While doing some research for my blog, “America’s First Official Thanksgiving,” I was surprised by how little we are taught about Tisquantum. A Native American from the Patuxet tribe, better known as “Squanto,” he is remembered for his role in the survival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth colony.
When the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of Massachusetts in November 1620, they were confronted by a hostile environment. Their first winter in New England was not an easy one. Of the 102 passengers and 30 crewmembers who made the voyage from England on the Mayflower, only 53 pilgrims survived. Having battled the weather, starvation and disease, those remaining were then faced with the challenge of living and farming on unfamiliar land.
It was March 1621 that Squanto made his first appearance to the pilgrims in Plymouth colony. As we are taught in school, being able to speak English, he taught them how to hunt wildlife for food, catch eels and use fish to fertilize and grow crops. In time he also became an interpreter for the pilgrims, opening a line of communication between them and the local tribes hostile towards the English colonists.
This is the extent of information we are usually taught in school that ends in one big happy Thanksgiving dinner. However, did you ever stop and wonder how Squanto learned English? Or did you ever find yourself questioning why the natives were so hostile towards the arriving colonists?
In 1614 Captain John Smith arrived in the New England area looking to map out its coastline. With several ships under his command, he also looked to establish trade with the natives, in hopes of paving the way for a colony in New England. To start this process, Smith decided to leave behind one of his ships under the command of Captain Thomas Hunt while he continued on with his mapping expedition.
But Hunt had other plans. He lured 24 Nauset and Patuxet natives onto his ship, taking them captive, where he planned to sell them as slaves in Malaga, Spain. The kidnappings enraged the Nauset and Patuxet tribes, making them extremely hostile towards other European ships that tried to land in New England.
In Spain, Hunt sold many of his Native American captives as slaves until local friars discovered his plan. Disgusted, the friars stepped in, taking the remaining natives – one of which was Squanto – to instruct them in the Christian faith. At some point, Squanto left the care of the friars and made his way to London where he lived and worked with a shipbuilder, John Slany. It was during those few years living with Slany that Squanto began to really pick up the English language.
Working as the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, Slany was given orders to make a trip to Cuper’s Cove colony in Newfoundland, hiring Squanto to come along as an interpreter. It was on this trip that Squanto met captain Thomas Dermer, who was employed by the New England Company. Knowing the New England Company was still determined to make a profit through trade with the Patuxet and Nauset natives in New England, Dermer suggested Squanto as a solution. Returning to England, plans were made for a return to New England with Squanto’s help as a possible peacemaker and interpreter.
Following the kidnappings by Captain Hunt, the Native Americans had faced another tragedy due to the arrival of our European ancestors. From 1618-1619 a devastating plague, believed today to be either small pox or tuberculosis, wiped out many New England coastal tribes. Having no natural immunity from diseases the European traders carried, in 1619 as part of Dermer’s exploratory expedition of New England, Squanto returned to his village to find that no one from his tribe survived. Left behind by Dermer following the discovery, Squanto reached out to the Wampanoag and Massasoit for a place to reside.
In November 1620 the pilgrims arrived at the former site of the Patuxet’s village, which would later become known as Plymouth Colony. Following the plague Squanto’s village sat abandoned, believed by the natives to be cursed making it relatively easy for the Pilgrims to settle with little trouble from surrounding tribes. Continuing to live out of the Mayflower from November 1620 until March 1621, the pilgrims worked to build their colony on shore.
Following the colony’s completion, Squanto made his first appearance in the village, which lead to his role as an interpreter between the pilgrims and Wampanoag. Appointed as a liaison to the pilgrims by Wampanoag leader Massasoit, Squanto taught them how to survive in New England while helping them negotiate peace treaties and establish trading relations with the surrounding tribes.
But it did not take long for both the Wampanoag and the pilgrims to distrust Squanto. Being the only person with an understanding of both the local language and the English language, both sides began to suspect Squanto was using his power for his own personal benefit. The lack of trust that developed between the Wampanoag and Squanto nearly cost him his life.
Believing Squanto was abusing his authority as interpreter, Massasoit demanded that the pilgrims hand him over to be put to death. The pilgrims refused – as much as we would like to think it was strictly due to the friendship built with Squanto, the reality is the pilgrims depended on him for their own survival and gain. The pilgrims’ refusal caused a great amount of tension between them and Massasoit.
Though he escaped that situation, it wasn’t long after that Squanto’s life came to an end.
In November 1622, just two years after the pilgrims arrival, Squanto’s nose began to bleed while on a trading trip with Plymouth Colony’s Governor Bradford. While some like to suspect he was poisoned, Squanto informed Governor Bradford that the bleeding and fever was a sign of death among the natives.
In Bradford’s written history of Plymouth colony he wrote:
“Here Squanto fell ill of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose, which the Indians take as a symptom of death, and within a few days he died. He begged the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven, and bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances. His death was a great loss.”
After looking into the life of the man who played a large role in the survival of my pilgrim ancestors, I can’t help but feel horrible for him. Having been kidnapped to be sold as a slave, then rescued, only to be pushed into a religion that was not his own, his knowledge of the English language came strictly as result of trying to survive in a foreign land.
I am also willing to bet, after living overseas for five years only to return home to find all of his loved ones had died – which forced him to reach out to another tribe for survival – he must have felt like an outsider. If the accusations against him were true, looking at things from that angle, it wouldn’t be so hard to understand why he may have abused his newfound power.
Squanto’s life was hardly the happily ever-after portrayed in our modern holiday, and his story is another example of our selective memory when it comes to our nation’s history.
By Kris Williams
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