Squanto: Friend to the Pilgrims

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Squanto and the Mayflower

Squanto, the Native American known foremost for his assistance to the Pilgrims, led an event-filled life that included contact with Europeans several times before the people aboard the Mayflower arrived in the New World.

Not all historians agree on first contact between Squanto, who was a member of the Patuxet tribe, and European settlers. What is generally agreed on is that Squanto accompanied English explorer Thomas Hunt to Spain in 1614, probably as a slave. Squanto escaped and made his way to England, where he worked for and learned English from shipbuilder John Slaney.

Squanto traveled with Slaney to Newfoundland in 1617 and returned to England the following year with a different English explorer, Thomas Dermer. (Historians think that Squanto was an indentured servant for both Slaney and Dermer). While Squanto was back in England, his home tribe, the Patuxet, suffered a terrible plague (probably smallpox). Squanto found few of his tribe when he returned to the New World with Dermer in 1619.

In an encounter with another Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, Dermer was wounded and Squanto taken captive. It is at this point that the familiar story of Squanto begins to take shape.

In 1621, Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, sent Squanto to meet with the English settlers at the Plymouth colony, which had been established at the site of the former Patuxet colony. Squanto knew this land well.

He befriended the English settlers, surprising them with his knowledge of their language, and helped them to catch fish and eels and to plant and tend to crops that would grow in the harsh climate.

It is out of this friendship that the story of Thanksgiving has come, with Squanto convincing Massasoit (who may or may not have been Squanto's latest captor) to join the Pilgrims for a historic meal and agreement.

The story of Squanto does not end there, though. It ends sadly. Though he was a man of both worlds (Native American and English), he had few friends in either settlement and ended up being distrusted by some powerful people, among them Massasoit, who apparently assigned a second member of his tribe to "help" Squanto in dealings with the Pilgrims.

In 1622, Squanto died of a fever. Some historians think that he was poisoned. Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave in Chathamport.

His legacy as a mediator lived on however, because the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag remained peaceful toward each other for another 50 years. Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford wrote that Squanto's death was "a great loss."

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