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Squanto: Trans-Atlantic Translator

Today, unless you’re one of the relatively few people who travel between the US and Europe regularly, a trip across the Atlantic is still a real thrill, and something that many will only do once in a lifetime. Four hundred years ago, a Native American from the Patuxet tribe had already made the trip – more than once.

Tisquantum, now more widely known as Squanto, is remembered by Americans as one of the most important points of contact between the original Pilgrims and the indigenous people of North America. While his advice and assistance, which enabled the European settlers who arrived in Massachusetts to survive, has passed into legend, his life story is extraordinary.

Kidnap & Transportation

Squanto was kidnapped and transported to England by George Weymouth, an English explorer, when he was probably in his teens – his date of birth is uncertain. In 1605 Weymouth’s expedition to find possible east coast settlement sites resulted in the capture of Squanto and several others. In London, he was taught English by the expedition’s sponsor, Ferdinando Gorges, and his value to the settlers as a potential interpreter became clear. It was this value that ensured his passage back to his homeland in 1614; but that trip was far from being the end of the story.

John Smith’s expedition that year was not his first to the New World. He was a skilled map-maker who had had a central role in the founding of Jamestown, and had named “New England”. It seemed Squanto was back among his people, but incredibly, he was abducted again, this time by Thomas Hunt, one of Smith’s underlings. This time, he was taken to Spain, where Hunt intended to sell Squanto and other Native Americans into slavery.

Spain & Return To London

In Malaga, Hunt’s intentions were discovered by some Spanish monks, and Squanto was rescued; though there was a price to pay, which was to be his conversion to Catholicism. Having spent around nine years in London by this time, he clearly would have considered it a better option than remaining in Spain, and was eventually able to persuade the monks to allow him to attempt to get back to England.

Having made it back to London, he spent several more years there, and eventually found a place on board a ship that was sailing to Newfoundland. On arrival, in an attempt to avoid traveling back to his Patuxet homeland on foot, he tried to take another ship to New England. This plan failed, and, amazingly, he sailed back to London in 1618, where he stayed for about a year.

West Again

By 1619 he was ready to try returning home again, and this time he succeeded; though a tragic scene awaited him. Huge numbers of indigenous people along the coast had died of disease, long thought to be smallpox, though now believed by some researchers to have been a bacterial infection known as leptospirosis. Despite Squanto’s amazing life story up to this point, it was to be subsequent events that guaranteed his place in history – though without his language skills, as well as his diplomacy, it would still have been unlikely.

The Pilgrims

In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers established the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts, and, as it turned out, had Squanto not returned to his homeland the previous year, they might well not have made it through a second winter. The voyage across the ocean had been extremely tough, and many of the settlers were too ill to survive the arduous conditions of the first.

In the spring of 1621, Squanto was introduced to the colony by Samoset, another English speaker (though not as well-versed as Squanto) who had picked up the language from the European fishermen who worked around Maine. It would have been an extraordinary experience for the settlers to meet someone who was not only fluent in their own language, but also willing to help them both to cultivate food, and to interact with the indigenous people. Having shown them how to grow crops using fish as a form of fertilizer, and assisted them with diplomatic efforts towards the local Wampanoag people, Squanto was captured yet again – this time by the Wampanoag themselves.

Squanto’s Legacy

Now though, it was the settlers who came to his rescue, and he was returned to Plymouth where he continued his diplomatic efforts. In 1622, however, he developed a fever, and died soon afterwards. His immediate legacy was decades of peace between the settlers and the indigenous people; today, he’s remembered for his incredible life story – and in the name of a Massachusetts peninsula, Squantum.

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