Before the Mayflower: Pilgrims and Priests

As I began this post, I told my friend, Pornchai how much I’m fascinated by history. “That’s understandable,” he said. “You were there for most of it!” My fellow prisoners – most much younger than I – like to throw jabs at my age. Some are pretty funny. Here’s a few of their comments on my last birthday:

“Happy Birthday! We heard an archeologist say that when you were born the Dead Sea was only sick!”

“Happy Birthday! We heard you were once a TV celebrity: a regular guest on ‘The Carbon-Dating Game.'”

“Happy Birthday! We had a cake with a candle for each year, but the Fire Marshall said we need a bonfire permit!”

Okay, enough of that! Back to history! Every grade school student knows the tale of the Mayflower. In 1620, its pilgrim sojourners fled religious persecution from the established Church of England. They embarked on a long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic in the leaky, top heavy Mayflower. Landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the pilgrims befriended the native occupants, endured many hardships, then, after a successful harvest in the New World, celebrated a feast with their Native American friends in the autumn of 1621. It was the first Thanksgiving.

That’s all true as far as it goes, but there’s a lot more to this story that wasn’t in your grade school history textbook.

Before boarding the Mayflower, the Pilgrims were called “Separatists.” The religious “persecution” these Puritan Fathers of America came here to flee consisted largely of their wish to expunge the remnants of Catholicism in the established Church of England. Philip Lawler summed this up in his book, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (Encounter Books, 2008):

“ …the Puritans were campaigning against the lingering traces of Catholicism. Decades of brutal persecution – first under Henry VIII, then under Elizabeth I – had eliminated the Roman Church from English public life in the sixteenth century; the country’s few remaining faithful Catholics had been driven underground. For the Puritans, that was not enough … They were determined to erase any vestigial belief in the sacraments, any deference to an ecclesiastical hierarchy.” (The Faithful Departed, p. 22).

G.K. Chesterton once famously remarked, “In America, they have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims.  Here in England, we should have a feast to celebrate their departure.”

Despite their disdain for Catholicism, it is one of the great ironies of American history that the Mayflower’s Puritan Pilgrims owe their very survival in the New World – indirectly at least – to the Catholic Church. It’s a reality that would have made the pilgrims wince, but there would have been no Thanksgiving without Pope Paul III and a group of Spanish Jesuit priests. It’s a complicated story, but it’s worth telling.


The pilgrims were not at all prepared for life in the New World. They were originally destined to land at the mouth of the Hudson River in modern day New York, but Dutch traders conspired against them to prevent them from going there. The pilgrims used their meager resources to purchase their own ship that would sail along with the Mayflower and remain with them in the New World.

Gordon MacRae Falsely Accused Priest Before the Mayflower Pilgrims and Priests 3

That vessel was the Speedwell. It was anything but “well,” however, nor was it speedy. Just two hundred miles off the coast of England, the Speedwell was sinking. Those aboard had to transfer to the crowded Mayflower while the Speedwell returned to England. There is evidence that the Speedwell was intentionally rigged to fail leaving the colonists with no vessel with which to explore the New World’s coast once the Mayflower returned home.

The voyage across the Atlantic was delayed for months, landing the pilgrims in New England at the start of winter. There were 102 of them aboard the Mayflower. By the end of the winter of 1620, their first in America, only half that number was still alive. Unequipped for planting, their first major encounter with the indigenous population came when the near starving pilgrims took ten bushels of maize from an Indian storage site they found on Cape Cod. It was not a good beginning.


Massasoit, the “sachem” (leader) of the powerful Wampanoag tribe of what is now coastal Massachusetts was not at all enamored of the visitors, and the fact that they seemed intent on staying disturbed him greatly. The pilgrims had no way to know that previous European visitors to that shore left diseases to which the indigenous peoples had no resistance. Rather than attack the newcomers, however, Massasoit was convinced to send an emissary in the person of Tisquantum, known also to history as Squanto. He was to become the primary force behind the pilgrims’ survival.

On March 22, 1621, the vernal equinox, Squanto walked out of the forest and into the middle of the pilgrims’ ramshackle base at Plymouth, a settlement known to Squanto as Patuxet, a place that was once his home. To the pilgrims’ amazement, Squanto spoke perfect English, and arrived prepared to remain with them and guide them through everything from fishing to agriculture to negotiations with the nervous and well-armed and not very welcoming – subjects of Massasoit.

As historian Charles C. Mann wrote (Native Intelligence,” Smithsonian, December 2005″) “Tisquantum was critical to the co1ony’s survival.” He taught them to plant the native corn they had stolen, to fertilize the sandy soil with fish that he also taught them to catch, and even negotiated recompense for the theft of the corn. The pilgrims’ own supplies of grain and barley all failed in the New World soil while the native corn thrived assuring them of a life-saving crop. Most importantly, Squanto acted as both an advocate and interpreter between the pilgrims and Massasoit, averting almost certain annihilation of the weakened and distrusted foreign occupiers.

The pilgrims interpreted Squanto’s presence among them, and his interventions, as acts of divine providence. They had no way to know just how much providence was involved. It is the story of Squanto – of how he came to be in that place at that time, and of how he came to speak perfect English – that is the most fascinating story behind the first Thanksgiving.


In 1614, six years before the arrival of the Mayflower, Captain John Smith (the same man rescued by Pocahontas in another famous tale) led two vessels to the coast of Maine to barter for fish and furs. When Smith departed from the Maine shore, he left a lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, in command to load the smaller ship with dried fish.

Without consultation, Hunt sailed his ship south into what is now called Cape Cod Bay. Anchored off the coast of Patuxet (now Plymouth) in 1614 Hunt and his men invited two dozen native villagers, including Squanto, aboard their ship. Once aboard, the Indians – as the Europeans came to call them were forced at musket point into the ship’s hold where they were chained. Kidnapped from their village and families, Hunt took them on a six-week journey across the Atlantic.

Not all the captured Indians survived the voyage. Those who did survive, Squanto among them, were taken to Malaga off the coast of Spain to be sold as slaves.

Fortunately for Squanto – and, later for our pilgrims – Spain was a Catholic country. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued “Sublimis Dei,” aGordon-MacRae-Falsely-Accused-Priest-before-the-mayflower-pilgrims-and-priests-2 papal bull forbidding Catholic governments from enslaving or mistreating Indians from the Americas. The Pope declared that Indians are “true men” and could not lawfully be deprived of liberty. The papal document declared that any Spanish intervention in the lives of Indians had to be motivated by benefit to the Indians themselves, and not to the Spanish.

As a result, the Catholic Church in Spain strongly opposed mistreatment of Indians and opposed bringing them to Europe against their will At Malaga, Thomas Hunt managed to sell several of his Indian captives before two Catholic priests intervened. The priests seized and rescued the unsold Indians, including Squanto who somehow convinced the Spanish speaking priests to return him home. Not knowing where “home” was, the priests arranged for Squanto’s passage as a free man on a ship bound for London.

In late 1614, having no idea where he was, Squanto walked into the London office of John Slaney, manager of the Bristol Company, a shipping and merchant venture that had been given rights to the Isle of Newfoundland by England’s King James I in 1610. Squanto spent three years stranded in London before being placed aboard a ship bound for Newfoundland in 1617.

By now fully immersed in the language and ways of the English, Squanto spent another two years in Newfoundland, 1,000 miles of rocky coast separating him from his native Patuxet. Thomas Dermer, a British merchant in Newfoundland, arranged to bring Squanto home in 1619.They sailed south along the coast.

Upon arrival in Patuxet in late 1619, however, Squanto was devastated to discover that his home and people had been ravaged by disease. Patuxet was littered with the corpses of Squanto’s people. Not a single Patuxet native survived except Squanto himself. Searching for his people, Squanto convinced Thomas Dermer to accompany him inland from the Massachusetts coast.

The two men were captured and taken to Massasoit, sachem of what had been a confederation of 20,000 native Massachusett and Wampanoag. By the time Squanto and Dermer stood before Massasoit in 1619, however, all but 1,000 of them were dead from diseases carried to the New World aboard English vessels.

It was to this setting that the Mayflower’s naive and ill-prepared Pilgrims arrived to face the winter of 1620. Squanto, alone – his life ravaged and his home and people destroyed – convinced Massasoit to send him to the Pilgrims as a negotiator and interpreter instead of attacking them. Squanto became a bridge linking two disparate worlds.

Without him, the fate of the pilgrims would have been vastly different and the story of Thanksgiving would most likely have never taken place. Squanto was, as Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation wrote of him,

“A spetiall instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectations.”

At your Thanksgiving table this year, say a prayer of thanks for Tisquantum – Squanto. Our national ancestors were once pilgrims and aliens in a strange land, and that land’s most disenfranchised citizen assured their survival.

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Esther says:

    Dear Father Gordon, I just wanted to stop by to wish you a very Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving.

    Thank you for sharing this story.

    God bless,

  2. Patricia says:

    Blessed Thanksgiving Father Gordon!!

    Loved the history lesson!! It is such a gift to be Catholic!!
    Just leaving for 9 a.m. Holy Mass to give thanks for all blessings, especially thankful for you Father. You give me strength.

    God Bless you Father,

    Intercessors of the Lamb, Mary Morning Star group

  3. Madlen says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Fr. Gordon,

    Thanks for telling us about the real thanksgiving story, I have not heard about this before esp the part about Squanto.

    I have been a frequent reader but just wanted to say hi and hope you have a blessed Thanksgiving, know that you are in my prayers.

    God bless!

  4. Msgr Michael says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,

    What a wonderful post… Imagine, when I was growing up in primary school [when the Dead Sea was sick!] when we were doing social studies in English around Thanksgiving, well we celebrated the Mayflower and the Pilgrims arriving in Plymouth.

    On the other hand when we studied History in French, well it was Cartier and his arrival in 1534 in Baie de Chaleurs, Quebec. With my little boy’s mind, I just couldn’t figure it out. The names of the boats were not the same, the places were different.

    However, in each case “the Indians” were nice! Oh the challenges of growing in biligual Canada! It’s only once I got to grade 6 that I realised that the story of the Mayflower had nothing to do with Canada but with the U.S.

    May this Thankgiving Day make us all more aware of the gifts God gives to the world. And you, Fr. Gordon, are a great gift to us all out here in the “free” world!

    your brother priest


  5. Fr. Peter Lechner says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,

    I enjoyed and found spiritual nourishment in your narration of the role that Squanto had to play in the survival of the Pilgrims, notwithstanding his own losses and suffering. There is a message here about spreading the blessings of God to others, especially those who are different and toward whom we might feel least willing to love.

    I tuned 70 a few weeks ago, and appreciate what you said about the jokes we hear as another decade rolls by. Fr. Pete

  6. Julie says:

    Incredible! Thank you, Father, for telling us this story. I certainly had never heard all of this, and definitely see the hand of God at work. What seems like a disaster is truly a great blessing!

    As an aside, since you’re interested in history, I wonder if you’ve read “Blood Drenched Altars, A Catholic Commentary on the History of Mexico.” I am reading this to prepare to give a presentation to Middle Schoolers (in a Catholic School) challenging what they’ve gotten from their history books. I LIVED in Mexico and never received a history from the Catholic perspective, except for when it was beneficial (ie with regard to the Cathedrals, etc.)

    I highly recommend this book. (I’m only to page 106, though…)

    God bless you, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. James P Guzek says:

    Hi Fr. Gordon,

    Squanto is yet another Joseph who acts for good to save life. As you undergo lock-down during these holiday seasons, be assured of our continued prayers for your speedy release.

    Your brother in Christ,

  8. Mary Floeck says:

    Wow! What a story of intrigue and survival against great odds. Thanks for sharing this with us this Thanksgiving, Father MacRae. I will want to pass this one along to my family members tomorrow as we celebrate our day of Thanks.

    Squanto really was a special person. He survived exposure to disease miraculously, and then slavery, via the Catholic Church’s teaching about the importance and the dignity of the human being. Would he have been so kind to the pilgrim invaders had he not experienced the saving grace of God and the kindness of the priests? Or was he just a kind and generous man who never took out his revenge on another’s injustice toward him?

    This causes me to ponder once again that shoe being on my foot instead of someone elses. How would I react? Would I allow myself to be a bridge like Squanto?Sometimes in the heat of persecution, I bristle. No. More often than sometimes. Usually.
    How can a person who bristles be of use to others or to God?

    This is a lesson worth a little meditation. God bless you Fr. MacRae and have a blessed day of thanks.

  9. Karin says:

    Thank you for the enlightening history lesson. I’m also glad to see you and your fellow prisoners have kept a sense of humor :)
    As I give thanks tomorrow, I will remember you and all priests in my prayers for I am truly grateful for all of you and your priesthood no matter where or how it is faithfully lived out.
    God Bless!

  10. Mary says:

    Loved the birthday jokes and it was so interesting to learn about the real story behind Thanksgiving.

    Thank you for such an interesting and entertaining post Father .

  11. Bernadette says:

    Thank you Father for the American History lesson – I look forward to more especially now that I have discovered that I had ancestors who came from Boston Mass! Enjoyed the witty jokes too especially that of your friend Pornchai.

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