Native American people who first encountered the pilgrims at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts play a major role in the imagination of American people today. Contemporary celebrations of the Thanksgiving holiday focus on the idea that the “first Thanksgiving” was a friendly gathering of two disparate groups—or even neighbors—who shared a meal and lived harmoniously.
In actuality, the assembly of these people had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and an effort at rarely achieved, temporary peaceful coexistence. Although Native American people have always given thanks for the world around them, the Thanksgiving celebrated today is more a combination of Puritan religious practices and the European festival called Harvest Home, which then grew to encompass Native foods. (please see "Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth – Part 1.")
A majority of those who came to American on the Mayflower came to make a profit from the products of the land, the rest were religious dissenters who fled their own country to escape religious intolerance. The little band of religious refugees and entrepreneurs that arrived on the Mayflower that December of 1620 was poorly prepared to survive. They did not bring enough food, and they arrived too late to plant. They were not familiar with the area and lacked the knowledge, tools, and experience to effectively utilize the bounty of nature that surrounded them.
For the first several months, two or three died each day from scurvy, lack of adequate shelter, and poor nutrition. On one exploration trip, the settlers found a storage pit and stole the corn that a Wampanoag family had set aside for the next season.
The Wampanoag were facing danger of a different kind. Their enemies, the Narragansett, who lived to the west, were hardly affected by the epidemic. They were now much more numerous than the Wampanoag, and the balance of power was tipping in their favor. The Wampanoag were undergoing pressure from the Narragansett, who were beginning to demand tribute from some Wampanoag villages.
The Wampanoag, seeking a military, befriended the Europeans, who possessed formidable weapons with their muskets and fowling pieces. Two Indian men who knew how to speak English made the initial advances. Samoset, an Abenaki from Maine, and Tisquantum, a Wampanoag, had both learned English as slaves in Europe. Tisquantum (called Squanto by the Europeans) was a Patuxet Wampanoag who had been kidnapped by Europeans and sold into slavery a few years before the epidemic. After several years, he was able to find a ship that was coming back and returned home. When Tisquantum found his way to his village, he discovered he was the only living Patuxet left.
As the “starving time” of the European’s first winter turned to spring, Tisquantum began to teach the settlers how to survive and he set up a meeting between Massasoit and the first Governor of Plimoth, John Carver. Massasoit then negotiated a peace treaty with the newcomers in which they pledged to maintain friendly relations and to come to each other’s aid in case of outside attack, among other things.
The summer passed and Tisquantum helped the newcomers learn to plant and care for native crops, to hunt and fish, and to do all the things necessary to partake of the natural abundance of the earth in this particular place.
Source: "Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth – A Study Guide," produced by Native Knowledge 360, an education initiative of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Reprinted with permission and in gratitude.