Commentary: Squanto made indelible contributions to the Pilgrims


In the Spring of 1621, after the first harsh winter, where four out of 10 people on the Mayflower had died, the men were building the shelters and Common House of their settlement.

A lone native American approached and, speaking in English, said “Welcome! Have you got any beer?”

Their fear changed into shock, for the colonists couldn’t believe their ears. Here was an indigenous person speaking in plain English!

They invited him to sit down to eat while they asked many questions. He was Samoset, a chief of the Algonquins in Maine. He had learned English from the fishing captains who caught cod up and down the New England coast. He told them that an Indian tribe had lived in the area, and all but one had perished with a mysterious sickness.

The one who had survived was Tisquantum, also known as “Squanto,” who, several years earlier, had been picked up by a seafaring captain and taken to England in the hopes that he would learn English and thus be able as a translator for later explorations along the seaboard. Eventually Squanto was shipped to North Africa to be part of the slave trade, but a local friar rescued him and introduced him to the Christian faith.

He spent about 14 years abroad before he finally made his way back to his old village, just six months before the Pilgrims arrived. He was distraught to discover that he was the only person of his tribe to be alive, so he went to live with a local tribe. Then the Pilgrims arrived at his old village site. The native Americans went to meet them, and soon they were strong friends.

A peace treaty of mutual aid and assistance was made between these two groups. Later it was discovered that this was the only peaceful tribe on the whole coast of New England. And the Pilgrims were a gentle and peaceful people too. Their treaty with the native Americans lasted more than 40 years.

Squanto, it was decided, would stay to help these gentle people. He saw they needed his help, and he felt happy again because he could teach them all about surviving in his old home. He taught them how to survive on the land as his people had.

First, the colonists learned how to squish the eels out of the mud with their bare feet and catch them with their hands. Squanto also knew when the fish would run up the rivers, so the Pilgrims soon had a full harvest of fish.

Then he showed them how to plant corn, the new plant of the New World, in the native way, by planting the kernels in mounds of soil with fish heads as a strong fertilizer. Squanto taught them how to hunt deer, plant pumpkins, refine maple syrup and find the best berries. He also showed them how to get the pelt of the beaver so they could develop a commercial enterprise. These pelts were in great demand in England and were used for making the popular felt hats.

The Pilgrims worked hard. Their community flourished. There was even a wedding!

In the fall they enjoyed a plentiful harvest, so Gov. William Bradford declared a day of public thanksgiving to be held. The neighboring Chief Massasoit Sachem was invited, but he surprised them by bringing another 90 tribe members along with him. The Pilgrims may have felt a twinge of despair to realize their food stores would be greatly reduced, but they were gracious hosts, and the natives brought in fresh meat from the deer and wild turkeys they had hunted.

The native women roasted corn kernels to make popcorn. They all ate the fresh vegetables they had grown: carrots, onions, cucumbers, beets, cabbage. The colonists made berry pies.

Between meals, the Pilgrims and native Americans competed in shooting contests, foot races and wrestling matches. Captain Miles Standish even staged military drills and fired the cannon. Everyone had such a great time that the natives showed no inclination to leave. So the festivities continued for three more days!

What a wonderful way to have a party and to relate to each other. Good feelings remained long afterward, and everyone was thankful for this bountiful harvest of food and friends.

Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrims, wrote of these times in his “History of Plymouth Plantation”: “... so that you might see their worth and not negligently lose what your fathers have obtained with so much hardship.”

Newport Beach resident SHERRY NORD MARRON is a former American studies adjunct professor at Orange Coast College and the University of Connecticut.