The Real Thanksgiving Story

by Meghan Ferrara 

Although it is commonly believed that the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 when the English Puritans gave thanks and shared a meal with Native Americans who had helped them survive the harsh New England winter, this is not the historical reality. How Squanto was able to communicate with the Pilgrim Fathers is a tale with a surprisingly Catholic angle,

as told by REGINA writer Meghan Ferrara.

The Pilgrim Fathers’ famous celebration was not the first time a thanksgiving dinner had taken place on American soil. That distinction belongs to the Catholic Spanish who developed a tradition of giving thanks beginning in 1541.

That year, Father Juan Padilla, who later became the first Christian martyr in North America, offered a Mass of Thanksgiving for the newly Catholic Indians of northern Texas and members of Francisco Coronado’s expedition, uniting the two groups in prayer followed by a festive repast. Twenty four years later, after landing in St. Augustine, Florida, Captain Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his crew joined the Native Indians for a celebration of Holy Mass followed by a great banquet.

Yet, these two occasions were one-time events. It would not be until 1598 that Thanksgiving would become an annual tradition when the explorer and first territorial governor Juan de Oñate laid claim to the land that now encompasses the border of Texas and New Mexico, near where the flourishing mission post of San Juan would be established a few years later.

THE REAL FIRST THANKSGIVING: Spanish explorer and first territorial governor Juan de Oñate instituted an annual American Thanksgiving more than 20 years before the Pilgrims set foot in Massachusetts. (PHOTO CREDIT: Advanced Source Productions via Wikimedia Commons/Onate Monument Center, Alcalde, NM)

Raising a huge cross along with the Franciscan friars who accompanied the expedition, Oñate dedicated the territory to Christ the King, “I want to take possession of this land today, April 30, 1598, in honor of Our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day of the Ascension of Our Lord.” Holy Mass followed this ceremony and the native Indians readily embraced the Catholic faith. Every year since, even to this day, residents of the area hold a grand feast to celebrate that first Thanksgiving four hundred years ago.

The Catholic Who Saved the Pilgrim Fathers

Though the pilgrims who partook of the Thanksgiving observance in 1621 were not Catholic, their experience held a profoundly Catholic influence. Squanto — the man who saved the settlers from starvation by teaching them how to work the land — was Catholic.

Tisquantum (‘Squanto’) was born about 1580 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was a Patuxet Indian, part of the Wampanoag tribal confederation. In 1614, a lieutenant of Captain John Smith, Captain Thomas Hunt, double-crossed Smith and betrayed the Indians. He kidnapped a group of tribesmen, including Squanto, and traveled to Spain to sell them into slavery.

Fortunately, once in Spain a group of Franciscan friars thwarted his scheme by obtaining custody of and liberating the captive group. The friars also educated, catechized and baptized Squanto and his companions.

Afterwards, Squanto sailed to London, where he worked as a laborer in the shipyards. He became fluent in English and made the acquaintance of wealthy British traders and transporters. The Newfoundland Company retained Squanto as an interpreter and expert on American natural resources. Finally, he was able to return to his homeland in 1619, five years after he was kidnapped.

The first encounter between the pilgrims and Squanto, accompanied by natives Massasoit and Quadequina, occurred on March 22, 1621. Due to his fluency in English, Squanto became invaluable to the new Plymouth settlers. He was able to impart his knowledge of the land and to instruct the colonists how to fertilize the ground, grow corn and other crops, in addition to showing them the best fishing places. Squanto also proved a skilled diplomat, negotiating peace and commercial links with the English. In addition, he coordinated truces and trade agreements between the Plymouth Colony and regional indigenous leaders, which lasted for fifty years.

In the United States today the phrase “colonial America” popularly evokes images of pilgrims and English governance in the New World. However, Catholic Spain played an integral role in the settlement of this continent. Its perseverance and faith helped enrich the Catholic Church and to forge a new nation.

OPPOSITION TO SLAVERY WAS NOT MERELY THE SENTIMENT OF A FEW SPANISH CLERICS, but in fact was the official policy of the Catholic Church. In 1537, almost 80 years before Squanto’s capture, Pope Paul III had become concerned by reports of callous treatment of the indigenous Americans. His papal bull, “Sublimis Dei”, banned Catholic governments from enslaving or abusing American Indians.


In a time when non-Europeans were often deemed to be less than human, the Pope decreed that these native peoples were “true men” who could not legitimately be denied their freedom. Subsequent to this papal proclamation, the Catholic Church in Spain opposed both the ill treatment of the Indians and the forced transport of indigenous people to Europe.

FEATURED PHOTO: The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe 1914

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