- John A. Garraty
Tisquantum (?–? Nov. 1622), Indian interpreter, was called Squanto by the Pilgrims. His place of birth and the names of his parents are unknown. He was a member of the Patuxet tribe, which inhabited the area around Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1605 George Waymouth, an English captain in the employ of Sir Ferdinando Gorges of the Plymouth Company, seems to have taken him and four other Indians from a region now part of Maine to Bristol, England, where Waymouth then “delivered” Tisquantum and two of the others to Gorges. Sir Ferdinando, who was eager to learn all he could about the New World, “took him into his house” and taught him English so that Tisquantum could “communicate to him a knowledge of their [the Indians’] country” (Baxter, p. 68).
How long Tisquantum remained in Sir Ferdinando’s household is unclear, but in 1614 when Gorges sent two ships commanded by Captain John Smith (1580–1631) to New England to prepare to found a colony, Tisquantum went along as interpreter. However, after Smith returned to England, his second in command, Captain Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Tisquantum and a number of other Indians, took them to Málaga, Spain, and sold them as slaves.
Nothing is known of Tisquantum’s life in Málaga except that after about two years he escaped, apparently aboard an English vessel bound for England. (It seems likely that because he could speak English, Tisquantum attracted the sympathy of one or more English sailors, who agreed to take him aboard when they left Málaga.) In England he was befriended by John Slany, the treasurer of the Newfoundland Company. Thereafter he made two trips to America, one in 1618 to an English settlement at Conception Bay in Newfoundland, the other in 1619 to New England as a pilot on a vessel commanded by Captain Thomas Dermer. Tisquantum left the ship somewhere on Cape Cod and made his way to Patuxet, only to discover that his entire tribe had been wiped out by a plague. He may thereafter have been held captive, by other local Indians who were suspicious of his connection with Europeans, during the brief period preceding the arrival of the Pilgrims in December 1620.
In March 1621 Samoset, an Algonquian Indian who spoke broken English, introduced Tisquantum to the Pilgrims as “a native of this place who had been in England and could speak better English than himself” (Bradford, pp. 79–80). Tisquantum’s first service to the Pilgrims was to act as interpreter at the dramatic meeting of the Pilgrim leaders with the most powerful chief of the region, the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit. At this conference, after an elaborate exchange of gifts and speeches, a treaty of peace and mutual defense was negotiated. Tisquantum’s services as interpreter were of inestimable value in reaching this agreement.
Thereafter, as Governor William Bradford (1590–1657) explained in a famous passage in Of Plymouth Plantation, his value to the Pilgrims increased enormously. “Squanto,” Bradford explained, “was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn [and] where to take fish” to be used to fertilize the crop, a practice he seems to have learned from English settlers in Newfoundland, since the Indians of Massachusetts were unfamiliar with the practice. “Squanto,” Bradford added, “was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died” (Bradford, p. 81).
Tisquantum contracted a fever while on a trading expedition with the Pilgrims to Monomoy, on Cape Cod. According to Governor Bradford, his dying words were a request that Bradford “pray for him that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven” (Bradford, p. 114).
Tisquantum’s life in the brief months between his meeting the Pilgrims and his death was not, however, the idyll this passage suggests. Rather, it illustrates an ambivalence common when the two cultures, white and Indian, coexisted in the same person. As the historian James Phinney Baxter put it, Tisquantum’s “mind had been enlarged beyond his fellows by contact with European civilization and a knowledge of the great world” (Baxter, p. 105). This, in effect, made him an alien in both camps. At times he exaggerated his influence on the Pilgrims in an effort to “aggrandize himself in the estimation of the Indians.” Bradford admitted that “Squanto … played his own game by putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself” (Bradford, p. 99).
Such behavior naturally caused the Indians to resent him. At one point Massasoit, citing terms of the treaty, demanded that the Pilgrims turn Tisquantum over to him for “punishment,” clearly a euphemism for execution. Bradford was able to avoid doing so, but the incident compelled Tisquantum “to stick close to the English,” and goes a long way to explaining why, in Bradford’s above-quoted words, he “never left them till he died” (Bradford, p. 99).
For their part the Pilgrims were sincerely thankful for the many services their Squanto provided. When the powerful Naragansett chief Corbitant was reported to have killed him, the Pilgrims sent fifteen armed men headed by Captain Myles Standish to “cut off Corbitant’s head,” if the rumor proved true—fortunately it was not. But the Pilgrims treated neither Tisquantum nor any other Indian as an equal. Despite their generally harmonious relations with the Wampanoags, they routinely referred to them as “savages.” After his moving description of Squanto’s death in his history, Bradford continued his account of the trading expedition with a routine summary of the goods collected: “about 26 or 28 hogsheads of corn and beans” (Bradford, p. 114).
Further information about Tisquantum can be found in William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, ed. S. E. Morison (1967); J. P. Baxter, “Sir Ferdinando Gorges,” Prince Soc. Pubs. 18–20 (1890); Edward Winslow, A Relation . . . of the English Plantation Setled at Plimouth (1622); and Lynn Ceci, “Fish Fertilizer: A Native North American Practice?” Science 188 (1975): 26–27. Neal Salisbury, “Squanto: Last of the Patuxets,” in Struggle and Survival in Colonial America, ed. David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash (1981), differs in some respects from my account.
- Gorges, Ferdinando (1568-1647), author and sponsor of English exploration and settlement in New England
- Smith, John (1580-1631), colonial governor, promoter, and historian
- Massasoit (1600?–1661), leader of the Wampanoag Indians
- Bradford, William (1590-1657), a founder and long-time governor of Plymouth colony
- Baxter, James Phinney, III (1893-1975), historian
- Standish, Myles (1584?–03 October 1656), Pilgrim military and political leader