Nov 24, 2010

Squanto: The original American Badass

Thanksgiving is probably one of my favorite American holidays. For most people, it means a day or two off work and some awesome food with some family and friends.

Everyone knows the basic Thanksgiving myth - the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth after enduring a tortuous journey only to face a really bad winter storm. They met the Native American locals, including some guy named Squanto, who taught them how to fish, farm, and essentially survive. They all had a big feast together, and lived happily ever after. This all mythically represents the seeds of a new country, the good old US-of-A.

The true story in these things is sometimes dull and always full of facts and dates. In this case though there is a quite interesting true thanksgiving story within the real Plymouth Pilgrim landing. I'm referring to Squanto's story, whose tale blows the Illiad out of the water. Squanto was the original American Badass.

When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, they explored the area before settling down. They choose Plymouth because of it's empty fields, freshwater brooks, pre-built homes, etc. Hardly starting from scratch, they had pitched camp right in the middle of Squanto's lovely village of Patuxet, appropriating native american cornfields and homes for themselves. One colonist noted "In this bay wherein we live, in former time hath lived about two thousand Indians.". Not only the cornfields, but they also set to work robbing native american homes and graves. In their weak defense, much of Patuxet's population had recently succumbed to a plague, probably smallpox, that had arrived just ahead of the Pilgrims.

Despite taking over an existing settlement, over half of the colonists died in the first winter. It was their superb luck that the next spring, a local walked into Plymouth and said in perfectly accented English "How can I help you gentlemen?". This local was Squanto and Patuxet (Plymouth) was his hometown. Of course, the Pilgrims didn't expect a local to speak English. They had no way of knowing that Squanto had just recently returned home from Europe.

Let's go backwards in time. In or around 1605, the Englishman Capt. George Weymouth was exploring the Maine and Massachussets area. Capt. Weymouth decided to capture 5 natives and take them back to England, fairly brutally. Weymouth wrote, "For they were strong and so naked as our best hold was by their long hair on their heads.". One of these natives is believed to have been Squanto, at the time referred to as Tisquantum. Weymouth gave the natives to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, an investor. Gorges presumably trained Squanto as a guide for sea captains exploring the New England coast, teaching him English along the way.

We don't know much about what happened to Squanto from 1605 until 1614, for all we know, he made several expeditions for Gorges during this period.

In 1614, Squanto joined a small fleet (2 ships) with Capt. John Smith where he was promised to return to his people in Patuxet in exchange for his help as a guide. At some point the fleet reached Patuxet and separated. Squanto remained in Patuxet with the captain of the 2nd ship (Thomas Hunt), and Capt. Smith headed north. Hunt was supposed to fill his ship with beaver skins and head home. Instead, Hunt kidnapped 20 natives including Squanto, and took them back to Spain to sell as slaves.

When Squanto arrived in Spain, some local monks discovered the plan, didn't like it, and "rescued" the surviving Indians from Hunt "to instruct them in the Christian faith". Squanto lived with the monks for a year or two, but eventually traveled back to England.

In England, Squanto arranged to travel on another expedition to Newfoundland. In Newfoundland Squanto was recognized as belonging to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, was recaptured, and taken back to England again. From there, Sir Ferdinando Gorges launched another expedition back to New England with Squanto. Their stops included dropping anchor in Plymouth Harbor in 1619, about a year before the Pilgrims arrived. This time Squanto found that every single man, woman, and child that he had once known in his home of Patuxet had disappeared in the intervening 5 years. They had either been wiped out by the plague or were so afraid of the plague that they had fled to escape it. Squanto, who must have been heartbroken, decided to join the Pokanokets, in Rhode Island.

Squanto later received news of the Pilgrims settling in Patuxet and he travelled to visit them. He joined their society as a guide, never to leave them again until his death. During this period, he commanded great power in both Native American and New England societies because of his unique familiarity with both worlds.

3 years later, in 1623, the Pilgrims had another poor corn harvest and were searching for corn to get them through the winter. Squanto was able to lead a trading expedition with local indians that successfully secured for the Pilgrims the corn and beans that the needed. During that expedition however, Squanto came down with a fever and died suddenly. Before his death, he talked with Governor Bradford and asked him "to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen's God in heaven, and bequeathed sundry of his things to sundry of his English friends as remembrances of his love, of whom they had a great loss".

A little more interesting than some local who taught the Pilgrims to grow corn, eh? Happy Squanto Day.