Life of Squanto, the Native American Who Guided the Pilgrims

Illustration depicting Native American Indian Squanto (aka Tisquantum) (died 1622), from the Pawtuxet tribe, pointing on a coastal rock while serving as guide an interpreter for pilgrim colonists at Plymouth Colony and Massasoit. He died from contracting smallpox while guiding William Bradford's expedition around Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Illustration depicting Native American Indian Squanto (aka Tisquantum) (died 1622), from the Pawtuxet tribe, pointing on a coastal rock while serving as guide an interpreter for pilgrim colonists at Plymouth Colony and Massasoit. He died from contracting smallpox while guiding William Bradford's expedition around Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Kean Collection / Getty Images

Tisquantum, better known by his nickname Squanto, was a member of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but historians estimate that he was born around 1580. Squanto is best known for his work as a guide and interpreter for early settlers in Southern New England. His advice and assistance were integral to the survival of early Pilgrims, including the Mayflower Pilgrims.

Early Years

Very little is known about Squanto's early years. Historians don't know exactly when or where he was born. They don’t know who his parents were or whether or not he had any siblings. However, they do know that he was a member of the Wampanoag tribe, and specifically the Patuxet band.

The Patuxet lived primarily on coastal land in the area that is present day Plymouth, Massachusetts. They spoke an Algonquian dialect. It is believed that the band Squanto was born into contained more than 2,000 people at one point. However, written records of Patuxet are non-existent since potential firsthand observers from England arrived after the members of the Patuxet were killed out by a plague.

Years in Bondage

A few historians have suggested that Squanto may have been kidnapped in 1605 by George Weymouth and taken to England before returning to North America in 1614, but modern historians do not believe there is evidence to support that theory.

However, Squanto and several other members of the Patuxet were kidnapped in 1614 by Thomas Hunt, an English explorer and human trafficker. Hunt took Squanto and the others to Malaga, Spain and sold them into slavery.

With the help of Spanish friars, Squanto escaped and traveled to England. He took a job with John Slaney, who sent him to Newfoundland in 1617.

Squanto met explorer Thomas Dermer and eventually traveled with him back to North America.

When Squanto returned to his homeland in 1619, he found his village empty. In 1617, a great plague had wiped out the Patuxet and other Native American tribes in the Massachusetts Bay region. He set out in search of survivors, but didn’t find any. He eventually returned to work with Dermer, who was engaging in skirmishes with native populations.

Squanto's Work With Settlers

Squanto's time in England equipped him with a unique set of skills. Unlike most other Native Americans, he was able to speak English, which allowed him to act as a liaison between the settlers and Native American tribes. He interpreted conversations and served as a guide for the settlers.

Squanto is credited with teaching the Pilgrims how to grow plants and use natural resources. His guidance helped them survive their first year. Squanto was also instrumental when it came to skirmishes with some of the other Native Americans in the area. Some tribes did not appreciate the fact that he was helping the strange people from England. This caused problems for Squanto, who was once captured by a neighboring tribe. He was able to gain freedom from bondage once again and worked with the Pilgrims until his death.

Death

Squanto died in November of 1622. At the time, he was serving as a guide for William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth settlement. Bradford wrote that Squanto grew sick with fever and died several days later. Some historians, including writer Nathaniel Philbrick, have suggested that Squanto may have been poisoned by Massasoit, but this is just speculation, as there is no proof that a murder was committed. It is believed that Squanto was buried in the village of Chatham Port, but this detail, like many of the details of Squanto's life, may or may not be true.

Legacy

Squanto played an integral role in the survival of early settlers, but one could argue that he isn't always given the credit he deserves. Although there are many statues and memorials dedicated to the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, Squanto has not been memorialized in the same way: there are no major statues or memorials to Squanto in the area.

Despite the lack of memorials, Squanto's name remains relatively well-known. This can, in part, be attributed to his representation in films and animated programs. Squanto was the focus of the Disney animated film “Squanto: A Warrior's Tale,” released in 1994. The film was very loosely based on Squanto's life, but did not provide a very accurate portrayal of historical events.

Squanto also appeared in an episode of the animated series “This Is America, Charlie Brown,” which aired on television in 1988. The cartoon depicted the journey of the Pilgrims and detailed how Native Americans, like Squanto, helped the Pilgrims survive the hardships of the New World. Like the Disney film, the Charlie Brown cartoon was created for children and glossed over the darker details of English settlement.

The most accurate historical portrayal of Squanto in popular culture is in the National Geographic's “Saints & Strangers.” This two-part mini-series appeared on television during 2015 and depicted the Mayflower journey and the Pilgrim's first year in North America.

It should also be noted that Squanto's legacy includes appearances in history textbooks. Unfortunately, most of the depictions of Squanto's life are derived from the historical writings of English Separatists, which incorrectly portray Squanto as a "noble savage." History is now beginning to correct the record of Squanto's legacy.

Squanto Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Tisquantum
  • Nickname: Squanto  
  • Known For: Serving as a liaison between Native American populations and Mayflower Pilgrims
  • Born: Circa 1580 in southern New England (now Massachusetts, United States)
  • Died: 1622 in Mamamoycke (now Chatham, Massachusetts, United States)
  • Key Accomplishments: Helped early Pilgrims survive harsh, unfamiliar conditions.

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