Squanto was a Native American belonging to the Patuxet tribe. He was fluent in English and had a unique relationship with the colony of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ in Plymouth. His dealings with the colonists have left a lasting impression on American history and the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving.
According to the commonly accepted story behind the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts met a friendly Native American named Squanto who taught them how to plant corn. The settlers are supposed to have had a great feast with Squanto which started the tradition. However, the true story of Squanto, who was also known as Tisquantum was more complicated than the version which American school children have learned for many years.
Most historians agree that Squanto was a member of the Patuxet tribe, which was an offshoot of the larger Wampanoag Confederacy. The tribe lived near the area of present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts. Squanto was born about 1580. There is very little information about Squanto’s early years. He came from a village of industrious and gifted people. The men of his tribe used to travel along the coast while fishing, while the women of his village used to farm corn, beans, and squash.
The Patuxet people had friendly contact with the European colonists before the start of the seventeenth century. However, it didn’t last long. At some point of time during his youth, Squanto was captured by the English and was sold into slavery in Europe. It is believed that
Squanto and 23 other Native Americans boarded the ship of Captain Thomas Hunt who assured them of trade but instead captured them and held them on the ship.
These dark aspects of Squanto’s story have been overlooked by the standard version where the Pilgrim settlers are portrayed as good people and the Native Americans as being friendly to the Europeans. Many ordinary Americans do not even question the fact of how Squanto was able to speak perfect English with the settlers when they first met the Native Americans.
The Patuxet tribe was enraged by the kidnapping of Squanto and his kinsmen but they couldn’t do anything about it as the English and their captives had left long ago and the people remaining in the village were soon killed by disease. Squanto and the other prisoners were sold off as slaves by Hunt in Spain. But Squanto somehow managed to escape to England. According to some accounts, he was helped in his escape by Catholic friars. In England, when Squanto was free, he began to master his knowledge of English. William Bradford, a Pilgrim from the famous ship the Mayflower, who made Squanto an acquaintance many years later wrote that he (Squanto) had got away to England, where he was entertained by a merchant in London, and employed in Newfoundland and other areas.
In Newfoundland, Squanto met Captain Thomas Dermer, who was employed by Sir Fernando Gorges, an Englishman who had helped in the beginning of the colony of ‘Province of Maine’ in North America. In 1619, Gorges sent Dermer to the colonies of New England on a trade mission and hired Squanto as an interpreter. Dermer had observed that many Native American villages had been rendered empty as their inhabitants like Squanto’s tribe had been destroyed by the diseases that the White settlers had brought with them. In 1620, Dermer and his crew were
attacked by Wampanoag tribesmen near present-day Martha’s Vineyard. Dermer and 14 of his men escaped but Squanto was captured by the tribe and became a prisoner yet again.
Squanto and the Pilgrims
In early 1621, Squanto was still a prisoner of the Wampanoag. The tribe was then observing and assessing the English Pilgrim colonists who had arrived in the area just a year ago. The English had suffered a lot in the previous winter. But the Wampanoag were hesitant to approach the colonists as the Native Americans who had previously tried to befriend the English had been captured by them instead. According to the account of the Pilgrim William Bradford, a Wampanoag named Samoset approached a group of the Pilgrims and spoke to them in broken English. The Pilgrims were surprised at his ability to speak English. Samoset then spoke about a man named Squanto who he said was a native of the area and could speak better English than him. Squanto’s fluency in English allowed the Wampanoag chief Massasoit to negotiate an alliance with the Pilgrims wherein both parties promised not to harm each other and also that they would help each other in the event of an attack by a different tribe. Bradford in his writings described Squanto as a special instrument sent of God.
Squanto And The First Thanksgiving
Squanto was not only a very important communicator for the colonists, but he was also an expert on the local resources and how the English could best make use of them. He taught them the techniques of growing corn and squash which could grow easily in the climate of Massachusetts and would help them survive through the next harsh winter. This delighted the Pilgrims. As a way of showing their gratitude, the Pilgrims invited Squanto and some 90 Wampanoag for a celebration of their first harvest in the ‘New World’. This feast lasting three days was held sometime between September and November 1621. The feast had fowl and deer on the menu as well as other entertainment apart from the feast.
However, the actual Thanksgiving, though mythologized in the American school curriculum didn’t involve only fun and games and the actual Squanto wasn’t very friendly either. Squanto’s actual reasons for helping the Pilgrim colonists were less about being good-hearted and more about seeking security and more power than earlier.
Squanto’s relationship with the Pilgrims
Squanto very soon became known for being manipulative and hungry for power. At one point, the Pilgrims actually hired another Native American advisor named Hobbamock to control Squanto from crossing his limits. Squanto may have wished to take revenge upon the people who had once enslaved him. He was also aware that he had become invaluable for the Wampanoag as he was the closest accomplice of the Pilgrims. According to William Bradford, Squanto sought his own benefits and played both sides. He used his advantage of fluency in English to threaten people who displeased him and sought favors for placating the Pilgrims.
By 1622, Squanto had started spreading lies among both the English and the Native Americans according to one of the Pilgrims named Edward Winslow. He would convince the Native Americans that he could the Pilgrims to war or peace as and when he pleased. He would threaten the Native Americans by informing them privately that the Pilgrims intended to kill them soon, to get gifts for himself while working for peace on behalf of the Native Americans. This led to the Native Americans relying on Squanto rather than Massasoit as they had earlier.
One way to understand Squanto is to study his other name, Tisquantum more in detail. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Squanto was not given the name of Tisquantum at birth. The magazine also says that in New England, the word ’tisquantum’ referred to rage, especially the rage of manitou, the spiritual power at the heart of the religious beliefs of the Native Americans who lived along the coast. This gave the impression of him being a larger-than-life figure when he approached the Pilgrims and greeted them with his name.
Squanto ultimately crossed his limits and falsely claimed that Chief Massasoit was plotting with enemy tribes. This lie was exposed very quickly and enraged the Wampanoag tribe. As a result, Squanto was forced to take shelter with the English Pilgrims, who had also become wary of him but didn’t abandon him as this would have meant his inevitable death at the hands of the Native Americans. However, this didn’t matter in the end as Squanto died of a fatal illness in November 1622 when he was visiting a Native American community known as Monomoy, near the present-day Pleasant Bay.
According to William Bradford’s journal, Squanto fell ill of an illness that caused him to bleed at the nose, which was interpreted by the Native Americans as imminent death. He died within a few days and while dying he wished that he might go to the god of the Englishmen in heaven. He left many of his possessions to his English friends as a remembrance of his love which they had lost. Squanto was later buried in an unmarked grave. Till today, no one knows the exact location of his grave.