Most Americans have heard the somewhat true story of Tisquantum, popularly known as Squanto, and how he helped the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony by teaching them how to plant and grow North American crops, thus saving them from starvation.
Some know he was motivated not so much by goodwill as desperation; his community had also just been devastated by mass death.
Fewer have learned – and probably not in school – the truth of his lonely, tragic life or that only a year after the feast that would later be called the “First Thanksgiving,” he was dead, perhaps at the hands of other Native Americans.
And almost no one knows that 399 years later, his remains may lie in a wealthy area of Cape Cod, underneath the green of one of the country’s most picturesque golf clubs.
The majority of Tisquantum’s life is a mystery. We know he was a member of the Patuxets, an Indigenous tribe that was part of the Wampanoag confederation. We don’t know when he was born, what role he played in his community, or whether he had ever been married or had children. By the time he appears in the written records of Europeans, he was likely in his mid-30s. And in that first appearance, he wasn’t viewed as a helpful guide but as a lucrative piece of merchandise.
In 1614, English explorer Thomas Hunt was captain of a ship sailing along the coast of what is now Maine and Massachusetts. He was only supposed to be gathering fish and furs to sell back in England, according to a later account by his boss, John Smith (of Pocahontas fame). Instead, Hunt tricked 20 Patuxet people onboard, Tisquantum among them, and sailed away.
(There are claims this was actually the second time Tisquantum has been kidnapped by the English, but many modern historians doubt this.)
Hunt sailed to Spain and sold the captives who had survived the journey into slavery. It is unclear how long Tisquantum was enslaved and how long he was in Spain. At some point, he escaped and made it to London, where, according to future Plymouth Gov. William Bradford, he lived with a merchant in the Cornhill neighborhood.
In 1619, five years after he was taken, Squanto finally made it back home, aboard yet another English explorer’s ship. But any dreams he may have had about a reunion with friends and family were dashed. Everyone in his village was dead – victims of the “Great Dying,” a three-year pandemic that devastated Indigenous populations up and down the New England coast.
He disappears from records until March 22, 1621, when he walked into the Plymouth Colony the Puritans were building on the land where his people used to live. Incredibly, to the Puritans at least, he spoke articulate English.
The Puritans had arrived the previous fall, too late to plant food; half of them died that winter. Soon, Tisquantum brokered a peace treaty between the Puritans and Ousamequin, leader of the Wampanoag confederacy, who feared attack by the Narragansett tribe after his people had been so devastated by disease.
When Ousamequin left, Tisquantum stayed behind. He and Bradford became friends, and Tisquantum and other Wampanoags famously showed the Puritans how to plant crops, catch fish and survive in the “New World.” It wasn’t new to them.
But, as Washington Post journalist Dana Hedgpeth wrote recently, when the Puritans celebrated their harvest that fall with a feast, the people who had saved them weren’t invited. The Puritans shot off guns in their revelry, attracting the attention of Ousamequin and 90 Wampanoag warriors, who showed up unannounced.
Tisquantum had surely developed strong survival instincts over the past seven years, and that continued after the arrival of European colonists. He leveraged his English language and cultural knowledge with the Wampanoags, and his Wampanoag language and cultural knowledge with the English, to benefit himself. That included, according to historian Nathaniel Philbrick in “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War,” telling some tribes the English stored disease in barrels and could release it at will if the tribes didn’t do what he wanted.
By November 1622, when Tisquantum went with Bradford on a trading mission to a nearby Wampanoag village, both sides had begun to view him with suspicion. A few days into the trip, Tisquantum suddenly fell ill and began bleeding from his nose, a condition Bradford termed “Indian fever.” He died a few days later on the Puritans’ ship as it sat anchored near a beach not far from the Wampanoag village.
How was it that Tisquantum had survived years of contact with European diseases, yet was suddenly felled while visiting an Indigenous village? Little can be known today, but Philbrick doesn’t think it was a disease at all, suggesting that Ousamequin, sick of Tisquantum’s double-dealing, may have had him poisoned. Indeed, decades later, Ousamequin’s son poisoned another Indigenous interpreter, Philbrick wrote.
The beach he was buried near, now called Pleasant Bay, is nestled in an idyllic corner of Chatham, one of the tonier areas of Cape Cod. There’s a plaque commemorating Squanto a quarter mile to the southeast, but at least one local historian, the late Warren Sears Nickerson, has suggested Squanto’s remains were buried northeast of the beach. In about 1770, Nickerson wrote, “an Indian skeleton was washed out of a hill between the Head of the Bay and Crow’s Pond.” The manner of burial resembled that of the Puritans, suggesting it may have been Squanto.
The remains were reburied nearby, on land now occupied by the Eastward Ho golf club. The club, on its website, claims his body “almost certainly rests within the bounds of today’s country club.”
When asked Wednesday whether the club has ever made an effort to determine exactly where any remains might be, or to memorialize Tisquantum in any way, a representative declined to respond on the record. A historian for the club, Georgia Peirce, said she had heard this story since she was a child, when her grandfather told it to her, but that there was no definitive proof. The club history on the website claiming the remains were “almost certainly” there, she said, was written 25 years ago by a local historian who is now deceased. Peirce was not aware of any attempts to search for possible remains using technology like ground-penetrating radar or core sampling.
As with so many stories about Squanto, the truth of this one remains a mystery.