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The First Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective

It all started when Tisquantum's entire tribe was wiped out by a plague.

Tisquantum was a member of the Patuxet tribe of the Wampanoag Confederacy when English traders reached their land (now the state of Massachusetts) in 1614, under the command of John Smith.

Smith had previously had interactions with the Powhatan tribe near Jamestown, in what is now Virginia. Smith would later claim that, while exploring the land around Jamestown, he had been captured by Powhatan and would have been executed but for the intervention of the chief's teenaged daughter Pocahontas.

Smith eventually made his way north, where he hoped to establish trade with the Wampanoag. To this end he set up an English colony which he named New England. After gathering a ship's load of furs, Smith headed back to England and left half of his crew and his other ship under the command of Thomas Hunt to continue to trade with the natives. Instead, Hunt lured Tisquantum and more than twenty other Wampanoag (from the Patuxet and Nauset tribes) onto the ship, held them captive, and sailed back across the Atlantic, where he sold them in a market in Malaga, Spain.

Somewhere in the next four years, Tisquantum escaped from Spain and made his way to England, where he learned English and found work as a translator for John Slaney of the Newfoundland Company. Tisquantum was sent to Newfoundland shortly after, where he met Thomas Dermer, who had previously traveled with John Smith. Dermer wanted to return to New England to undo the damage caused by Hunt's betrayal and to re-establish trade with the Wampanoag Confederacy. He realized Tisquantum could play an important role in rebuilding trust with the Wampanoag.

Tisquantum returned to his homeland in 1619 with Dermer and his crew, only to discover that a plague had decimated the Wampanoag and wiped out the entire Patuxet tribe. Dermer pushed on and attempted to make peace with the Nauset. They were not interested, and took him as a prisoner. Tisquantum, upon hearing of it, negotiated Dermer's release.

Dermer decided to leave the area and continue south, but Tisquantum stayed and settled with the nearby Pokanoket tribe.

A year later, a boat arrived carrying English dissidents known as Pilgrims looking for a place to make a new start. The following spring, Samoset of the Abenaki tribe introduced himself to them and asked if they had any beer. For four months the Pilgrims had not met any native residents, so Samoset's visit surprised them—even more so because he could speak English. Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to Tisquantum, who spoke Enlish far more fluently than he did.

Tisquantum provided invaluable help to the Pilgrims that spring and summer. He introduced them to native crops and showed them how to use fish for fertilizer. He helped them to keep peace with all their neighbors and to negotiate a treaty of mutual protection with Massasoit, chief over all the Wampanoag.

That fall, the Pilgrims had a bountiful harvest, and after they ate, they fired a gun salute in celebration. Massasoit and his tribe heard the guns firing and came to see what was happening. They held back as they approached, because they didn't know whether the Pilgrims were being attacked by hostile neighbors, or whether they had brokne the treaty and attacked Wampanoag.

When the Pilgrims explained they were just firing the guns to celebrate their harvest, the Wampanoag were skeptical. They had seen Europeans with guns before, and had not known them to waste bullets. Massasoit had also begun to distrust Tisquantum, whom he believed was using his position for personal gain.

Massasoit kept a group of warriors nearby for a few days to verify there was no fighting. While they were there, the warriors hunted to provide meat, which they shared with the Pilgrims. Massasoit could see the newcomers were vulnerable and needed charity if they were to survive.

But there was never a formal meal where the Wampanaug and Pilgrims sat down together to eat and give thanks.

The modern celebration of Thanksgiving had its origins closer to our day than to the Pilgrims'. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed November 26, 1863 to be a national day of thanksgiving and prayer, hoping it would bring healing to a nation bitterly divided by civil war. The story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was retrofitted for the needs of the time, to encourage people who found themselves at odds with family members to recognize that what held them together was stronger than what divided them.

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