Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Squanto: A Coincidental Life, Part 2

In part one of this post seen here I commented that I believe certain people and events are placed in our paths for very definite reasons. I like to tell students the true story behind Squanto because his story provides opportunities to look at myth versus fact as well as issues of character. For many years Squanto bounced back and forth between Europe and New England mostly through no choice of his own, however, his experience, tragic as it is, served a very real purpose. Each life lesson Squanto experienced was filed away in his toolbelt to be pulled out later when it was needed. I like to teach students they all have their own toolbelts as well.

When we last left Squanto he had finally arrived back on his home shores to discover every member of his village had been wiped out by a plague.

Historians love to banter over which type of plague raced through native villages during 1616-1619, but the important item for my use with students is Squanto was the last Patuxet left. His village had been abandoned, everything left idle as it was the day the last tribal member had succumbed to disease.

For a time Squanto resided with the Pokanokets at the invitation of Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation.

In 1620, however, the Mayflower arrived with men, women, and children. Their original destination had been Virginia, but a storm blew them off course. John Smith had previously explored and mapped this region and is credited with naming the area Plymouth. When a landing party finally went ashore to scope things out they found an abandoned village and decided it would be an ideal location for settlement since it was already cleared.

It was several months before the Native American known as Samoset finally walked into Plymouth and greeted the Pilgrims. It was on his third visit to Plymouth on March 22, 1621 that he brought Squanto with him. Squanto was amazed that Plymouth was located exactly where his home village had been. The Patuxet village had now become home to the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims used these initial visits with Samoset and later with Squanto to improve trade relations and to formalize a peace treaty.

Squanto decides to stay with the Pilgrims. His knowledge of the surrounding lands proved to be the saving force of the colony. Squanto showed the Pilgrims where the most fish and eels could be found as well which berries and nuts were edible. He is credited with teaching the Pilgrims the ways of the Patuxet including their practice of planting beans and corn together. The bean plant shaded the corn roots and kept the ground moist while the corn plant provided a stake for the bean plant to cling to. Squanto remembered as a boy he was instructed to place three fish inside the hill of soil where the corn and beans were planted in order to provide fertilizer for the soil. It was beneficial for Massasoit to leave Squanto with the Pilgrims because he could let the Wampanoag Federation know what the Plymouth settlers were up to.

Squanto’s information paid off for the Pilgrims because they were able to celebrate their harvest….the same one we have turned into our traditional American Thanksgiving. Massasoit along with 90 braves brought five deer. The feasting lasted for three days.

The Pilgrims greatly appreciated Squanto’s knowledge. Squanto reprised his profession of translator and guide with the settlers as he helped them on many expeditions into the countryside “to discover and view [Massachusetts] bay and trade with ye natives…partly to see the country, partly to make peace with them, and partly to procure their trucke, or barter” per Miles Standish. At one point when Squanto was away visiting a local village he was attacked by Chief Corbitant of the Mattapoinset and Pocasset tribes. Records pertaining to Miles Standish indicate many Pilgrim men set out immediately upon finding out Squanto was in distress to “rescue him if he were alive or to punish Corbitant if he had been killed.”

Naturally both the Native Americans and the English trusted Squanto. Both sides left records indicating that later on Squanto used his knowledge of living in both worlds to his advantage to gain even more power and respect. He knew his fellow natives were scared of further plague. He invented a story to tell the natives that the English had buried the plague in barrels under their storehouse. Squanto attempted to control the natives by telling them he would release the plague unless they did what he told them to.

At another point Squanto was accused of attempting to spread rumors of a conspiracy involving Massasoit. Rumors were being spread that an attack by members of the Wampanoag Federation were eminent and Massasoit was involved. The rumors had one source….Squanto. He was hauled before the English court but was found innocent probably because he “had friends at court” per the diary of Miles Standish. Massasoit demanded custody of Squanto many times since Wampanoag custom demanded Squanto’s death, but the English refused knowing what the outcome would be. This clearly violated the treaty the English had with Massasoit, but Squanto’s capabilities were invaluable to the Pilgrims.

During a foraging trip on the south ocean side of Cape Code Squanto became ill in November, 1622. Many accounts differ regarding exactly what was wrong but they all agree that Squanto began to bleed from the nose and was soon dead.

In his history, Of Plimoth Plantation Bradford states, “their interpreter and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He Squanto continued with them and was directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”

Last week before our break I showed a great video to my all of my students, even my Languages Arts kiddies. It’s a common problem in elementary schools that there are not enough videos to go around and commonly you present something students have seen over and over every year. I never have a problem with this video. It sort of mystifies because it so good, and opens the door for many avenues of discussion. The video is based on the book Squanto and the First Thanksgiving by Eric Metaxes and consists of pictures from the book with Graham Green narrating it. The music, the wonderful artwork, and the haunting voice of Mr. Green really draws students into the story. You can get more information about the video including a video clip and audio clip here. The video tells the basics. It doesn’t go into many of the extra details I have shared with you, but students learn of the odyssey Squanto goes through in an attempt to get back home. They learn how by coincidence the Pilgrims ended up where they did and settle on land that Squanto grew up on.

After the video we talked about all the bad things Squanto had gone through….how scared he must have been, how angry, how confused at being someone who had lived in both worlds, and how that knowledge caused him to be used by both worlds, and at one point even corrupted him. Many of the kids I teach have had terrible things happen to them and within their families. They see things at nine years old I didn’t know about until I was in my twenties. My point in our “after video discussion” was bad things happen to everyone…….it’s how you allow those bad things to interact with your character that makes a difference.

Every moment of our lives, the fantastic times and the horrible times, are part of a dress rehersal to be recalled during the actual performance when we are needed to do our part. Squanto is an exemplary portrait of someone who understood his role in the dual society he lived in, and he is a valuable American hero to share with students of all ages.


CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Thank you for this intimate portrait of an exemplary American. I, for one, need to be reminded (over and over, it seems)that both the good and the bad times are molding my character and making me fit for service. As you might have guessed from reading my "mountain man" post, I have often felt that I was born in the wrong century. Kerosene lanterns and soapstones heated at the hearth are more congenial to me than fluorescent lights and electric blankets. I'd rather grow (or forage for!) my own food than buy it at the supermarket. But your story of Squanto, a man caught between two worlds, reminds me that, for reasons often inscrutable to me, I am in the right place at the right time. May I be quick to seize the opportunities to help others that come my way!

EHT said...

You're welcome, CTG! I really enjoyed sharing this hero from history with my kids and couldn't help but share the experience here.

Anonymous said...
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O said...

Hi! Great story about Squanto! I'm an Electrical Engineer & Rotarian, who does Rotary Reader with third graders. So I was looking for an account of Squanto, since I heard a great deal about Squanto from the book 1492. Just thought I'd note that the Black Plague involved a cycle of infection involving open sewers, rats, fleas & people. Certainly, few open sewers & rats were to be found in North America at the time. The more likely culprits of contagion were small pox and viral hepatitis. The viral hepatitis may no longer exist. Reference the book 1492. On the web, an account summarizing the information in 1492 is at


Thanks again for your wonderful account of Squanto! ;^)

--Dr. Larry J. Paden

EHT said...

Hi, Dr. Paden. Thanks so much for your comment and useful link. It is greatly appreciated.