Who Was Squanto?

Most folks know of Squanto (Tesquantum) as simply the Native American friend of the Pilgrims, the one who taught them to plant and hunt, who helped assure the bounty they celebrated that first Thanksgiving and mediated peace with the local tribe. But how did this young Indian brave come to speak English so fluently? And why could he understand and relate to the white man so well that he chose to live among them? The answer lies in his not-so-well-known past.

Squanto’s history is rather sketchy and the matter of some debate, pieced together from a variety of memoirs, reports, letters and such, but the story that emerges is remarkable. His name first appears in 1605, when he was kidnapped by an English explorer, along with four others, and brought to England as a novelty. No one can pinpoint his age with any certainty. Perhaps he was a teen.
His activities in England are unrecorded, but it seems he was treated well. He learned the language and was probably used as an information resource and possibly as a guide for other explorations of the New England coast. He certainly knew Captain John Smith, that abrasive hero of the Jamestown colony, as it was Smith who returned him to his native village in 1614.

Shortly after his return, Squanto was again captured, along with several other natives, by one of Smith’s underlings and taken to Spain to be sold as a slave. He was rescued by some monks, with whom he lived for several years, receiving instruction in the Christian faith. He made his way to England, where it appears he was used again as a guide and interpreter, before finally being returned home in 1619.

But tragedy struck his village during his absence. A plague, possibly smallpox, had wiped out his entire village. One year later, the Mayflower landed at the exact spot, and the young man who had spent so many years with Europeans chose to befriend and live among them.

There are some who have seen the hand of God working out the details of the Pilgrims’ welfare long before they chose to cross the ocean, even likening Squanto to Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt only to save his family years later. I tend to agree. Even Squanto, it seems, may have believed it, as his dying wish two years later was that he might “go to the Englishman’s God in heaven.”

Originally posted Nov. 2009

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