Samoset, Massasoit, and Tisquantum, or Squanto, were three indigenous men who played a key role when the Mayflower first landed in Massachusetts. "1620: Beyond Thanksgiving" is produced by NBC News Learn in partnership with NBC 10 Boston/NECN.
Who Were Samoset, Massasoit, Squanto?
MORGAN RADFORD, reporting:
We all know about Thanksgiving in America today– food, family, and football games. But what often gets left out of the story is the role played by the local Wampanoag Nation. They were watching when the Mayflower first landed on Cape Cod. Curious about their intentions in Wampanoag territory, they sent a man named Samoset.
KERRI HELME (Plimoth Plantation/Mashpee Wampanoag): Samoset was actually a sachem, or a chief, of the Abenaki people up in Maine. We don't know why he was in Plymouth. So, there's very little we do know about him. But we do know that his name means "he walks the line," which is pretty cool.
RADFORD: Samoset first visited the English while they were still building their settlement, calling it Plymouth. He surprises them by saying “Hello” -- in English.
HELME: We don't know exactly how Samoset knew how to speak English, but most likely it was from fishermen who were heavily fishing the coast of Maine.
DARIUS COOMBS (Plimoth Plantation/Mashpee Wampanoag): They actually sit him down, they give him something to drink, some food. He tells them about the area, "This is Patuxet."
RADFORD: Samoset explains that the village of Patuxet was one of many in the Wampanoag Nation that had been wiped out by a plague a few years earlier. He leaves the English and returns with a local leader named Massasoit.
HELME: Massasoit, or Ousamequin. Massasoit is his title. Massa in our language means "great" or "big," like Massachusetts, "place of the great hills." Massasoit means "great leader." His name, Ousamequin, "Yellow Feather." He was the sachem, or chief of the Pokanoket Wampanoag people, one of the original 69 communities. He is also in a community that bordered Narragansett territory. And after the plague swept through and the Wampanoags were so greatly affected, whereas the Narragansetts were not, the Narragansetts were moving to absorb the Wampanoag people into the Narragansett nation. So, Massasoit thought it was in the best interest of his people to sign a peace treaty with the colonists as allies against Narragansett encroachment.
RADFORD: So, the English and the Wampanog enter a treaty that would protect both groups in from their enemies.
COOMBS: I don't know if you want to call Massasoit one of the first politicians back then when the colonists landed, but he knew what he had to do to protect his people.
RADFORD: Massasoit spoke some English, but he relied on one person to tell the English what the Wampanoag's needed. His name was Squanto.
COOMBS: Squanto has something very special, right. He knew about both cultures. He knew about English culture, and he knew about his own culture.
HELME: Tisquantum, who most people know as Squanto, was a Patuxet Wampanoag person. He had been kidnapped, and he was in Europe when the plague swept through from 1616 to 1618. With the help of an Englishman named Thomas Dermer he was able to make his way back to Patuxet, where he found his whole community was decimated. I think it's easy to feel for him, you know, everyone he knew was gone.
COOMBS: Squanto comes to live amongst the English sometime in the spring of 1621, and that's when Squanto taught the English how to plant corn. He sticks around because that's another form of diplomacy, you think about it. It's a new homeland, new land for them, you know. So, the first thing you got to think about, "How do I get food? Sure, I can fish. But I'm thinking about getting vegetables too." Squanto taught them how to do that. He spends a lot of time with the English. He is considered to be the English's tongue, their voice.
HELME: But a lot of people didn't know that Tisquantum was also a little bit of a troublemaker. He would use the fact that he could speak English to his own advantage. And he would visit Wampanoag communities and say things like, "The English at Plymouth, they keep the diseases we're so terrified of and have no immunities to buried underneath the floorboards of their store house. You better give me gifts to appease them or else they're going to dig them up and wipe the rest of us off the face of the Earth." And then he'd keep the gifts. And he'd do the same thing to the English. But it’s really difficult, you know, the modern Wampanoag person to look back and kind of look down on Squanto. For all we know he might've been trying to incite war early on. Who knew better than Squanto, you know, what the English were capable of. He knew them, he spent a lot of time over there. But we'll really never know Squanto's true intentions.
RADFORD: Whatever his intentions, Squanto's actions caught up to him, and Massasoit places a bounty on his head. Because of his value as an interpreter, the English violate their treaty with the Wampanoag by refusing to hand Squanto over. But he soon dies of a fever while under English protection. Squanto's story is a warning of the problems that would eventually grow in Plymouth and even the rest of North America.
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