The Myth of Squanto

I just love throwing curveballs at you!

As with many stories in history, the truth become white-washed, embellished and facts lost to antiquity. It then becomes the historian’s task to hunt for the truth through the discovery of contemporary testimony and records. By scrutinizing over these “facts”, one can then separate the fact from the fiction.

One such myth is that of Squanto. Squanto, as stories tell us, was a young Indian who had come into contact with English fishermen, who then brought him back to England on their return trip. While in England, they showed Squanto many marvelous places and things, and Squanto learned how to speak English. After spending several years in England, Squanto returned to America where he told the great chiefs of the wonders he had seen.

When the natives saw how the Pilgrims struggled, the great Sachem Massasoit wished to offer the Pilgrims his friendship. Massasoit sent Squanto as an ambassador to Plymouth, where he greeted them with the words, “Welcome, English!”

After speaking with the Pilgrims, Squanto told them that Massasoit was the ruling leader of the New England. If the English wanted peace, they must negotiate with him. They agreed that Squanto would return to his sachem and return.

As promised, Squanto returned with Massasoit and acted as interpreter as the Pilgrims and the sachem met and came to a peace agreement between them.

That is not… quite how it happened.

Squanto, or Tisquantum, was born around the year 1585. He belonged to the Patuxet tribe. The Patuxet village existed in the very location that the Pilgrims established their settlement. The area was heavily populated. And they cultivated the land.

In 1605, when Frenchman Samuel Champlain mapped the region, that he could see many wigwams on the shore and planted crops from his ship in the harbor; and he reflected this on the rudimentary map that he drew.

In 1611, Captain Edward Harlow abducted several Indians and brought them back to Europe. One of these natives was named Epenow. Epenow was unusually tall and muscular compared to a typical European. Harlow showed Epenow around the streets of England and Spain to make money.

Epenow saw enormous cities with tall buildings cramped together. He learned English so he may speak with the gentry. All of this so that Harlow could add coin to his purse. This was a lesson that did not slip past Epenow. He told his keepers that there was a mine back at Martha’s Vineyard, where there was a great hoard of gold waiting for the taking. They mounted an expedition to return to the shores of America. But when the ship came to within swimming distance, Epenow jumped overboard and swam ashore, escaping his captors. Epenow will become an important character later in our story.

Three years later, in 1614, when John Adams of Pocahontas fame came to explore the area with several vessels, one of the ship captains took it upon himself to capture as many Indians as he could fill his cargo hold to sell them as slaves. Historians believe that Squanto was one of these prisoners. Adams was furious with this Captain Thomas Hunt because he knew what it would do with future English-native relations. Unfortunately, this became a regular occurrence and would sow the seeds of mistrust for years.

While he was in captivity Squanto traveled to England, Spain and Newfoundland. He learned English and made himself most useful as an interpreter back in America. He found himself in the service of the explorer Thomas Dermer, a mariner from Maine. When Dermer wished to explore the Cape Cod area, he learned that Squanto was from that area So, Squanto became his guide.

In 1619, five years after his abduction, Squanto was returning home to Patuxet. During the years of 1616-1619, the area was decimated by a pestilence that historians believe may have been the smallpox brought by European fishermen or explorers who had come ashore. It had wiped the entire village of Patuxet out. Squanto was speechless with what had befell his home.

Squanto then brought Dermer and his party inland to another village called Nemasket. Squanto learned that not all of his people had perished. They had escaped here. He even found that some of his relatives survived. Squanto then planned to find favor with the Great Sachem Massasoit by bringing the English to him to build an alliance. He had learned that since the great plague, Massasoit had lost much of his power and the Narragansetts had become the ruling power in the area. Massasoit had to endure the shame of becoming subject to the Narragansetts and pay tribute every year. If he could help broker an alliance and help Massasoit regain power, perhaps he could return to Patuxet with his tribe and become a sachem himself—perhaps one day becoming as powerful as Massasoit himself.

Squanto escorted Dermer the day’s travel to Massasoit’s village, believed to be Sowams in present day Warren, Rhode Island. It pleased Massasoit to meet Dermer and the English. Squanto was correct in his estimation of Massasoit’s plight with the Narragansetts. If the Pokanoket could find a powerful ally, Massasoit would welcome them. Massasoit freed a French prisoner who, apparently, was one of a few survivors of a shipwreck from 1615. The Indians acted out their revenge for actions by other Europeans. They murdered the rest of the crew except for a few survivors. Dermer and Massasoit parted in friendship; and his freedom returned to him, Squanto returned to Nemasket.

Dermer then set sail for Martha’s Vineyard where he met another sachem who, as fate would have it, was our friend Epenow. Because of his newfound notoriety from his travels overseas, and knowledge of the English language that allowed him to communicate with the fishermen and explorers that traveled to his island, he had become the leader of his tribe. After speaking with Epenow, Dermer negotiated the release of a second French castaway, and then sailed to Virginia.

When he returned the following Summer, he did not receive a friend’s welcome. A few months prior in the Spring, an English ship had sailed into the Narragansett Bay and enticed a group of Massasoit’s people onboard. It is possible that the Englishmen tried to abduct them too into slavery they fought back. Whatever happened, the English shot everyone of them in cold-blood, and dumped them overboard. Massasoit was furious! These English to whom he had pledged his allegiance betrayed him! Had Squanto not intervened, they would have killed Dermer.

When Dermer landed on Martha’s Vineyard, Epenow ordered an attack. Dermer, Squanto and one other Englishman survived.

Epenow did not trust Squanto. He himself knowing English, he felt that Squanto was dangerous. He believed that Squanto could say that he knew what the English were saying, when he was lying and plotting for himself, or for the English.

We will see later a similar issue in our story of the Metacom Saga.

Massasoit also did not trust Squanto. It is unknown if Epenow acted on his own, or if Massasoit gave the command. Squanto was handed over to Massasoit as a prisoner.

A few months later, in November 1620, the Mayflower is sighted off of Provincetown Harbor. Massasoit hears of the Pilgrim’s encounter with the Nausets. He has the Mayflower observed as it sails about Cape Cod Bay until it anchors off the shore from the remains of Patuxet. They observed the Pilgrims as they build their settlement. They observed that they are doing poorly with the winter weather.

By February 1621, the Indians are no longer hiding. The Pilgrims regularly see the natives standing on top of hills, or in the trees, or across the bay. By this time, deaths were occurring daily. By the end of the Winter, only 52 of the original 102 in the party lived. The Pilgrims did their best to hide their diminished numbers and hid their dead.

Massasoit agonized over his decision. They differed from the other white-faced, bearded men from the past. They did not seem to come to kill his people or steal them away. They brought their women and children. They were vulnerable. What was their purpose here? They were here to stay. What was he to do with them?

Massasoit called a Powwow with his elders and shamans to decide the matter.

Squanto, saw an opportunity to improve his situation. He offered to be an interpreter. He advised Massasoit to not make the English his enemy. He told Massoit that the English could help the Pokanoket break free from the bonds of the Narragansetts and be a valuable ally against any future attack.

He warned of the power of their weapons. He warned that if Massasoit were to attack and kill them, many more English would come and seek revenge, reminding the sachem that his people are weak and so few after the great sickness that depleted so many of their numbers. Squanto then added that the English also had great magic — that they could inflict disease upon their enemies. Knowing that Massasoit’s people had just suffered a large loss, and that it was probably even rumored that the white men brought the disease, Squanto gambled that this would sway Massasoit.

The gamble worked. Massasoit decided that he would meet the English at Patuxet. But he still did not trust Squanto.

It so happened that there was another sachem from Maine who was visiting Massasoit’s camp. He had learned some English from some English sailors and traders who frequented his area. Massasoit sent this man to go to the Plymouth settlement.

On March 16, 1621, they sounded the alarm. A lone Indian appeared atop Watson Hill, outside the stockade. This Indian differed from the others. Instead of keeping his distance, he confidentially crossed the brook and strolled into the settlement. The Pilgrims stared in amazement until someone stood in his path. With a smile, he saluted.

AND THEN… come the famous words. “Welcome, English!”

This was Samoset.

With his broken English, Samoset explained to them that where they settled used to be Patuxet. He said that it used to be a sizeable area, settled by many people with many fields. Samoset explained to them how the great sickness killed the people. He then told them Patuxet was part of Pokanoket land, and that Massasoit was their leader. Samoset said that he would return to Massasoit, and that there was another Indian that spoke even better English than he did. The Pilgrims agreed to the meeting, and Samoset set out the following morning.

Four days later, Samoset returned with four other Indians. Squanto was one of them. They reported that Massasoit and his brother, Quadequina, were nearby. An hour later, Massasoit and a large entourage of warriors were standing on top of Watson Hill, waiting.

They sent a delegation out to meet him. And the rest, as they say, is history. Squanto played a pivotal role in the first negotiations. He also remained at Plymouth for twenty months as a liaison between the Pilgrims and the Pakanokets.

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