Squanto: The Former Slave

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Squanto was a Native-American from the Patuxet tribe who taught the pilgrims of Plymouth colony how to survive in New England. Squanto was able to communicate with the pilgrims because he spoke fluent English, unlike most of his fellow Native-Americans at the time.

The following are some facts about Squanto:

How Did Squanto Learn to Speak English?

Squanto learned to speak English after he was captured by English explorers and taken to Europe where he was sold into slavery.

Squanto’s Life as a Slave:

Much of Squanto’s life is a mystery and historians have a hard time agreeing on the little information that does exist. It is speculated that Squanto, whose real name was Tisquantum, had been enslaved a number of times during his lifetime, although many historians disagree on this fact and believe he was only captured by the English once.

According to some historians, Squanto was first captured as a young boy in 1605, along with four Penobscots, by Captain George Weymouth, who was exploring the coast of Maine and Massachusetts at the request of a colonial entrepreneur named Sir Ferdinando Gorges.

Squanto teaching the pilgrims how to plant maize, illustration published in The Teaching of Agriculture in High School, circa 1911

Squanto teaching the pilgrims how to plant maize, illustration published in The Teaching of Agriculture in High School, circa 1911

Weymouth’s shipmate, James Rosier, later wrote an account of how they captured the Native-Americans:

“About eight a clocke this day we went on shore with our boats…When I came [back] to the ship, there were two canoes, and in either of them three Savages; of whom two were below at the fire, the other stated in their canoes about the ship; and because we could not entice them aboard, We gave them a can of peas and bread, which they carried to the shore to eat. But one of them brought back our can presently and staid aboard with the other two; for he being young, of a ready capacity, and one we most desired to bring with us into England, had received exceeding kind usage at our hands, and was therefore much delighted in our company. When our Captain was come, we consulted how to catch the other three at shore which we performed thus…

I opened the box, and shewed them trifles to exchange, thinking thereby to have banisht fear from the other, and drawen him to return: but when we could not, we used little delay, but suddenly laid hands upon them. And it was as much as five or six of us could do to get them into the light horseman. For they were strong and so naked as our best hold was by their long hair on their heads; and we would have been very loath to have done them any hurt, which of necessity we had been constrained to have done if we had attempted them in a multitude, which we must and would, rather than have wanted them, being a matter of great importance for the full accomplishment of our voyage. Thus we shipped five Savages, two canoes, with all their bowes and arrowes.”

According to the book The Invented Indian, many historians don’t believe Squanto was among those five Native-Americans because Maine was not Squanto’s home and because Rosier identified the names of these Native-Americans he captured: Tahanedo, Amoret, Skicowaros, Maneddo, Saffacomoit, and the name Squanto was not among them.

It wasn’t until 50 years after this kidnapping took place, in 1658, that Gorges wrote in one of his memoirs “A Brief Narration of the Original Undertakings of the Advancement of Plantations into the Parts of America” about Weymouth capturing a Native-American named Tasquantum from Maine in 1605:

“And so it pleased our great God that there happened to come into the harbour of Plymouth (where I then commanded) one Captain Waymouth that had been imployed by the Lord Arudell of Warder for the discovery of the North-West passage. But falling short of his course, happened into a river on the coast of America, called Pemmaquid, from whence he brought five of the Natives, three of whose names were Manida, Skettwarroes, and Tasquantum, whom I seized upon…”

As it was many years after the fact, some historians think Gorges was simply mistaken and confused Squanto with another Native-American when writing the text.

"Samoset in the Streets of Plymouth," Illustration circa 1906

“Samoset in the Streets of Plymouth,” Illustration circa 1906

The Native-Americans captured in 1605 were taken to England where they were lived for nine years before Gorges reportedly arranged to send them back to New England.

Most historians do agree that in 1614, Squanto was captured in Massachusetts, this time by Captain Thomas Hunt, a lieutenant for Captain John Smith, who lured him and 23 other friendly Native-Americans on board Hunt’s ship with the promise of trade.

Once on board, Hunt locked them up below deck and sailed off with them to Malaga, Spain where he sold them off as slaves.

Although some sources state that Squanto ended up in the hands of Spanish friars who liberated him and allowed him to live with them until 1618, when he then made his way to England and reunited with Gorges, this is not true, according to the journal of Mayflower pilgrim, William Bradford.

Bradford’s journal corroborates the story most historians believe, that after landing in Spain, Squanto was taken by a ship captain to London and then Newfoundland where he lived for a few years before being taken back to New England as an interpreter for Captain Thomas Dermer, an employee of Gorges:

“He [Squanto] was a native of this place, & scarce any left alive beside himself. He was carried away with diverce others by one Hunt, a master of a ship, who thought to sell them for slaves in Spain. But he got away for England, and was entertained by a merchant in London, employed to Newfoundland and other parts, and lastly brought into these parts by a Captain Dermer, a gentlemen employed by Sir Ferdinando Gorges and others for discovery and other designs in these parts.”

In 1619, Gorges, who owned much of what is today modern day Maine, sent Squanto with Dermer on a trip to New England to trade with local Native-Americans. As Dermer and Squanto sailed along the New England coast towards Squanto’s village, Dermer recorded his findings in his journal:

“[We] passed along the coast where [we] found some ancient [Indian] plantations, not long since populous now utterly void, in other places a remnant remains, but not free of sickness. Their disease the plague, for we might perceive the sores of some that escaped, who descried the spots of such as usually die. When [we] arrived at my savage’s native country [we found] all dead.”

Dermer traveled all over New England, easily befriending the natives along the way with Squanto’s help.  Yet, Dermer’s luck took a turn after Squanto left to search for surviving members of his village, according to the book The Human Tradition in America from the Colonial Era to Reconstruction:

“On his own, Dermer was unable to persuade the Indians at Monomoy (now Pleasant Harbor) of his good intentions. He was captured and barely succeeded in escaping. After a seemingly cordial meeting on Martha’s Vineyard with Epenow, the former Gorges captive, Dermer was attacked off Long Island and again managed to escape. Returning to New England in the summer of 1620, he was captured by his newly made friends at Pokanoket and Nemasket, and released only after Squanto interceded on his behalf. Dermer, with Squanto, then proceeded to Martha’s Vineyard, where they were attacked by Epenow and his followers. Most of the crew was killed this time, while the luckless captain escaped with fourteen wounds and died later in Virginia. Squanto was again made a captive, this time of his fellow Wampanoags.”

The Wampanoags were suspicious of Squanto because of his close relationship with Dermer and turned him over to their leader, Massosoit, at Pokanoket, according to the book The Mayflower and the Pilgrim’s New World:

“Because of his years among the English, he was now looked to with suspicion. Perhaps there was anger growing inside of him. Perhaps it was ambition. Massosoit shared Epenow’s distrust of Squanto, and by the fall of 1620, Squanto had been moved from Martha’s Vineyard to Pokanoket, where he remained a prisoner.”

Squanto and the Pilgrims:

A few months later, in March of 1621, the Wampanoag put Squanto’s English skills to the test when they met with a struggling colony of pilgrims they had been watching at Plymouth that winter.

A tribe member named Samoset, who spoke broken English, had befriended the pilgrims and after learning of the deaths and famine they suffered that winter, introduced them to Massasoit, Squanto and the rest of the tribe.

Squanto demonstrating how well the pilgrim's corn grew, illustration published in The Teaching of Agriculture in High School, circa 1911

Squanto demonstrating how well the pilgrim’s corn grew, illustration published in The Teaching of Agriculture in High School, circa 1911

Massasoit soon struck a deal with the pilgrims, agreeing to help their colony survive if they promised not to harm the tribe. He also asked the pilgrims to form an alliance with them to protect them from rival tribes, according to Bradford’s journal:

“If any did unjustly war against him [Massosoit], they would aid him; if any did war against them, he should aid them.

The pilgrims agreed and the tribe freed Squanto so he could become a guide and interpreter for the colony, teaching the pilgrims everything they needed to know to survive in New England. William Bradford later referred to Squanto in his journal as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

Squanto and the pilgrims remained friends for the rest of Squanto’s life. They went so far as to invite Squanto to live with them at Plymouth Plantation and, in August of 1621, the pilgrims even embarked on a rescue mission to save Squanto after he was captured by a nearby tribe.

Squanto and the First Thanksgiving:

With Squanto’s help, the pilgrims grew enough food to survive the following winter, prompting them to invite Massasoit along with 90 of his tribesmen and Squanto to the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast to celebrate the successful fall harvest. No exact date for the feast has ever been recorded but it is believed that it most likely took place sometime between September and November. The pilgrims served fowl and the Wampanoag brought five deer that they had killed for the occasion. The group also played games and “exercised our arms.

It is not known if the Thanksgiving feast became a reoccurring celebration for the pilgrims. There are no other accounts of the pilgrims holding any more harvest celebrations after 1621. It is possible that the feasts happened, but if it did it wasn’t recorded.

Squanto the Troublemaker:

As helpful as Squanto was, he also had a reputation for being power hungry and manipulative. The pilgrims knew this and, in the summer of 1621, even went so far as to appoint a second Native-American adviser, Hobbamock, possibly to assist Squanto or to keep him in check.

Fearful that he was losing his position of power, Squanto decided to exploit the fear and distrust still lingering between the colonists and the Native-Americans to gain power as a native leader and get revenge against the Wampanoag for his previous captivity.

According to Mayflower pilgrim Edward Winslow in his book Good Newes from New England, Squanto began to spread rumors and lies among the colonists and Wampanoags during the winter of 1622:

“His course was to persuade the Indians [that] he could lead us to peace or war at his pleasure, and would oft threaten the Indians, sending them word in a private manner we were intended shortly to kill them, that thereby he might get gifts for himself, to work their peace; so that whereas divers [people] were wont to rely on Massosoit for protection, and resort to his abode, now they began to leave him and seek after Tisquantum [Squanto.]”

Squanto also circulated a rumor that Massosoit was conspiring with his rivals, the Narragansett and Massachusett tribes, to attack the colonists. After the colonists spoke with Pokanoket tribe and learned the rumor was false, both the colonists and Massasoit were furious with Squanto yet Bradford refused to hand him over to the tribe, fearing that they would kill Squanto.

As a result of his treachery, Squanto was completely shunned by the Wampanoags and, according to Winslow, had to “stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he dies.”

How and When Did Squanto Die?

In November of 1622, Squanto arranged a trading expedition for a group of new colonists living near Plymouth to a Native-American settlement called Monomoy, near what is now modern day Pleasant Bay. The local tribe there met peacefully with the colonists and awarded them corn and beans. According to Bradford’s journal, It was during this trip that Squanto came down with a fatal disease:

“In this place Squanto fell sick of an Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose (which the Indians take for a symptom of [impending] death) and within a few days died there; desiring the Governor [Bradford] to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmens God in heaven, and bequeathed sundry of his things to the sundry of his English friends, as remembrance if his love, of whom they had a great loss.”

Squanto was later buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown location.

For more information about Squanto, check out this timeline of Squanto’s life.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. The Mayflower and the Pilgrim’s New World. Penguin Group, 2008
Winslow, Edward. Good Newes from New England. 1624
The Human Tradition in America from the Colonial Era through Reconstruction. Scholarly Resources Inc, 2002
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Privately Printed, 1856
Deetz, James and Patricia Scott Deetz. The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony. Anchor books, 2000
Clifton, James A. The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies. Routledge, 1990
Burrage, Henry S. Gorges and the Grant of the Province of Maine 1622: A Tercentenary Memorial. Heritage Books Inc, 1923
Gorges, Sir Ferdinando. Sir Ferdinando Gorges and his province of Maine: Including the brief relation, brief narration, his defence, the charter granted to him, his will and his letter, Volume 19. Prince Society, 1890
Cohon, Rhody and Stacia Deutsch. Pocahontas, Squanto. Benchmark Education Company, 2010
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Viking Press, 2006
Mann Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Vintage Books, 2005
Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press, 1992
Givens, George W. 500 Little-Known Facts in U.S. History. Bonneville Books, 2006
Mann, Charles C. “Native Intelligence.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, Dec. 2005, www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/squanto.html
“Squanto.” Biography.com, A&E Television Networks, LLC, www.biography.com/people/squanto-9491327
“Squanto.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/561611/Squanto


About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

5 thoughts on “Squanto: The Former Slave

  1. Mike Kenny

    Can you clarify what is meant by the “can of peas and bread” statement by James Rosier in 1605? The best I can tell, “cans”, at least as we know them today, were not developed until 200 or so years later. What was James Rosier referring to?
    Mike Kenny

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      I’m not sure what it means, Mike. Perhaps it’s another word for cup or some type of container? He says they ate the food back on the shore and then brought “our can” back so that’s my best guess.

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