For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time of giving thanks. But it is also a time when we commemorate the success of the Pilgrims, the separatists who came here from England to establish the Plymouth colony.
It is generally believed that the Pilgrims easily adapted to life on the Massachusetts coast, that they were readily able to build homes in the wilderness, raise a plentiful harvest and find abundant fish and game. By all accounts, that was not the case.
Upon arrival in mid-November of 1620, the Mayflower set anchor near the tip of Cape Cod at what is now Provincetown. The passengers, some English separatists some indentured servants, were indeed thankful. But they were not prepared. It was far too late in the year for planting and they had not brought sufficient food to last them until spring.
They knew nothing about the plants and animals of this unfamiliar land and, although they were able to find some game, soon realized it would not be enough to take the 102 passengers and crew of 25 through the winter.
Accounts from that time state that in their explorations, the passengers found stores of corn, beans and dried fish at a burial site which stood among the remains of an Indian village at Provincetown. The travelers took the food and then sailed on to what is now Eastham, where they raided similar burial sites, stealing whatever food they could find. It was there, at what is now called First Encounter Beach, that the Nauset tribe, offended by such violations, defended themselves and their culture against the English settlers, forcing them out. Only then did the Mayflower sail on to Plymouth Harbor.
That winter was a terrible one for the settlers. Without homes, they were left with little choice but to spend the bitter cold months of January, February and March aboard ship in the cargo holds below the crew’s quarters. By the end of the ordeal, contagious diseases such as pneumonia, scurvy and tuberculosis had taken the lives of nearly half of the passengers and crew.
In April of 1621, the crew of the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth to return to England. The surviving passengers remained behind, establishing the Plymouth colony on a site where the Wampanoag Indian village of the Pawtuxet (or Patuxet) tribe once stood. And it was there that Tisquantum, a Pawtuxet Wampanoag Indian, befriended the Pilgrims and, even though he had been horribly mistreated by the English as a boy, eventually chose to live among the Plymouth colony settlers and to teach them about the land they had settled and the skills they would need.
Without him, the Pilgrims would almost surely have perished. In fact, if it weren’t for the assistance of this aboriginal horticulturalist and naturalist, and the willingness of other Native Americans to provide aid and teach the European settlers how to survive, it is probable that Plymouth would have been nothing more than a footnote in history.
Tisquantum assisted the colonists in their negotiations with native leaders. But it was, perhaps, through his horticultural skills and knowledge of the region’s natural resources that he proved himself indispensable to the colonists’ survival.
The colonists had planted wheat that they had brought with them from England, but it did not grow. Tisquantum came to their aid, showing them how to grow corn from seed provided by native friends. And he taught the English how to increase their food production by utilizing fish and the remains of fish as fertilizer for their crops. He informed the English about edible berries and other wild edible fruit, where they could be found and how they could be cultivated.
He led them to areas of the forest abundant with game and to brooks, ponds, bays and coastal areas teeming with fish. He initiated them in how to fish using traps.
More and more settlers arrived. And, in the fall of 1622, Tisquantum negotiated with the Indians of what is now Chatham Harbor for provisions for the colonists to get them through the oncoming winter. But upon leaving, Tisquantum “fell sick of Indian fever.” Within a few days, he was dead.
It is said that before he died, Tisquantum asked Gov. William Bradford to bestow certain possessions as gifts to his friends in Plymouth and to pray for him so that he could go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven. He was long remembered by the Plymouth colonialists, and is not forgotten to this day.