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As Thanksgiving approaches and those of us stateside who partake of the tradition slice turkeys and spill gravy, symbols of the great fall banquet abound. Pumpkins, corn, cranberries, beans, cornucopias of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables, and the ubiquitous turkey itself immediately come to mind. So do Charlie Brown’s The Great Pumpkin, Thanksgiving Day football games, and bloated family members asleep on a couch.


One of Thanksgiving’s most endearing images is the Pilgrim, an iconic cultural symbol representing America’s earliest settlements by British colonialists along the Massachusetts coastline and the hard work, determination, and enterprising spirit that fortified them—not least with a bit of help from the locals. However, what many people don’t know about Pilgrims is how integral fishing was to their survival. In fact, the symbolic image of a traditional male pilgrim – with black and white buckled pilgrim’s or cockle hat, large buckled belt, breeches, and stockings – seems incomplete without a fishing rod in hand (or net draped upon shoulders). 


cover art

Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale

(US DVD: 7 Sep 2004)

A Patuxet Native American named Squanto, which is the Anglicized version of Tisquantum, helped the Pilgrims become savvy fishermen and survive the New World’s harsh, foreign landscapes. Without such angling knowledge, the Pilgrims would not have survived their first years in North America. Although the Patuxet settled near Plymouth, Massachusetts, Squanto’s travels made him quite the globetrotter. Early colonists kidnapped him and sent him to England, and later he returned to North America with Captain John Smith. Another set of colonists kidnapped him again and later, monks purchased him as a slave; after his sojourn with them, he returned again to London, and after an excursion to Newfoundland, returned once more to England before finally landing in 1619 in present day New England.


Before he met the Pilgrims, his life was as dizzying as his knowledge of fish, rivers, and wildlife, but his turmoil continued. When he returned to his village, he was frightened to discover that it had been abandoned; his friends and relatives had been killed during battle or died from disease. Nevertheless, Squanto forged a unique collaboration with the Pilgrims that capitalized on his extensive travels, maritime experience, and knowledge of the outdoors. Without Squanto, the Pilgrims’ futures appeared bleak; with Squanto, the Pilgrims’ futures became, well, history. Few people then knew how invaluable he would become; even anglers like myself yearn for guides with fishing IQs as rich as Squanto’s.


Due to the Plymouth region’s poor soil and the Pilgrims general lack of “outdoorsy” knowledge, especially as it applied to new terrain, the Pilgrims were desperate for alternative means of sustenance, and Squanto provided ideal solutions. He taught them how to fish, catch eels, trap beaver, and plant corn. More importantly, Squanto taught them how to use fish for fertilizer; by burying fish in the soil, and particularly in rows where corn was planted, crops reaped the natural benefits – calcium, phosphorous, minerals, etc. – of the decaying fish.


cover art

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Mark Kurlansky

(Penguin; US: Jan 2003)

This agricultural strategy required catching significant harvests of fish, and Squanto helped the Pilgrims do exactly that. Squanto’s angling prowess helped popularize this fertilization method, and it eventually became so popular a farming strategy for many colonial farmers that some fisheries such as shad later became jeopardized. Squanto’s value to the Pilgrims cannot be underestimated: when he died in 1622, Governor William Bradford wrote in his History of the English Settlement, “His death was a great loss.”


Squanto has been a fixture in popular culture for many years. Long portrayed accurately and inaccurately – as many popular Native Americans are – by various narratives as the “Good Indian”, he continues to capture the imaginations of historians, revisionists, and storytellers. The 1994 film Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale is a biopic about him starring Adam Beach, and a simple search on Amazon.com under “Squanto” will net numerous children’s books, too. Along with Virginia’s Pocahontas, Squanto, the Pilgrim’s bilingual angling and farming advisor, is arguably popular culture’s most celebrated Native American.


Equally important in the Pilgrims’ fishing narrative is the fact that they first landed in Provincetown in 1620, not Plymouth, as popularly believed. Essentially, America’s first settlers, and arguably its first founding fathers, landed in a town that has become one of America’s most important fishing ports. What attracts legions of fishermen – and historically, most often, Portuguese fishermen – also enticed the Pilgrims: beautiful coastal scenery and ample marine resources. (Of course, the fact that Massachusetts’ coast is one of the closest to England’s helps too.) Their landing’s location is why the Pilgrim Monument, the country’s tallest granite structure, is located in Provincetown.


The monument also celebrates the signing of the Mayflower Compact (signed in Provincetown harbor in 1620) and the town’s robust maritime history. Interestingly, the Compact – the nation’s first formal democratizing document – was signed on the water, and the monument resembles a lighthouse, a popular navigational tool for fishermen. 


During the next 200 years, Provincetown became, through the whaling and cod fishing industries, one of the nation’s most prolific and important fishing villages, and consequently, by the end of the 19th Century, one of Massachusetts’ most affluent municipalities. This affluence and tradition started when the Pilgrims decided – in 1627 after settling into their new lifestyles and routines – to pay off their European investors by offering them the proceeds of a six-year monopoly on fur trading and offshore fishing profits.


Consequently, it was fur and fish that allowed the Pilgrims their first taste of financial independence from British creditors. This offshore fishing also spawned the New World’s obsession with cod, which is why Cape Cod – one of the East Coast’s most celebrated tourist destinations – is named after the species that author Mark Kurlansky has named “the fish that changed the world”.


The back of Kurlansky’s popular Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World states:


“Wars have been fought over it, revolutions have been spurred by it, national diets have been based on it, economies have depended on it, and the settlement of North America was driven by it.”


Although the Pilgrims and early British colonists used the Atlantic-dwelling cod as a crucial commodity for trading, they were not alone in capitalizing on the fish’s nutrient-rich, low fat, and tasty meat. Widely popular throughout Europe, the Vikings preserved cod to sustain them during their extensive voyages across the Atlantic, and many other European peoples including Norwegians, Basques, and the British relied heavily on the cod fishery for sustenance and commerce. Not surprisingly, cod is one of the most popular fish used in the ubiquitous British dish “fish-n-chips.”


Without cod, America – and the Pilgrims – wouldn’t have survived. So when you’re sitting at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, remember this: if you really want to emulate the Pilgrims’ feast, serve fish.

A salt- and freshwater angler for more than 30 years, Chris has been fascinated (or obsessed, depending on your temperament) with the sport ever since he caught his first sunfish in Lawrence Brook with his grandfather, Leo. He is an avid catch-and-release angler, and enjoys both spin and fly-fishing. Although he'll pursue anything with gills, his favorite targets are rockfish, trout, and shad. His PopMatters monthly column, The Tackle Box, explores the confluence of the sport and popular culture.


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