Squanto — A Sad Thanksgiving Tale
I do not know how widely it is still taught or how, but when I was in elementary school in Ithaca, New York, I was taught about the “First Thanksgiving,” an event that happened in October, 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, following a good harvest after the pilgrim colony, founded in 1620, had a hard year that saw half their population die (about 50 people, mostly of starvation). It was a joint feast of the pilgrims with neighboring native Indians of the Pokenok tribe of the larger Wampanoag confederacy, led by Massasoit. Crucial to the event was the assistance of Squanto, who taught the colonists how to grow corn (maize) and several other crops, including the use of fish for fertilizer, thus becoming the model of a “good Indian” who helped European, especially English, colonists in what would become the United States. Much of this is true, although much is murky, such as what exactly was eaten aside from the deer brought by Massasoit’s people (probably not turkey).
The problem with the tale is more about what is left out rather than any outright falsehoods such as claims that what was eaten was what is now the standard set of dishes consumed at modern Thanksgiving dinners. It was not even the first Thanksgiving on US soil, with previous ones in St. Augustine, Florida in 1585 and at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in 1619, although both of these were simply major thanksgiving prayer sessions that did not involve either food or participation by neighboring native Indians, with indeed the Berkeley colony being completely wiped out by a native Indian attack in 1622 that also nearly wiped out the nearby Jamestown colony. But there are more important things left out, with some of them disturbing and sad.
I found out about this stuff as I investigated this matter this year anticipating having Thanksgiving dinner with my niece, Erica Werner (who writes for the Washington Post), and the extended family of her husband, Bill, and their adorable two young daughters, Lucy and Olive. As it was, both because there were too many grownups talking about this and that as well as them being clearly fully occupied with other matters, I did not get around to telling the tale there. So I am telling it here, an addition to the old tale I and many others were taught in school at some time or other.
The most important detail is that the pilgrims were far from being the first English people to have dealings with the various tribes of the Wampanoag confederacy in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island (where Massasoit had his home base). There were at least two previous attempts to start colonies in the area, in 1602 and 1605, both failed as the English insulted the natives and provoked them into hostilities, as well as failing to figure out how to produce food. More egregious than just trying to impose Christianity and treating them as inferiors was that beyond these two failed efforts, English traders and explorers would regularly raid the tribes, outright stealing goods, and more importantly, kidnapping tribal members. This is where the story of Squanto begins: he was kidnapped by a Captain Tom Hunt in 1614.
Squanto was what he was called by William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, who was his good friend and the main source of what we know of him, although he was called by various names, with his real name mostly likely being Tisquantum. There are several conflicting accounts of what happened to Squanto after his kidnapping. An important fact is that his kidnapping (along with four others) happened while he was involved in transactions in the fur trade, which was already well established in southeastern Massachusetts due to Champlain in Quebec having established trading relations with many tribes that extended that far south (but not further), with the French treating the native Indians far better than did the English in new England at the time. One account has Squanto being sold into slavery in Spain but then escaping and making his way to England, where he not only learned English, if he had not done so already, but managed to make friends with some merchants. He was eventually shipped to Newfoundland to assist in various trading activities, but by 1619 ended up back in his own original neighborhood living with Massasoit’s people, possible as a captive.Which brings us to another poignantly sad point: Squanto was the last member of his tribe to live, the Patuxet, who may have numbered as many as 2,000 at one time. The others were all wiped out in an epidemic that came south from the French during 1617-19, probably smallpox, although possibly something else. The main village of the Patuxet and Squanto’s old home was on the site that would become the location of the Plymouth colony in late 1620. When in March, 1621, at the encouragement of Masssasoit, Squanto with his English language skills went to live in Plymouth, he was returning to his old home town, now bereft of all those he knew when he lived there previously (his year of birth is uncertain but thought to have been around 1585). Indeed, contraty to the image I got in school of the colonists simply landing at Plymouth Rock and immediately settling down, they had wandered about the bay there from one location to another, finally selecting Plymouth when they found dwellings and even food and cultivated fields left by the recently deceased former inhabitants.
Among the most important things he did was to negotiate a peace treaty between the colonists and Massasoit, which would hold until the death of Massasoit in 1660 or 1662 (a few years after that would be the disastrous for the Pokanoks King Philip’s War, with King Philip, originally Macombet, a son of Massasoit). It s easy at this point to view Massasoit as possibly being some sort of sucker fool for having friendly relations with the Plymouth colonists, especially given what would come later in King Philip’s War and the more general total conquest and subjection of the New England native Indians of all tribes (including the Massachuset, another tribe in the Wampanog confederacy). But the Pokanoks had also suffered grievously from the epidemic, if not to the point of outright exrtinction, whereas the neighboring Narragansssett to their west had not, having stayed out of the fur trade networks established by the French. Part of Massasoit’s treaty involved mutual defense, and to their credit the Plymouth colonists did assist Massasoit at one point when his people were attacked by the Narraganssett. He was not just some foolish sucker.
It should also be cleat that whereas his image sort of has him being barely above that of Tonto, the sidekick of the Lone Ranger on 1940s and 50s radio and TV, Squanto was also not a sucker at all. Indeed, he clearly was a very successful operator, having already had experience with the fur trade prior to his kidnapping, and taking advantage of his language and diplomatic skills to negotiate many deals from which he gained. His craftiness even led him in 1622 to denigrate Massasoit to the Plymouth colonists, resulting in Massasoit demanding that he be handed over, which they did not do. However, Squanto would die that fall while on a fur trading expedition. What is unequivocal is that between his technical advice on farming as well as his assistance in making peace with Masssasoit and getting the colonists involved in the fur trade, he was indeed invaluable to them to the point that indeed they probably would not have survived if it had not been for him (of course in 1630 the Puritans arrived and founded Boston, so even if the Plymouth colony had failed, the English would take New England).
Regarding the first Thanksgiving, it was a three day affair that initially did not involve the native Indians. But the colonists were firing off guns as part of the party and Massasoit had his people check out what was up. When they realized it was a party, they just showed with four or five deer and joined it. Curiously, in the very abbreviated account of that feast, Squanto is not mentioned, but he was living in Plymouth at the time and so almost certainly participated, whatever was actually eaten.
The celebration was not repeated and became almost forgotten, although there would be sporadic Thanksgivings later in the region. Memory of it and renewed celebrations began in the 1820s. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln established it as a national holiday, with the 1621 events getting much publicity and mythologizing after that.
Curiously, for all his genuine importance, there are no memorials to Squanto, no public statues and nothing named for him with the possible exception of a spit of land near Dorchester, MA called Chisquantum Point that may have been named for him. OTOH, there are quite a few public statues of Massasoit, the most famous overlooking Plymouth Rock, with another in a prominent place in Kansas City, MO, and several in Utah, where the Mormons make a big deal out of him. There are also various sites and entities named for him, including a community college in Massachusetts. It may be that he was ultimately a more important figure than Squanto, but he did not suffer the difficult and outright tragic events that Squanto did. I think few modern Americans know that Squanto was kidnapped and the last member of his tribe to live, an unfortunate fact too deeply rooted in the relations between the European colonists of North America and the native population.