Holiday Study -- Thanksgiving, Part 2: Squanto, the New World Joseph

In the book of Genesis, when God wanted to protect Jacob and his family from being wiped out by the coming famine in their land, God had a plan. That plan starred a single individual named Joseph, whom God allowed to be sold into slavery, to be wrongfully accused and to spend time in prison before being placed in a position of authority over Egypt. In that position Joseph was able to save many lives, including those of his own extended family. Joseph himself confirms in Genesis 45:5 that "God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance".

Likewise, history demonstrates that God had chosen another "Joseph" for the outworking of His plan for establishing America on the new continent. This American Joseph was named Tesquantum (Squanto for short), a member of the Petuxan tribe.

The story begins 15 years before the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims in the Mayflower. Captured in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth who was scouting along the eastern coast of the New World, Squanto was taken to England along with four of his Indian friends. His was put through a special school to learn English so he could be a resource for the English government. They wanted him to provide intelligence that would help English settlers select the most favorable locations to establish colonies.

After nine years in England, Squanto returned to his homeland (which later would become known as New England) with Captain John Smith, in 1614.  Later, Squanto along with 27 other natives were lured and captured by the notorious Captain Thomas Hunt, taken to Málaga, Spain, a world slave trade center, and sold on the slave market.  He and some others were bought by some Friars who took them to their monastery where he was introduced to the Christian faith.

Somehow, Squanto managed to attach himself to an Englishman and traveled with him to England.  There he found a wealthy merchant who helped him get passage aboard a ship back to the New World, arriving there just six months before the Pilgrims were to arrive in 1620.  When he made it back to his village, he was shocked to find that he was the only surviving member of his tribe.  Disease has swept through his homeland during 1615 through 1617, killing everyone else.  Not a man, woman or child was found alive  -- just bones and an empty village. It is estimated that that plague killed 95,000 Indians along the east coast, leaving only about 5,000 survivors. The devastation was so complete that the remaining Indians considered Squanto's home area cursed by a powerful Spirit and too dangerous to repopulate.

Squanto felt stripped of any more reason to live.  His whole family, people and culture were gone.  He wandered around for awhile, and finally settled with another tribe, the Wampanoags.  He didn't have any place to go, but God had a plan for him.

The Pilgrims landed in late November, 1620, just as winter was setting in.  They had no time to build homes on land, so they spent the winter onboard ship.  During that winter, 47 of their number died. It is hard for us to imagine the conditions they endured that winter.

By March of 1621, a Plymouth Colony "common house" was built, and on a Friday late that month, Captain Miles Standish received the shock of his life when a native Indian, naked except for a loin cloth, strode in and greeted him in perfect English.  "Welcome", he said.  The Indian was Samoset, chief of the Algonquin Tribe, of a place that is now known as Pemaquid Point, in Maine.  Samoset had learned his English from a number of sea captains who had put in on the coast of Maine.  What Samoset revealed to Standish and the others that day caused them to thank God for things they hadn't even known about.  He told them that the area where they had landed and were setting up their colony had always belonged to the Petuxans, a large hostile tribe that barbarically murdered every white person that ever landed on their shores.  He explained that four years prior to the Pilgrims' arrival, a mysterious plague had wiped out the Petuxans, and that all other tribes now shunned the area, convinced that some supernatural Spirit had destroyed the Petuxans.

The nearest tribe was the Wampanoags, about 50 miles to the southwest -- a tribe of about 60 warriors.  Their chief, Massasoit was considered so wise that he also ruled over several other small tribes in the area.  Samoset had spent most of the preceding 8 months with the Wampanoags.

On the following Tuesday, Samoset returned to the Colony with another Indian who spoke English -- the only remaining member of the Petuxan tribe.  This of course was Squanto.

The colonists entered into a treaty of mutual aid with Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoags. This agreement was a model of cooperation for over 40 years. Massasoit was probably the only chief of any tribe on the east coast that would have lived peaceably with the Pilgrims, except perhaps for the Pohatans to the south who also welcomed the white man as a friend. The Pilgrims took great pains not to abuse their acceptance of them.

When Massasoit and his entourage went back home to their tribe, Squanto stayed, because he had now found a new reason for living. He recognized that these Englishmen were helpless to the ways of the wilderness, and that they would not survive another winter without him. So he taught them:

He taught them how to survive in the wilderness. Perhaps the most important thing he taught them was how to plant corn, the Indian way:
  1. Hoe a six-foot square and put down 4 or 5 kernels of corn.
  2. Then put three fish on each kernel, all pointing to the kernel, like spokes. These would decay and fertilize the corn.
  3. Guard the field for several weeks to keep the wolves from eating the fish until they decomposed.
 By summer they had 20 acres of corn, which was their main staple that enabled them to survive the winter.

So Squanto was like Joseph in several ways:

That first Thanksgiving:

So the Pilgrims were grateful: Governor Bradford, the leader of the Colony, declared a day of public Thanksgiving, to be held in October.

Massasoit was invited, but he arrived a day early, with ninety additional Indians! It seemed that to feed such a crowd would cut deeply into their resources for winter, until they saw them bringing five dressed deer, and more than a dozen fat wild turkeys.  They helped with the preparations, teaching the Pilgrim women how to make hotcakes and a tasty pudding out of cornmeal and maple syrup. They also thought them how to make one of their Indian favorites: popcorn!

The Pilgrims, in turn, provided many vegetables from their gardens: carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, cucumbers, radishes, beets and cabbage. Also using some of their precious flour, and some of the summer fruits which they had dried, the Pilgrims introduced their Indian friends to blueberry, apple and cherry pie, along with sweet wine made from wild grapes.

After dinner the guys competed with the Indians in shooting contests, foot races and wrestling.  Things went so well that Massasoit showed no inclination to leave.  So this first Thanksgiving was extended to four days!  The thing that stood out in the Pilgrims' mind was William Brewster's prayer at the beginning of the festivities, thanking God for providing all their needs, including their teacher and guide, Squanto, who helped them survive the winter.


To believe that God moved in Joseph's life for the preservation of the Hebrews might require a Level One kind of faith: we believe it because the Bible said it happened. A Level Two kind of faith might require the ability to see, by analogy, God's similar working in history, post-dating the Bible. And a Third Level of faith might require the ability to recognize God's role in the shaping of current events. Let's consider how God's hand is seen in the preparation for the establishment of Plymouth Colony through Squanto, God's Joseph for this epoch: