History, Culture & Faith – First Thankgiving: Pilgrims, Squanto, America


By Dr. Rick Chromey

Thanksgiving has evolved in the past decades. And while it retains remnants of its historic “Pilgrim” heritage, in general the day sanctioned for gratitude has grown less sacred. It’s become a day for parades, football, turkey, pumpkin pie, and Black Friday sales.

But was that the Pilgrim’s vision for coming to America? What makes the first Thanksgiving so important?

The idea of a Thanksgiving “holy day” wasn’t new to these immigrants from Holland. The Dutch already had a similar autumn holiday of gratitude, but the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles was more likely the Pilgrim’s inspiration. This ancient fall festival celebrates the forty-year wilderness journey of the Israelites – a “wandering” with which the Pilgrims readily identified.

They were, after all, “pilgrims” who were religious separatists or Puritans. They were English by nationality, but religiously at odds with the Church of England (who forbade their religious practices and persecuted them severely). It’s why a group of Puritan dissenters migrated to Holland in 1607. However, their new Dutch secular culture eventually proved equally disconcerting.

In the fall of 1620, 102 passengers sailed to America. On board were 41 Puritans. These “pilgrims” migrated for three reasons: (1) freedom to worship God as they preferred, (2) raise their children in a Christian culture, and (3) share Christianity with the native Indians. Concerning this final point, their governor and historian William Bradford affirmed the Pilgrims had: “a great hope and inward zeal…for the propagating and advancing the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world [i.e., America].”

On November 19, 1620, their Mayflower ship reached Cape Cod and, two days later, disembarked at Provincetown Harbor, Mass., or Plymouth Rock. The group initially intended to settle in Virginia but were blown by the winds far north to Massachusetts. But that wind of change proved a Divine Blessing. After all, if they had landed in Massachusetts a few years earlier, the violent Patuxet Indians would’ve easily killed them (as they did others who tried to settle the area).

But these Indians were all gone now, due to a mysterious plague that had destroyed the entire tribe in 1617…destroyed them all, except for one man.

His name was Tasquantum or Squanto.

Tasquantum had missed this deadly plague because he was in England…working as a freed slave. He had been captured twice. The first time by an English captain in 1605 who introduced him to William Shakespeare and high English culture. This education equipped Tasquantum to be an interpreter, so in 1614 he returned to his native coast of New England. Unfortunately, his freedom was short-lived. Tasquantum was kidnapped later that year and taken to Spain as a slave. Thankfully, some Catholic friars redeemed Tasquantum, “instructed [him] in the Christian Faith” and then freed him. Influenced by their kindness, generosity and Christianity, Tasquantum returned to Massachusetts in 1619 as a different man.

The Mayflower landed a year later. However, that first winter in the New World was not kind to the immigrants. More than half died and only a handful of the rest were healthy enough to keep the group fed, warm and nursed.

That’s when they met Tasquantum…the English Indian. He taught them about planting and harvesting corn. He helped them catch fish and trap beaver. More importantly, he became their interpreter. Bradford commented that Tasquantum proved “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” He was their answer to prayer. In fact, that was the Puritans’ first act at Plymouth Rock: a prayer of gratitude. This moment was captured by the artist Robert Weir in his work “Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delfts Haven” (a painting housed in the U.S. Capitol since 1843).

A few months later Tasquantum came to their aid to help the Pilgrims survive and thrive.

Later in the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims felt particularly blessed by Tasquantum’s assistance. They were thankful for a “good increase” in their harvest and the success of their hunting and fishing. Consequently, they opened their table and hearts to Tasquantum and the neighboring Indians. That’s when Chief Massasoit and 90 Indian men gathered with the Mayflower community for three days of feasting and entertainment. They dined on deer, turkey and corn. They prayed, worshipped and thanked God.

It was their first Thanksgiving…a reflection of faith, unity and friendship.

After all, the Mayflower landing initially created friction between the separatists and some of their non-Puritan passengers (who threatened mutiny). The new community needed a temporary government authority. The Mayflower Compact was their solution: “Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia,…in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.”

The Puritans felt the Bible should guide all aspects of life and codified their civil laws through Scripture. By 1623 many of their legal rules were standard in the colonies, including jury trials and private property rights. This Plymouth Colony also separated their elections of civil and religious leaders (a traditional rule in Europe) but now customary in America.

To this day, the Puritans’ legal codes influence our American judicial system. Yes, many of their laws have been revised over the centuries but, generally, they remain…firmly anchored to the Holy Scriptures. The Puritans desired to create a Christian civic community that respected religious freedom…an “idea” later infused within an American revolution and declaration of independence.

Their leader, William Bradford, penned how the Puritans “shook off this yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s free people, joined themselves by a covenant of the Lord into a church estate in the fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all His ways…whatever it should cost them…”

It’s why Americans should remember this “pilgrim” Thanksgiving and know why it matters. If it wasn’t for their courage, convictions and contributions, America as we know it wouldn’t exist.



  1. “Embarkation of the Pilgrims,” Architect of the Capitol: https://www.aoc.gov/…/historic…/embarkation-pilgrims
  2. Bradford Quote on Pilgrim Evangelism: William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation (Boston: 1856), p. 24
  3. The Mayflower Compact: https://www.ushistory.org/documents/mayflower.htm


Dr. Rick Chromey helps people interpret history, navigate culture and explore faith. He’s an author, historian, professor, and founder/president of MANNA! Educational Services International. Rick and his wife Linda live in Star, ID. Rick is available to speak and train for your next event. Readers are also invited to subscribe to the Morning MANNA! inspirational and educational (M-F) email. Please visit: www.mannasolutions.org.

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