Tisquantum: A Native American Horticulturalist Rescues the Pilgrims

Part 2: The Plymouth colony


A Pawtuxet Wampanoag Indian named Tisquantum may very well have been the first American ambassador.

His story begins during the summer of 1605, when British sailors under the command of Captain George Weymouth, who had been commissioned by colonial entrepreneur Sir Ferdinando Gorges, kidnapped him, along with four other Native American boys, and brought them to England. In his diary, Weymouth wrote, “We used little delay, but suddenly laid hands upon them. … For they were strong and so naked as our best hold was by their long hair on their heads.”

Once in England, Tisquantum remained in Weymouth’s care and custody. And it’s assumed that Weymouth taught the boy to speak English. For reasons unknown, Weymouth called him by an abbreviation of his true name. “Squanto,” as he came to be known, shared his knowledge of the “new world” and, when a fleet of two ships returned to the coast of Massachusetts in 1614, served as an interpreter under the command of Captains John Smith and Thomas Hunt.

He served his captains honorably but was betrayed by Hunt, who had his men kidnap some 20 young Pawtuxets and seven Nausets. They were taken to Malaga, Spain, where Hunt attempted to sell them, and Tisquantum, into slavery. Many were sold before Hunt was foiled by a group of Franciscan monks, who took custody of those that remained in order to, according to a report by Gorges, “instruct them in the Christian faith, disappointing this unworthy fellow of the hopes of gain he conceived to make by this new and devilish plot.”

The kidnappings so infuriated the tribes living along the New England coast that they no longer welcomed European traders. Their rage culminated in the burning of a French ship in 1617. Much of the crew was killed, and by some accounts, the Nauset enslaved the others.

Around the same time, the monks were visited by an Englishman who agreed to take Tisquantum back to England, where he was placed in the care of Sir John Slaney, a wealthy merchant who had Tisquantum accompany him as a guide and translator on an expedition to Newfoundland. There Tisquantum was recognized by Captain Thomas Dermer, who wrote to Gorges, affirming that he had “found Gorges’ Indian.” Dermer took Tisquantum back to England once more, where Gorges, in hopes of renewing trade with the Pawtuxet and Nauset tribes, arranged for an expedition back to Pawtuxet, where Tisquantum would be allowed to remain.

When they dropped anchor in 1619, Tisquantum learned that a plague introduced by European explorers (most likely smallpox, tuberculosis, yellow fever or a combination thereof) had taken the lives of, by some narratives, as many as 90% of the indigenous people of southern New England, including everyone in his tribe.

Now the last of the Pawtuxets, Tisquantum lived among the remaining Massasoit Wampanoag until late March of 1621, when he learned from Samoset, an Abenaki sagamore (chief), of immigrants establishing a colony on the site where his village once stood. Tisquantum set out to meet with them.

That spring and summer, he assisted them in their negotiations with native leaders. But it was, perhaps, through his horticultural skills and knowledge of the region’s natural resources that he proved himself indispensable to the foreigners’ survival.

They planted wheat they’d brought from England, but it didn’t grow. So Tisquantum taught them how to propagate corn from seed provided by native friends, and how to increase their food production by utilizing the remains of fish as fertilizer for their crops. He showed them where to find edible berries and other wild edible fruit, and how they could be cultivated. He led them to areas of the forest abundant with game, and to brooks, ponds, bays and coastal areas teeming with fish.

Plymouth colony Governor William Bradford wrote in his manuscript, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” “He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities. Squanto continued with them, was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

In the fall of 1622, Tisquantum negotiated with the Indians of what is now Chatham Harbor for provisions needed to get newly arriving colonists through the oncoming winter. But upon leaving, Bradford wrote, “Squanto fell sick of Indian fever.” Within a few days, he was dead.

Bradford also wrote that Tisquantum, before he died, asked the governor to “pray for him that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven” and that certain possessions be bequeathed as gifts to his English friends, who considered his death “a great loss.”

If one of your ancestors was aboard the Mayflower, it’s more than likely that you wouldn’t be here today if not for Tisquantum.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)