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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

The Catholic Connection to Thanksgiving

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

In April of 1614, seven years before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the English lured a well-known Wampanoag — Tisquantum, who was called Squanto by the English — and 20 other Wampanoag men onto a ship with the intention of selling them into slavery in Malaga, Spain. It was Captain Thomas Hunt (a lieutenant for Captain John Smith) who was in command of this capture and who took Squanto and his fellow Indians into slavery. [1]

For six agonizing weeks, Squanto and his childhood friends lay bound in chains in the darkness and filth of the ship’s hold as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Rocking in the waves and battered by storms, he endured hunger and thirst, vomited from seasickness, and left behind everything he once knew.

Squanto emerged from darkness into the blinding Mediterranean sun. His English captors hauled him to Malaga’s slave market. Squanto was most likely destined for one of the surrounding sugar plantations, into which foreign slaves regularly disappeared.

Spanish friars, witnessing the sale of the Wampanoag, intervened. They purchased Squanto and the rest to save them from slavery and, in their minds, to save their souls. The Spanish clergy were the first opponents of conquest and slavery in the early 1500s. These Priests sought to evangelize the Natives and Africans and to bring them to new life in Christ. It was a high priority for the Friars, and they had been doing so for over a century.

After his baptism in the Catholic Church, Squanto felt God wanted him to return to his native land. Since the Spanish were at war with the English, the monks needed to raise funds to send Squanto overland to the Netherlands to secure passage on a ship to North America. His was an unprecedented seven-year journey home. During these years he began to work for the explorer Captain Thomas Dermer. After touching down in Maine in 1619, Dermer sailed with Squanto and five or six other men south toward Patuxet. It was there that Squanto would receive the greatest shock of his life, as he learned that his village, Patuxet (Plymouth) had been wiped out by the smallpox epidemic of 1616. The village was found totally abandoned, with skeletons littering the ground.

Thomas Morton, a colonist, would later write of the matter in his Manners and Customs of the Indians (1637):

“The hand of God fell heavily upon them, with such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses; and the living, that were able to shift for themselves, would run away and let them die, and let their carcasses lie above the ground without burial. For in a place where many inhabited, there had been but one left to live to tell what became of the rest; the living being (as it seems) not able to bury the dead, they were left for crows, kites and vermin to prey upon...” [3]

One article in the New England Quarterly [4] reports that Squanto was considered the last of the Patuxets. Squanto found his way to Massasoit, who was the head sachem of the Wampanoag Confederation. The neighboring Wampanoag tribe offered Squanto sanctuary, and he lived with them for about two years. The sachem was soon pressed with a political dilemma when a group of English Pilgrims had begun a new settlement. These Pilgrims settled into the abandoned village at Pawtuxet and named their colony Plymouth after the port in England, where they began their journey.

A Native American named Samoset informed Squanto in March of 1621 about the small group of white Pilgrims that now inhabited his deserted village, Pawtuxet. Samoset told Squanto that most of their number had perished during the winter, and the survivors were going to die soon because they were all starving. The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower were completely unprepared for the harsh New England winter. They found an abandoned Indian village and discovered kettles of dried corn the former occupants had buried

Squanto came to see God’s Providence in returning to his homeland to save the lives of the new residents at Plymouth (Pawtuxet). The day Squanto arrived at Plymouth Village, the only food the Pilgrims had left was the last of the Indian corn they had discovered from the supplies that the former Indian occupants had buried in their village. There was not enough corn for everyone, so the meal that day was for each child to five cooked kernels of Indian corn.

They quickly erected wooden houses and tried to lay in a supply of food. More than half the community died that first winter. More children were left alive than adults in the early spring. The majority of children either lost one parent or became orphans.

After visiting the colonists and seeing that they were starving, Squanto set about to catch large eels, which he cooked to make a stew to feed the surviving Pilgrims. At first, they were all reluctant to eat it, but their intense hunger overcame their suspicion, and they all ate Squanto's eel stew. He then immediately set about teaching the Pilgrims how to plant corn, hunt deer, trap other animals, catch fish, and survive in the new land.

Under Squanto's guidance, the colony began to prosper. He also negotiated treaties with the Native American tribes that brought peace between the English settlers and the native peoples for fifty years. The Protestant Pilgrims believed that Squanto was a gift from God.

Celebrating the end of a harvest with a communal meal of thanksgiving to God was a tradition for many Christian cultures. In November, a year after their arrival, the Pilgrim community decided to give thanks to God for their survival by celebrating their first harvest in their new home with a communal meal. They asked Squanto to invite the Wampanoag tribe to celebrate with them.

The Indians arrived with a gift of deer meat and wild turkeys. They stayed for three days, eating and engaging in games like foot races and wrestling contests. This special occasion is what we remember and celebrate as the first Thanksgiving feast in the new world.

The Pilgrims became very fond of Squanto and tried to convert him to their Protestant beliefs. As much as he liked his new friends, Squanto refused to give up his Catholic faith. Several years later, he insisted upon leading a peace delegation to an Indian tribe living further to the west even though he was ill with a fever. More and more settlers were arriving at the Plymouth Colony, and they were expanding the settlement westward.

Squanto knew it was necessary to secure a fair treaty for both the English settlers and the Native American tribes who were their neighbors for the two peoples to live together in peace. He came down with pneumonia soon after returning from negotiating the new treaty. Thought the Pilgrims tried to care for him and save his life, Squanto would succumb to his illness.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we sould remember Squanto, a baptized Roman Catholic Native American, would be the one who saved the English Protestant Pilgrims immigrants from starvation and death in the land of his birth. His acts of mercy on their behalf, certainly counted toward his eternal salvation.


[2] Hunt managed to sell only a few of his captives before local Roman Catholic priests seized the rest. The Spanish Church vehemently opposed brutality toward Indians. In 1537 Pope Paul III had proclaimed: “Indians themselves indeed are true men” and should not be “deprived of their liberty” and “reduced to our service like brute animals.” The Priests intended to save both Tisquantum’s body, by preventing his enslavement, and his soul, by converting him to Christianity... (Smithsonian Magazine).


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