The horticulturalist who rescued Plymouth

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is, as the name suggests, a time of giving thanks. But it is also a time when we commemorate the success of the Pilgrims; the separatists who came here from England to establish the Plymouth colony.

It is generally believed that the Pilgrims, upon their arrival in the “NewWorld,” easily adapted to life on the Massachusetts coast; that they were readily able to build homes in the wilderness, raise a plentiful harvest of good crops, and find abundant fish and game. By all accounts, that was not the case.

Upon arrival, in mid-November of 1620, the Mayflower set anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, at what is now Provincetown. The passengers – some English Separatists, some indentured servants – were indeed thankful, even jubilant. But they were not prepared. It was far too late in the year for planting and they had not brought sufficient food to last them until spring. They knew nothing about the plants and animals of this unfamiliar land and, although they were able to find some game, soon realized it would not be enough to take the 102 passengers and crew of 25 through the winter.

Accounts from that time state that in their explorations, the passengers found stores of corn, beans and dried fish at a burial site, which stood among the remains of an Indian village at Provincetown. The travelers took the food and then sailed on to what is now Eastham, where they raided similar burial sites, stealing whatever food they could find. It was there, at what is now called First Encounter Beach, that the Nauset tribe, offended by such violations, defended themselves and their culture against the English settlers, forcing them out. Only then did the Mayflower sail on to Plymouth Harbor.

That winter was a terrible one for the settlers. Without homes, they were left with little choice but to spend the bitter cold months of January, February and March aboard ship, in the cargo holds below the crew’s quarters. By the end of the ordeal, contagious disease – pneumonia, scurvy, tuberculosis -?had taken the lives of nearly half of the passengers and crew.

In April of 1621, the crew of the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth to return to England. The surviving passengers remained behind, establishing the Plymouth colony on a site where the Wampanoag Indian village of the Pawtuxet (or Patuxet) tribe once stood. And it was there that Tisquantum, a Pawtuxet Wampanoag Indian, the last of his kind, befriended the Pilgrims and, even though he had been horribly mistreated by the English as a boy, eventually chose to live among the Plymouth colony settlers and to teach them about the land they had settled and the skills they would need to master if they were going to stay alive. Without him, the Pilgrims would almost surely have perished. In fact, if it weren’t for the assistance of this aboriginal horticulturalist and naturalist, and the willingness of other Native Americans to provide aid and teach the European settlers how to survive, it is probable that Plymouth would have been nothing more than a footnote in history.

The story of Tisquantum begins during the summer of 1605. British sailors, under the command of Captain George Weymouth, who had been commissioned by a colonial entrepreneur, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, kidnapped Tisquantum, along with four other Native American boys and brought them to England. In his diary, Weymouth wrote, “we used little delay, but suddenly laid hands upon them. . .For they were strong and so naked as our best hold was by their long hair on their heads.”

Once in England, Tisquantum remained in the care and custody of Captain Weymouth. It is assumed that Weymouth taught the Native American boy to speak English. For reasons unknown, Weymouth called Tisquantum Squanto, an abbreviation of his true name. Squanto, as he came to be known, shared his knowledge of the New World and, when a fleet of two ships returned to the coast of Massachusetts in 1614, served as an interpreter under the command of Captains John Smith and Thomas Hunt.

Squanto served his Captains honorably but was betrayed by Hunt, who had his men kidnap some 20 young Pawtuxets and seven Nausets. They were taken to Malaga, Spain, where Hunt attempted to sell them, and Squanto, into slavery. Many were sold before Hunt was foiled by a group of Franciscan monks, who took custody of those that remained in order to, according to a report by Gorges, “instruct them in the Christian faith, disappointing this unworthy fellow of the hopes of gain he conceived to make by this new and devilish plot.”

The kidnappings so infuriated the native tribes living along the New England coast that they no longer welcomed European traders. Their rage culminated in the burning of a French ship in 1617. Much of the crew was killed and, by some accounts, the Nauset enslaved the others.

Around the same time, the Spanish monks were visited by an Englishman who agreed to take Squanto back to England where he was placed in the care of Sir John Slaney, a wealthy merchant who had Squanto accompany him as a guide and translator on an expedition to Newfoundland. There, Squanto was recognized by Captain Thomas Dermer, who wrote to Gorges, affirming that he had “found Gorges’ Indian.” Dermer took Squanto back to England once more, where Gorges, in hopes of renewing trade with the Pawtuxet and Nauset tribes, arranged for an expedition back to Pawtuxet, where Squanto would be allowed to remain.

They dropped anchor in 1619. It is impossible to imagine what Tisquantum felt when he found out that, since he had last returned to his home, a plague – the great plague of 1617 to 1618, most likely smallpox, tuberculosis, yellow fever, or a combination thereof -?introduced by European explorers, had taken the lives of everyone in his tribe. Tisquantum was the last of the Pawtuxets. The plague was responsible for the deaths of no less than a third and, by some accounts, as many as 90 percent of the indigenous people of southern New England.

Tisquantum lived among the remaining Massasoit Wampanoag until late March of 1621, when he learned from Samoset -?an Abenaki who had learned some English from explorers fishing near Monhegan, a small island 10 miles off the coast of what would become Maine, and who had approached the Plymouth colony settlers just a few days before – of the settlers who were establishing a colony on the site where his village once stood. Tisquantum set out to meet with them.

That spring and summer, he assisted the colonists in their negotiations with native leaders. But it was, perhaps, through his horticultural skills and knowledge of the region’s natural resources that he proved himself indispensable to the colonists’ survival.

The colonists had planted wheat that they had brought with them from England, but it did not grow. Tisquantum came to their aid, showing them how to grow corn from seed provided by native friends. And he taught the English how to increase their food production by utilizing fish and the remains of fish as fertilizer for their crops. He informed the English about edible berries and other wild edible fruit: where they could be found and how they could be cultivated. He led them to areas of the forest abundant with game, and to brooks, ponds, bays and coastal areas teeming with fish. He initiated them in how to fish using traps.

More and more settlers arrived. And, in the fall of 1622, Tisquantum negotiated with the Indians of what is now Chatham Harbor for provisions for the colonists to get them through the oncoming winter. But upon leaving, Tisquantum ‘fell sick of Indian fever.’ Within a few days, he was dead.

In his journal, Governor William Bradford wrote about Tisquantum: “He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities. Squanto continued with them, was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

It is said that before he died, Tisquantum asked Governor Bradford to bestow certain possessions as gifts to his friends in Plymouth and to pray for him so that he could go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven. He was long remembered by the Plymouth colonialists and is not forgotten to this day.