Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

3.6 The Uninvited Guest: Massasoit
November 30, 2008, 12:10 am
Filed under: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving? | Tags: , , ,

We are so used to the image of Native Americans sitting down with the Pilgrims as one of our national symbols of harmony during the holiday season—complete with grade school reenactments and costumes of Pilgrims and Indians—that few of us have questioned why the Wampanoag were at the meal in the first place.  We have always assumed they were gathering with the Pilgrims as good neighbors, rejoicing with them in their good fortune.

Massasoit smokes a peace pipe with Pilgrim leader John Carver, 1621

Massasoit smokes a peace pipe with Pilgrim leader John Carver, 1621

But the truth is, they probably weren’t even invited.  (At least not the entire retinue.)

No, if you remember Edward Winslow’s description of the event, their arrival is precipitated by something specific:  “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so we might after a special manner rejoice together…At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted…”

So, essentially, having guaranteed a famine-free winter for the Pilgrims, Governor Bradford declared there would be a party.  And one of the things the Pilgrim men did in celebration—in their infinite wisdom—was to fire off a bunch of guns.  In the colonial territories at that time, no doubt, the sound of repetitive firing of multiple muskets must have carried for some distance; hence the arrival of Massasoit with his 90 braves, who were there to investigate the situation (and not necessarily to crash the party.)  The Wampanoag were brought to Plymouth that day both by distrust as well as a political pact.  They were distrustful—and logically so—because they were concerned about what the discharge of such firepower might mean for them (were the Pilgrims launching an offensive?)  And the political pact drew them there because they owed the Pilgrims military support in case other Native American tribes were on the attack. (In return, the Wampanoag had the Pilgrims’ allegiance against the tribe’s sworn enemies, the Narragansett.)

One can only imagine what the Pilgrims must have thought when the Wampanoag arrived among them—quite unexpected and in numbers that dwarfed the colony’s own population (only 52 had survived the winter of 1620-21.)  Note that Edward Winslow declares that the Pilgrims “entertained and feasted” Massasoit and his associates for three days—so what has been historically interpreted as celebration, might as readily have been a placation.  It was incredibly important for the Pilgrims to keep their new allies happy.

But whether celebration or placation, the moment of unity was not to last.  One of Massasoit’s lasting legacies to the Pilgrims was approximately 40 years of relative peace in their new home.  However, the newcomers were quick to press their advantage with the Wampanoag.  They put lasting pressure on Massasoit for more and more land grants, which quickly began to absorb much of the valuable real estate in key tribal areas, challenging the Wampanoag lifestyle geographically.  During his lifetime, Massasoit complied with these requests, keen to keep the good graces of the white man who had previously left so much destruction in his wake.  And during the latter years of Massasoit’s life, the Pilgrims and their Puritan cousins in Massachusetts Bay colony also began to actively convert Native Americans to Christianity, threatening the Wampanoag way of life culturally.  It was an a symbolic assault on two fronts.

When Massasoit died in 1661, he was succeeded as sachem (chief) by his son, Wamsutta.  Wamsutta did not have long to reign, as he died quite suddenly during negotiations at the Plymouth Colony in 1662.  The next in the line of power within the family, Metacom, was not so favorable toward the colonists.  A witness to the expansion of white power under his father’s reign, and suspicious of his brother’s unexpected passing, Metacom led a rebellion against the colonists that became the bloodiest in American history (as a proportional percentage of the population killed.)  The war—called King Philip’s War (Metacom was known as “King Philip” by the Pilgrims) had a lasting impact on the Native American population in southern New England, almost eliminating multiple tribes completely. It also was a profound setback for the colonists’ expansion—many small and outlying towns had been completely destroyed during the 2 year conflict, and hundreds had been killed.

It’s a very unhappy ending to the Thanksgiving story.  But it is one we must constantly remember—because it reminds us how frail peace can be, and how quickly greed can destroy alliances.  And it reminds us that everything we have now was, in a sense, taken from someone else.

It’s an object lesson we have often forgotten during these 200+ years of our nationhood; even in recent times our political agenda has been about taking, endless taking.  But in this season of giving, as we look towards a new President, a new administration, a new foreign policy, let us hope that we can change.  Let us hope that we can invite the world to our table and this time, actually endeavor to give.       

3.2 The Man in the Middle: Squanto

He has been called the Ulysses of his day, an epic figure who was carried back and forth across the Atlantic many times, but who only ever wanted to get home.  A man who was, for better or for worse, at the whim of the fates, and who was a pivotal pawn in the strategic colonization of North America.  And his story has never been told properly; we have only seen him as the helper, the guide, the plant whisperer, the translator, the means to an end.  The man who unlocked the door for the Pilgrims.

That simplistic portrait ends here.  

Squanto, otherwise known as Tisquantum

Squanto, otherwise known as Tisquantum

The man we know as Squanto—or, more properly, Tisquantum–was born into the Patuxet tribe in the Wampanoag confederation, which occupied the area that is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.  As a young man, he and several other members of his tribe were taken from their home by Captain George Weymouth, as “show and tell” pieces to bring before English society.  Tisquantum, from what records show, then became affiliated with Sir Ferdinando Gorges (Weymouth’s employer) while in London, from whom he learned English—and was enlisted by Gorges to act as a translator and guide for explorers of the New World.

On an expedition with John Smith (of Pocahontas and Jamestown fame), Tisquantum was again abducted, this time by one of Smith’s own associates, and sold as a slave in Spain.  Rescued by Spanish friars, he managed to make his way to Newfoundland, where he was discovered by an a friend of his former owner (Ferdinando Gorges), and he was taken back into custody.  Upon his return to England and to Gorges, he was promised that after one last surveying mission of New England, he could go back to his tribe. 

It had been 15 years since he had last been with his family.

During that final mission, however, Tisquantum discovered a terrible tragedy:  that his entire tribe had been decimated by a plague.  He had become the last of his kind.


I should pause here to mention that these “plagues” among the Native Americans (the illnesses the Europeans brought over with them) were both known and celebrated by colonizing countries—they were seen as a useful tool in the conquest of the New World.  Before the Mayflower made its fateful journey, King James of England even praised the “Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us” for “this wonderful plague among the savages.” (see James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong)

In 1616-17, a great plague (speculated to have been smallpox) struck what is now New England, killing approximately 30-80% of Native American tribes living in the area.  The plague was, apparently, idiosyncratic, wiping out entire villages in some cases and leaving others relatively untouched (such as Massasoit’s tribe, which was relatively close to Tisquantum’s.)


Who can know what Tisquantum thought when he was sent as an emissary to the colonists by Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag, and encountered these Englishmen and women upon the land of his people (for the colonists had, of course, settled in “Plymouth”–what was formerly Patuxet)?  Nevertheless, regardless of his own feelings, he negotiated peace on that March day in 1621, guaranteeing that neither Wampanoag nor colonist would attack one another, and that they would come to one another’s aid should there be an outside threat.

Tisquantum then stayed among the colonists, befriending them and becoming their most pivotal associate.  It was his help that allowed them to survive, and even thrive, after their first very difficult winter in New England.  That First Thanksgiving would not have been possible without his mentorship.  As William Bradford (Plymouth Colony governor) described, Squanto was “…a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.  He 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.” (Loewen, 84).

But for Tisquantum, playing the middle between two uneasy neighbor/foes was not a safe place to be.  For despite their pious and hardworking image, the Pilgrims were no angels.  For years after their arrival, they were known to steal seed and tools from Native American graves, even when they understood they were desecrating the sacred spaces of their neighbors.  They were also known to steal occasionally from the living among the tribes; and regarded such actions as God simply intervening for their benefit.  And this only contributed further to the distrust the Wampanoag had in the Pilgrims–Pilgrims who were, after all, white people.  And white people left disease and destruction in their wake.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Tisquantum was ultimately regarded as a traitor by the Wampanoags and other Native American tribes because of his close associations with the Pilgrims.  As the “enabler” of the settlers, he was helping them to gain a foothold in the New World.  But neither was Tisquantum entirely guiltless in earning such a reputation;  apparently, he used his strength as an interpreter and ally of the Pilgrims to his own gain, increasing his power and prestige by threatening other Native Americans with the Pilgrims’ plague (he claimed the Pilgrims had it stored under their homes in barrels.)

Such acts, and other suggested betrayals, may have cost him his life.  He died, quite suddenly, in 1623, from an acute fever that featured heavy bleeding from the nose—some have even speculated that he may have been poisoned.

But regardless of how he met his end, it is important to see Tisquantum beyond the simple portrait that has been painted of him in the history books: as a humble sidekick to the Pilgrims, or as the great betrayer of the Native Americans.  The truth is, he was neither.  Instead, he was a product of his life circumstances:  a former slave; a linguist; an international traveler; a loner; an orphan; and a citizen of the world in a way that no Pilgrim ever could have been (or, for that matter, in a way that few of us are now.)  And there is no doubt that these circumstances must have shaped his personality and world view.  For there was absolutely no one like him:  while he spoke English, knew English custom, and had lived in London for years, he did not look English, and would never be an Englishman.  And although he looked like his Native American neighbors, and spoke their language and knew their customs, because he knew the ways of the white man and had lived among them, he would never be completely of the tribe. 

Strangely enough, it was by occupying this in-between place, by serving as the ultimate “other,” that Tisquantum made all things possible for the Pilgrims.  For he, too, had been a stranger in a strange land; he had lived among the Europeans for a great part of his life–and perhaps that allowed him to understand the colonists a bit better than his Native American kin.

So as you tuck in to your Turkey dinner on Thursday, unlatch your belt, and go back for seconds, spare a thought for Squanto.  And raise your glass to a misunderstood man; a man who was alone; a man whose fate collided with history; a man in the middle.