Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims who landed in America, died. Of the 50 who remained only 6 or 7 were strong enough to care for the others.
William Bradford was their leader. He survived the first devastating winter of 1620 and went on to serve as governor of Plymouth for 33 years. From his book, Of Plymouth Plantation, comes this amazing story of how God intervened for the Pilgrims’ survival in this new land:
“About ye 16. Of March a certaine Indian came bouldly amongst them, and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand, but marveled at it… He tould them also of another Indian whos name was Squanto, a native of this place, who had been in England & could speake better English then him selfe.
“Afterwards they (as many as were able) began to plant ther corne, in which servise Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both ye maner how to set it, and after how to dress & tend it. Also he tould them excepte they got fish & set with it (in these old grounds) it would come to nothing, and he showed them yt in ye midle of Aprill they should have store enough come up ye brooke, by which they begane to build, and taught them how to take it, and wher to get other provisions necessary for them; all which they found true by trial & experience… And thus they found ye Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to blesse their outgoings & incomings, for which let his holy name have ye praise for ever, to all posteritie.”
Bradford added, “Squanto… was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”
How God worked in Squanto’s life is really amazing. In 1605, a member of the Native American Patuxet tribe, Squanto was captured by an English explorer and taken to England where he learned to speak English. In 1614 Captain John Smith brought him back to America but he was captured again and taken to Spain to be sold as a slave. Local Catholic friars rescued him and introduced him to Christianity.
He went back to England and got on a ship to his native America. But when he got home, he found that all of his tribe had been killed by a plague. The sudden death of the whole tribe scared the neighboring tribes and so they never went onto the property, making it available for the Pilgrims. Also because of the odd circumstances of the tribe’s annihilation, the other tribes didn’t attack the Pilgrims and Squanto facilitated a peace treaty that lasted over 50 years.
With Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims’ second winter was much better. To celebrate, Governor Bradford appointed a day of Thanksgiving and invited Squanto’s newly adopted tribe to come and give thanks to God with them. The chief and 90 of his men came and feasted. They ate deer, turkey, fish, lobster, eels, vegetables, corn bread, berries, pies and popcorn that the Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to make. They competed in games of wrestling, shooting and running. The chief had such a good time he and his men stayed and celebrated for three days.
This was the first official American Thanksgiving.
If you’d like to read more about this time in America I recommend America’s Providential History by Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell and William Bradford: Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim by Gary Schmidt.