American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Squanto

Best-known for serving as an interpreter for the Pilgrims and for showing them how to survive in New England, Squanto (died 1622) was a Patuxet Indian who, in a few short years, traveled (sometimes unwillingly) from North America, to Spain and England, and back to New England.

Squanto (rendered as Tisquantum by William Bradford) stepped into history in 1614, when English sea captain Thomas Hunt abducted roughly twenty Native men from Cape Cod. Hoping to sell the Indians as slaves, Hunt took his human cargo to Spain, where he sold a few of the Indians before Spanish authorities seized the rest and sent them to live with Catholic friars so that they could be instructed in Christianity. Little is known about Squanto's time in Spain or how he left the country, but by 1617 he was living in the London home of the Newfoundland Company's treasurer, John Slany. Hoping to use Squanto as an interpreter and go-between, the English took him to Newfoundland in 1618. He returned to his native Patuxet while serving as a guide and interpreter for Thomas Dermer's 1619 expeditions to Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. As Dermer prepared to sail around Cape Cod, Squanto left to seek out his own people. In the few years since Squanto had been abducted, New England's Native populations had been devastated by European diseases, often carried by English fishermen who came ashore to dry their catch and to trade. Squanto returned to Patuxet and discovered that nearly all of his people had perished in an epidemic.

Without Squanto to act as an interpreter, Dermer had difficulty dealing with the Native peoples of the area, who had good reason to be suspicious of English intentions. The Indians rightly viewed the English as kidnappers, and they also rightly believed that the English had something to do with the diseases that ravaged their communities in coastal New England. When Dermer returned to the southern New England coast a year later, he was captured by a group of Native people and held until Squanto interceded. Squanto joined Dermer, but the expedition was attacked by Native people at Martha's Vineyard. The Pokanokets seized Squanto as a captive, while Dermer, wounded several times, made his way back to Virginia, where he died shortly thereafter.

In November 1620, the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod. The Pokanokets were undoubtedly aware of the English presence, but, like other Native peoples, they maintained a cautious distance from the Plymouth settlement and its inhabitants. In the spring of 1621, Samoset, an Abenaki, made the initial contact with the English. A few days after this meeting, Samoset and Squanto translated the terms of the first treaty between the English and the Pokanoket leader, Massasoit. For his part, Massasoit probably looked upon the English as potential allies against the more numerous and powerful Narragansetts, who had been relatively untouched by the recent epidemics of European disease.

Due to his extensive contact with the English, Squanto had far better command of their language than did Samoset, and the Pokanokets permitted him to remain in the Plymouth settlement. Squanto helped the Pilgrims obtain a quantity of maize, trained them in the planting and harvesting of the crop, and guided them on their excursions out of the Plymouth settlement. He also attempted to rebuild the Patuxets, scouring the region for survivors of the smallpox epidemic. This angered the Pokanokets, who saw this as a challenge, but the Plymouth colony protected Squanto. Squanto attempted to gain a measure of influence among other Native people in the area, claiming that, if they did not heed him, he could persuade his English friends to send a plague among them. While the Plymouth settlers did not approve of Squanto's actions, they realized that he was critical to their success, due to his abilities as a translator. At one point, the Pilgrims nearly went to war with nearby Native groups over the mere rumor that they had killed Squanto. When Squanto died in 1622, he asked the English to pray for him so that he could go to their heaven.

Roger M. Carpenter


Further Reading
Salisbury, Neal. 1982. Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.; Salisbury, Neal. 1999. "Squanto: Last of the Patuxet." In The Human Tradition in Colonial America. Edited by Ian K. Steele and Nancy L. Rhoden, 21–36. Wilmington, DE. Scholarly Resources.
 

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