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The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope

We and the Mayflower Pilgrims owe thanks to the Pope and some Catholic priests for the Thanksgiving of 1621 with Squanto and the Plymouth Colony.

Growing up within sight of Boston, Massachusetts meant lots of grade school field trips to the earliest landmarks of America. We looked forward to those excursions because they meant a day out of school. The only downside was the inevitable essay. Back then, I had no love for either history or essays. Go figure!

Some field trips are vividly remembered even a half century later. A visit to the deck of “Old Ironsides,” the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston Harbor, stands out as the most exciting. Visits to the sites of the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and Paul Revere’s famous ride also stand out as great adventures in hands-on U.S. history – the essays notwithstanding.

Then there was the trip to Plymouth Rock (YAWN!), the most underwhelming national monument in America. Everyone of us emerged from the bus to file past Plymouth Rock while poor Mr. Dawson had to listen to an endless cascade of “That’s IT?!”

“Dedham granodiorite.” That’s the scientific name of the rock where the Mayflower Pilgrims were left to settle in the New World in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Plymouth Rock was noted and described in the Pilgrims’ journals, but it fell into obscurity for a century until the town of Plymouth decided to build a wharf in 1741. That’s when 94-year-old church elder Thomas Faunce set out to identify Plymouth Rock and mark the site. Thirty-four years later, the town moved the rock to a more prominent location, accidentally breaking it in half in the process. Only the top half made its way to the town’s new site.

Then shopkeepers began chiseling away at it, selling chunks to tourists for $1.50 each. Over the ensuing years, Plymouth Rock was moved again and again, split in half a second time, cemented back together, then what was left of it ended up surrounded by a concrete portico to become the nation’s first national landmark.

A Missing Catholic Story

The lack of awe inspired by Plymouth Rock is in inverse proportion to the story of how the Pilgrims came to stand upon it. Every grade school student knows the tale of the Mayflower. In 1620, its pilgrim sojourners fled religious persecution from the established Church of England. They embarked on a long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic in the leaky, top-heavy Mayflower. Landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims befriended the native occupants, endured many hardships, then, after a successful first harvest in the New World, celebrated a Thanksgiving feast with their Native American friends in the autumn of 1621.

That story is true, as far as it goes, but the story your grade school history book omitted is downright fascinating, and every Catholic should know of it. Before boarding the Mayflower, the Pilgrims were called “Separatists.” The religious “persecution” they came here to flee consisted mostly of their determination to purge the remnants of Catholicism from the established Church of England.

Author, Philip Lawler summarized their agenda in his book, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture  (Encounter Books, 2008):

[T]he Puritans were campaigning against the lingering traces of Catholicism. Decades of brutal persecution – first under Henry VIII, then under Elizabeth I – had eliminated the Roman Church from English public life in the sixteenth century; the country’s few remaining faithful Catholics had been driven underground. For the Puritans, that was not enough ••• They were determined to erase any vestigial belief in the sacraments, any deference to an ecclesiastical hierarchy. (The Faithful Departed, p. 22).

The Pilgrims came here to establish a New World theocracy, a religiously oriented society that would reflect their religious fervor which was also anti-Catholic.

Puritanism deeply affected the American national character, but I wonder if the Pilgrims would even recognize the American religious landscape of today. It is far from what they envisioned.

The Puritan Pilgrims were not always considered the survivors of religious persecution American history made them out to be. Writer, H.L. Mencken described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” And G.K. Chesterton once famously remarked:

In America, they have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. Here in England, we should have a feast to celebrate their departure.

Pilgrim’s Progress

When the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower on December 11, 1620, they were not at all prepared for life in the New World. They were originally destined to colonize what is now Virginia, but the Mayflower veered badly off course. They also considered settling at the mouth of the Hudson River in modern day New York, but Dutch traders conspired to prevent it.

Before leaving England on September 16, 1620, the Pilgrims used their meager resources to purchase a second ship to sail along with the Mayflower and remain with them in the New World. That vessel was called the Speedwell. It was anything but well, however, nor was it speedy. Just 200 miles off the English coast, the Speedwell was sinking. Those aboard had to transfer to the crowded Mayflower while the Speedwell returned to England. There was evidence that the Speedwell was intentionally rigged to fail, leaving the colonists with no vessel with which to explore once the Mayflower departefor the voyage back to England.

The voyage across the Atlantic was delayed for months, finally landing the Pilgrims in New England at the start of winter. There were 102 aboard the Mayflower when it left England, but by the end of their first winter in the New World, only half that number were still alive. Unable to plant in the dead of winter, their first encounter with the indigenous people of coastal Massachusetts – known to those who lived there as “The Dawn Land” – came when the near starving Pilgrims stole ten bushels of maize from an Indian storage site on Cape Cod. It was not a good beginning.

Massasoit, the “sachem” (leader) of the once powerful Wampanoag tribe, was not at all enamored of the visitors, and the fact that they seemed intent on staying disturbed him greatly. The Pilgrims had no way to know that prior European visitors to those shores left diseases to which the people of The Dawn Land had no natural resistance. By the time the Pilgrims arrived, 95% of the indigenous population of New England, including the Wampanoag, had been decimated.

Still, Massasoit could have easily overtaken and destroyed the invaders, who were barely surviving, but they had something he wanted. Massasoit feared that his tribe’s weakened state might spark an invasion from rivals to the south, and he noted that the Pilgrims had a few cannons and guns that could help even the odds.

The Pilgrims Meet “The Wrath of God”

So instead of attacking the Pilgrims, Massasoit sent an emissary in the person of Tisquantum, known to history as Squanto. He was actually a captive of Massasoit and arrived just weeks before the Pilgrims. Tisquantum was likely not his original name. In the language of the people of The Dawn Land, Tisquantum meant the equivalent of “the wrath of God.” It may have been a name given to him, and, as you’ll see below, perhaps for good reason.

Squanto was to become the primary force behind the Pilgrims’ unlikely survival in the New World. On March 22, 1621, the vernal equinox, Squanto walked out of the forest into the middle of the Pilgrims’ ramshackle base at Plymouth, a settlement known to Squanto as Patuxet. That place was once his home. To the Pilgrims’ amazement, Squanto spoke nearly perfect English, and arrived prepared to remain with them and guide them through everything from fishing to agriculture to negotiations with the nervous and well-armed Massasoit and the Wampanoag.

As historian Charles C. Mann wrote in “Native Intelligence,” (Smithsonian, December 2005), “Tisquantum was critical to the colony’s survival.” Squanto taught them to plant the native corn they had stolen instead of just eating it, and he negotiated a fair trade for the theft of the corn. The Pilgrims’ own supplies of grain and barley all failed in the New World soil while the native corn gave them a life-saving crop. Squanto taught them how to fish, and how to fertilize the soil with the remains of the fish they caught. Most importantly, Squanto served as an advocate and interpreter for the Pilgrims with Massasoit, averting almost certain annihilation of the weakened and distrusted foreigners.

A Catholic Rescue

For their part, the Pilgrims interpreted Squanto’s presence and intervention as acts of Divine Providence. They had no idea just how much Providence was involved. It is the story of Squanto – of how he came to be in that place at that very time, and of how he came to speak fluent English – that is the most fascinating story behind the first Thanksgiving.

In 1614, six years before the arrival of the Mayflower, Captain John Smith – the same man rescued by Pocahontas in another famous tale – led two British vessels to the coast of Maine to barter for fish and furs. When Smith departed from the Maine shore, he left a lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, in command to load his ship with dried fish.

Without consultation, Thomas Hunt sailed his ship south to what is now called Cape Cod Bay. Anchored off the coast of Patuxet (now Plymouth) in 1614, Hunt and his men invited two dozen curious native villagers aboard the ship. One of them was Squanto. Once aboard, the Indians – as the Europeans came to call them – were forced into irons in the ship’s hold. Kidnapped from their homes and families, they were taken on a six-week journey across the Atlantic. Not all the captives survived the voyage. Those who did survive, Squanto among them, were brought to Malaga off the coast of Spain to be sold as slaves.

Fortunately for Squanto, and later for our Pilgrims, Spain was a Catholic country. Seventy-seven years earlier, envisioning injustices visited upon the indigenous peoples Of the New World, Pope Paul III issued “Sublimis Dei,” a papal bull forbidding Catholic governments from enslaving or mistreating Indians from the Americas. The Pope declared that Indians are “true men” who could not lawfully be deprived of liberty. “Sublimis Dei” instructed that European intervention into the lives of Indians had to be motivated by benefit to the Indians themselves. It would take America another 300 years to catch up with the Catholic Church and abolish slavery.

As a result of the papal decree, the Catholic Church in Spain was opposed to the mistreatment of Indians, and opposed to bringing them to Europe against their will. Of course, the Catholic ideal did not always prevent slave trade on the black market. At Malaga, Thomas Hunt managed to sell most of his captives, and was about to sell Squanto when two Spanish Jesuit priests intervened. The Spanish speaking priests seized Squanto who somehow convinced them to send him home. Not knowing where “home” was, the priests arranged for Squanto’s passage as a free man on a ship bound for London. It is likely that the Jesuits even baptized Squanto as a Catholic. It would have been a way to assure his status as a free man.

Squanto’s world tour was underway. In late 1614, having no idea where he was, Squanto walked into the London office of John Slaney, manager of the Bristol Company, a shipping and merchant venture that had been given rights to the Isle of Newfoundland by England’s King James I in 1610. Squanto spent the next three years stranded in London before being placed on a ship bound for St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1617. By now fully immersed in the language and ways of the English, Squanto spent another two years stranded in Newfoundland – 1,000 miles of sea and rocky coast still separating him from his native Patuxet.

Late in 1619, Squanto befriended Thomas Dermer, a British Merchant in Newfoundland who agreed to sail Squanto home, though neither knew where home was. They knew it was south, so south they sailed. Squanto eventually recognized a Patuxet landmark – maybe even what we came to call Plymouth Rock.

With Thomas Dermer’s ship anchored off Patuxet, Squanto stepped onto the shores of home after a nearly six year absence. But the people of The Dawn Land – Squanto’s people – were no more. Squanto was devastated to learn that disease had ravaged his home in his absence, and not a single Patuxet native had survived. Squanto was alone.

Squanto knew he could not remain there. He convinced Thomas Dermer to accompany him inland in search of anyone among his people who might have survived. There was no one. It wasn’t long before both men were taken captive by Massasoit, sachem of what had been a confederation of 20,000 native Massachuset and Wampanoag tribal peoples. By the time Squanto and Thomas Dermer stood captive before Massasoit, however, all but 1,000 of them were dead from diseases carried to the New World aboard European vessels.

Just weeks later, it was to this setting that the Mayflower’s naive and ill-prepared Pilgrims arrived to face the winter of 1620 in the New World. Squanto, now alone – his life ravaged and his home and people destroyed – convinced Massasoit to send him to the Pilgrims as a negotiator and interpreter instead of attacking them. Squanto put his wrath aside, and became a bridge linking two disparate worlds.

Without Squanto – and, indirectly at least, the Pope and some Jesuit priests – the fate of the Puritan Pilgrims would have been vastly different, and Thanksgiving would likely have never taken place. Squanto was, as Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation wrote of him,

“A spetiall instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectations.”

On that point, both Puritans and Catholics might agree. At your Thanksgiving table this year, say a prayer of thanks for Tisquantum – Squanto. Our national ancestors were once pilgrims and strangers in a strange land, and that land’s most disenfranchised citizen assured their survival.


Father Gordon J. MacRae has served nearly 19 years of a prison sentence of 33½ to 67 years. Convicted of sex offenses, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence, even rejecting plea bargains that would have freed him years ago.

In 2005, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Wall Street Journal published an account of the travesty of justice by which Father Gordon MacRae was convicted (see “A Priest’s Story”). It is a story, described by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus in First Things magazine, of “a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice.” Fr. Neuhaus, along with the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, encouraged Father MacRae to write. In 2005, Cardinal Dulles asked him to contribute “a new chapter to the volume of Christian literature from believers who were unjustly imprisoned.”

Fr. MacRae’s writings from prison have appeared in First Things, Catalyst, The Catholic Response, online at PriestsinCrisis.com and numerous Catholic blogs, and they are now collected at his blog These Stone Walls. (Fr. MacRae has no access to electronic communication and has never seen his own blog. He communicates online through others who post his writings and deliver comments to him though mail or by telephone.)

  • noelfitz

    Fr MacRae,

    Mr Dawson must have been a great teacher, since you are such a great historian.

  • Randall Ward

    A great article and a history we did not know. The USA has the largest prison population, per capita, of any country in the world. Most of the sentences are way too long; the reason they are so long is the sin in the people that send people away for so long. We all don’t like to see people doing the wrong, we have in our own heart. The most sexual nation on earth is ashamed of sex crimes; they hit too close to home. ” Lock the up so we don’t have to look at them!”
    So in a way, some of the people in prison are paying for our sin.