The Unknown American

Squanto teaching. The German Kali Works, New York. Public Domain.

His name is known to most of us, but it’s unusual to hear it spoken, except around Thanksgiving. Each November, we briefly recall that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, thereby saving their colony from annihilation. We honor him for giving our English ancestors a warm welcome.

U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Tercentenary of the Plymouth Landing. Public Domain.

There are no true pictures of Squanto. Photography had not been invented; no artist drew him from life. The image above—adopted here mainly for its freedom from legal encumbrance—shows a man with intelligent eyes and open smile, demonstrating the use of fish to fertilize a planting. But Squanto’s story goes far beyond that. 

Our knowledge of history can be ten miles wide and one millimeter deep.

“So Squanto helped the Pilgrims get started when they landed at Plymouth. Why, for crying out loud, do we need to know more?” 

The Rest of the Story

It’s a fair question, and here’s the fair answer: The full story of Squanto informs us beyond the familiar triumphal tale of European colonization. We heirs of the Pilgrims should desire this information, not to dim the luster of our own history, but to remember it with wisdom and grace.

The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1877. Painting by Henry Bacon (1839-1912)

Squanto never aspired to be the native mentor to the Pilgrims. That role came about because when the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in 1620, Squanto was already quite familiar with the English and even spoke their language.

Six years earlier, he and about twenty other young men of the Patuxet tribe had been snatched in one of many kidnappings by English explorers and freebooters ranging in those days up and down the Massachusetts coast. He was shipped across the Atlantic to Málaga, Spain. In Málaga he was freed by Spanish friars, or escaped on his own, or somehow avoided the life of slavery to which he had been consigned. He made his way—we know not how—to England, where he lived for some time in London.  

After a few years, he managed to return to Massachusetts with an English voyage of exploration. When he returned on foot, alone, to the site his old village, he found it abandoned. All of his people were dead or scattered to the winds.

“Virgin Soil Epidemic”

Squanto’s Patuxet tribe had been utterly wiped out by an illness that swept the Northeastern seaboard in those years. Because that illness did not afflict the many Englishmen and other Europeans mingling with the natives at that time, historians consider this great plague a “virgin soil epidemic.” The kind of epidemic that occurs when new disease organisms are brought by outsiders into the midst of a population which lacks prior exposure to them. Nobody knows for sure what single disease, or combination of diseases, rampaged the Massachusetts coast in those years, but the result was a region cleared of former inhabitants. Thus, when the Pilgrims in 1620 arrived on the Mayflower, in foul weather, desperate for a place to hunker down, there was a choice spot of land recently vacated: Squanto’s former home.

One could hardly blame Squanto had he showed hostility to new English settlers. Not only had he been abducted and forced into years of exile far from home, while his friends and family suffered extinction by disease. Many similar kidnappings and other atrocities had been worked upon the local inhabitants in the years preceding the Pilgrims’ landfall. Despite all this, Squanto befriended the Pilgrims.

Why?

Chief Massasoit and Governor John Carver smoke a peace pipe in 1621. Unknown artist. California State Library. Public Domain.

We would like to think the Pilgrims’ character, which stood out from these toxic relationships, vouched for them; that remaining Indian tribes, such as the Pokanoket under Chief Massasoit, discerned their peaceful and honorable intentions, well enough at any rate to trust them and form an alliance. In this context, Squanto was far from a “noble savage” who innocently befriended newcomers with a great white vessel and strange ways. Rather, he was a capable, worldly man, acquainted with European technology and customs. He consented—given his footloose status on his former soil—to become a kind of diplomat for the neighboring tribe in its calculated attempt to forge an alliance with the least-threatening and most promising band of Englishmen in the region. 

After about twenty months of generally satisfactory service in that role, Squanto himself succumbed to illness, leaving the Pilgrims bereft of one important man who had been their friend in adversity. Governor William Bradford, in Of Plimoth Plantation, writes approvingly of Squanto and his influence on the young colony.

Stone marking the spot of King Philip’s death, placed by the Rhode Island Historical Society more than two hundred years later. Photo by Swampyank. Public Domain.

Squanto was a complex individual. The Pilgrims were, like many of us, saints but also sinners. Chief Massasoit and other Native Americans sought to advance their own interests. Latter-day champions of the Pilgrims and other Puritans who poured into Massachusetts starting in 1630 point out that the lands occupied by these English immigrants were acquired in fair, legal purchases, duly recorded in colonial archives. It is also true that white European immigrants—legal niceties aside—began to displace the original inhabitants of the land, who retreated ever further westward. This trend eventuated in King Philip’s War of 1675-76, the first real “Indian War” fought in the English colonies. More than 600 colonists were killed; thousands of Native Americans were killed or displaced. The ultimate effect was the continued advance of English civilization and progressive decimation of the American Indian population.

A present-day family poses with historical interpreters portraying its Pilgrim ancestors at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts.  “pallattos with ancestors” by drain is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

The Moral of the Story

Nobody can undo the past. The people of the past had their own motives, praiseworthy and otherwise, for everything they did. Wisdom for us in the present requires owning the full truth of the past in all its messy–sometimes inconvenient–complexity.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

2 thoughts on “The Unknown American

  1. Thanks, Bob.

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