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First Americans: Tisquantum

July 13, 2009

This is the second in a series of four columns featuring Native Americans who were important in the shaping of our country.

Tisquantum, better known today as Squanto, was a Patuxet Indian. He befriended the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Bay Colony in Massachusetts following their first harsh winter in the New World. He is often credited as the person who, more than any other, enabled the fledgling colony to survive. 

Tisquantum was particularly suited for his unique role in history. Prior to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, a series of improbable events prepared this Native American for his unusual accomplishment.

In 1605, Captain George Weymouth led an expedition on behalf of English merchants to look at the resources of North America, particularly the New England areas. He sailed down the coast of Maine into Massachusetts Bay. Thinking his financial backers in England would be interested in meeting some Indians, Weymouth decided to bring several back to Britain with him. Weymouth kidnapped Tisquantum and his friend Samoset as well as several other Patuxet young men.

In England, Tisquantum lived with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, whose Plymouth Company intended to financially exploit the New World. When he was captured, Tisquantum left behind a wife named Kistapa and son named Sachame. Once in England, he became the consort of an English woman, Lady Jane Smith. Together they had two children, John and Shandarel.

Sir Gorges kept Tisquantum on his estate. He gave him the European name Jeremiah Stein.  Gorges taught Tisquantum English, and eventually hired him to be a guide for his sea captains who were exploring the New England coasts. His knowledge of the land and tribes of New England equipped him to be a valuable interpreter for explorers.

Tisquantum returned to the New World on John Smith’s 1613 voyage. After Captain Smith completed mapping the Cape Cod region, he left Thomas Hunt to trade with the Indians. Once Smith had sailed, Hunt promptly captured twenty-seven of the Native Americans. Tisquantum was one of those captured. Hunt’s plan was to sell the captured Indians as slaves in Spain. Hunt transported them to Spain and tried to sell Tisquantum and the others for twenty pounds apiece.

Sir Ferdinando Gorges, in A Brief Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England (London, 1622) wrote that some local friars discovered what Hunt was attempting. The monks purchased the remaining Indians, including Tisquantum, in order to instruct them in the Christian faith.

Tisquantum lived with the friars until 1618 when he boarded a ship from Bristol headed for Newfoundland. When Tisquantum returned to the New World, Captain Thomas Dermer, who had worked in the past for Sir Ferdinando Gorges, recognized the Indian.

Dermer brought Tisquantum back to Gorges. While in England, Gorges boarded Tisquantum with Sir John Slainey, treasurer of the Newfoundland Company. Gorges organized a trip to send both Dermer and Tisquantum to explore the natural resources of the New World and to reinitiate trade with the Indians.

In 1619,Tisquantum once more returned to his homeland, making his way with Dermer along the New England coast. He discovered that his Patuxet tribe had been decimated the year before by a plague thought to be smallpox. Estimates are that between 1617 and 1619, ninety percent of the Massachusetts Bay Native Americans were wiped out by smallpox, a dread disease introduced by Europeans.

Tisquantum settled in a Wampanoag village where Massasoit was the chief. He was reunited with his friend Samoset. It was while he was living there that he first came in contact with the Pilgrims, who arrived in the New World in 1620. It was late in December before the Pilgrims had chosen a suitable site for their settlement, More than half of them died before spring arrived. Samoset, a resident of the Wampanoag village who spoke some English, visited them on March 16.

After Samoset had traded with the Pilgrims, he told the Wampanoag that the colonists wanted to make peace with them. Massasoit sent Tisquantum to be interpreter. On March 22, 1621, the Pilgrims met Tisquantum for the first time. That day, Tisquantum negotiated a peace treaty between Massasoit and the Wampanoag and John Carver and the Pilgrims.

Squanto, as the Pilgrims called him, stayed with the colony and helped them replenish their food. He assisted their recover from their first difficult winter by showing them the best places to catch fish and eel. He instructed them in ways to build warmer homes. He taught them how to plant corn. He guided them in how to hunt for wild game. Tisquantum also advised the Pilgrims in their relations with the Wamponoag. He acted as interpreter, guided them on trading expeditions, and gave advice on bargaining and relations between the two groups.

Tisquantum remained with the Pilgrims for about 18 months. When he returned to the Wampanoag, Massasoit, the chief who had appointed Tisquantum as a diplomat to the Pilgrims, no longer trusted him.

On his way back to the colony Tisquantum became ill with a fever.  He died a few days later in 1622 in Chatham, Massachusetts. He is buried in an unmarked grave on Burial Hill at Chatham. William Bradford wrote later that Tisquantum was a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

Peace between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans lasted for another fifty years.

Tisquantum, or Squanto, is still remembered and honored, nearly 400 years later.


 Kirk H. Neely
© July 2009

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