What happened to the historical Squanto?

February 24, 2015

The year is 1621. Tisquantum, known as Squanto, is talking with Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag, near the village of Patuxet on Cape Cod. Patuxet was wiped out by smallpox, and the Pilgrims have moved in and renamed it “Plymouth.”

Tisquantum is under loose arrest. Massasoit doesn’t trust him, because Tisquantum has spent several years in Europe, but Massasoit needs a translator for his negotiations with the English.

Massasoit passes broth to Tisquantum. “You’re not going anywhere unless I say so. But I’ll think better of you if you get those barbarians on my side. Then maybe I can hold off the greedy Naragansett merchants.”

“Why not?” says Tisquantum. “Look at them. Only a couple dozen, all incompetents. They have guns, but you can usually do more with a bow, and from farther away.”

“They are stupid, aren’t they?” Massasoit laughs. “Arriving with winter coming and not a clue how to eat. They raided the abandoned village for corn, even broke into tombs. I shudder to think what they took there. Little shrimps, too, with rotten teeth, and they stink. Do you know why they don’t bathe?”

“Somebody told me he thought it would sap his strength. I don’t know. I got pretty dirty when I was in Europe, but I never got stronger.”

“Sap his strength!” Massasoit chuckled. “If I were that puny, maybe I’d go dirty. But I’d try eating right first. Near as I can tell, they didn’t bring much food.”

“They don’t eat very well at home either. Bread, cheese, no vegetables to speak of, not much fruit. Ale—it’s a sour drink that makes you lightheaded or sick. You know those scars on their faces? From a disease, smallpox. They had a long string of bad harvests a couple decades ago, but they’ll kill you for hunting deer or even rabbits, and now they raise animals for hides and fiber on land where they used to grow grain or run meat animals. Bad choices.”

“Bad choices, indeed. I’ve heard they want to give us their advantages, but I wonder what those are. In fact, if it’s so great in Europe, why are they here?”

“Europe is a violent place. They’ll do whatever it takes to win. You might think about that, sachem, if they ever say they’d like something of yours. They fight over land, same as here, but they chop each other’s heads off over obscure religious points. They all pretty much do what they want, then say it’s the creator’s will.”


Tisquantum (his name means “divine rage”) becomes angry. “Look, they captured me once and took me across the ocean and back. Captured me again and sold me, made me eat their rotten food, kept me dirty and bored for six years. I get free and come back to Nova Scotia. I start walking back here and what happens? Somebody decides I need to go back across the ocean so he can make sure I have my master’s permission. God damn them all! Cut me loose? I’ll do your translating for you. Then...”

“Then what? I don’t have to tell you that your family, your village, everybody you knew died in the epidemic. These Pilgrims are living in your village, even if they call it something else. You’re home. Stay with these people. Keep them alive. Translate. Keep an eye on them for me.”

“Sachem, you lost a lot more than one village in the epidemic. That’s the reason you’re having trouble with the Naragansett. The epidemic didn’t hit them. Even two dozen decent fighters wouldn’t make much difference. Let them starve, then you get Patuxet back.”

Tisquantum may have been the most cosmopolitan man on the continent at the time. He was educated as a bodyguard and advisor to sachems, learned Spanish and English and acted as translator for Europeans and Indians. He persuaded Spain and England to free him, learned British shipbuilding, and walked from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod through a war between the Micmac and Abenaki.

Tisquantum lived with the Pilgrims, getting them through the winter of 1621-22 with the “three sisters” system of growing maize, bean, and squash, adding the Spanish trick of burying fish to feed the plants.

But he overplayed his hand with Massasoit, who kept another spy at Plymouth and learned that Tisquantum was planning a new Patuxet. Tisquantum wanted to use his influence with the Pilgrims to back replacing Massasoit.

Massasoit asked the Pilgrims to send Tisquantum for execution, then sent them a knife, asking that they send Tisquantum’s head and hands. The English refused.

Drought and a bad 1622 harvest made the Pilgrims realize they were dependent on Massasoit. Tisquantum accompanied a diplomatic mission to Massasoit, and returned with a fatal fever and bleeding from his nose.

Smallpox reduced the Naragansett population, giving the Wampanoag temporary breathing room. There were 50 years of peace, but one third to half the Indians in New England died from European diseases.

Based on 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2005).

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