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The unsung Thanksgiving hero

He gets the passing mention in the Thanksgiving Day story as he is often credited with helping the Pilgrims survive their early winters in the harsh New England climate.  But that doesn’t begin to do justice to the story of Squanto.  Historians, given some latitude for the lack of records, believe that Tisquantum, better known to our history as Squanto, was born between 1585 and 1592.  History offers the Squanto story as that of a good natured Indian who humbly helped the Pilgrims in their early days in America.  That’s true, as far as it goes, but there is a lot more to the tale of Squanto than most people realize.

By the time the Pilgrims arrived in modern day Massachusetts, Squanto had already crossed the Atlantic four times.  He spoke fluent English, some Spanish, as well as several Indian dialects.  How a local Indian, who for the good fortune of the Pilgrims managed to be there to greet them, managed to be so learned and traveled is the stuff of legend.  Except, it’s not legend.  

In 1604, Squanto, not far from where the Pilgrims would land 16 years later, was returning to his village and was kidnapped by one of John Smith’s officers.  He was taken to Malaga in Spain to be sold as a slave.  But that wasn’t his fate.  Some Spanish monks heard his story and for reasons lost to time agreed to arrange his freedom.  His next stop, having found passage to England, was London.  He lived there for several years working for a shipbuilder named John Newsome.  

The next chapter, thanks to his friendship with Newsome, was as a member of an expedition to Newfoundland.  He had hoped that when he got to North America he could arrange transport south to his home in New England.  But, that didn’t happen and he had to return to England.  It wouldn’t be until 1619 that Squanto finally came back to his home.

The Pilgrims must have been awestruck in 1620 to meet a Native American who not only knew their language but was already more worldly and traveled than most of the new arrivals.

Squanto, more than most of the histories of the Pilgrims acknowledge, was probably the difference between life and death for the new colonists.  They were hopelessly unready for their adventure.

Most, if not all would have died had Squanto not taught them how to fish, hunt game, and how to grow corn.  He also, with the skill of a modern diplomat, negotiated a general peace with the local tribes.  This was a challenging undertaking, but the Pilgrims, unlike those that would follow, were surprisingly good at keeping their word to the Indians.  The peace negotiated by Squanto would only end when the last of the original Pilgrims had passed away.

Squanto died shortly after his last diplomatic mission in 1621, but it’s safe to say, that if the Pilgrims and Squanto not met there would have be no traditional American Thanksgiving tale to tell.  

So, across the years, a Happy Thanksgiving and thank you is owed to the Pilgrims long ago savior, Squanto.

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