It’s hard to see how the pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Plantation could have survived to celebrate their first Thanksgiving without the help of Squanto, a man Gov. William Bradford called a “special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”
Weakened from their long voyage and without adequate food and shelter, half of the Mayflower’s passengers died during the winter of 1620-21. But just as things were looking particularly dark, an American Indian named Samoset entered their settlement — speaking in broken English and promising to bring to them Squanto, an American Indian who had lived in England and spoke better English than he.
For the next two years, Squanto lived with the pilgrims, serving as their interpreter and helping them with agriculture and fishing. But how did it happen that the pilgrims should meet a man with just the bilingual abilities they needed and a willingness to live among them?
For Squanto, it had been no happy trail. Tricked and kidnapped by an unscrupulous English trader along with several of his friends, he had been taken to Spain in 1614 and sold as a slave. Spanish friars paid for his freedom, and Squanto made his way eventually to England and from there back to his homeland only to discover that his people, the Patuxet, had all succumbed to European diseases.
Bradford’s own path hadn’t been easy either. He had been orphaned at a young age, and his childhood was marred by constant sickness. At 18, he had been imprisoned for his religious faith. Several of his fellow separatists starved to death while in captivity. The Mayflower voyage had ended in personal tragedy. While Bradford and several companions left the docked Mayflower to explore, his wife, Dorothy, fell overboard and drowned. A few months later, the death of previous Gov. John Carver placed on Bradford an enormous and unexpected burden.
By November 1621, things looked considerably better for both Squanto and Bradford, but, in view of his previous hardships, it’s surprising to see the depth of Bradford’s gratitude as he reflected on the events that made him call for that first Thanksgiving celebration. “Let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity,” he wrote.
Today, too, there are people whose lives radiate with gratitude despite the hardships and tragedies of their lives. Many congregations sing (joyously) Job’s words after he has lost everything. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
It is this kind of thanksgiving that lies at the heart of Christian faith: an affirmation of God’s ability to bring joy and happiness out of even the bleakest of circumstances. The cross itself, that seeming triumph of evil where God himself is broken, smashes the hold of sin and death and becomes to Christians a symbol of all they hold most dear.
Bradford called for that first Thanksgiving as a “special moment of rejoicing.” But for him, and apparently for Squanto too, thankfulness wasn’t just about immediate blessings but a celebration of the greatness of a God who ultimately works all things together for good.
Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.