Osamequin, Tisquantum, and the First Thanksgiving

It is November 1621 on the windy shores of Plymouth, Massachusetts.  A small group of pilgrims gather in the chilly air in a dirt clearing.  Their numbers are small. Much smaller by half from those who started the long and perilous journey a year ago by ship from England.  They sailed on the Mayflower, a voyage that would later go down in history.  Only 50 pilgrims: 22 men, 4 women, and 20-plus children and teens, gather for this day’s feast. They invited the Wampanoag Indians and their leader, Ousamequin (pronounced “O-saw-meh-quin”), also known today as “Massasoit,” to the celebration.  Without Chief Ousamequin and the Wampanoag people, the pilgrims would not have survived their first winter on these new and forbidding shores.  Every pilgrim has lost someone during the past year – a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend.  Those remaining have much to be thankful for this fall: warm cabins, a bountiful harvest, and peace with the Wampanoags.

So, in thanks, they scurry to prepare a feast fit for a chief: fish, turkey, bread, corn, fruits, and vegetables.  Soon, they hear rustling in the bushes and a tribe of 90 Wampanoag Indians enter the clearing, a great chief leading the pack.  They are dressed in feathers, leather, and beads.  They are a striking group with strong bodies, painted faces, and long flowing hair.  They walk with pride and grace.  Between 12 proud warriors are strung the carcasses of five deer tied to wooden poles.  The poles are perched atop bronzed shoulders and the sight of these plump deer reminds the pilgrims how hungry they are.

Greetings are exchanged – a mixture of hand signals, English, and Wampanoag words – as well as gifts of food, beads, clothing, and tools.  One Wampanoag knows English and he acts as an interpreter between the leaders of the Pilgrims – William Bradford, Miles Standish, Edward Winslow, Stephen Hopkins and John Carver – and the Chief.  The interpreter’s name is Tisquantum (later nicknamed “Squanto”).  On previous visits with the pilgrims, he stated that the Chief’s name was “Massasoit Ousamequin.”  The pilgrims mistakenly think that “Massasoit” is his first name, but it is his title, meaning “great leader.”  This mistake by the pilgrims is further compounded when they write down the chief’s name as “Massasoit” in their journals.  From then on, the chief is known by the name “Massasoit” by the pilgrims – and later by history.

Pilgrim Edward Winslow is awed and a little anxious at the site of this sturdy, striking chief. He describes the leader “in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.  His attire is a great chain of white bone beads about his neck, and behind his neck hangs a little bag of tobacco.  His face is painted red and he oils both head and face.” 

The Wampanoags get to work building fires and erecting spits to roast the venison.  The pilgrims help them prepare the carcasses and position them above the flames.  The men then go hunting.  They gather turkey, ducks, deer, and rabbits.  The teenagers scramble along the rocky shore harvesting seafood: mussels, clams, and lobsters.  The woman and children mash corn porridge and fill wooden bowls with berries and nuts.  

The hunting party returns and everyone settles around the spits to smoke, drink, laugh and trade.  The pilgrims show the Wampanoags how to use the tools they brought from England and in turn they show them how to plant native seeds and where to fish.

By midday, the feast is ready and everyone gathers to dine. The venison is juicy and tender.  Never has anything tasted so good to the grateful pilgrims.  Everyone dives into platters of fish and turkey mixed with an array of cranberries, blueberries, and gooseberries.  Hot squash and cooked pumpkin simmer in the chilly afternoon air as a warm treat.  

The men light their pipes and sit around the fire as nighttime descends.  The women and children clear the feast and store the remaining food so that pesky possums and predators will not steal the spoils.  The Native Americans erected tents to use as shelter during the three-day celebration.  Soon sleep overtakes the revelers and everyone retires after a long, busy day.  

The next two days are much the same, filled with hunting and feasting.  On the third afternoon, Chief Ousamequin, Tisquantum, and the warriors head back into the forest, back to their own villages and families.  It has been a truly memorable time for all – and one that will go down in history thanks to President Abraham Lincoln who declares it as the first American Thanksgiving.

We know a lot about the Mayflower pilgrims and their first years in Massachusetts from the journals and manifests they left behind.  But what do we know about Chief Ousamequin and Tisquantum who were involved in this historic Thanksgiving?  

It is believed that Chief  Ousamequin was born around 1581 and was the leader of the Wampanoag people, also known as the Pokanokets, living in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. For years, the Chief had been dealing with epidemics raging through his villages.   Early explorers from Normandy, Brittany, and Bristol arrived on their shores fishing for cod to take back home. The travelers brought diseases with them that quickly swept through the tribes.  The American Indians, having no natural resistance to foreign diseases, quickly succumbed.  

In addition, the Wampanoags were battling the Narragansetts, also from Rhode Island.  With his dwindling tribe, the Chief knew he needed strong allies.  The pilgrims then landed on his shores with healthy men and strong weapons – weapons the Wampanoags did not have. Such as mighty muskets with buckshot that could fly further than tomahawks or arrows.   Chief Ousamequin might have taken this as a sign from the heavens that these new people were here to help him against his enemies, the Narragansett. Or he wisely knew that he could barter with these men.  He could make a peace agreement with them: he and his tribe would not attack the pilgrims and would teach them where to hunt, farm, and fish.  In return, the pilgrims would help him protect his people against the Narragansett.  

But in order to communicate his proposed peace treaty, he needed an interpreter.  He knew someone named Tisquantum who was familiar with the strange language called “English” and he sent him to speak with the pilgrims.

And how did Tisquantum know English?  Well, that is a sad story.  Tisquantum was part of the Patuxet tribe and their summer village was in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  In 1614, when he was in his 20’s or 30’s, Tisquantum was taken captive by an English explorer named Thomas Hunt.  Thomas Hunt was sailing along the New England coast gathering furs and cod to sell in Spain.  He decided that in addition to gathering pelts and fish, he would take captives.  Hunt landed near Plymouth and lured 20 Patuxets onto his boat, including Tisquantum, to discuss trade.  But instead of a friendly discussion, he took them captive and sailed with them to Malaga, Spain, to be sold into slavery.  Some kindly monks took pity on Hunt’s captives and paid for them. The monks then taught them English and religion.  Sometime thereafter, Tisquantum traveled to London, maybe as a worker or a helpmate to a merchant or ship’s captain.

In 1619, Tisquantum returned to America, possibly by convincing London businessmen that he could make them rich with expeditions to America.  He joined a ship bound for America. When they landed, he found that his whole tribe, which once numbered 2,000 members, had died from diseases.  Tragically, he was the last of the Patuxet tribe.  History does not record how or when he met Chief Ousamequin – possibly upon his return from England.  

A year later, in late 1620, the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth and the tribes held a three-day meeting to decide what to do with these new people.  Tisquantum urged Chief Ousamequin to make friends with them.  He told the chief of the great wonders he had seen in England and convinced him that if he befriended the pilgrims and made them their allies, the other Native Americans would have to bow before him.  

In March 1621, Chief Ousamequin sent Tisquantum to speak with the pilgrims on his behalf.  Tisquantum then stayed with the pilgrims for 20 months, teaching them where to fish and hunt, and how to plant and fertilize their seeds for a bountiful harvest.  He also helped rescue a small boy taken captive by another tribe.  Tisquantum introduced the pilgrims to the fur trade and went on sailing and trading trips with them along the Cape Cod coast, acting as a guide and interpreter.  Unfortunately, on one of these trips, Tisquantum fell ill from a fever.  William Bradford stayed by his side for days before Tisquantum passed away on November 30, 1622, two years after the pilgrims’ arrival.  He was approximately 42 years old.  It was a great loss to Chief Ousamequin and the pilgrims, and they dearly mourned his passing. 

As for Chief Ousamequin, he lived a long life and worked to keep the peace between various warring tribes and the expanding colonies.  He was once taken hostage by an enemy tribe, but with the help of Tisquantum and the pilgrims he was released.  He had five children: sons Wamsutta, Pometecomet, and Sonkanuchoo, and two daughters, Amie and Sarah.

In the early 1620’s, Chief Ousamequin became very sick and was nursed back to health by pilgrim Edward Winslow.  The chief was forever grateful and stated, “The English are my friends and love me….and I will never forget this kindness they have showed me.”  And he was true to his word. When he learned about plans by another tribe to attack two pilgrim colonies, Chief Ousamequin warned the pilgrims.

But tensions between the growing colonies and the American Indian tribes only grew worse through the years.  In 1649, Chief Ousamequin sold 14 miles of land to Miles Standish and other pilgrims near Duxbury, Massachusetts, in an effort to keep the peace and give the pilgrims some land of their own.  This site is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Chief Ousamequin passed away between 1660 and 1662 in his 80’s or 90’s.  His eldest son became the leader after his death.  However, he died within a year and the chief’s second son became the next leader.  

During his lifetime, Chief Ousamequin was a dedicated peacemaker, skilled mediator, and honorable leader.  Today, statues in his honor are displayed at Plymouth Rock, Brigham Young University, the Utah State Capitol, the Springville Museum of Art, and in Kansas City, Missouri.  Two places in Massachusetts are named after him: Massasoit Community College and Massasoit State Park. 

Unfortunately, there are no statues for – or even a description of – Tisquantum.  Some say that the peninsula named Squantum in Quincy, Massachusetts, is named after him.  

It is undeniable that the pilgrims, and the generations of immigrants who arrived on America’s shores in the centuries that followed, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Chief Ousamequin, Tisquantum, and the Wampanoag people.  Without their guidance, assistance, and protection, the first colony would surely have perished. These brave humans have provided us with examples of how to live an honorable life: respect nature, keep your word, live as a community, give as much as you receive, and help your fellow man.

It is sad that so little information remains about the life and times of these Native Americans, but maybe when you gather around your Thanksgiving table this year, you will take a moment to give thanks to Chief Ousamequin, Tisquantum, and all of the other Wampanoags.