When I learned about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving year after year in grade school, I remember always being taught about how the neighboring Native Americans, and especially one particularly friendly Indian named Squanto, helped the Pilgrims get through that first hard year at Plymouth. So it’s no surprise that his name started popping up again and again in my recent research for videos I was working on about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. But it turns out, the image that we were all fed of this kind, benevolent helper may not have been quite as noble as we were once taught and that’s why we’re going to talk about the real man behind the Pilgrim’s success in today’s episode of Facts to Relax, the show where I, Yvonne Page Illustrates, research topics I find interesting and want to learn more about and then share what I learn with you. If you want to join in on coloring along with me while I talk, the picture on the screen I’m coloring is available to download on my website, yvonnepage.com/youtube and it’s linked in the description below as well.
So let’s get started. First of all, Squanto’s real name was Tisquantum and therefore that’s how we’ll refer to him for the majority of this video. Squanto was a nickname given to him by William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth Colony and it’s how he refers to him in his writings. Though we most commonly know of Tisquantum as the “Friendly Indian,” and yes, I do know I’m being politically incorrect saying that but it is how we were taught about him back in the 80s and 90s…but anyways, though it’s true that it was he who taught the Pilgrims to fish, hunt, and grow crops, that’s just a tiny glimpse into one part of his very interesting life.
Tisquantum was born into the Patuxet tribe somewhere around 1585, which was a member of the Wampanoag confederation of dozens of local indigenous tribes in what is now the New England region of the United States. The Wampanoags lived in the area for more than 12,000 years before Europeans began settling there.
Just a few hundred years ago, around 69 villages of first Americans were spread throughout New England, with upwards of thousands of residents in each village. In the summer months tribes would move closer to water where food was abundant and then they would move back inland when colder, windier weather hit the coast. The Patuxet tribe was just one of the villages, all of which would communicate regularly with each other through delegates who would work together to make policies and rules for all. That’s not to say there was no fighting amongst the people living in the region but it was definitely a much more idyllic time before European traders began to visit the area. I’ll say it again just to be very clear here. These people were living in the area for over 12,000 years and yet it only took a few years of European interference to completely change the landscape. For example, one trader, Thomas Hunt, a subordinate to the famed John Smith, was docked near the Patuxet village where Tisquantum lived, in 1614. While docked, he decided to try his hand at the slave trading business in order to increase his own profits from the voyage. He lured 27 young men onto his ship under the pretext of making trades. Once on board, the men were one by one subdued and confined below the deck until it was time to set off. Twenty of the men were kidnapped from the Patuxet tribe and seven others were from the Nauset tribe. One of those young Patuxet men was Tisquantum.
The men were brought to Spain on the way back to England and sold into slavery there. It should be noted here that John Smith in no way condoned Hunt’s actions and condemned him in writing, as did other backers of the expedition, and honestly, lots of British people at the time were highly upset by what Hunt had done. It should also be noted that the famed “First Encounter” between the Pilgrims and Nauset tribe several years later in which tribesmen attacked, unprovoked, the settlers searching for land, was a direct reaction to Hunts’ actions years before and the tribe’s mistrust of white people since then. It would be safe to assume that the Patuxet villagers would have had the same reaction to the Pilgrims, had any of them still been alive at the time. Unfortunately, two years after Tisquantum and his other tribesmen were kidnapped and sold into slavery, a plague hit the village, and then neighboring villages, wiping out all the Patuxet people and ultimately more than 100,000 Wampanoag people over the next three years. Though this plague wasn’t intentionally set upon the natives like smallpox would later be, it was still likely the fault of Europeans that it hit. It’s believed the illness began when a French fishing ship off the coast of Patuxet brought some sick fishermen into the village where they passed the illness on to the locals who had no defense against this new disease. Any Patuxets who didn’t die, fled from the village, never to return. By the time the Pilgrims found it in 1620, Patuxet village was just a collection of abandoned huts with corpses from the dead inside.
Meanwhile, back in Spain, Tisquantum somehow managed to escape slavery and made his way to London, England, where he learned English and worked for a shipbuilder and merchant, John Slane. Eventually he got work as an interpreter for Captain Thomas Dermer for an expedition to Newfoundland, Canada. Tisquantum convinced Dermer to travel further down the coastline where they’d be sure to find even more willing trade partners among his old tribe. We don’t know his motives exactly but at the very least, this would have been a chance for Tisquantum to visit his old family and friends, if not also to escape back to them, which would have been my plan if I was him. Upon arrival however, they found the entire village dead from disease and Tisquantum must have been devastated by the sight. The pair was taken by Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag confederacy. If it weren’t for Tisquantum’s intervention, Dermer would have been immediately killed. None of the native people were interested in peaceful hospitality towards Europeans who’d proven time and time again to be their downfall. Eventually Dermer was mortally wounded and Tisquantum was kept as a prisoner of Massasoit.
Then came the Pilgrims.
Now to be completely honest, Massasoit’s first instinct when the Pilgrims were spotted was to call on spirits to kill or drive them away, and I mean, since half of them had died by the end of their first winter in Plymouth it’s hard to say his plan wasn’t working, but then Massasoit had a change of heart and decided to use the Pilgrim’s presence to his advantage instead. Remember the Wampanoags at this point had lost over 100,000 tribesmen to the plague, greatly weakening their forces and putting them at increased risk of attack from other nearby tribes. “What if,” Massasoit thought, “I used these settlers to strengthen our forces?” and that’s exactly what he did.
First Massasoit sent a different prisoner to meet with the Pilgrims, a man named Samoset who had learned English from traders. Massasoit trusted him more than Tisquantum and offered him his freedom in exchange for acting as a diplomat between the tribe and the settlers. It didn’t take long for Samoset to realize that he needed someone who spoke better English than he did so eventually he returned to the colony with Tisquantum. Only a few weeks later, the two men had helped the groups negotiate the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty, after which, Samoset quickly disappeared while Tisquantum remained in the colony, helping the Pilgrims learn how to fish, plant, and hunt, and served as their translator with both the Wampanoags and other tribes.
Splendid, right? What a great guy! The pilgrims loved him, nicknamed him Squanto, and everyone lived happily ever after, cue giant turkey and pumpkin pie stage left, and now everyone hold hands and sing a song of brotherhood and friendship together.
Right, except in reality Massasoit still didn’t trust Tisquantum and ended up sending his right-hand man, Hobbamock, into the settlement to share responsibilities with him, but really to keep an eye on him. And it turns out he was right to do so because all along Tisquantum was apparently interested in helping nobody but himself and was planning a bit of a coup.
His plan was as follows:
Wait until the strongest warriors in the settlement, including Massasoit’s spy Hobbamock, were away and then get a relative of his to come to Plymouth, claiming that Massasoit was planning an attack on the colony. In his plan, William Bradford who was the governor of the colony and a friend of Tisquantum would hear the news and preemptively attack Massasoit instead. Then Tisquantum could become chief of the Wampanoags and live happily ever after.
However, things almost never turn out exactly according to plan and what actually happened was that when Bradford heard of the potential attack, he ordered the cannon fired to call back the warriors who’d gone off to hunt. He told them the story and Hobbamock disputed Tisquantum’s report, claiming he’d know if Massasoit had been planning something like that. Hobbamock’s wife was sent to Massasoit’s village to confirm this and bam, Tisquantum’s evil plan of domination was revealed.
This wasn’t his only attempt at tearing apart the allyship between the tribe and the colony either. Tisquantum loved to play on tribes people’s fears by telling them that the English settlers kept the plague buried underground and could send it out at them at any time they wanted to, making them feel like they needed to stay on his good side rather than Massasoit’s.
This, of course, outraged Massasoit and he demanded Tisquantum be handed over for execution but at first Bradford refused. Not only were they friends but he felt that the colonists needed Tisquantum’s help to survive. This was going against the Pilgrim-Wampanoag peace treaty however and was quite obviously causing strains between the two leaders and their groups. However, in a highly anticlimactic turn of events, Tisquantum actually ended up dying during this standoff of an alleged fever.
And that’s it. That’s the end of the story of Tisquantum or Squanto, a man who helped the Pilgrims survive but was definitely not the selflessly, friendly Indian that we all were taught he was, which is important because honestly that narrow narrative can be as dangerous as the opposite one which paints Native Americans as simple savages out for blood, since both extreme viewpoints take away from the truth of the matter, which is that Tisquantum, like all other early Indigenous people and, of course, Indigenous people today as well, was just a normal human being like anyone else, a mix of good and bad, both helpful and selfish, filled with love and the pain from his struggles and losses. I do hope this video helps us all to take a step back and examine some of the oversimplified things we were taught as children that may have led us to inadvertently stereotype entire groups of people and see them as separate and inherently different from ourselves. On that note, if you enjoyed this video and want to come back and learn more with me in the future, please do subscribe to this channel and check back often so we can color and chill together again. Bye!