Thursday, September 20, 2007

Squanto and the non-Puritan non-Pilgrim "Fathers"

As a Canadian I'd been spared the folklore of the first American thanksgiving, so I was surprised five eight years ago when I chanced upon a neglected monument in a decrepit park by the town of Squantum, across the harbor from Boston. The monument park was near the closed causeway to Moon island and its mysterious Potemkin Village.

From GeoMapped Images
Who, I wondered, was Squanto? Why was the nearby town evidently named after him?

When I returned home I read what was then known of Squanto, the one man who connects both Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. I later learned that in his own language his name meant the equivalent of Satan. We don't think the "Pilgrim Fathers", of whom only half were religious and that half was Separatist, not Puritan, knew what his name meant. Had they known, they would have considered that a most curious omen.

Today the Wikipedia entry isn't a terrible introduction, but it's been vandalized and seems too incredible even for a life as astounding as Squanto's:
Squanto - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

.. Tisquantum was kidnapped and taken by Georgie Weymouth in 1605, according to the memoirs of Ferdinando Gorges. According to Gorges, Tisquantum worked in England for nine years before returning to the New World on John Smith's 1613 voyage... [jg: that's Jamestown I think?]

Soon after returning to his tribe in 1614, Tisquantum was kidnapped by another Englishman, Thomas Hunt. Hunt was one of John Smith's lieutenants. Hunt was planning to sell fish, corn, and captured slaves in Málaga, Spain. Hunt attempted to sell Tisquantum and a number of other Native Americans into slavery for £20 apiece[citation needed].

Sir Ferdinando Gorges, in A Brief Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England (London, 1622) wrote that some local friars, however, discovered what Hunt was attempting and took the remaining Indians, Tisquantum included, in order to instruct them in the Christian faith.

Eventually, Tisquantum escaped to London, living with a John Slany for a few years, and then went to Cuper's Cove, Newfoundland. Attempting to avoid the walk from Newfoundland to his home village, Tisquantum tried to take part in an expedition to that part of the North American east coast.

He returned to Ireland in 1618, however, when that plan fell through...

He returned once more to his homeland in 1619, making his way with an exploratory expedition along the New England coast. He was soon to discover that his tribe, as well as a majority of coastal New England tribes, had been decimated the year before by a plague...

Tisquantum finally settled with the Pilgrims and helped them recover from their first difficult winter by teaching them to increase their food production by fertilizing their crops, and by directing them to the best places to catch fish and eels.

Whatever Tisquantum's motives, he ended up distrusted by both the English and the Native people. Massasoit, the sachem who originally appointed Tisquantum a diplomat to the Pilgrims, did not trust him before the tribe's dealing with the pilgrims...

On his way back from a meeting to repair the damaged relations between the Natives and the Pilgrims, Tisquantum became sick with a fever... He died a few days later in 1622 in Chatham, Massachusetts, and is now buried in an unmarked grave on Burial Hill in Chathamport, overlooking Ryder's Cove...
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry is briefer but only slightly less incredible (no trip to Ireland):
Squanto was born into the Pawtuxet tribe that occupied lands in present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Little is known about his early life. Some authorities believe that he was taken from home to England in 1605 by George Weymouth and returned with explorer John Smith in 1614–15. He was, in any event, seized with other Indians by one of Smith's men, Thomas Hunt, who took them to the Mediterranean port of Málaga, Spain, to be sold into slavery. Squanto somehow escaped to England and joined the Newfoundland Company. He returned home in 1619 on his second trip back to North America only to find that his tribe had been wiped out by disease.

During the spring of 1621, Squanto was brought to the newly founded Pilgrim settlement of Plymouth by Samoset, an Indian who had been befriended by the English settlers. Squanto, who had been living with the Wampanoag tribe since his return from England, soon became a member of the Plymouth colony. Because Squanto was fluent in English, Governor William Bradford made him his Indian emissary, and he then served as interpreter for Edward Winslow, the Pilgrim representative, during his negotiations with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags. Squanto died while guiding Bradford on Cape Cod.
Squanto's side trip with the Newfoundland company meant he was away when the plague depopulated most of the northeastern US. I'd read that it was Smallpox, but the descriptions didn't sound like Smallpox. If anything, it was even nastier. Modern historians apparently suspect Bubonic Plague, probably delivered by French fishermen off the coast of what is now Maine. The Europeans were relatively resistant -- though I wonder if plague didn't play a role in the 50% mortality rate of the "Pilgrim Fathers" during their first winter in America.

When Squanto returned home, after his astounding exile and enduring all manner of suffering, he would have found everyone he knew was dead. He himself only lived two more years, but during that time he saved the half-dead English immigrants. Without his training they would have certainly died. As it was the Pilgrims lingered on for a few years, before giving up and being absorbed by the massive Puritan migration that followed them. They were all but lost to history, until the Civil War led to a mythic reinvention of the first (euro) "Americans". [Update: see comment from GTT, I got this from the IOT lecture - In Our Time: The Pilgrim Fathers.]

For a bit more on this topic, though not enough on the most amazing figure of early euro-american history, do listen to In Our Time: The Pilgrim Fathers.

Oh, and the next time you serve that turkey, pause for a moment to reflect on the short, turbulent, violent and astounding life of Squanto. He paid a high price and ought not to be lost to memory.

Update 9/22/07: Jamestown. Plymouth Rock. John Smith. Myles Standish. A boat of religious zealots and roughneck desperadoes. The Black Plague. Slavery. Exotic locales. Alien cultures. The death of a civilization. Through it all ... Squanto, who's name meant Satan (or Lucifer?). Come on you-tubers, a dolt could make a classic movie of this material.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend "The Mayflower" for a great history of the 2 generations of the pilgrim and puritans ,and their complex relationship to the indian tribes.
Wm Barrett MD

Nettie said...

John, it was longer than 5 years ago that we were there - probably 8 years ago I think. Don't you remember me talking about the kids' book we had at our house called "Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims"? It was a good book. Mostly followed the same tale as what you mention above but no gruesomeness like smallpox. I remember a bit of slavery and the kidnapping by Hunt.

John Gordon said...

Hi Nettie! Emily tells me we just had Tim along with us, so you must be right. It's a pre-digital scan, so no date on the image.

Of course I didn't remember the book until you mentioned it -- I'm lucky I can remember my home address. The story is better known to "native" Americans than we immigrants suppose.

Squanto makes Davy Crockett look pretty wimpy, but as a folkloric hero he suffers from two demerits. On the one hand he's not european, and on the other he was at least occasionally supportive of the alien invaders.

GTT said...

I read your post with interest yesterday (Thanksgiving). I was especially surprised to learn that the Pilgrims didn't become famous until after the Civil War.

Then today I read this: Our first stop was famed Plymouth Rock, of which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s: “Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant, and this stone becomes famous. Its very dust is shared as a relic.”

If de Tocqueville wrote this in 1830, the Pilgrims must have been famous before the Civil War.

John Gordon said...

Hi GTT. Nice observation!