by Ray Lenarcic
The children had been warned to play near their homes and not stray into or beyond the fields which separated the village from a dense forest. It was late November, and the dark clouds and wind indicated a snowstorm of some significance was brewing. That, plus fear of Indians, was enough to justify the Pilgrim parents’ concern. But children have forever seemed unable to remember such warnings, especially during the excitement of playing games. The game that day was the 1621 version of hide and seek. The kids divide into two groups. One hides while the other seeks. The older children set the boundaries- hide anywhere in town but stay away from the fields and the rocks leading to the ocean bordering Plymouth.
Nathaniel was the leader of the “hiders.” His group included his sister Rachel, cousins John and William, and the Gibson twins, Elizabeth and Mary. He had always taken great pride in finding places where they could not be found, thereby winning the game. But there were only so many hideaways in an area so small. With each succeeding game, he had to go further and further from the village. That day, despite the warnings, he took his side to a small ravine that formed a border between field and forest.
“They can’t find us. Let’s go home,” whispered Nathaniel. “Besides, it’s starting to snow pretty hard, and I’m cold.”
“So are we,” said the others as they brushed themselves off and climbed out of the ravine.
“Where’s Elizabeth?” cried Mary.
The little girl had disappeared. Her small footprints led into the forest. After sending the others back to the village, Nathaniel and his older cousin, John, went looking for her. After maybe an hour of searching, the boys decided to head back. It was bitter cold, snowing, and getting dark. They soon realized they were lost. They crawled under the branches of a fir tree to escape what had become a blizzard. Huddling together for warmth, exhausted from the day’s activities, they fell asleep.
The sound of strange voices awakened Nathaniel. He rubbed his eyes again and again, not believing what he saw. He was lying in a bed in a smoke-filled room. Alongside him lay John. Standing in a nearby doorway was the largest man he had ever seen. He rubbed his eyes again. “Don’t be afraid.” He felt a hand on his head. It was a savage! He screamed.
Nathaniel had been taught the natives, called savages by the adults, were barbaric people who worshipped strange gods, tortured and killed people they captured, and hated whites. Now he was their prisoner.
‘Don’t hurt us, please,” John, awakened by Nathaniel’s voice, cried out. The man tried to calm the boys. “You will not be harmed. Here, eat this.” Kneeling, the warrior, offered each a bowl filled with stew. Devouring the bowl’s contents, the boys were put at ease by what they now heard.
The warrior’s name was Squanto, and he spoke English because, years past, he had been captured by a fishing expedition, taken to England, and years later returned to his people. A hunting party had discovered the boys and brought them to safety. Why hadn’t they been killed? Because they were boys in trouble and the natives believed in helping people in need. Their religious beliefs taught them to treat all living things with respect. The boys learned that the natives’ initial efforts to befriend the “pale-skinned” strangers were met with hostility. They were fired at with muskets. Nathaniel and John discovered that their religion included belief in a Great Spirit, not too different from their God. Native children were taught to respect each other and speak the truth.
“Johnny, Nathaniel!” Elizabeth ran into their arms. “These are nice people. Look what they gave me.” In her arms, she cradled a doll made from cornstalks.
“Ready to go home?” asked Squanto. “Yes,” the children answered in unison.
After a journey of an hour or so, the party reached the point where the forest ended, and the field begins. Nathaniel could see his village on the horizon. Squanto bid them goodbye.
“Thank you,” replied John. “Goodbye.” Elizabeth hugged the warrior chief.
As the children neared the village, they heard, “There they are!” It seemed like the entire population rushed to greet them. Their parents and relatives hugged each child and, after being assured they were okay, hurried them to the church. There, before a hushed crowd, Nathaniel recounted his adventure. As he spoke, the faces of the people took on a look of utter amazement. One by one, their images of the natives were shattered. Friendly, Caring, Giving, Loving. They saved the children’s lives! He wondered aloud how the adults could have been so wrong.
“Look what Squanto gave me,” shouted Elizabeth, holding her doll up high. Many in the congregation could be seen wiping away tears as they left the church.
A week later, on the last day of November, the Pilgrims stood silently on the outskirts of the village. Walking slowly toward them were scores of native men, women, and children. They had been invited to join them in a celebration of thanks.
Led by Squanto, the natives came laden with a variety of foods and gifts-squash, pumpkins, beans, venison stew, and the item later to be most enjoyed by the villagers, turkey. Both groups walked together to the church, where they would share a bountiful feast. Nathaniel’s father went to Squanto, shook his hand, and whispered a few words in his ear. The warrior chief faced his people and said, “The Watisu (white people) welcome us to show thanks for giving life to their children. “The natives nodded and smiled. Squanto, his arms around Nathaniel and John, addressed the Pilgrims. “Let this moment show us that we can exist together as brothers. Let us each give thanks to the Great Spirit for all that is good here today.”
With that, the feast began, and our tradition of Thanksgiving was born.
Ray Lenarcic is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.