Published on February 28, 2013 by Amy
Tisquantum (January 1, 1585 – November 30, 1622), also known as Squanto, was the Native American who assisted the Pilgrims after their first winter in the New World and was integral to their survival. He was a member of the Patuxet tribe, a tributary of the Wampanoag Confederacy.
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Squanto’s exact date of birth is unknown but many historians list it as January 1, 1585 or January 1, 1592. On his way back to the Patuxet in 1614, Squanto was kidnapped by Englishman Thomas Hunt. Hunt was one of John Smith’s lieutenants. Hunt was planning to sell fish, corn, and captured natives in Málaga, Spain. There, Hunt attempted to sell Squanto and a number of other Native Americans into slavery in Spain for £20 apiece.
Some local friars discovered what Hunt was attempting and took the remaining Native Americans — Tisquantum included — in order to instruct them in the Christian faith. Tisquantum convinced the friars to let him try to return home. He managed to get to London, where he lived with John Slany, a shipbuilder for whom he worked for a few years. Slany apparently taught Tisquantum more English. Slany took Tisquantum with him when he sailed to Cuper’s Cove, Newfoundland. To get to New England, Tisquantum tried to take part in an expedition to that part of the North American east coast. When that plan fell through, he returned to England in 1618. At last in 1619 Tisquantum returned to his homeland aboard John Smith’s ship, having joined an exploratory expedition along the New England coast, led by Captain Thomas Dermer. He soon discovered that the Patuxet, as well as a majority of coastal New England tribes (mostly Wampanoag and Massachusett), had been killed off the year before by an epidemic plague, possibly smallpox; it has recently been postulated as having been leptospirosis. Native Americans had no natural immunity to European infectious diseases and were isolated from the effects of natural selection that affected Europe through various epidemics.
Tisquantum finally settled with Pilgrims at the site of his former village, which the English named Plymouth. It is a commonly held belief that he helped them recover from an extremely hard first winter by teaching them the native method of maize cultivation. This story claimed a method that utilized local fish (menhaden) to fertilize crops. He is commonly thought to have taught the colonists how to catch the menhaden necessary to fertilize maize in the native fashion along with the methods by which they could catch eels and other local wildlife for food.
In 1621 Tisquantum was the guide and translator for settlers Stephen Hopkins and Edward Winslow as they traveled upland on a diplomatic mission to the Wampanoag sachem, known today as Massasoit. In a subsequent mission for Governor William Bradford that summer, Tisquantum was captured by Wampanoag while gathering intelligence on the renegade sagamore, Corbitant, at the village of Nemasket (site of present-day Middleborough, Massachusetts.) Myles Standish led a ten-man team of settlers from Plymouth to rescue Tisquantum if he were alive or, if he had been killed, to avenge him. Tisquantum was found alive and well. He was welcomed back by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, where he continued in his vital role as assistant to the colony.
Although he worked at alliances, Massasoit, the sachem who first appointed Tisquantum as liaison to the Pilgrims, nevertheless did not trust him in the tribe’s dealings with the settlers. He assigned Hobomok (whose name may have been a pseudonym, as it meant “mischievous”), to watch over Tisquantum and act as a second representative.
On his way back from a meeting to repair damaged relations between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims, Tisquantum became sick with a fever. He began bleeding from the nose. Some historians have speculated that he was poisoned by the Wampanoag because they believed he had been disloyal to the sachem. Tisquantum died a few days later in 1622 in Chatham, Massachusetts. He was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly in Plymouth’s cemetery Burial Hill. Peace between the two groups lasted for another fifty years.
Governor William Bradford, in Bradford’s History of the English Settlement, wrote regarding Tisquantum’s death:
Here Squanto fell ill of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose, which the Indians take as a symptom of death, and within a few days he died. He begged the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven, and bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances. His death was a great loss.
Tisquantum appeared in “The Mayflower Voyagers”, a 1988 episode of the Peanuts television miniseries, This Is America, Charlie Brown. This is now tied to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
First Nations actor Adam Beach portrayed Tisquantum in Disney’s 1994 live-action film Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale.
Cree actor Kennetch Charlette portrayed this historical Native American in Dear America’s 1999 episode A Journey to the New World.