Samoset and Squanto: The Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims

Practically from birth, American children are taught the story of the Pilgrims’ arrival on the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor in November 1620. I’ve covered this historical event and the aftermath in yesterday’s blog: The Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.

Stories of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving are certain to mention Native American Squanto as a major player, as he should be. Often overlooked, unfortunately, is another native named Samoset who, while not as involved with the Pilgrims in the long haul as Squanto, was key to the connection between Pilgrims and natives in the first place. In today’s followup blog from yesterday, I’m taking a look at both of these fascinating men.


SAMOSET

Samoset — whose name means “He Who Walks Over Much” — was born about 1590 on Monhegan Island, a small rocky island off the coast of present-day Maine. He was a sagamore, a subordinate chief of the Eastern Abenaki people.

Assorted Europeans had been visiting parts of the new world for a century, establishing tentative contact and trade with native societies. In the Gulf of Maine, an English fishing camp had been established near Monhegan Island and this is where Samoset learned English during his interactions with the fishermen. A natural diplomat, and due to his status as a lesser chief, Samoset reportedly came to know most of the local ship captains by name.

The Abenaki people ranged from east of the White Mountains in present-day New Hampshire all the way to the southeast coastline of Maine. The name Abenaki means “People of the Eastern Dawn” in the tribe’s language, which is in turn an Algonquian language related to the Massachusett language of the Wampanoag people. The Wampanoag Confederacy, led by Sachem (Chief) Massasoit, was comprised of several tribes and ranged from the southeastern portion of present-day Massachusetts through Rhode Island to Connecticut and parts of Long Island. In other words, a fairly significant amount of coastal areas and interior regions. The Patuxet tribe of the Wampanoag inhabited the area immediately surrounding Plymouth Colony.

Map by National Geographic Society
Inset shows the distance relationship to the Abenaki inhabited lands.

It is unknown precisely why Samoset traveled roughly 200-miles south to visit with Wampanoag Chief Massasoit. According to the Pilgrims, Samoset told them he had arrived at Patuxet in July of 1620 (months before the Pilgrims landed) as an “emissary.” Being a diplomat and skilled with languages, historians assume his mission was an official one but the topic is a mystery. It is believed he sailed with Captain Thomas Dermer from Monhegan Island to Cape Cod as Dermer was a regular explorer along the coast with frequent stops in the Patuxet region.

Whatever the original purpose of Samoset’s journey to Patuxet and visit with Chief Massasoit, the surprise arrival of the Mayflower with a ship full of white foreigners would certainly have become a major topic of discussion during that winter. Too bad those conferences were not recorded. Instead, we are left with logical deductions based on the known facts, of which there are admittedly few.

What is indisputable is that on March 16 of 1621, Samoset boldly walked into the Plymouth settlement and greeted the astonished colonists in broken English. “Welcome Englishmen, Welcome!” he said, and then asked for beer. Pilgrim diarists described Samoset’s arrival as follows:

“He very boldly came all alone, and along the houses, straight to the rendezvous; where we intercepted him, not suffering him to go in, as undoubtedly he would out of his boldness.”

“He (Samoset) asked (for) some beer, but we gave him strong water and biscuit, and butter and cheese, and pudding, and a piece of mallard; all which he liked well.”

“Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims”, book engraving, 1853

It certainly is possible Samoset woke up that morning, spontaneously and unilaterally deciding to make first contact with the Pilgrims. Possible, but highly unlikely. Historians appear to agree that Chief Massasoit was in every way a strong, wise, cautious leader so the likelihood of a visiting emissary from a distant tribe usurping Massasoit’s authority or acting precipitously is essentially nil. Additionally, although not overly detailed, records by the Pilgrims heavily emphasize Samoset’s deference to Massasoit.

It is believed that Massosoit watched from afar and waited for months as he weighed options. One decision was whether to send Tisquantum (Squanto) or Samoset — the only natives who spoke English — to initiate contact. The former spoke fluent English (more on Squanto in the section below) but not knowing what the Pilgrims intended and unsure if conflict may ensue, Massasoit presumably trusted sending a sagamore over a lesser known Indian who had spent years dwelling with white Europeans and thus might be swayed in his loyalties.

In Mourt’s Relation, a 1622 account of the early days of Plymouth Colony written primarily by Edward Winslow, the meeting is further detailed and Samoset is described:

He discoursed of the whole country, and of every province, and of their sagamores, and their number of men, and strength. The wind being to rise a little, we cast a horseman’s coat about him, for he was stark naked, only a leather about his waist, with a fringe about a span long, or little more; he had a bow and two arrows, the one headed, and the other unheaded. He was a tall straight man, the hair of his head black, long behind, only short before, none on his face at all;

Chief Massasoit’s instincts were good as that initial meeting went very well. Samoset spent the entire day and night with the Pilgrims, sleeping under guard at the home of Stephen Hopkins, assistant to the governor. Samoset left the following morning with gifts from the thankful colonists, promising to return with more men and goods to trade. I covered the timeline and specifics of the three significant meetings between Samoset, Squanto, and the Pilgrims in yesterday’s post.

Clipping from The Maine Historical Magazine, Volume 4, 1889

If Samoset had further contact with the Pilgrims after the March 23rd arranged conference with Chief Massasoit, it was not recorded.

A handful of accounts of Samoset exist but date to several years later and from present-day Maine where Samoset’s tribe dwelt. Some historians point to a deed dated July 15, 1625 wherein “Captain John Somerset” granted John Brown 12,000 acres of land in the Damariscotta area of present-day Pemaquid Point in Maine. If not a forgery, as a few suspect, and if “Somerset” is indeed Samoset as believed, this was the first land deal between Native Americans and colonists. Additional reports of “Captain John Somerset” involved with land deals exist, which are believed to be Samoset but historians cannot be one-hundred percent sure. According to vague references, Samoset probably died in 1652 or 1653 at the age of approximately 63.

While his later life is open to speculation, Samoset’s key role in the Pilgrim and Thanksgiving story has earned him a valuable place in Native American and American history . . . and in pop culture (see examples below).

Samoset chocolates, 1920
Samoset Cigars
Samoset on Goudey Indian Gum, 1933-1940

TISQUANTUM, or SQUANTO

Born in the late 1580s to unrecorded parents of the Patuxet tribe, his given name was Tisquantum, sometimes spelled Tasquantum. His birthdate is totally a guess as his age is not remarked upon in any of the first-hand descriptions written between 1618 and 1622. Squanto is the name given to him by the Pilgrims many years later.

In 1605, Captain George Weymouth abducted a group of natives and took them to England where they were given to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who wrote of the acquisition and named three of the five, one being Tisquantum. Most historians do not believe this is the same Tisquantum, although interestingly, Gorges was a shareholder in the Plymouth Company which financed settlers to Jamestown Colony and Maine. Not a direct connection to the Pilgrims, but roughly in the same circle, and there is more as will be seen in a bit.

If the same man, he would have learned English before definitively entering the history books interacting with Captain John Smith in 1614. Now best known for his activities with the Jamestown Colony and Pocahontas in 1607, Captain Smith headed an English expedition to map the Massachusetts Bay area around Cape Cod. Tisquantum is recorded as being among the natives who served as a guide to the best places to hunt animals for their furs. Whether chosen because of a prior association and ability to speak English, or merely due to a willingness to help the Europeans is unknown.

The wooden head likeness of Squanto, a surviving piece of the wooden pediment that was installed on the Pilgrim Hall Museum building in 1880.

Before returning to England in that same year, Smith left his lieutenant Thomas Hunt behind to deepen the trade relationship with the natives. Smith’s ultimate hope was to found a plantation and colony in the Patuxet region. Hunt, however, had another plan. He lured 24 Nauset and Patuxet men (one being Tisquantum) onto his ship, took them captive and sailed to Malaga, Spain with the intention of selling them into slavery. Captain Smith wrote scathingly of Hunt’s action, and the aforementioned Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who was by this time head of the Council for New England, wrote:

“…one Hunt (a worthless fellow of our nation) set out by certain merchants for love of gain; who (not content with the commodity he had by the fish, and peaceable trade he found among the savages) after he had made his dispatch, and was ready to set sail, (more savage-like than they) seized upon the poor innocent creatures, that in confidence of his honesty had put themselves into his hands.”

As for the Gorges connection, to be fair, he never names any of the captured natives, nor is it likely he saw Tisquantum during this time. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating bit of “it’s a small world” isn’t it?

Thomas Hunt was largely thwarted in his profiteering when local Friars in Malaga took custody of the Indians. Not sure exactly how this played out, but according to Gorges, the Friars, “so disappointed this unworthy fellow (Hunt) of the hopes of gain he conceived to make by this new and devilish project.

As for Tisquantum, it is unclear how long he dwelt in Spain but he eventually convinced the Friars to release him so he could find a way home. Taking a position as a shipbuilder under John Slany of London, Tisquantum sailed from Spain to England. For a few years he worked with Slany, ever increasing his English speaking skills and learning the customs and culture of the Europeans.

In 1618, Slany brought Tisquantum with him to Newfoundland, a step closer to his desired destination. There he worked with Captain John Mason, governor of the Newfoundland Colony, and met Captain Thomas Dermer. Remember that name from the account of Samoset? A small world indeed! Even weirder, Dermer was employed by the New England Company headed by none other than Sir Ferdinando Gorges!

Dermer recognized the unique advantages Tisquantum possessed and expressly requested, via letter to Gorges, that he be included in the next planned expedition to New England. Beyond Tisquantum’s grasp of English and knowledge of North American natural resources, it was believed his return to his people would ease the tension and flat-out hostility that had escalated since the abductions in 1614.

Tragically, it will never be known if the peace offering of returning Tisquantum to his people would have placated. Upon arriving late in 1619, Tisquantum discovered that his entire tribe, literally all of the Patuxet, had perished that year from a plague. Contact was made with Wampanoag Chief Massasoit and Tisquantum was welcomed as a resident, an honor he accepted but after saving Captain Dermer from the still-angry Nauset tribe who had taken him prisoner.

As an aside: Captain Dermer succumbed to injuries received in a late-1620 Indian attack near Martha’s Vineyard. His role in bringing both Samoset and Squanto to Patuxet and Chief Massasoit just in time for the landing of the Mayflower is a fortuitous tidbit of the larger history.

Squanto, as portrayed by Canadian actor Adam Beach (of the indigenous Anishinaabe) in the 1994 Disney movie Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale

Tisquantum, or Squanto as he would thereafter be most well known, was invaluable as a guide and translator between the Pilgrims and the Native tribes. I covered that in yesterday’s broader blog on the events leading to the First Thanksgiving. As time passed, Squanto became an integral member of the Plymouth colony working with the governors in negotiating peace with the Nauset and other tribes. He taught the colonists how to hunt and farm, ensuring their survival, and was essential to establishing trade agreements.

As history records, Squanto found ways to exploit and abuse his new-found power. Opinions differ, but the theory says he played both sides against each other for personal gain. As literally the only person able to translate (Samoset is never mentioned, as I noted above, so presumably had returned to his home), Squanto could manipulate both sides with none the wiser.

Matters came to a head by late in 1621, Massasoit convinced of Squanto’s treachery and demanding Bradford turn him over for punishment, which would be death. Due to the signed peace treaties, Bradford had no choice to comply, but Squanto was saved when a new ship arrived and once again his services were required.

Whether Squanto’s deceptions were a fact and done maliciously, or the result of fear and poor relations from the various groups involved remains unclear to this day. There is certainly a case to be made for Chief Massasoit not trusting him since he hadn’t deemed him best to make first contact with the Pilgrims. Whatever the case, Squanto’s dealings with the two groups of people resulted in distrusted by both parties, most especially Massasoit, even as they relied on his interpreting skills over the next year.

In 1622, while on his way back from a meeting with the Wampanoag, he fell ill with fever. Historians speculate the distrustful tribe may have poisoned him, but this will never be known. Squanto died a few days later. His passing was a tremendous loss for the Pilgrims.

“In this place Squanto fell sick of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose (which the Indians take as a symptom of death) and within a few days died there; desiring the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven; and bequeathed sundry of his things to English friends, as remembrances of his love; of whom they had a great loss.” –William Bradford

I believe it is important to view Squanto, whatever his faults, with a sympathetic heart. He was a man who suffered tremendously. Captured, possibly twice, and ripped away from his family and homeland. His world utterly upset as he was forced into years of slavery and hard work in strange countries with people he struggled to communicate with and comprehend their culture. Then to finally find his way home to discover everyone he had known was dead. He was a man caught between two very different worlds, essentially alone and trying to find his way. Perhaps his motives weren’t entirely pure, but he without a doubt singlehandedly saved our ultimate ancestors from certain death.


Native Intelligence, Smithsonian Magazine

Squanto on Wikipedia

Tisquantum on MayflowerHistory.com

A man without a tribe: The true story of Squanto

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Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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