Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Hello, Englishman!" A Thanksgiving Oddity

A very strange thing happened to the Pilgrims when they began to build their settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the winter of 1620. A native man wandered into their camp, looked around at their group, and then spoke to them.

"Hello, Englishman," he said. "Welcome."

When the Pilgrims had overcome their suprise, they discovered that this native American was a man called Samoset. He was from an Algonquin-speaking tribe in Maine, and it is believed he learned his English from the traders and explorers who had begun to ply the coast of New England during the early 17th century. What was even more suprising to them is that he went away and brought back another native American called Squanto who spoke English as well as they did!

Squanto--sometimes called Tisquantum--was a native of the Wampanoag people, and he had been captured by English traders more than two decades before. His adventures led him on an odyssey to England, Newfoundland, Spain and back to England again. Because he was young when he was captured, he picked up English quickly and was used as a navigator and translator on a number of voyages.

Finally he persuaded his captors, some of whom were now his friends, to allow him to return home on an English trading ship. When he arrived at his village, near the present day Patuxet, Massachusetts, he found his entire tribe had vanished--most of them killed by European disease. He joined a nearby Wampanoag tribe, whose chief was named Massasoit. It was about two years later that Squanto met his English-speaking friend Samoset. One day they were fishing together when they noticed a group of Europeans in a settlement on the land where Squanto's village had once stood. The two men watched the English for several days before they decided to make contact.

Squanto, who had lost his real home and family during his journeys, moved into the camp with the Pilgrims. Without him, the newcomers probably would not have survived that first winter. He taught them about the plants in the woods: which they could use for medicine and which were poison. He taught them to plant corn and to use their leftover fish as fertilizer. He taught them how to hunt and what to hunt. And he helped them negotiate a peace treaty with Chief Massasoit, which, at least for a time, ensured the safety of both groups.

When the Pilgrims brought in their harvest in the fall of 1621, they invited Squanto, Samoset, Chief Massasoit, and their families to join them in a celebration of thanksgiving. But they did not understand the size of Indian families. About 90 native Americans showed up, and Massasoit, seeing that the English were unable to provide a spread for all of them, sent his men out to hunt deer and pheasant and wild turkey.

This is the true origin of the first Thanksgiving in North America. It is the story of two native men, who spoke the language of the people who would eventually end their way of life, and who refused to let these visitors starve during their first cold, New England winter.

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