Thanksgiving Squanto 'true story' marked by slavery and treachery, says historian

Wampanoag author and historian Linda Jeffers Coombs outlines the darker history behind Squanto, known as the Indigenous guide who helped the English Pilgrims.

The enslavement of Indigenous peoples 'was very widespread,' says Linda Jeffers Coombs

A sculpture of Squanto appears in a display case at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, in Plymouth, Mass., Nov. 15, 2005. Squanto is said to be the sole survivor of Patuxet, a band of the Wampanoag tribe that lived on what would become Plymouth, Mass. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

The American Thanksgiving story many may be familiar with goes something like this: the English Pilgrims settle in the New World, meet a "friendly" Indigenous guide named Squanto who teaches them to plant corn, and together, they celebrate their first harvest. 

But that's the "mythologized version" of Squanto, according to Linda Jeffers Coombs, author and historian from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in Massachusetts.

"To many Wampanoag or Native people generally, he's seen as a traitor. But even that doesn't get at his entire story," Coombs told Unreserved host Falen Johnson.

The real story behind Squanto, also known as Tisquantum, is complicated. Very little is known about Squanto's early years, but historians generally agree he was a member of the Patuxet, a band of the Wampanoag Tribe that lived on what would become Plymouth, Mass.

He acted as an interpreter and guide to the pilgrim settlers at Plymouth during their first winter and "he was, to the English, a good guy," said Coombs, who is also on the board of directors for Plymouth 400, which is organizing events in the U.S. to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of Plymouth colony. 

'Widespread' enslavement

Though there are varying versions of Squanto's story, historians seem to agree that prior to the pilgrims' settling in 1620, Squanto was captured by English explorers in 1614 and sold into slavery in Europe. He spent a number of years in England where he learned English.

The enslavement of Indigenous people "was very widespread," persisting throughout the 17th century, according to Coombs. She pointed to King Philip's War of 1675, the bloody conflict that pitted Indigenous people in New England against the English colonists.

Linda Jeffers Coombs, author and historian from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in Massachusetts, says Squanto eventually made it back to Patuxet in 1619 only to find his tribe wiped out by an epidemic brought over by the Europeans. (Submitted by Linda Jeffers Coombs)

According to a 2017 study by Brown University's Linford D. Fisher, New England colonies routinely shipped Indigenous people as slaves to parts of the Caribbean and other regions during the war, clearing land for colonists to claim.

The exact number of people who were enslaved is unknown, but Fisher estimates that between 1492 and 1880, "between 2 and 5.5 million Native Americans were enslaved in the Americas, in addition to 12.5 million African slaves."

Those figures are echoed by scholar and historian Andrés Reséndez, who told NPR he estimates "2.5 to 5 million Native Americans [were] enslaved throughout the Americas since Columbus to 1900."

Squanto eventually made it back to Patuxet in 1619, says Coombs, only to find his tribe wiped out by an epidemic brought over by the Europeans. It is not known what caused this widespread death and devastation. Varying theories include smallpox, yellow fever, bubonic plague and influenza. 

The disease affected about four different nations, destroying entire populations, according to Coombs.

He literally stepped off the ship and was looking at broken down homes ... and bones were literally strewn all over the place.- Linda Jeffers Coombs

Between 1616 and 1618, Coombs says the Wampanoag nation was made up of 69 villages with an average of about 1,000 people per village. She estimates about 50,000 people died in two years. 

"As far as we know," said Coombs, "Squanto was the only survivor [of the Patuxet band]."

"So when he came home in 1619, he literally stepped off the ship and was looking at broken down homes, overgrown cornfields, and bones were literally strewn all over the place."

Liaison between colonists and Indigenous people

Upon his return, Coombs says Squanto used his knowledge of the English language to act as an interpreter between the colonists and Indigenous people.

In 1621, Wampanoag Chief Massasoit — with Squanto's aid — negotiated an agreement with the pilgrims, promising not to harm each other and to come to each other's aid in the event of an attack from another tribe.

Illustration depicting Squanto, serving as guide and interpreter for the English Pilgrims at the Plymouth colony, circa 1621. (Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A number of historians say Squanto was seen as power hungry and manipulated the fear and distrust still lingering between the colonists and the Indigenous people. 

"He's portrayed in certain recent histories as vying with Massasoit to become sachem [Indigenous leader]," said Coombs.

Squanto's claims that Massasoit had been plotting to attack the English was exposed as a lie, angering the Wampanoag people, says Coombs.

According to the terms of their agreement, for that offence, Squanto should have been turned over to Massasoit, says Coombs, but the colonists refused.

As a result of what many considered an act of treason, Squanto was shunned by the Wampanoag. In 1622, Squanto would fall ill with fever and die a few days later.

"As far as the myth goes, he was the good guy because he could speak English," said Coombs.

"He did show the English how to plant corn using herring or fish as a fertilizer. That much we know … and whether or not he was actually there to help them harvest or see them through the summer of tending to the gardens or whatnot, we don't know."

Coombs has been working with educators and teachers to tell the "true" story of Squanto.

"I have seen teachers wanting to know the history, the true history, what actually happened … and they want to impart accurate information, not myths and fairy tales to the kids.

"And for the most part, I found people to be willing to hear all of the tough stuff that has happened because it's not a pretty history."