News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 23, 2012

BRUCE'S HISTORY LESSONS: Why were the Indians so helpful to Pilgrims?

Bruce Kauffman
Special to the Tribune-Star

---- — Have you ever wondered why the Native-Americans (Indians) helped make possible the Pilgrims’ celebration of their first Thanksgiving in 1621? Why were the Indians so cooperative, especially since — just 15 years earlier — they had been so hostile to Europeans exploring New England that a French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, told his government to look elsewhere for colonies?

Our story starts in 1492 when Columbus arrived in America (actually the Caribbean). From then on, interaction between Indians and Europeans steadily increased, with the Europeans trading goods coveted by the Indians, particularly horses, for goods provided by the Indians, such as pumpkins and corn, that they then brought back to Europe.

However, the Europeans also began bringing Indians back to Europe, as slaves, which is one reason these Indians, while willing to trade with Europeans, were vehemently opposed to their establishing colonies in the New World. Hence Champlain’s unfortunate experience.

And there was one other thing that Europeans brought to the New World — diseases that Europeans had become immune to, but native Indians had not. As a result, sometime in 1617 a terrible disease, probably typhus, caused an epidemic that nearly wiped out the Indian tribes in New England.  

And to what did these Indians attribute this epidemic?

An explanation many historians ascribe to is this: In 1615 a French ship ran aground along the New England shore near a village of Wampanoag Indians, who promptly killed all but three sailors, one of whom told the Indians that his God would punish them for this deed by wiping them out and giving their native lands to other peoples.

And so, in the wake of the epidemic that immediately followed, the Indians became terrified of the Europeans and their God’s power to wreak such vengeance. Thus in 1621, when the Pilgrims came along, most Indians were in no mood to confront them.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Besides getting help from those Indians who survived the epidemic, the Pilgrims also benefitted from the deaths of those who had not, because many Indian villages were vacant, as were many fields that those now-deceased Indians had previously cleared for planting. All the Pilgrims had to do was clear out the weeds and start their own planting — again, assisted by those surviving Indians.

The Pilgrims also saw the epidemic as God’s handiwork, and considered it a sign that they were God’s chosen people. Indeed, that feeling of special favor was the driving force behind much of Britain’s subsequent expansion into America.

As we know, that expansion came at the expense of millions more native Indians, who must have wondered how the white man latched on to such a powerful God.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@

historylessons.net.