Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? In school, they taught us in 1621, the pilgrims and the indigenous people of North America became friends. They had a big dinner with Jennie-O Turkey, Stove Top stuffing, green bean casserole, corn, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, followed by a generous portion of Marie Callender’s pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream — oops, I think I got that wrong.

Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before. I didn’t know the details until researching this week’s edition.

In 1620, 120 English and Dutch religious separatists hoped to find religious freedom and new opportunities by sailing to The New World.

Along their way, they fought against freezing temperatures, very high winds and seas so high they had to turn the ship to face the wind to slow the boat down.

Below the deck were cramped quarters with all of them living in a space the size of a tennis court, only eating hard biscuits, dried meat and beer, which equaled about 400 calories per day. The pilgrims were treated like cargo and only allowed up top to catch a little fresh air occasionally. At many points throughout the 3,000-mile trip, they thought they would die.

The voyage lasted 66 days, and they arrived in Massachusetts Bay.

Upon landfall, they found an abandoned Native American village of the Patuxet tribe that was wiped out from smallpox spread by earlier contact with Europeans. They decided to make this place their home since it was already built for human habitation.

During their first winter, they lost half of their numbers, including 30 women of childbearing age; only around 50 remained.

After the winter passed, a young Native American walked into their village and said, “Welcome!” His name was Samoset, and remarkably he spoke broken English. Samoset knew a Native American named Squanto who spoke English very well.

It turns out that Squanto was a Patuxet who spoke perfect English with a British accent. He was kidnapped by Capt. Thomas Hunt in 1614 and sold as a slave to the Spanish. He was brought to Spain and eventually to England, where he may have met Pocahontas. Finally, he came back to his homeland, and to his horror, found the Patuxet people were wiped out by smallpox.

The pilgrims didn’t know how to survive in their new surroundings. If it had not been for the kindness and generosity of Squanto, who taught the pilgrims how to live off the land, they wouldn’t have made it through another winter. Imagine how grateful they were for Squanto; he was an answer to their prayers.

Squanto could have easily hated them and had them killed or let them die out of spite for being kidnapped by a British sea captain and sold into slavery, but instead, he had compassion and helped them; what a great man he was.

Exactly 400 years ago, in 1621, the colonists and Native Americans celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

Because of Squanto, the colonists had a successful harvest; out of gratitude, they invited Squanto and a nearby tribe known as the Wampanoag to celebrate. For three days, Squanto, the Wampanoags and the colonists ate a feast of deer, birds, corn and more.

The real hero of Thanksgiving is Squanto, who taught us that when we forgive and help each other survive, racial division can fall away.

Even though hardships remain, I’d venture a guess that very few of us have endured what our early ancestors endured on their sail to the new world, what the African-American ancestors endured during the era of slavery, what the Native American ancestors went through during the Native American wars with the U.S. government and the many hardships all of our ancestors have faced of all races. Even the poorest among us live in abundance when compared to them.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage all of us to be thankful for what we have and recognize the Squantos in our own lives who taught us to live.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Toby Moore is a columnist, star of the Emmy-nominated film “A Separate Peace,” and CEO of CubeStream Inc. He resides in

Bourbonnais and can be reached through the

Daily Journal at editors@daily-journal.com.