The story of Squanto is a remarkable tale of spiritual strength and survival in spite of great hardship. Most people are familiar with Squanto from American Thanksgiving Pageants, in which he represents the Native Americans who assisted the Pilgrims’ in a new and often hostile environment. William Bradford, a Governor of the Plymouth Colony founded by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, called Squanto “a special instrument sent of God” for the good of the colonists. What many people do not know is that Squanto came to be a special instrument sent of God to the Pilgrim Fathers ... by way of Cupids, Newfoundland!
In one of the extraordinary twists of destiny that made up Squanto’s life, he was sent to live in the Cupids Cove Colony. An objective of the colony was to contact and establish trading relationships with the Beothuk, the native people of Newfoundland, because there was such great demand in England and throughout Europe for furs and fur products. It is possible that the Bristol merchants who backed the Cupids colony thought that Squanto could help communicate with the Beothuk. Although little is recorded about his life, we know he lived in Cupids for about a year. When he arrived in Cupids Cove, the colonists had been living there for eight years, so he was able to observe both the problems that English colonists encountered attempting to survive in the harsh, relatively unknown environment of the New World, and the solutions they may have developed.
We know that Squanto taught the Pilgrims to use rotting fish to fertilize their crops. Some researchers believe he learned this technique while he was in Cupids. The Newfoundland colonists used rotting caplin to fertilize their gardens. In addition, during his time in Cupids Cove, he became more familiar with the Christian religion, since church services were held in the colony. He also learned more about the significance that English people placed on signing documents and treaties. He improved his ability to speak English through communiting with the colonists. When he met the Pilgrims, he could speak English well enough to converse, and he was able to translate for both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims when they signed a treaty of peace which lasted for over 50 years. All of the knowledge and skills he required to carry out these activities were enhanced by his time in the Cupids Cove colony.
But there is so much more to his story. We began Squanto's story with his arrival in Cupids Cove. You might wonder who he was, where he came from, and how he arrived in Cupids Cove. Squanto's life before he arrived in Cupids Cove was intermingled with that of European adventurers who were establishing ties in the New World. His life story is one of betrayal, grief, and loss mixed with excitement, adventure, and good fortune.
The man we know today as Squanto (also Squantum, Tisquantum, Tasquantum) was born in a Wampanoag village called Patuxet, near today’s Plymouth, Massachusetts sometime in the last years of the 1500’s. Very little is known of his life prior to 1614. There is speculation that he may have been trained as a pneise, a sort of counsellor/bodyguard to his sachem or band leader.
We know that in 1614, when he was in his late teens or early twenties, he was among a group of Wampanoag kidnapped by one Thomas Hunt. Sir Ferdinando Georges, an early English colonial entrepreneur who has been called "the Father of English Colonization in North America," related an account of the incident
...it happened there had beene one Hunt ... [who]seized upon the poore innocent creatures, that in confidence of his honestie had put themselves into his hands. And stowing them under Hatches, to the number of twentie foure, carried them into the Sraits, where he sought to sell them for slaves, and sold as many as he could get money for. But the Friers of those parts took the rest from them, and kept them to be instructed in the Christian Faith; and so disappointed this new and Devillish project.
A Relation of New England” in
Haklytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes:
In Twenty Volumes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906) 19:272-3
As Georges says, Hunt captured 24 native Americans and locked them “under Hatches.” Imagine the horror that these young men felt. They were locked below deck in deplorable conditions for days, while the ship sailed across the harsh Atlantic Ocean. They did not know where they were being taken or what would happen to them when they arrived. Hunt brought Squanto and his fellow prisoners to Spain where he interned to sell them as slaves in the Malaga Slave Market. Luckily for Squanto, a group of Spanish monks intervened and stopped the sale. They took Squanto into their care. Though little is known of Squanto’s time in Spain, he was able to survive life in a country where people spoke a foreign language and lead a lifestyle that bore no resemblance to the way he had lived in his homeland.
We know that Squanto’s main objective was to find a way back to his home and his own people. Sometime in 1618, Squanto was able to make his way to London, England. There, he was taken to the home of John Slany, one of the shareholders of the Newfoundland Company and a backer of the Cupids Colony. It was John Slany who sent him to Cupids. Maybe Slany hoped that Squanto would be able to help the colonists to establish trade with the Beothuk.
What happened next? Did he get back to his homeland and what happened when he arrived?
During 1618, Thomas Dermer, an adventurer/ traveler, arrived in the Cupids Cove Colony and found Squanto. Dermer, who was a good friend of Sir Ferdinando Georges, had been planning an expedition to New England. He wanted to take Squanto with him, hoping he would be able to help make peace with the natives of that area who were extremely angry about the 24 men that Thomas Hunt had kidnapped. Squanto, recognizing a way back to his homeland, was very happy to accompany him to New England, more specifically to Maine and Squanto’s homeland of Southern Massachusetts. The trip was delayed several months due to a miscommunication which caused Dermer to travel back to England then back across the Atlantic to New England.
What Dermer and Squanto found when they eventually arrived in Southern Massachusetts in 1619 must have horrified them both. An outbreak of “plague” had ravaged the area. The Wampanoag were decimated. Patuxet was abandoned and everyone in Squanto’s family and everyone he had known was dead. Villages for miles inland were completely empty. Eventually, Squanto found a few survivors from neighbouring villages, who brought them to Massasoit, sachem [leader or chief] of the Wampanoag. Massasoit told them of the grisly details of a spreading plague which had killed 90% of the native people of the region.
By this time, it was 1620 and the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed the Mayflower into Plymouth harbour. Once again, by an odd twist of fate, the Pilgrim Fathers established their settlement on the exact same piece of land that had been Squanto’s home village of Patuxet. Massasoit, perhaps because of Squanto’s close association with Europeans, placed him and another native from Maine named Samoset under house arrest in the village of Pokanoket (near what is today Bristol, Rhode Island.)
The Wampanoag were secretly watching the Pilgrims, wondering why they were there and what they were going to do. The Pilgrims built homes and gardens, trying to survive the winter in the New World, encountering similar problems to the colonists in Cupids Cove. At the end of the winter, Massasoit and his people considered sending Samoset and/or Squanto to talk with the Pilgrims, since both of them could speak English.
Ultimately, Massasoit decided to send only Samoset to greet the Pilgrims because did not want to chance losing both of them and he did not want to risk sending Squanto, who was his best translator.
On March 16, 1621 Samoset walked up to a group of Englishmen and said “Welcome Englishman! Welcome Englishman!”
Later Massasoit met with Plymouth Governor John Carver. Squanto was the translator. With his assistance, they signed a treaty of peace. Massasoit signed for his people and the Pilgrims signed as emissaries of the great English sachem, or King James.
After signing the treaty, Massasoit was so pleased with the work of Samoset and Squanto that he granted them their freedom. Samoset returned to his homeland in Maine. Squanto, who probably knew more English than any other native person in North America at that time, decided to stay with the Pilgrims as the colony’s chief interpreter and agent in their interaction with all native people.
Thus…by a strange twist of fate, Squanto, who had lived in the Cupids Colony, became so important to the Pilgrim Fathers. William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth, who knew exactly Squanto’s worth, expresses his opinion when he says:
…Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.
Squanto is the ultimate survivor. He survived kidnapping, harsh treatment, and an attempt to sell him as a slave in Spain. In the world as existed in the 17th century, living in foreign cultures, without being trained to speak either Spanish or English, he was able to find his way back to England and back to North America in the Cupids Cove Colony. He made his way home to Patuxet only to find that everyone he knew had died of a plague. He was able to assimilate all that he had leaned and became a special instrument sent to the Pilgrims of God for their good beyond their expectation.
The wooden carving of Squanto’s head is on display at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. What is really interesting is the caption that appears with the head. It explains that Squano’s head is the only remaining piece from a large wooden sculpture which depicted the first meeting between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. How appropriate that the head of the man who had survived so much would be the only remaining piece. In addition, there is a statue of a Wampanoag overlooking the harbour. The statue seems to represent the spirit of Squanto and his people, still watching over the land that was once their home.