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The Last of the Patuxets: a Thanksgiving story

~ Guest Opinion

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has underscored the deep divisions between Americans, with much hatred spewing back and forth. As we approach this Thanksgiving season, it seems appropriate to recall a little-known tale from American history, where love and forgiveness overcame injustice. It is the true story of a man who knew both deep sorrow and injustice until the final two years of his short, thirty-year life. But in those last two years he came upon a certain people, who not only gave him a purpose, but altered the course of human history.

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His name was Tisquantum. He was born among the Patuxets in the year 1592, in the area we now know as Massachusetts. Life was hard for his people, especially during the harsh winters. To survive, they all had to learn how to hunt and to fish, how to plant crops, especially corn, and how to store provisions for the winter.

Life took a dramatic turn for Tisquantum in his thirteenth year, when in 1605 an English sea captain named George Weymouth arrived at the shores near their village with his ship and crew. To the Patuxets, the English wore funny looking clothes and spoke a strange language. What impressed them most was the English ship. Never had any of them seen such a large vessel. Through sign language the captain told them about the great nation from which they had come, that was on the other side of the ocean. He wanted some of them to go back to England with him and see it for themselves.

Tisquantum’s parents didn’t want him to go. They were skeptical of the English, whom they said could not be trusted. But so great was his desire for adventure that they finally consented. Off he went to a new life, along with four other boys from their tribe, all about his age.

The voyage across the Atlantic seemed to take forever. Not being used to the rough seas, all of the young Patuxets became miserably seasick. But in time they got their “sea legs.” One of the crew members, a man named Charles Robbins, befriended Tisquantum and began to teach him English. By the time they arrived in England, he could carry on polite conversation for a few minutes. Mr. Robbins invited him to stay with his family. In the Robbins household he worked for the next nine years, during which time he learned the ways of the English and mastered their language. On Sundays they took him to their church, where he was introduced to the Christian faith.

At the end of those nine years he became homesick. Mr. Robbins found another English sea captain named John Smith who was heading for the New World. In exchange for Tisquantum’s services as a navigator and interpreter in the Massachusetts area, he agreed to take him home on his ship. After he fulfilled his duties to Captain Smith, he was put ashore near his tribe. With them he had a grand reunion.

But after Captain Smith left, Captain Thomas Hunt, who had come with the expedition on a separate ship, lured him and twenty others of the Patuxets aboard his ship on the pretext of wanting to trade. Suddenly they were all clapped in irons. Immediately Captain Hunt sailed south, where he captured another seven unsuspecting Nausets. He then sailed to a notorious slave trading port in Spain called Malaga. There they were sold as slaves for about $1,800 each in the dollars of our day. Most of Tisquantum’s friends were shipped off to North Africa. He never saw or heard from them again.

But Tisquantum was fortunate — or was it the hand of God? A group of friendly Catholic friars bought him and a few of the others. They treated them benevolently and introduced them to the Catholic faith, which Tisquantum found to be very different from the Protestant Christianity he had learned in England.

After he had served the friars for a few months they set him free. He then found a ship that took him back to England. There he spent three years as a servant in the home of a kindly man named John Slanie. But he still wanted to go home. Mr. Slanie found another ship captain named Thomas Dermer, who was heading to the New World.

They first landed at the area that is now called Maine. There they picked up an Algonquin Indian chief named Samoset, who just wanted to have his own adventure. Though neither Tisquantum nor Samoset spoke the other’s language, they both knew English, and thus were able to converse. They became good friends.

After completing the same job for Captain Dermer that he had done for Captain Smith, Tisquantum was put ashore again at Plymouth to return to his people. Samoset wanted to go further south, and so they parted.

But when Tisquantum arrived at his village, he found it deserted. For days he journeyed, searching for his people. Finally he came upon a Wampanoag village. There Chief Massasoit, their leader, told him that the entire Patuxet tribe had been wiped out some three years before in a mysterious plague.

All life drained from Tisquantum. After a time of mourning he returned to the Wampanoag village. Chief Massasoit, taking pity on him, allowed him to stay. Sometime later his lonely Algonquin friend Samoset arrived. They were both surprised to see each other and began to spend time together, likely because they had something in common. Neither of them was among his people.

Nearly a year passed until one day in the early spring, Samoset informed his friend that he had met a group of English, including women and children, who were trying to establish a settlement on the coast, in the area that had once belonged to the Patuxets.

“They are having a hard time of it,” he told Tisquantum. “I met them and spent the night with them. They wouldn’t tell me much, but I saw from the grave markers that many of them had died during the long winter.”

Chief Massasoit decided to take a party of warriors with him to meet these English and asked Tisquantum to come along as an interpreter. When they arrived, he saw that Samoset had been right. They were obviously a beleaguered people, who had suffered much through the long winter. The English were amazed to meet Tisquantum, an Indian who spoke their language flawlessly. Chief Massasoit, not wanting trouble with the English, made a treaty of peace with them that was to last for fifty years.

When it was time for Chief Massasoit and the other Wampanoags to leave, Tisquantum decided to stay. These people were unlike any English he had ever known, and he wanted to know why. They too had seen injustice, having fled England because of religious persecution. They too had known great sorrow. Nearly half of their number had died that winter, including 13 of their 18 wives, yet these Pilgrims somehow maintained a spirit of gratefulness to their God.

A light came on in Tisquantum. He would show them how to survive in the New World, just as Charles Robbins had once taught him how to live in England. He showed them how to build warmer homes. He taught them how to get the best yield from their corn by planting pumpkins among the stalks. He showed them how best to catch fish and eels, how to stalk deer, and how to refine maple syrup. He showed them which herbs were good to eat and which were good for medicine. He helped them get a beaver pelt industry going. Very soon their tiny colony began to prosper.

In time the Pilgrims had an abundance of everything they needed. So thankful were they for the abundance, that they called for a special day of Thanksgiving to their God for the following fall. The Pilgrims called their new friend Squanto. In the words of their leader, William Bradford, “He became to us a special instrument sent of God for our good, beyond our expectations.”

Unfortunately, Squanto became ill in the fall of 1622. When Bradford went to see him, it was obvious that his friend was dying. Squanto asked Bradford to pray for him, that he “might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.” His final act was to bequeath all of his possessions to the Pilgrims as remembrances of his love.

Squanto departed this earth on November 30, 1622. He had known great sadness in his short life, but in his final two years he indeed discovered that God had a purpose for him. The tiny Pilgrim colony may not have survived without him. Those of us who follow Christ look forward to seeing our dear friend again in the heaven that is not only for Englishmen, but for all people who put their trust in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.


*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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