The Fascinating Backstory of Squanto, the Indian Who Saved the Pilgrims
My Rose-Colored Glasses Are Smashed to Smithereens
Just last week, I wrote a piece about my family’s decision not to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. In that article, I said,
We don’t concentrate as much as we should on the contribution of the Wampanoag Tribe of Native Americans to the survival of those early colonists. In reality, Thanksgiving should be a celebration of Squanto, the Indian who spoke English. Heroic, beleaguered Squanto, a Patuxet Indian who spoke English because he’d been kidnapped, not once, but twice by English sea captains…
Squanto must have had a generous, compassionate spirit to befriend this rag-tag group of colonists and teach them to get sap out of maple trees and plant crops.
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Those kindergarten stories I remembered had filtered the image of Squanto through the rose-colored lenses of a simplistic world view.
Like most writers, one thought leads to another, and after writing that piece, I started doing some serious research on the background of Squanto, the “friendly” Indian. What I found about Squanto’s backstory was vastly more complex than the one-dimensional picture of a Native American man kneeling beside Pilgrims as they planted corn and beans, putting fish heads in the soil mounds as they worked, motivated by nothing but kindness and compassion.
Enlightened, though slightly disappointed that the “myth” of Squanto wasn’t all true, I got a new awareness of the pestilence, politics, and power struggles among the peoples of coastal New England in the early 1600s.
The Simple Story of Squanto
When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Bay in December of 1620 after a 66-day journey from Plymouth, England, they were weak, malnourished, and discouraged. Because it was cold and they had no shelter on land, the group remained on the Mayflower until March of 1621 when they moved ashore. Only half of the original 102 settlers had survived to set foot onshore.
The story goes that the Pilgrims were greeted by an Indian named Squanto who befriended them and helped them survive by teaching them about their native surroundings, how to avoid poisonous plants, how to tap the maple trees for sap, and how to grow native crops. He acted as a translator between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe and negotiated alliances so the colonists wouldn’t be threatened or forced to move off the land so that their settlement couldn’t become permanent.
The Complicated Backstory of Squanto
The simple story is true, but there’s so much more to it than that.
As a kid, I got the mistaken idea that when the Pilgrims met the Native Americans along the coast, it was the first encounter of Indians and white Europeans. (In my defense, I think it’s hard to teach kids accurate historical timelines since the concept of centuries and millennium and what events happened when is a hard concept to grasp, even for adults.)
Contrary to my youthful belief, Native Americans and European cultures had been meeting for more than a hundred years. In the late 1400s fishing vessels first arrived off the coast of North America. An Italian explorer who had been hired by France, Giovanni da Verrazzano, first recorded his experience with the “People of the Light” in 1523, saying of the Indians he encountered,
“…as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe.”
Squanto did not live his life peacefully on the coast with his tribe. While the details are sketchy, we have documentation of the life of Squanto from the journals of William Bradford, Edward Winslow, and the records of George Weymouth and Thomas Hunt.
We know for a fact that Squanto was kidnapped by Europeans at least once, and probably twice, which explains how he could speak and translate English. He was born around 1580, and many scholars believe he was abducted and transported to England by George Weymouth in 1605, Squanto would have been about twenty-five years old. George Weymouth had been commissioned by Ferdinando Georges, the owner of the English Plymouth Company, to explore the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts.
Weymouth captured 4 other Indians and took them to England because he believed the financial backers of the Plymouth Company would want to see them.
Squanto’s Life “Across the Pond”
While in England, Squanto probably lived with Ferdinando Georges. He learned the language and the way of the European peoples. As a Native American who could now speak and understand the ways of the English, Squanto was a valuable asset. Georges hired him to act as interpreter and guide for the expedition to America that John Smith was sent on in 1614.
Squanto’s first return to America was with Captain John Smith, but either his status as a valuable asset, his personality, or his pure bad luck caused him to be tricked and captured again with twenty-six other Indians on Captain Thomas Hunt’s vessel.
Squanto’s Second Kidnapping
Captain Thomas Hunt had been one of Smith’s lieutenants. Smith had left him with a second ship off the coast of Maine. Hunt was supposed to finish loading the ship with dried fish. Hunt, however, had different ideas. He took the ship on an expedition into Patuxet country and tricked 19 Indians into coming on board, where his crew tried to shove them in the hold. When the Indians resisted, they opened fire and forced them at gunpoint down into the ship. Hunt took off across the ocean, stopping in Cape Cod to capture seven more Native Americans. He left the Indian peoples outraged, vowing never to let white settlers near their shores again. For the next two years, violence against anyone who landed on their shores ensued.
The captives were taken to Malaga, Spain, where Hunt tried to sell them into slavery. Luckily for Squanto, the Spanish Catholic Church had other plans. They were “vehemently opposed to brutality towards Indians.”They took the slaves from Hunt, giving them food and lodging with the hope of educating and converting them.
Squanto’s Second Return to America
After living several years with monks, Squanto convinced them that he should be allowed to return home. They acquiesced. Squanto made it to London where he found John Slaney, a shipbuilder, who arranged passage back to America on a fishing vessel.
In 1619, Squanto arrived back on the shores of America, but this time much farther North in Newfoundland. There, he met Thomas Dermer, a sea captain and friend of Ferdinando Georges. Squanto convinced Dermer that the coastal areas of his home region were full of beauty and bounty. Dermer believed Squanto and wrote to Georges about getting a new commission to the New England coast. Squanto and Dermer traveled back to England where they met with Georges who gave Dermer a new ship and assignment to go back to Massachusetts.
Little did they know that Squanto no longer had a home or a tribe to go to.
Squanto’s Third Return to America
Squanto, for the third time, returned to New England in late 1619 with Thomas Dermer. But Squanto’s village, and all of his people’s villages, had been obliterated by undetermined pestilence. Possibly it was smallpox. Possibly it was a form of viral hepatitis spread by contaminated food. Whatever it was, the disease wiped out 90% of the coastal peoples. Squanto was the only survivor of the Patuxet tribe, and the Wampanoag tribe lost 75% of its people.
Squanto identified as a Patuxet Indian, a tribe that constituted about a dozen villages settled along the Rhode Island and Massachusetts coast. The Patuxet tribe was part of the Wampanoag Confederation of 30 villages in the Nauset Alliance. All these peoples spoke a variation of “Massachusett,” an Algonquin language.
Not too far away was the Narangasett, a strong group who protected other groups and expected tribute for that. They lived farther inland than the Patuxet who lived near the ocean.
All of these people inhabited what was then known not as Plymouth, but as Dawnland, the eastern coast, “the place where the sun rose.” They were the “people of the first light.”
With the Patuxet wiped out and the Wampanoag tribe severely weakened, the Wampanoag feared that the Narangasett peoples — who had not been touched by the epidemic — would take over the lands and subjugate Massasoit’s Wampanoag tribe.
The Wampanoag were in a precarious situation. They did not have enough people to maintain their hold on the coastal shipping trade, especially without the Patuxet. They needed a way to strengthen their base.
That’s where the 17th Century political machinations, many revolving around Squanto, come in.
The Wampanoag didn’t really trust Squanto, who stayed for a while with Thomas Dermer upon returning to America. But Squanto didn’t feel comfortable living with Dermer, so he set off on foot to walk the long way South from Maine to Massachusetts. And what do you think happened?
Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag, and his men seized Squanto on his journey. We don’t know their reasoning. Maybe they thought he was on the side of the white men because of his dealings with the English. Massasoit didn’t trust Squanto, so he brought him to live in the Wampanoag village, keeping him under constant surveillance with a “minder” from the tribe.
When the Pilgrims came ashore in 1621 at what would come to be known by the English as Plymouth Colony, Massasoit first sent an emissary named Samoset, who spoke English. Samoset, however, got there and discovered he was in way over his head. He knew that Squanto was much more fluent, and he left and returned a few days later with Squanto in tow.
Massasoit wanted Squanto to broker a peace between the English colony and the Wampanoag, with an agreement to come to each other’s aid in case of attack from other people. Because of Squanto’s ability to negotiate the deal between the two peoples, the Pilgrims were the first settlers to be allowed to stay on the land and not be pushed off with threats from the Wampanoag.
Squanto successfully negotiated the deal between the Wampanoag and the colonists. Instead of returning to the stricture and distrust of the Wampanoag camp, Squanto lived among the whites, acting as helpmate, translator, and guide.
The Threat of Biological Warfare
All good things must come to an end. It’s true that Squanto is a kind of hero because, without him, the colonists wouldn’t have survived. It’s also true that because he understood both cultures, Squanto wielded a certain power over the English and the Wampanoag.
That’s where things went awry. Squanto’s political power went to his head and caused his downfall.
In a bid to create his own settlement near Plymouth, Squanto hoped to use his alliance with the English to secure his new village as the center of the Wampanoag Confederation, basically overthrowing Massasoit. To achieve his goal, he sowed the seeds of dissent by telling some Wampanoag that he could protect them better against the Narangasett than Massasoit could because he could bring other Indians AND the Pilgrims to their defense. He flexed his muscles by telling them that the English had caches of the pestilence buried in the ground — the same agent that had killed most of their population — and that they would unleash it at his bidding.
Too bad he didn’t know that Massasoit had a spy working alongside Squanto in Plymouth.
To make the colonists side with him, Squanto was telling them that the Indian federations around the village had joined forces and planned to attack them. He believed that if he told the English that the Wampanoag were rising against them, they would kill Massasoit, clearing the way of leadership for him. Squanto even arranged to leave town on board a ship bound for a nearby village, but William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Colony called the ship back when told of the Indian uprising.
Squanto’s plan to pit the two groups against each other failed.
How the Pilgrims Saved Squanto
When Squanto returned to shore, Massasoit wanted to kill Squanto. Massasoit demanded that the Pilgrims turn Squanto over to him for justice. He even offered a load of furs to the Pilgrims to make sure they would consider the deal.
While Bradford wrote that Squanto, “sought his own ends and played his own game.” But he was still too valuable to lose. Bradford kept Squanto as a within the colony, saving him from the retribution of the Wampanoag. Squanto’s role as translator and negotiator never stopped. In late 1622, Bradford took Squanto with him to Southern Cape Cod to negotiate a pact. While there, Squanto caught a fever and died. Bradford recorded in his journal,
“In this place Squanto fell sick of an Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose and within a few days died there; desiring the Governor to pray for him that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven, and bequested sundry of his things to the sundry of his English friends, as remembrance of his love of whom they had a great loss.”
- the Indian who saved the Pilgrims
- who WAS saved by the Pilgrims
- who was kidnapped and held captive
- who traveled the ocean and the shores
- who played both sides to their benefit and their disadvantage
- who threatened to unleash a pestilence
- who coveted power and did what he could to achieve it
is buried in an unmarked grave. He was probably in his 40s when he died, leaving behind a complex and fascinating backstory.
Interested in an in-depth look at the life of Squanto? Read this article in The Smithsonian: “Native Intelligence.”
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