Squanto.

The Native Americans of New England had been in contact with Europeans—French, Dutch, and English—since the early 1500s.  This contact began to transform Native American society.  On the one hand, the Europeans unintentionally introduced Old World diseases to which the Native Americans had no resistance.  Native American tribes did not live in isolation from other tribes.  The diseases spread like wild-fire from people near the coast to places much farther inland.  The toll could be horrific: 90 percent mortality in some cases, often as much as two-thirds.  On the other hand, the Native Americans were a Stone Age people.  The Iron Age Europeans had things—knives, axes, cooking pots, muskets—that would make the lives of the Native Americans much easier.  The Europeans would trade these things, and alcohol, for furs.

Beginning in 1605, English explorers—at the least—began occasional kidnappings of Native Americans.  Sometimes they sold them as slaves.  Sometimes they took them home to England and later returned them.  The catch-and-release effort may have been a crude attempt to create future intermediaries between the English and the Native Americans.  The English aimed at eventual settlement of colonies.  In 1614, an English explorer named Thomas Hunt grabbed 27 Native Americans from the shores of Cape Cod Bay.  He then sailed for the Spanish port of Malaga, where he sold them as slaves.

One captive called himself Tisquantum.  The Pilgrims later came to call him “Squanto.”  At a reasonable guess, “Squanto” was born about 1585 on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay.   His tribe, the Patuxet, were farmers, not hunters-and-gatherers.  Most of his life story is lost, with only occasional known facts.  He spent some time (probably years) in Spain (and probably at Malaga).  Somehow, he reached England.  He may have escaped to an English ship in the harbor.  He may have been bought or stolen by an English ship captain who knew of his employer’s interest in American colonization.  In any event, he spent enough time in London to learn English and see something of English society.

In 1618, the English merchant and colonizer Richard Slaney sent Squanto with an expedition to Newfoundland.  In 1619, Squanto talked an English captain into making an exploring voyage to Cape Cod Bay.  Home again, Squanto found himself virtually the “last of the Patuxets”: disease had destroyed his tribe.  Homeless and rootless, he declined to return with the captain.  However, he served as a translator and honest intermediary between his own people and the English.[1]

Then, in December 1620, the “Mayflower,” with the Pilgrims aboard, hove into sight on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay.  Having lost tribe and family, having learned English and met many Englishmen, Squanto soon moved into the Plymouth colony itself for almost two years.  He taught the colonists the rudiments of the fur trade.  This helped repay the debt to the company that had paid their passage—Plymouth was an “indentured colony.”  He taught them about Native American farming and crops.  Many of the seeds brought from England didn’t thrive in American soil.  He helped negotiate peace with surrounding tribes.  This minimized—for a time—“unfortunate incidents.”

Squanto died of what William Bradford described as an “Indian fever” in 1622.

[1] Some days later, a different group of Native Americans captured the English captain.  Eventually, he managed to escape and return home.  HA!

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