Thank this 17th Century Native American diplomat for Thanksgiving.
Imagine arriving in North America in the early 17th century. As you step off your ship, a vast, untamed wilderness spreads out before you — a land of unfettered opportunity. However, you and your fellow settlers struggle to adapt to this new and dangerous continent. Hunting and farming are more difficult than you anticipate, disease strikes out of nowhere, and you struggle to maintain a positive relationship with the native people you encounter. Life is hard and getting harder.
Imagine how much easier life would be in the New World if you had a guide who could teach you how to farm, hunt, and help you communicate with native leaders. He speaks perfect English, with a British accent nonetheless, and offers to help your community survive the dangers of the New World.
Does this guide sound implausible? Straight out of historical fiction?
It’s closer to the truth than you think. Although historians debate over the specifics of his life, the Native American described above did exist and was crucial to the survival of the Plymouth colony and the story of the first Thanksgiving. His name was Tisquantum, but you most likely know him as Squanto.
Everyone knows the story of the first Thanksgiving — pilgrims and Native Americans put aside their differences and joined together to share a meal and give thanks. Fewer Americans know the true story of the man who made the first Thanksgiving possible — Squanto, also known as Tisquantum.
Squanto, born c. 1580 in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, was a member of the Patuxet tribe and the larger Wampanoag tribal confederation.
Squanto grew up in the area around Plymouth — hunting, fishing, farming, and learning how to survive in the wilds of North America. Squanto’s experience and wilderness savvy made him an ideal guide for Captain John Smith as he explored and mapped Cape Cod and the surrounding area.
After working as a guide for Captain Smith, Squanto hoped the trading relationship between the Patuxet and the English would continue to blossom under Captain Thomas Hunt — the man John Smith left in charge.
However, Captain Hunt took advantage of Squanto’s trust in the English. After John Smith left North America, Hunt invited Squanto and 20 of his tribesmen onto his ship under the pretense of discussing the beaver trade.
Instead of engaging in trade talks, Hunt took Squanto and his tribesmen captive, beat them, and brought them to Spain to sell as slaves.
Once the ship arrived in Europe, Squanto escaped Spain and made his way to England. How Squanto managed his miraculous escape is a subject of debate amongst historical scholars. According to some historians, Squanto escaped slavery with the help of Spanish monks who took pity on the captives. Others argue that a ship captain saved him from captivity and brought him to England.
Regardless of how he got to England, Squanto made the most of his time there. He learned flawless English, lived with the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company, and made contacts among the shippers and merchants he met along the way.
Journey Back to the New World
After several years, Squanto found himself on a ship back to North America, where he was destined to work for the Governor of Newfoundland, John Mason.
While working for John Mason, Squanto’s linguistic talent and wilderness skills drew the attention of Thomas Dermer — an English ship captain. Dermer recognized Squanto’s diplomatic skill and potential value as a translator and liaison between the English and the Native Americans in the Plymouth area.
Return to the New World
However, upon returning to Massachusetts Squanto discovered that his village had been ravaged by smallpox. Squanto moved to another nearby village where his surviving tribesmen lived. Unfortunately, Dermer’s time in Massachusetts was short lived and ill-fated. After attempting to establish diplomatic contact by himself, Dermer was ambushed at Martha’s Vineyard and later died of his wounds in Jamestown, Virginia.
Squanto began operating as a diplomatic envoy between the tribesmen and the English, teaching the settlers to fish, plant corn, and generally survive in the tough environment of 17th century North America. Squanto’s diplomatic efforts led to a detente between the settlers and the Native Americans — creating the conditions that would lead to the famous first Thanksgiving in 1621.
However, Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief, discovered that Squanto was playing both sides to his advantage and demanded his capture and execution. Squanto found asylum within the British camp and they refused to hand him over. Squanto spent the rest of his life building relationships with the settlers and helping them survive in North America. He died in 1623 and was mourned throughout the Plymouth colony by the settlers who had come to accept him and know him as a close friend.
Squanto’s Incredible Life
It’s important to study Squanto’s full life — not just his role in the first Thanksgiving.
Everyone knows him as the friendly Native American that played a key role in the first Thanksgiving, but not many Americans fully grasp the amazing arc of his life story. Squanto crossed the Atlantic multiple times, thrived in the wilds of North America and the urban metropolis of London, and operated as a 17th century diplomat with unparalleled skill. Americans should honor his entire legacy and celebrate our gratitude that such an extraordinary man helped to guide the early days of our country.