Politics & Policy

Squanto, the Worldly Indian Who Dazzled the Pilgrims

A 17th-century American-Indian Henry Kissinger

As you gobble your Thanksgiving turkey, imagine being a Pilgrim in March 1621. Hardly four months after the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock the previous November, you still struggle for food, shelter, and survival in the state of nature.

Suddenly, an Indian reaches your outpost. Friend or foe? What brought him here? How would you ever communicate with him?

And then he opens his mouth. He speaks English! More amazing, he does so with a British accent and the demeanor of someone who had lived and worked among England’s elite.

Who on Earth is this incredible man?

Squanto, a.k.a. Tisquantum, was born about 1580 in present-day Plymouth, Mass. He was a Patuxet Indian, associated with the Wampanoag tribal confederation. After a nondescript youth, Squanto became embroiled in English captain John Smith’s efforts to explore and map what we now call Cape Cod. In 1614, Smith assigned Captain Thomas Hunt to stay behind and trade with the Patuxet and Nauset natives.

But Hunt deceived Smith and double-crossed the Indians. He lured about 20 tribesmen onto his ship, ostensibly to discuss the beaver trade. Instead, as MayflowerHistory.com explains, Hunt kidnapped them to sell them into slavery. As a betrayed Smith later wrote in the indelicate words of his day: Captain Hunt “most dishonestly, and inhumanely, for their kind usage of me and all our men, carried them with him to Malaga, and there for a little private gain sold those silly savages for rials of eight.”

Hunt sold several Indians in Spain. However, local friars sabotaged his scheme. They gained custody of, freed, and Catholicized the remaining Indians, including Squanto. 

Back home, what the Spanish Franciscans called Hunt’s “devilish plot,” justifiably enflamed the Nauset and Patuxet. French sailors experienced this rage when the Nauset burned their boat, killed most aboard, and enslaved the rest.

Meanwhile, Squanto somehow talked his way to London. He met and lived there with John Slaney, treasurer of the Newfoundland Company. Squanto learned English and mixed with top British shippers and merchants. The Newfoundland Company employed Squanto as an interpreter and expert on North American natural resources.

Squanto soon found himself bound for Newfoundland, where he worked for its governor, John Mason. Thomas Dermer, another ship captain, envisioned the now Anglophone and Anglicized Squanto as a translator and envoy between his justifiably furious Indian brethren and his new, outward-looking British employers. Dermer wrote headquarters about Squanto’s diplomatic potential, whereupon they both were summoned to London to discuss next steps.

In 1619, Dermer and Squanto crossed the Atlantic yet again. Destination: Plymouth. To Squanto’s horror, a suspected smallpox outbreak had annihilated his village. Squanto moved in with the nearby Wampanoag, including its leaders, Massasoit and Squanto’s brother Quadequina.

Dermer left to reconcile separately with the Nauset. Unimpressed, they attacked and captured him. Squanto negotiated Dermer’s release. Dermer sailed away without Squanto. Indians again ambushed him at Martha’s Vineyard. Although injured, he escaped and fled for Jamestown, Va. There, his wounds consumed him.

Squanto met the Pilgrims on March 22, 1621, accompanied by Massasoit and Quadequina. He negotiated peace and commercials ties with the English exiles. Like a 17th-century American-Indian Henry Kissinger, Squanto arranged truces and trade deals between the Plymouth Colony and various regional Indian leaders. This fruitful peace lasted five decades.

Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels, plant corn more efficiently, and convert fish into fertilizer.

Squanto got himself in trouble for trying to gain personally by playing the Pilgrims and Indians off each other. Massasoit ordered the Pilgrims to surrender Squanto for execution. A combination of Governor William Bradford’s foot dragging, and more urgent priorities, eventually hushed Massasoit’s calls for Squanto’s scalp. He survived, yet again.

But Squanto’s incredible luck soon ran out. While helping Bradford acquire seed corn for the next season, Squanto’s nose began to bleed while in Cape Cod’s Manamoyick Bay. Squanto called this an Indian death omen. Indeed, he passed away days later in November 1623. Squanto “bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances,” wrote Bradford: “His death was a great loss.”

Squanto’s colorful life is among the countless, fascinating treasures that await those willing to learn how ours became the greatest of nations.

— New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a Fox News Contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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