Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Tisquantum: The Native Man Who Rescued the Pilgrims

Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir“We would worry less if we praised more. Thanksgiving is the enemy of discontent and dissatisfaction.” These are the words of H.A. (Henry Allen) Ironside; a Canadian-American Bible teacher, preacher, theologian, pastor, member of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, and one of the most inspired Christian writers of the 20th Century.

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is exactly that; a time of giving thanks. But it’s also a time when we commemorate the success of the Pilgrims; the Separatists who came here from England to establish the Plymouth colony. And, next year, Americans will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, and the Pilgrims, to the shores of Massachusetts.

On August 15, 1620, two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, set sail from London, England, for ‘Virginia’ (virgin territory), a name that at the time, applied to the entire northeast coast of North America. But the Speedwell began taking on water, and both ships returned to port. Efforts were made to make the Speedwell seaworthy, but to no avail. Eventually, it was decided that the Mayflower, a cargo ship roughly 80 feet long and 24 feet wide, would receive the Speedwell’s passengers. And, on September 16, 1620, under the command of Captain Christopher Jones, the Mayflower, with 102 passengers; some English Separatists, some indentured servants; and a crew of about 30 aboard, set sail once again.

Landing of the PilgrimsThey arrived in mid-November, after 66 days at sea, laying anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, well north of established Virginia Company territory. Nonetheless, the passengers were thankful indeed; even jubilant.

While it’s 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 of good crops, and find abundant fish and game; by all accounts, that was not the case. They simply 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 132 people through the winter.

Reports 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 what is now 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; arriving on December 16.

Without homes, the would-be settlers 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, exposure and contagious diseases (pneumonia, scurvy, dysentery, tuberculosis) had taken the lives of nearly half of the passengers and crew.

The Mayflower depicted on a 1920 US postage stampIn 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 a Wampanoag Indian village of the Pawtuxet (or Patuxet) tribe once stood.

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as many as one hundred thousand Wampanoag lived in villages across what is present-day southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, including the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Their leader, Massasoit, welcomed the English. But the Europeans brought disease with them; epidemics which nearly wiped out the entire Wampanoag tribe. Many others were captured and sold as slaves.

The Mayflower passengers disembark at PlymouthIt was at Plymouth (Pawtuxet) that Tisquantum, said to have been the last of the Pawtuxet (part of a Wampanoag confederacy), 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 to master, if they were going to stay alive. Without him, the Pilgrims would have almost surely 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.

Read more about Tisquantum’s story HERE.

Illustrations, from above: Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1844) by Robert Walter Weir (1803-1889); Landing of the Pilgrims; engraving (1877) by Alfred Bobbett; The Mayflower depicted on a 1920 U.S. postage stamp; and The Mayflower passengers disembark at Plymouth; Sarony and Major publishers, circa 1846; Prints and Photographs Division – Library of Congress.

Related Stories

Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

7 Responses

  1. gbear says:

    I am thankful slavery was outlawed in the civilized world. It is a sad fact slavery continues to this day in some parts of the world.

  2. Thank you for this article and all of your articles.

  3. Naj Wikoff says:

    Yes, without the help of the Indigenous peoples the colony would not have survived, on the other hand because they did, they returned the favor by driving the Native Americans off their land, introduced them to alcohol and disease, and destroyed their way of life.

    • Boreas says:


      Truthfully, the “European Invasion” of North, Central, and South America – along with genocide, enslavement, and disease – started much earlier than the Pilgrims. However disease, mostly unintentional, was far and away the biggest killer. Indigenous peoples the world over were among the first casualties of what we would today call globalization. But we can give thanks today that their spirit lives on.

  4. Beau Bushor says:

    Thanksgiving has different meanings to Americans.

    As Indigenous people, being thankful for life and breath is something we practiced everyday and not once a year.

  5. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Very nice article and how appropriate on Turkey Day!

  6. Big Burly says:

    Thank you Richard for this important history reminder and of the generosity of some of the first nation peoples … without it, this nation would perhaps never have come to pass. Hope you had a good Thanksgiving too.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox