November 23, 2017
When our American friends sit down for their Thanksgiving dinner it might be appropriate if they gave thanks to the early colonists of Newfoundland, in particular the colonists of Cuper’s Cove (now Cupids).
It could be argued that it was some of the early fishing and farming techniques that were practiced in Cupids, Newfoundland and were later passed on to the Mayflower Pilgrims that helped them survive their first winter in the United States, allowing them to have their first Thanksgiving!
In late 1614, Squanto (also known as Tisquantum and Squantum ) walked into the London office of John Slany, manager of the Bristol Company, a shipping and merchant venture that had been given rights to Newfoundland by England’s King James I in 1610. Squanto had been captured four years earlier in his home (Massachusett) and sold into slavery in Spain. Having escaped his slavers he made his way to London.
Squanto, while in London, worked with Slany learning the English language, Slaney had hoped that Squanto would be his interpreter working with other native groups in the New World. In 1617, Squanto set sail with Slaney and the other Colonists for Cupers Cove, (Cupids) Newfoundland.
While in Cupers Cove, Squanto worked with the other colonists, perfecting his English and learning farming and fishing techniques.
Late in 1619, Squanto befriended Thomas Dermer, a British Merchant in Newfoundland who agreed to sail Squanto home. On arrival, Squanto learned that his people the Patuxet (a Native American band of the Wampanoag tribal confederation, they lived primarily in and around modern-day Plymouth) were no more. Disease had ravaged his home in his absence, and not a single Patuxet native had survived.
Just weeks later the Mayflower’s naive and ill-prepared (Mayflower) Pilgrims arrived to face the winter of 1620 in the New World. Squanto, now alone and his home and people destroyed became a mediator and interpreter for the Mayflower Colonists.
As historian Charles C. Mann wrote in “Native Intelligence,” (Smithsonian, December 2005):
“Squanto was critical to the colony’s survival. The Pilgrims’ own supplies of grain and barley all failed in the New World soil while the native corn gave them a life-saving crop. Squanto taught them how to fish, and how to fertilize the soil with the remains of the fish they caught…|”
In the spring of 1621, the colonists planted their first crops in Patuxet’s abandoned fields. While they had limited success with wheat and barley, their corn crop proved very successful, thanks to Squanto who taught them how to plant corn in hills, using fish as a fertilizer as he had seen in Newfoundland.
With Squanto’s help, the pilgrims grew enough food to survive the following winter, prompting them to invite him to the first Thanksgiving Feast in 1621.
The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast to celebrate the successful fall harvest. No exact date for the feast has ever been recorded but it is believed that it most likely took place sometime between September and November. The pilgrims served fowl and deer for the occasion.
Squanto’s other claim to fame is that he also served as a negotiator between the Pilgrims and other aboriginal groups in the area. Because he spoke English (that he perfected in Newfoundland) he was instrumental in establishing a friendship treaty between other aboriginal groups and the Mayflower Pilgrims, allowing them to occupy traditional aboriginal land.
Newfoundland has another connection to the American Thanksgiving. According to a popular local legend the ship that the Puritans sailed on, the Mayflower landed at Renews, Newfoundland in 1620, where it picked up water and supplies before sailing on to Plymouth Rock.
Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends!!
Recommended Archival Collection: File GN 8.59 1913 Office of the Prime Minister, Edward Patrick Morris, file consists of correspondence related to proposal by Governor Ralph Williams (1908 -1913) for the establishment of Thanksgiving Day in Newfoundland.
Recommended Exhibit: At the Rooms Level 4: Feast and Famine. This exhibit draws on the permanent collection to explore the changing relationship between cultural identity and food in Newfoundland and Labrador, as portrayed by artists such as Grant Boland, Ross Flowers, Jamie Lewis, Mary Pratt, and Helen Parsons Shepherd.
Recommended Read: The Story about Squanto in Cupids, Newfoundland: http://www.cupids400.com/english/about/squanto.php