Tisquantum, commonly called Squanto, was a Patuxet man who helped the Pilgrims survive in their new home. The Patuxet were members of the Wampanoag Confederation who lived in what is now Plymouth. Nothing certain is known of Squanto until 1614, though some historians believe that Squanto had gone to England with an explorer in 1605 and was traveling with Captain John Smith when he returned to the Americas.
Captain John Smith, whom your students may know from the story of Pocahontas, had gone to New England in 1614 to map out possible places for an English colony. When he returned to England, he left behind an Englishman named Thomas Hunt, asking him to establish trade with the Native Americans living in the area, the Patuxet and Nauset people.
Instead, Hunt captured a group of Native Americans, took them to Malaga, Spain, due East across the Atlantic, and sold them as slaves. Squanto was among them.
This led the Native Americans in Cape Cod to become very hostile to visiting ships. In 1617 they seized a French ship of fur traders and killed or enslaved them all. Another French ship suffered the same fate that year. A year later, the entire Patuxet village was wiped out by a plague.
Tisquantum, however, had escaped from Malaga (a group of friars discovered what Hunt was up to and freed the people whom Hunt had not yet sold, giving them homes) and made his way to England, where he learned English and began to work with people who wanted to trade in the New World. He went to Newfoundland and then back to Cape Cod with his employers, hoping to make peace between the Patuxet and the English. Squanto intended to return to his home village.
When he found that his people were gone, Squanto settled in with the Nauset (some historians say he was their captive). The following year, the Pilgrims arrived and made their new home on the abandoned Patuxet lands. When the local people met the Pilgrims and recognized that they were English, Squanto was brought in to help negotiate a treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Confederation.
Squanto helped the Pilgrims not only to communicate with the Native Americans in the area, but also to understand how to live in their new environment. He showed them how to catch eels and how to use fish for fertilizer when growing corn, and he also helped them find a child who had become lost in the woods.
Squanto was a guest at the first Thanksgiving, he was a hero to the Pilgrims, and he became extremely important. Unfortunately, he began to use his power dishonestly.
Governor William Bradford wrote this:
Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself, making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him, than to Massasoit. Which procured him envy and had like to have cost him his life; for after the discovery of his practices, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly, which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died.
Squanto died in 1622. Some historians have suggested that he was poisoned by Massasoit, but records of the time say simply that he took sick and died within a few days.
The story of Squanto is a complicated one. While he was not the simple Friend of the Pilgrims we often talk about in Thanksgiving lessons, he was able to help bring peace in a situation which had become dangerous for both the Native Americans and the Europeans wanting to come to the New World. In less than a decade, Squanto went from a simple and predictable life to an amazing series of adventures: meeting strangers very different from himself, being captured and carried to foreign lands, facing the possibility of slavery, living in a Spanish monastery, heading to yet another foreign country where he had to learn a new language and figure out how to support himself, coming up with a plan to return home only to find his village completely destroyed, being captured by a neighboring village, seeing new people take over his ruined village, having an opportunity to gain power, and then succumbing to temptation to misuse that power and having his life threatened.
- Cotton Mather wrote about Squanto in 1698. Have the students rewrite this in modern English.
- Here is a 20th century children’s version of the story, high on sentiment and low on accuracy. “Poor Indian not have gun like white man,” says Squanto in this story. While this is at a low reading level, we think that it should be used for older students, along with the other versions linked here, to examine how attitudes, interpretations, and language use change over time.
- Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving is a picture book version of the story which simplifies Squanto’s life without denying the facts.
- Here is a modern telling of the story, suited to middle school and high school students. Have students tell you the story of Squanto as they remember it from elementary school, and then read the passage together. Use a Venn diagram to identify differences between their memories and this straightforward report.
- The Smithsonian has a long and detailed essay that considers the strategic choices of the Native Americans.
- This lesson plan extends the story of Squanto to possible philanthropic gestures the students could make themselves. The plan makes a good wrap-up for Thanksgiving lessons, since it asks students to recapitulate the story of the pilgrims, the story of Squanto, and the story of the first Thanksgiving.