Tisquantum, better known in popular culture as Squanto, is perhaps most famous for his role in the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving. As the story goes, a Native American named Squanto greets the pilgrims, to their surprise, in perfect English, and ensures their survival through teaching them to grow corn. That autumn, they come together to celebrate their harvest, giving thanks to the Patuxets who helped them. Outside of this narrative, the life of Squanto has been largely unexplored. Who was this man who came to secure the success of New England’s most famous colony? This article, employing the research of Neal Salisbury, aims to uncover the circumstances of Squanto’s life which led him to the most iconic moment in early American history. By following Tisquantum from his Patuxet home to Malaga, London, Newfoundland and finally back to a changed tribe, this article will illustrate that Tisquantum’s travels set a course which led to his relations with the pilgrims.
Tisquantum was born in 1590 in Patuxet, an important town of the Wampanoag territory. In fact, Patuxet was the most powerful northern Wampanoag community, according to Salisbury. It is important here to note that the pilgrims were not the first interaction the Wampanoags had with Europeans. Indeed, the early sixteenth century saw French, Spanish and English expeditions and traders – looking for beaver pelts – interact with the Wampanoags. Sometimes Europeans would even be incorporated into the Wampanoag social networks. This goes some way to explaining Tisquantum’s language skills, even before considering his travels, and challenges the widely held idea that the pilgrims entered a previously undisturbed world. In 1602, English and French expeditions arrived in Wampanoag territory, and these interactions were far more hostile than those of the early sixteenth century. An Englishman named Hunt, in search of quick profits, seized Tisquantum and twenty other Patuxets to sell them into slavery in Malaga in 1614. It was here that Tisquantum’s journey started.
Tisquantum’s time in Malaga saw the conception of what Salisbury calls Squanto’s ‘cosmopolitanism’. By this, Salisbury means Tisquantum’s increasing knowledge of languages – especially English – and his ability to charm those he met. This is in addition to his growing knowledge and understanding of the workings of European cultures. Most importantly, Tisquantum’s cosmopolitanism was defined by his ability to develop close personal relationships, gaining loyalties, which facilitated his relationship with the pilgrims in the famous story of Thanksgiving. But this cosmopolitanism was perhaps most significantly realised in London, where Tisquantum travelled in 1616. Here, Squanto lived with a man named Slany in Cornhill. Significantly, Cornhill was a ‘principal street anchored by the Royal Exchange’, Salisbury writes. London’s wealthiest merchants lived here, rendering Cornhill a political and financial centre of the city. This had the effect of introducing Tisquantum to England’s most important people on his daily walks around the Exchange, thus further developing his English-speaking skills and extending his charm, forming mutually beneficial relationships with those around him. London, Salisbury argues, set the stage for Tisquantum’s successful career as leader and negotiator.
After this, Tisquantum travelled to Newfoundland. It was here that he heard news of the tragedy that had struck his homeland. An epidemic had devastated the Native populations of New England’s coast, including the Patuxets. Squanto travelled home in 1617 to find the catastrophic remains of his home. Known as the ‘Great Dying’, Squanto’s family ties were eviscerated. This also had the effect, Salisbury argues, of reducing Tisquantum’s ability to lead and negotiate on the behalf of the Patuxets, as his social standing and personal relationships had perished with most of his tribe. Indeed, the Wampanoags with whom he now lived did not fully trust him; they remained suspicious of his loyalties as a result of his worldly travels, despite that fact that his English language skills and knowledge of English customs were unparalleled. This became evident when the Mayflower arrived. Samoset, another with a good understanding of English – if not as fluent as Squanto – was sent to talk with the colonists instead, illustrating a caution around Tisquantum. However, these talks were fruitless, and Tisquantum was sent to the colonists as a last resort. The result was a treaty, drawn up in March 1621, which, Salisbury asserts, ‘marked the beginnings of permanent colonization in New England’. Indeed, William Bradford highlighted that, ‘after friendly entertainment’ the pilgrims ‘made a peace with him’. Further, Tisquantum, crucially, demonstrated to the English how Wampanoag women grew corn – the basis of the Thanksgiving narrative. While such peace was not long lived, central to this article is Tisquantum’s role in these relations – this treaty would not have happened without Tisquantum’s strong ability to communicate both linguistically and culturally with the English.
However, an important aspect of Tisquantum’s relations with the English after the Thanksgiving tale is left out in the traditional narrative: as a result of his involvement, relations between the Wampanoags and the English steadily worsened. Anna Brickhouse has articulated a reason for this: ‘motivated mistranslation’. Here, Squanto intentionally mistranslated in order to manipulate his patrons. Salisbury highlights some examples of this: Tisquantum lied to the English, stating that the Wampanoags planned to attack, and at the same time told the Wampanoags that only his spiritual power could stop the English unleashing a ‘plague’ on those who opposed him. In this way, Squanto convinced both the English and the Wampanoags that he was their best protection from one another. Motivated mistranslation, indeed. The worsening relations between the two camps lessened only with Squanto’s death in 1622. His burial, upon his request, was an English one. He had aligned himself more closely with the English, all but forsaking his Wampanoag ties. But how did this happen? Salisbury cites the ‘Great Dying’ as a key reason; his social ties with the Wampanoags had been wiped out and he could no longer rely on these for successful relations. Furthermore, these lack of ties, coupled with his newfound worldliness, created a sense of distrust toward Squanto – he was not suited to lead those who did not trust him. In this way, the cosmopolitanism which aided him so in talks with the English weakened his ability to talk on behalf of the Wampanoags, determining the course of his career as interpreter.
This enhanced understanding of the life of Squanto challenges the traditional, simple Thanksgiving story. Tisquantum was a complex individual who acted upon this history in an impactful way, even in a negative way. He was shaped by the world around him throughout his travels, and in turn shaped the course of relations between the English and the Wampanoags. It is important to see iconic figures such as Squanto in a holistic way, to examine their whole lives, not just the part that most impacts us today. Doing so allows a richer understanding of histories agents, and allows them the humanity they deserve.
Written by Amy Hendrie
Bradford, William, ‘Of Plymouth Plantation’. (Newburyport: Dover Pulbications, 2012)
Brickhouse, Anna, ‘The Unsettlement of America: Translation, Interpretation, and the Story of Don Luis de Velasco, 1560-1945’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)
Salisbury, Neal, ‘Treacherous Waters: Tisquantum, the Red Atlantic, and the Beginnings of Plymouth Colony’ Early American Literature Vol 56(1) (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021)