History, Language

Squanto: America’s First Secretary of State

SquantoAccording to Thanksgiving lore, a friendly Native American named Squanto served as a guide and interpreter for the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony. Squanto facilitated their relationship with the Wampanoag tibe, without whom the pilgrims most likely would not have survived their first winter.

And why was Squanto such a key player? He spoke English. How exactly Squanto came to possess this ability is generally glossed over so we can get to the part of the story where everyone eats Turkey. But considering that, without Squanto and his language abilities, no Pilgrim would have been alive to enjoy said Turkey, this seems like a pretty glaring omission.

As it turns out, Squanto, whose real name was Tisquantum, was quite the character in pre-American foreign policy. Before meeting the Pilgrims, Tisquantum had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean six times, spending more than a decade in England and Spain, all as a result of bing kidnapped on three separate occasions.

Here’s a timeline of Tisquantum’s pre-Pilgrim life, adapted from reference.com:

First Capture and Travel to England

In 1605, the young Tisquantum was kidnapped by Captain George Weymouth and his crew, who were investigating the financial potential of the coastal area for British investors. For nine years, he stayed in England with Sir Ferdinando Gorges of the Plymouth Company. In this time he mastered the English language.

First Return to America and Second Capture

In 1614, Tisquantum returned on one of Gorges’ ships as a guide and interpreter, assisting with the mapping of the New England coast.

Soon after returning to his tribe in 1614, British Captain Thomas Hunt kidnapped Tisquantum and twenty-six other native peoples of the Nauset and Patuxet tribes… [In Spain,] Hunt attempted to sell Tisquantum and a number of other Native Americans into slavery for 20 pounds apiece.

…some local friars, however, discovered what Hunt was attempting and took the remaining Indians, Tisquantum included, in order to instruct them in the Christian faith. He lived with the Friars for the next four years.

Second Return to America and Third Capture

In 1618, after somehow finding passage from Spain to England… Tisquantum sailed as a guide and interpreter from Bristol, England to Newfoundland, intending to return home. Unfortunately, when Tisquantum arrived in Newfoundland, he was recognized by Captain Thomas Dermer, a former employee of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who brought Tisquantum back to Gorges in England.

Third, Final Return to America

In 1619, Tisquantum traveled to the New England coast once again with Captain Dermer on another mapping expedition. Upon returning home to the site of his Patuxet village, he found that all of the inhabitants had died of a plague (presumably smallpox, brought by the previous British encounter), making him the only member of his tribe left alive. Tisquantum went to live in the Wampanoag village Pokanoket, led by Chief Massasoit.

So as you can see, Tisquantum’s English abilities were the result of more than a decade of forced servitude and struggling to return to a home that was no longer there.

So THAT is the Tisquantum story we rarely get to hear: A highly skilled, multi-lingual negotiator who, despite what we can only assume was insufferable personal hardship, facilitated the survival of the fledgling Pilgrim colony celebrated by many today.

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