Comments Off on Squanto

His name was Tisquantum and he was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe of coastal Massachusetts.

The English colonists, who got to know him well, could never pronounce his name correctly.  They called him Squanto.  It’s safe to say that apart from him we wouldn’t be celebrating a Pilgrim-themed Thanksgiving today.

Historians assure us that the familiar story of the 1620 establishment of Plymouth Colony has been, to put it gently, somewhat embellished over the years.

The Mayflower almost certainly landed in a sheltered cove, not near the boulder that is currently known as Plymouth Rock.  No one aboard seems to have noticed the big rock; no one’s journal, at least, makes any mention of it.

The 102 colonists who stepped ashore didn’t call themselves Pilgrims, either.  They were the Saints.  The word “Pilgrim” didn’t come into play for another 200 years.  The professional sailors who manned the Mayflower had another name for their passengers: puke stockings.  Apparently a lot of the former ended up on a lot of the latter.  It was a rough voyage, and no one had yet dreamed up Dramamine. 

For that matter, the colonists weren’t exactly prepared for their new life on the ground, either.  Social historian Bill Bryson writes:

“It would be difficult to imagine a group of people more ill-suited to a life in the wilderness.  They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey.  One William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and thirteen pairs of boots.  Yet they failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line.”

The Saints knew next to nothing about hunting, fishing, clearing property, or growing their own food.  Almost half of them died during the first hard winter. 

By spring, when the Mayflower set sail again for England, there were only 54 colonists left.  Half of those were children.  The starvation of the entire colony seemed likely.

That’s when Squanto, who was about 30 years old, suddenly appeared near the edge of the forest.  He was accompanied by another native American named Samoset.  To the everlasting astonishment of the Pilgrims, Samoset and Squanto greeted them.  In English.  While Samoset knew a little of the colonists’ language, Squanto spoke fluently.  How was this possible?

As a teenager Squanto had been kidnapped by a passing English ship captain.  Taken to England as a kind of show-and-tell object, he quickly learned the English tongue.

During a second transatlantic crossing he was kidnapped again, this time by Spaniards who hoped to sell him into slavery.  Some Spanish Franciscan friars learned of Squanto’s plight and rescued him from his captors.  Under their tutelage he became a Christian. 

Ultimately Squanto managed to return to his homeland, only to discover that the vast majority of his fellow tribe members had been wiped out by a plague, probably smallpox.  Now – without a family, without a tribe, but trusting that God had a purpose for his life – Squanto offered his assistance to the fledging colony. 

He negotiated peace treaties with other tribes to ensure the colonists’ survival.  He taught them how to hunt, fish, and plant corn.  He introduced the settlers to many of the 2,000 different foods enjoyed at that time by coastal native Americans – a greater culinary variety than the richest European had ever imagined. 

Of course the most perfect Thanksgiving food, Cool Whip, was still a few centuries away.

We must be oh-so-cautious whenever we use the word “miracle.”  Miracles, by definition, are extraordinary intersections of time, place, and provision.  They don’t happen very often.

But even secular historians use the “M” word when recounting the story of Squanto. 

How is it possible that an English-speaking, faith-embracing, servant-hearted native American warrior appears at just the right moment to preserve Plymouth Colony?

His story is a reminder, in the midst of today’s COVID restrictions, football games, and yearning for Aunt Edith’s sweet potato pie, that there really is Someone to thank.

And every reason to put our heartfelt thanks into words.