History: Squanto, Friend of Pilgrims, Was a Catholic

Squanto, in exemplifying forgiveness and charity, helped bring to the New World, and to the Pilgrims, the virtue of love at the heart of Christianity.

St. Paul reminds us, ‘In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Above right, Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, is depicted in a 1922 storybook for children carrying John Billington, a young Pilgrim, after he was found lost in the woods.
St. Paul reminds us, ‘In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Above right, Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, is depicted in a 1922 storybook for children carrying John Billington, a young Pilgrim, after he was found lost in the woods. (photo: Shutterstock and public domain)

Any schoolchild can recount the story of the first Thanksgiving: a friendly Native American named Squanto taught the starving Pilgrims how to plant corn. Grateful for saving them, the settlers sat down for a hearty autumn feast with their kindhearted benefactor in November 1621.

The truth is a lot more complicated — and of special interest to Catholics.

Before befriending the Pilgrims, Squanto had lived in London for several years. To the Pilgrims’ utter astonishment, he spoke English. They would have been equally astonished to learn that he was a Catholic (though he would have been wise to be discreet about this among the Puritans).

Squanto’s life up to that point had prepared him for his encounter with the Pilgrims. His many perilous experiences predisposed him to be sympathetic to the plight of the bedraggled settlers. That he had been able to return to America from England was itself something of a miracle.

His first encounter with the English was in 1614, after Capt. John Smith brought a British expedition to Maine. Smith is known to us today for the story of how Pocahontas saved his life at Jamestown seven years earlier. But Smith was only a bit player in the saga of Squanto. Instead, Smith’s lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, sailed one of the expedition’s ships to Cape Cod, where the explorers encountered a tribe of Native Americans. He invited two dozen of them, curious about these strange seafarers, to the ship. Then the explorers deviously forced their guests into irons and claimed them as slaves.

One of them was Squanto. The trip back across the Atlantic was harrowing. For six weeks, Squanto, bound in chains, rolled and tossed with the ship. He was violently ill throughout the voyage and suffered the mental anguish of not knowing where he was headed or what lay in store for him.

But the terrible experience led to an awakening. More than ever, despite his predicament, he grasped that a benevolent higher power oversaw the entire world.

The explorers took Squanto to Málaga, Spain. The next stop was a squalid slave market. His likely fate was the hard labor and horrors of a sugar plantation, but two Spanish Franciscans happened by the market and intervened.

The Spaniards regarded Native Americans far differently than the English did. Spain was a Catholic nation, and Pope Paul III in 1537 issued a bull that forbade the enslavement of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Native Americans, he taught, were rational human beings who had rights to freedom. “The said Indians, and all other people who later may be discovered by Christians, are by no means deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ,” the Pope declared.

The atrocities against Native Americans by the Spanish colonizers were initially documented in writings by Dominican Friar Bartolomé de las Casas in the 16th century. He once owned slaves in the New World but later opposed the practice and passionately pleaded for the rights of Indigenous people before King Charles I of Spain.

Spanish conquistadors, in their quest for wealth and power, routinely flouted what the Pope declared about the rights of Native Americans.

But some clergy recognized their inherent human dignity. So the two righteous friars purchased Squanto to save him, and they diligently taught him the Catholic faith.

Squanto was desperate to return home, but the friars instead were able to send him to London as a free man in 1617. There, he learned English and worked as a translator. Ever resourceful, Squanto managed to sail to Newfoundland, before being forced to return to England once more. Finally, in 1619, he secured a passage back to the Americas.

His homecoming was hardly a happy one. Squanto journeyed to New England, but his tribe was gone — wiped out by the diseases transmitted by the white settlers. He was taken captive by Massasoit, whose own powerful Wampanoag tribe also had been greatly reduced by disease. Massasoit had to decide what to do about the white settlers. He was not sure he could trust them. They had stolen 10 bushels of maize. Their thievery helped keep them alive that first winter.

Little had gone right for them since they sailed from England. Half of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower were dead by the end of that first winter.

Massasoit ultimately sent Squanto as an emissary to the Pilgrims. No stranger to hardship, Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant the native corn and how to fish. He saved their lives in another way: In serving as an emissary and interpreter, he almost certainly turned Massasoit away from an attack.

Sadly, Squanto did not live long after his memorable kindness to the Pilgrims. He succumbed to a European-brought disease less than a year later. But he was a man of faith.

His last words, at least according to William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, were to pray for him, “that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven.”

We equate Thanksgiving with gratitude for blessings. Squanto, in exemplifying forgiveness and charity, helped bring to the New World, and to the Pilgrims, the virtue of love at the heart of Christianity.

Jay Copp is the author of 150 People, Places and Things You Never Knew Were Catholic (OSV). This piece was adapted from his new book.

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