Thanksgiving Day History: Remembering Tisquantum (Squanto), Samoset, and Massasoit

Updated on November 26, 2019
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New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Below deck on the Mayflower: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris in 1899
Below deck on the Mayflower: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris in 1899 | Source

The Mayflower Compact

Some might say that the Thanksgiving story begins in Leiden, Holland, where a small band of religious dissidents were making a meager living in the thriving, industrial city. However, the leaders of the group were not satisfied with the state of affairs in the Dutch country, so they returned to England where they believed they might find passage to the New World.

Three years later in 1620, this group realized their dream and crossed the Atlantic on a small ship named the Mayflower. Unfortunately, they landed hundreds of miles north of their original destination. All alone on the tip of Cape Cod, the leaders decided it would be best if they drew up a written agreement loosely defining a few principles of group loyalty and self-government.

The resulting Mayflower Compact was a binding, written document that was signed by the adult male passengers of the Mayflower after they landed hundreds of miles north of their original destination. In a small natural harbor near what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod, these men drew up a document defining a most basic form of self-government that would remain in effect until the colonists could establish communications with the fledgling New England jurisdiction.

The Mayflower II is an exact replica of the original Mayflower, constructed between 1955 and 1957 in Devon, England.
The Mayflower II is an exact replica of the original Mayflower, constructed between 1955 and 1957 in Devon, England. | Source

The Strange Life and Times of Squanto

Other people might say that the Thanksgiving story began in North America during the first years of the 17th century when a score of Indian men were captured off the coast of New England by English adventurers and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain. One of those men was named Tisquantum. Today, he is more commonly known today as Squanto, the Massachusetts Indian who helped the new settlers at the Plymouth colony.

Squanto's life in Spain might have been harsh and cruel, but with the help of Spanish friars, he managed to escape to England, where he was treated well and eventually learned to speak the English language. Later on, Tisquantum was hired out as a guide and an interpreter to an English ship that was headed back across the Atlantic. By the time the Mayflower ventured to the New World in 1620, Tisquantum had traversed the Atlantic three times.

The first encounter between Samoset and the Pilgrims, as pictured by a modern illustrator
The first encounter between Samoset and the Pilgrims, as pictured by a modern illustrator | Source

The First Encounter: Too Bizarre to Be a Lie

During the first winter at Plymouth, half of the new settlers perished. Then, on a cold and windy March day, a young, bold American Indian brave walked unannounced into the Plymouth settlement. Even more surprising was the fact that the first words that came from the Native's mouth were in English.

The Native man's name was Samoset and he wanted to know if the Pilgrims had any beer. This request sounds much stranger to someone living in the 21st century than it would to a person traveling overseas on a 17th-century sailing ship. In those days, most sailing ships carried many kegs of beer along with the supply of water. The beer was for drinking, while the water was for washing and other necessary tasks. The reason sailors and travelers drank beer instead of water was that it is less prone to infection and thus cleaner.

Monhegan is a rocky island with a small, natural harbor, located off the coast of Maine. Painting by Rockwell Kent
Monhegan is a rocky island with a small, natural harbor, located off the coast of Maine. Painting by Rockwell Kent

Who Was Samoset?

Samoset was not from the Massachusetts Bay region. Instead, he lived on a large island located off the coast of Maine, called Monhegan Island. Because of its strategic geographic location, this rocky, inhabited isle had been a stopping place for sailing ships since the Englishman, Martin Pring, first set foot on the island in 1603. It was from the infrequent visits of European sailors and fishermen that Samoset had learned a few words of English and acquired a taste for beer.

Samoset was of the Abanaki nation and had come to the Massachusetts region in 1620 to spend the winter with his friend, Massasoit, who was an important sachem of the Wampanoag people. Samoset was the first Native American to make contact with the Pilgrims. Furthermore, he was most important in introducing them to Squanto and Massasoit, two Native men who would be instrumental to the survival of the Europeans.

Squanto

Since no actual portrait exists, there are many contemporary likenesses of Squanto.
Since no actual portrait exists, there are many contemporary likenesses of Squanto. | Source

Squanto

With his excellent command of the English language, Squanto was invaluable to the survival of the pilgrims. From him, they learned how to feed themselves in the New World. Unfortunately, many historians believe that Squanto abused his new-found power and sense of importance. Sadly, Squanto died in 1622, just one year after being introduced to the pilgrims from a common malaise known as Indian fever.

Massasoit wearing the red horseman's coat that he was given as a gift in the spring of 1621 by Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins on behalf of the Plymouth colonists—painting courtesy of Ruth DeWilde-Major
Massasoit wearing the red horseman's coat that he was given as a gift in the spring of 1621 by Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins on behalf of the Plymouth colonists—painting courtesy of Ruth DeWilde-Major

Massasoit

Massasoit was a powerful Wampanoag chieftain who was instrumental in maintaining a peace between the local Indians and the religious refugees from England. Like the pilgrims, Massasoit's people had suffered huge losses in the years preceding the arrival of the Mayflower. The peace that was created between Massasoit and the Pilgrims was more like a mutual defense treaty. This agreement worked because groups were small and were threatened by the same enemies, most notably the Narraganset and Nauset Indians. When Massasoit died in 1661, the peace fell apart very quickly.

Divine Guidance

Both the local Native Americans and the Pilgrims believed that some kind of divine power had guided the newcomers to their unlikely landfall at Plymouth. To Massasoit and the Wampanoags, it was no mere coincidence that the sailing vessel had landed right next to a village that had been wiped out by the smallpox epidemic. Because of this belief as well as a need for allies in the fight against their Native enemies, Massasoit and his fellow tribesmen were able to live peaceably with the pilgrims. This situation continued until the day that Massasoit died.

For the Pilgrims, it was a great disappointment not to have arrived at the Virginia colony, where the weather and climate were much warmer and similar to the British Isles. However, as time went on and they learned of the difficulties encountered by the Virginia colonists, they also began to realize that perhaps they had been delivered to a better place by an unseen hand.

Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief, was also known as King Phillip.
Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief, was also known as King Phillip.

King Philip Destroys the Peace

After Massasoit died, his second eldest son, Metacomet (also called Phillip), became the leader of the Wampanoag. Under the leadership of Phillip, the peace between the English settlers and the local New England Indians gradually deteriorated, leading to armed conflict fourteen years later. During the first years of his tribal leadership, King Philip saw the English colony grow substantially in size. As more colonists arrived from England, encroachment upon the Indian settlements was inevitable.

The result was King Phillip's War, a military conflict lead by Massasoit's son Metacomet. During the war, the Wampanoag and their Indian allies were badly defeated and as a result they lost most of their land holdings in New England.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2015 Harry Nielsen

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