In 1624, England was hungry for news from its colonies and Edward Winslow provided it. His Good Newse From New England told of the first year of the Mayflower pilgrims in Plymouth, and he relayed the remarkable story of one of the era’s great statesmen: Tisquantum.
Tisquantum, also called Squanto, was a Patuxet Indian who literally saved the fledgling colony at Plymouth from destruction, and in May of 1622 he was nearing the end of his long and strange life.
Tisquantum had been taken (probably against his will) to England in 1605 by explorers mapping the New England coast. He learned to speak English and made a return trip to New England in 1614 with explorer John Smith.
Following that, he was captured again and taken to Spain, where he was to be sold into slavery. But he cleverly joined up with Catholic friars who converted him and dispatched him once again to England. In 1619, he finally talked his way into a new expedition to New England.
It was hoped by the English that Tisquantum would mediate disagreements with the New England Indian tribes. What they discovered, however, was that there was little need as the tribes of New England, especially the Patuxets, had been decimated by a plague.
Researchers have suggested that the plague was so potent because it came from Europe and the North American Indians had no immunity to it.
With his knowledge of the language and customs of both the English and the American Indians, Tisquantum became immediately influential, especially in making peace with tribal leader Massasoit, which he helped accomplish.
In truth, neither the Indians nor the British held the animus against the other that they each suspected. Tisquantum fueled the mistrust, while at the same time promoting efforts toward peace – all the while enriching himself. And one of his techniques was to tell the Indians that the English controlled the plague and could use it as a weapon whenever they wished.
As Winslow explained:
“Here let me not omit one notable (though wicked) practice of this Tisquantum, who to the end he might possess his Countrymen with the greater fear of us, and so consequently of himself, told them we had the plague buried in our store-house, which at our pleasure we could send forth to what place or people we would, and destroy them therewith, though we stirred not from home.”
When Massasoit learned, through another interpreter, that this was not the case, he became enraged at Tisquantum. For these and other tricks, Massasoit demanded the colonists hand Tisquantum over and he would be executed.
In the end, William Bradford avoided handing Tisquantum over. Though obligated to do so by treaty – negotiated in part by Tisquantum himself – Tisquantum benefited from the arrival of a ship. Bradford demurred sending Tisquantum to Massasoit until he learned the nature of the ship, which he feared might be a sign of some conspiracy between the French and Indians. And Massasoit never raised the issue again.
Tisqantum would die within the year, however, on a trip with Bradford to trade for corn seed. He grew sick and died. Some researchers suspect he was poisoned by the Indians he and Bradford were trading with.