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MARTHA SEZ: Squanto and the pioneering spirit

November 28, 2011
Every year at this time I reflect upon the interesting “facts” I learned in elementary school about the Pilgrims. Take Squanto, the legendary Patuxet Indian who taught the pilgrims to plant corn, for example.

The real Squanto was no simple backwoods fellow, but a man of the world. In Squanto’s day, there was a lot of activity along the New England coast, with English explorers and merchants collecting lucrative saleable cargos, including furs, timber and human beings.

Yes, Squanto had been around. In1605 he traveled to England of his own free will with an exploring party under captain George Weymouth, returning in 1614 with Captain John Smith. Soon afterward he and 26 other Patuxet and Nauset Indians were kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt and sold in the slave market at Malaga, a coastal city in southern Spain.

Squanto, aided by kindly friars, was returned to Plymouth Harbor by the exploring party of English Captain Thomas Dermer, only to discover that while he was gone plague had killed all the rest of his tribe.

When the Pilgrims showed up six months later, Squanto latched right onto them. He helped them to deal with local tribes, acting as translator and go-between. And yes, he really did teach them to plant corn, using fish for fertilizer, thus saving them from starvation.

Remember sitting at your school desk,  cutting out Pilgrim paper dolls, all dressed in black and gray? We were misguided. We could have used the colored construction paper. The Pilgrims usually wore russet brown  and Lincoln green, typical of the English lower class  from whence they came, but they had nothing against donning their gay apparel now and again. Records show that ruling elder William Brewster boasted a red cap, a white cap, a quilted cap and a lace cap, a violet coat, and  a pair of green drawers. The Puritans, not the Pilgrims, outlawed what they termed “gay attire.”

Not all of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower came to the New World in search of religious freedom. Many came to seek their fortunes. If it weren’t for misfortune, they wouldn’t have been fortunate at all, some of them. Think about that long, perilous voyage, the hardships they endured. No matter how bad things were for them in England, it must have been a huge decision to board that ship and set off for America.

I wonder how my ancestor, John Howland, the only man, woman or child to fall off the Mayflower, decided to take the cruise? Did the flip of a farthing change history?

Then again, maybe John Howland didn’t have a choice, since he was an indentured servant, a man who could be bought and sold by his employer until his term of indenture was up. I am thankful that the crew fished him out of the ocean, or I wouldn’t be here today, setting everybody straight about our great American holiday.

We Americans are all pioneers, immigrants or descendants of immigrants, even those of us who are native Americans. I’ll bet crossing the land bridge, a step or two ahead of the glaciers, during the Ice Age wasn’t all that much fun. But that’s pioneer spirit for you.

For every pioneer there must be thousands who stay put. I’m not so sure I would have been climbing aboard the Mayflower or hopping on a covered wagon heading west. Hey, good luck, I’’ll be along as soon as I finish my column. And take a bath and set my hair. You all just go on without me.

There will always be pioneers. Some are gamblers, some reckless and feckless, some just young and adventurous. Some are in love with the gamblers and adventurers. Others are just plain desperate.

President Abraham Lincoln set the date for thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. It originated in New England.

I imagine the Pilgrim foremothers worked hard  to make the feast a success, and  tried to make everything look as nice and organized as possible, considering. They’d been through a lot since leaving  England.

At the first Thanksgiving, 90 Indian braves unexpectedly joined the Pilgrim feast, contributing game and fish. These days we still strive to be  spruced up and ready for company. That’s not all bad, because even if the guests don’t arrive, you have your house cleaned up.

But since I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving at someone else’s house this year, it really isn’t relevant. I’m thankful for that.

Feasting is good. Happy Thanksgiving!


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