Squanto (1585?-1623) was the guide for many of the Pilgrim settlers of the Plymouth Colony.

Squanto is remembered as the interpreter, guide, and agricultural advisor who shepherded the Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Colony through their precarious early existence in the New World and did more than anyone else to secure the survival of the settlement.

Squanto was a member of the Patuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe, which dominated the area in which the colonists eventually settled. He first enters written history in 1614, as one of 20 Patuxet Indians kidnapped by English explorer Thomas Hunt. Hunt carried his captives to Spain, where he sold them into slavery. Squanto, however, was one of a number who were rescued by Spanish friars, and he eventually made his way to England, where he next surfaced in the employ of John Slaney, whose interests extended to exploration in the New World. He sent Squanto along on an expedition to Newfoundland in 1617; there the Indian met explorer Thomas Dermer, with whom he returned to England the following year. Squanto's relation to Slaney and Dermer may have been in the nature of indentured servant; he may have hoped to earn his passage home. In any event, he traveled once again to the New World with Dermer in 1619, coming to rest in the Patuxet region of his birth.

In 1617, during Squanto's absence, a great epidemic— perhaps the plague—swept the Indian populations in the Massachusetts Bay region, and the Patuxet band was particularly hard hit. Indeed, they were virtually wiped out. Squanto returned to find the village of his youth abandoned. He left Captain Dermer to go in search of survivors, but returned to his aid when Dermer ran afoul of hostile Indians. Squanto remained with Dermer until Dermer was mortally wounded in a skirmish with the Pokanoket Wampanoag. Squanto was then taken prisoner.

Some historians have theorized that when Squanto was dispatched in 1621 as emissary to the English settlers, he may have still been living with the Wampanoag as a captive. This would explain the later reports of antagonism between him and Massasoit, who had become Sagamore, or civil chief, of the Wampanoag confederation in the wake of the epidemic. It was Massasoit who sent Squanto to the English at Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they had settled on the former lands of the Patuxet in November of 1620.

The English—weakened from their journey, hungry, and ill—kept their distance from the Indians during the first winter of their residence; half of the Pilgrims died before spring. The Wampanoag, who had had mixed experiences with Europeans, watched the newcomers with a wary eye. In March, Massasoit felt the time was right to approach the English and sent Squanto and a companion to reassure them of the friendly intentions of the Indians. The two arranged for a conference between the English leaders and Massasoit. That meeting resulted in the historic treaty in which the Wampanoag and the English pledged mutual peace and friendship.

"Sent of God"

Squanto was sent to live with the English settlers. His guidance proved so indispensable to them that Plymouth Governor William Bradford was moved to declare him a "spetiall instrument sent of God for [their] good."

Squanto's role in introducing the English to neighboring tribes was particularly crucial. His extensive travels had provided him with unique qualifications as intermediary between the cultures. Thus it was possible for the colonists to establish vital trade relationships, thereby enabling them to secure seeds and other supplies necessary to life in New England, as well as animal pelts which they sent to England to repay investments and secure English goods.

Tradition has it that Squanto taught the English, most of whom had not been farmers in their native country, to plant Indian corn and other local vegetables, and to insure the success of the crop by the use of fish fertilizer. The English believed the practice of fertilizing with fish to be traditional among the Indians. In recent years, however, this has come into question among historians, some believing that Squanto learned the practice in Europe or in Newfoundland.

Steeped in Conflict

Squanto's career was not without controversy. There are reports that he sought to increase his status among the Indians by exaggerating his influence with the English and alarming neighboring Native American groups with reports that colonists kept a plague (he may have meant gunpowder) buried underground that could be released at any time. There is also evidence that he tried to undermine Massasoit's relationship with the English. A crisis developed in 1622 when Squanto perpetrated an elaborate ruse to try to convince the English that Massasoit was plotting with the hostile Narragansett tribe to destroy the Plymouth Colony and that an attack was imminent. The deception was quickly discovered; however, Massasoit was sufficiently incensed to demand Squanto's life. The Plymouth settlers were very angry with Squanto in the wake of the fiasco, even to the extent that Governor Bradford admitted to Massasoit that Squanto deserved death for his act of betrayal. It was a measure of the colonists' dependence on him that they nevertheless protected him from Massasoit's vengeance.

In November of 1623, with the arrival of additional English settlers who came ill-prepared for the approaching New England winter, Squanto guided an expedition from Plymouth to trade with Cape Cod Indians for corn. He fell ill with what William Bradford, who led the foray, described as an "Indianfever" and died within a few days. According to Bradford, as quoted by John H. Humins in New England Quarterly, the dying Squanto expressed his wish to "go to the Englishmen's God in Heaven" and "bequeathed his little property to his English friends, as remembrances of his love." Some observers, including Humins, contend that Squanto's legendary role as the Pilgrims' savior has been largely exaggerated. "His struggle for power with Massasoit… has not been adequately noted in histories about the period," noted Humins, "[and] in fact jeopardized the plantation's relationship with the Indians." However, Squanto remains a key figure in American folklore—and the classic symbol of Thanksgiving.

Further Reading on Squanto

Salisbury, Neal, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643, New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Thacher, James, History of the Town of Plymouth from its First Settlement in 1620, to the Present Time, third edition, Yarmouthport, Massachusetts, Parnassus Imprints, 1972.

Vaughan, Alden T., New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675, Boston, Little, Brown, 1965.

Ceci, Lynn, "Squanto and the Pilgrims," Society, 27, May/June 1990; 40-44.

Humins, John H., "Squanto and Massasoit: A Struggle for Power," New England Quarterly, 60, March 1987; 54-70.