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I would like to contribute something else to your upcoming Thanksgiving–a grateful thought directed towards all the world’s hidden and helpful people, all the enlightened beings you wouldn’t expect to show up in the nick of time, but who nevertheless walk through the woods to where you are, speaking your language no less, seeming to have nothing better to do than to help you plant your corn.
I’m actually speaking of Squanto, of course. He was the indispensable Wampanoag native whom the tribal leader Samoset introduced to the floundering Pilgrims.
Here’s what amazes me: Young Squanto was deceived and nearly sold into slavery by an obnoxious colonizing acquaintance of Captain John Smith six years before the Pilgrims landed. Soon after sailing against his will to Malaga, Spain, Squanto was adopted by Spanish priests who wanted to convert him to Christianity. And perhaps it was because of the combination of his own spiritual upbringing and the Christianity he absorbed in Spain that Squanto made more friends and found a way back to America. Once here, in 1619, he found that everyone in his Massachusetts village was now dead, probably from an illness that originated with those earliest visiting Europeans.
According to Neal Salisbury of Smith College, who writes a wonderful paper on Squanto that you can read online, Squanto survived some disagreeableness between other remaining tribes near Plymouth, and was introduced to the Mayflower’s passengers in 1620. The fact that Squanto was a native of (what was to them) a wilderness, who also spoke fluent English, amazed the Pilgrims. They themselves had just lost half their group to disease.
With so many reasons to distrust white people, Squanto gladly taught the new settlers how to plant and hunt. His saga is one of the most remarkable parts of the Thanksgiving story. The world was not so vast back then. Squanto had seen more of it than the visiting Pilgrims. And yet to the settlers, it must have seemed like he’d dropped down from heaven, a foreigner AND a friend, standing there, smiling, just in time.