Patuxet (in present-day Massachusetts)
possibly Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Wampanoag translator and guide
"Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter, and as a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation."
Squanto, also known as Tasquantum (or Tisquantum), was a major seventeenth-century Native American figure. He is remembered as the interpreter, guide, and agricultural advisor who shepherded the English settlers of Plymouth Colony through their unstable early existence in the New World (a European term for North America and South America). Squanto was overshadowed, however, by the Pokanoket chief Massasoit (see entry), who is famous for establishing a peace treaty with the Pilgrims in 1621. Controversy surrounds Squanto's life because of his attempts to undermine Massasoit's authority. Squanto is nevertheless considered to be the person who did more than anyone else to secure the survival of the Plymouth Colony settlers.
Squanto was born around 1600 in Patuxet, a village of about two thousand Native Americans located in what is now Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts. He was a member of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe, which dominated the region. During Squanto's lifetime this area was visited by European traders and explorers several times. In fact, French explorer Samuel de Champlain (see entry) provided extensive documents of his visits in 1605 and 1606. As a result of this frequent contact, the Patuxets engaged in trade with the constant traffic of traders and explorers. At the time Squanto apparently held the prominent position of chief of the Patuxet tribe.
In 1614 Squanto's life was dramatically changed. During that year, he and twenty other Patuxets were kidnaped by English explorer Thomas Hunt. Taking his captives to Málaga, Spain, Hunt sold them into slavery. Squanto, however, was rescued by Spanish friars (members of a religious order who combine life as a monk with outside religious activity) who wanted to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. While historians are uncertain about Squanto's movements over the next three years, he is known to have arrived in London, England, in 1617. There he resided with John Slaney, the treasurer of the New Foundland Company, who was interested in exploring the New World.
During his time in London, Squanto was immersed in English culture and learned the English language. In 1617 Slaney sent him on an expedition to New Foundland. There Squanto met explorer Thomas Dermer, and the two men returned to England the following year. Squanto may have been an indentured servant (a servant who works for a certain length of time in order to buy his or her freedom) during this time rather than a slave (one who is owned by a master). In serving both Slaney and Dermer, Squanto may have hoped to earn his passage home. In any event, he traveled once again to the New World with Dermer in 1619, this time returning to the Patuxet region of his birth.
Finds Patuxet abandoned
In 1617, during Squanto's absence, a great epidemic (perhaps the plague) swept the Massachusetts Bay region. Because the Native Americans had no immunity (built-in resistance) against European diseases, a majority of them died. The Patuxet band, for instance, was virtually wiped out. Squanto returned in 1619 to find the village of his youth abandoned. The few surviving Native Americans banded together into smaller tribes. Unfortunately, these tribes found it difficult to defend themselves against the Narragansetts and other hostile Native American groups who had managed to survive the epidemic. The small tribes were also attacked by English and French exploring parties.
Still accompanied by Dermer, Squanto was faced with the task of introducing the Englishman into Wampanoag society. At that time the Native Americans were less than friendly with the English because of recent violence between the two groups. Yet Squanto managed to cultivate relations between Dermer and the Wampanoag. Even the Pokanoket chief Massasoit tolerated Dermer's presence, but this goodwill did not extend to all Native Americans in the area. In 1620 Dermer was killed by warriors who were still hostile to the English, and Squanto was subsequently taken prisoner.
Meets Pilgrims for first time
Another event occurred in 1620, making Squanto an even more prominent historical figure. In November of that year about one hundred Pilgrims (early English settlers who wished to freely practice their own form of Christianity) sailed to the Massachusetts shore aboard a ship called the Mayflower. The Pilgrims settled at Patuxet and called their community Plymouth Colony. Because the English knew very little about farming and trade, their first winter in the New World was harsh. As a result, many Pilgrims died of starvation and disease during the winter of 1620–21.
Although they were aware of one another, the Pilgrims and Native Americans did not make contact during that difficult winter. The Pilgrims maintained their distance from their neighbors, even though the Native Americans could have helped them. In turn, the Wampanoags, because of their mixed experiences with Europeans, warily watched the newcomers. Finally, in March 1621, the Pokanokets decided to make contact with the Pilgrims. As leader of the initial welcoming party they chose Samoset, a member of the Abenaki tribe who was familiar with English trading practices and spoke the English language. Squanto was a prominent figure by this time, but he was not nearly so powerful as Massasoit. It was Massasoit who signed the historic treaty of 1621 in which the Wampanoags and the English pledged mutual peace and friendship. (The treaty lasted for forty years.)
Symbolizes first Thanksgiving
Luckily, the Pilgrims were receptive to the Native Americans' offers of assistance. Squanto taught the English settlers—most of whom had no knowledge of farming—to plant Indian corn and other vegetables. He also helped to insure the success of their crops by teaching them how to use fish as fertilizer. The English believed the practice of fertilizing with fish to be traditional among the Native Americans. Yet this view has been questioned by historians, some of whom believe that Squanto learned the practice in Europe or New Foundland. Following a bountiful harvest in the fall, the colonists held a three-day feast of celebration, to which they invited Massasoit and ninety of his men. Squanto was reportedly a member of this group. The feast has come to be known as the "first Thanksgiving." Because of his role in teaching the colonists how to grow their own food, Squanto is regarded as the symbol of Native American–Pilgrim cooperation when Thanksgiving is commemorated each year in the United States.
Helps Pilgrims secure settlement
As a reward for his part in peace negotiations, Squanto was sent to live with the Pilgrims. His guidance proved so indispensable that Plymouth governor William Bradford (see entry) declared him a "special instrument sent of God for their good." Squanto's role in introducing the English to neighboring Native American tribes was particularly crucial. His extensive travels had provided him with unique qualifications to move freely between the two cultures. Thus it was possible for the colonists to establish vital trade relationships that enabled them to secure seeds and other supplies. They also acquired animal pelts (skins), which they sent to England to repay investments and trade for English goods.
Squanto helps the English
William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, kept a journal (later published in Of Plymouth Plantation) in which he told the story of Squanto:
Anno [year]. 1621
. . . But about the 16. of March a certain Indian came boldly amongst them [the colonists] and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand, but marvelled at it. . . . His name was Samoset; he tould them also of another Indian whose name was Squanto, a native of this place, who had been in England & could speak better English than himself. . . . [After the signing of a treaty between the Native Americans and the English] Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died. . . .
. . . Then the sickness began to fall sore amongst them, and the weather so bad as they could not make much sooner any dispatch. Againe, the Govr. [Bradford's predecessor, John Carver, who died in April 1621] & chief of them, seeing so many die, and fall down sick daily. . . .
Afterwards they (as many as were able) began to plant their corn, in which service Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both the manner how to set it, and after how to dress & tend it. Also he tould them except they got fish & set with it (in these old grounds) it would come to nothing, and he showed them that in the middle of April they should have store enough come up the brook, by which they began to build, and taught them how to take it, and where to get other provisions [food supplies] necessary for them; all which they found true by trial & experience. Some English seed they sow, as wheat & peas, but it came not to good, either by the badness of the seed, or lateness of the season, or both, or some other defect.
Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 120–21.
Plots against Massasoit
Despite his important role in establishing friendly relations between the Native Americans and the English, Squanto was a controversial figure. According to some reports, he tried to increase his status among the Native Americans by exaggerating his influence with the English. He also alarmed neighboring tribes with reports that colonists kept a plague (a deadly disease)—he may actually have meant gunpowder—buried underground so that it could be released at any time. There is also evidence that he tried to undermine Massasoit's relationship with the English. A crisis developed in 1622 when Squanto attempted to trick the English by telling them Massasoit was plotting with the hostile Narragansett tribe to launch an attack and destroy the Plymouth Colony.
When Squanto's secret plan was discovered, Massasoit demanded that he be executed. The Plymouth settlers were also angry with Squanto. In fact, Bradford admitted to Massasoit that Squanto deserved death for his act of betrayal. However, it was a measure of the colonists' dependence on Squanto that they protected him from Massasoit's revenge. In November 1622, additional English settlers arrived in the Plymouth Colony. Like the original Pilgrims, they came ill-prepared for the approaching New England winter. Squanto guided an expedition of Plymouth settlers to trade with Cape Cod Native Americans for corn. He fell ill with what Bradford described as "Indian fever" and died within a few days. According to Bradford, the dying Squanto expressed his wish to "go to the Englishmen's God in Heaven" and "bequeathed his little property to his English friends, as remembrances of his love."
For further research
Dubowski, Cathy East. The Story of Squanto: First Friend of the Pilgrims. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Publishers, 1997.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 120–21.
Stevenson, Augusta. Squanto: Young Indian Hunter. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 1962.
Squanto (1585?-1623) was the guide for many of the Pilgrim settlers of the Plymouth Colony.
Squanto is remembered as the interpreter, guide, and agricultural advisor who shepherded the Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Colony through their precarious early existence in the New World and did more than anyone else to secure the survival of the settlement.
Squanto was a member of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe, which dominated the area in which the colonists eventually settled. He first enters written history in 1614, as one of 20 Patuxet Indians kidnapped by English explorer Thomas Hunt. Hunt carried his captives to Spain, where he sold them into slavery. Squanto, however, was one of a number who were rescued by Spanish friars, and he eventually made his way to England, where he next surfaced in the employ of John Slaney, whose interests extended to exploration in the New World. He sent Squanto along on an expedition to Newfoundland in 1617; there the Indian met explorer Thomas Dermer, with whom he returned to England the following year. Squanto's relation to Slaney and Dermer may have been in the nature of indentured servant; he may have hoped to earn his passage home. In any event, he traveled once again to the New World with Dermer in 1619, coming to rest in the Patuxet region of his birth.
In 1617, during Squanto's absence, a great epidemic— perhaps the plague—swept the Indian populations in the Massachusetts Bay region, and the Patuxet band was particularly hard hit. Indeed, they were virtually wiped out. Squanto returned to find the village of his youth abandoned. He left Captain Dermer to go in search of survivors, but returned to his aid when Dermer ran afoul of hostile Indians. Squanto remained with Dermer until Dermer was mortally wounded in a skirmish with the Pokanoket Wampanoag. Squanto was then taken prisoner.
Some historians have theorized that when Squanto was dispatched in 1621 as emissary to the English settlers, he may have still been living with the Wampanoag as a captive. This would explain the later reports of antagonism between him and Massasoit, who had become Sagamore, or civil chief, of the Wampanoag confederation in the wake of the epidemic. It was Massasoit who sent Squanto to the English at Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they had settled on the former lands of the Patuxet in November of 1620.
The English—weakened from their journey, hungry, and ill—kept their distance from the Indians during the first winter of their residence; half of the Pilgrims died before spring. The Wampanoag, who had had mixed experiences with Europeans, watched the newcomers with a wary eye. In March, Massasoit felt the time was right to approach the English and sent Squanto and a companion to reassure them of the friendly intentions of the Indians. The two arranged for a conference between the English leaders and Massasoit. That meeting resulted in the historic treaty in which the Wampanoag and the English pledged mutual peace and friendship.
"Sent of God"
Squanto was sent to live with the English settlers. His guidance proved so indispensable to them that Plymouth Governor William Bradford was moved to declare him a "spetiall instrument sent of God for [their] good."
Squanto's role in introducing the English to neighboring tribes was particularly crucial. His extensive travels had provided him with unique qualifications as intermediary between the cultures. Thus it was possible for the colonists to establish vital trade relationships, thereby enabling them to secure seeds and other supplies necessary to life in New England, as well as animal pelts which they sent to England to repay investments and secure English goods.
Tradition has it that Squanto taught the English, most of whom had not been farmers in their native country, to plant Indian corn and other local vegetables, and to insure the success of the crop by the use of fish fertilizer. The English believed the practice of fertilizing with fish to be traditional among the Indians. In recent years, however, this has come into question among historians, some believing that Squanto learned the practice in Europe or in Newfoundland.
Steeped in Conflict
Squanto's career was not without controversy. There are reports that he sought to increase his status among the Indians by exaggerating his influence with the English and alarming neighboring Native American groups with reports that colonists kept a plague (he may have meant gunpowder) buried underground that could be released at any time. There is also evidence that he tried to undermine Massasoit's relationship with the English. A crisis developed in 1622 when Squanto perpetrated an elaborate ruse to try to convince the English that Massasoit was plotting with the hostile Narragansett tribe to destroy the Plymouth Colony and that an attack was imminent. The deception was quickly discovered; however, Massasoit was sufficiently incensed to demand Squanto's life. The Plymouth settlers were very angry with Squanto in the wake of the fiasco, even to the extent that Governor Bradford admitted to Massasoit that Squanto deserved death for his act of betrayal. It was a measure of the colonists' dependence on him that they nevertheless protected him from Massasoit's vengeance.
In November of 1623, with the arrival of additional English settlers who came ill-prepared for the approaching New England winter, Squanto guided an expedition from Plymouth to trade with Cape Cod Indians for corn. He fell ill with what William Bradford, who led the foray, described as an "Indianfever" and died within a few days. According to Bradford, as quoted by John H. Humins in New England Quarterly, the dying Squanto expressed his wish to "go to the Englishmen's God in Heaven" and "bequeathed his little property to his English friends, as remembrances of his love." Some observers, including Humins, contend that Squanto's legendary role as the Pilgrims' savior has been largely exaggerated. "His struggle for power with Massasoit… has not been adequately noted in histories about the period," noted Humins, "[and] in fact jeopardized the plantation's relationship with the Indians." However, Squanto remains a key figure in American folklore—and the classic symbol of Thanksgiving.
Thacher, James, History of the Town of Plymouth from its First Settlement in 1620, to the Present Time, third edition, Yarmouthport, Massachusetts, Parnassus Imprints, 1972.
Vaughan, Alden T., New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675, Boston, Little, Brown, 1965.
Ceci, Lynn, "Squanto and the Pilgrims," Society, 27, May/June 1990; 40-44.
Humins, John H., "Squanto and Massasoit: A Struggle for Power," New England Quarterly, 60, March 1987; 54-70. □