The Providential Return of Squanto
December, 1619: the view from a distance of his home village Patuxet on Cape Cod Bay startled Squanto, a Wampanoag Indian: his people’s dome-shaped wetus roofed with bark were gone. White men dressed in clothes made of fabrics rather than skins, were framing a house that obviously to resemble others already finished: rectangular cottages with clapboard siding, pitched roofs. Squanto had seen houses like these in London suburbs.
He’d had been accustomed to speaking English with white associates in Cornhill, London, the past four years, and wanted to ask these English what had become of his people, but how he might be received by them being uncertain, he circumvented the village and started inland along the path to Nemasket, home of the Pokonokets. He could see over his shoulder, the sails of the ship that delivered him back to America were disappearing over the horizon.
The group of Pokonoket women and children returning from the bay with lobsters he met contemplated his baggy linen pants, loose jacket, and floppy felt hat suspiciously. The children pointed and laughed. Squanto identified himself as a Patuxet native, and learned from the women that his people had perished in a plague; and yes, the men building houses there now were English.
As he approached Nemasket, squash rattles and wowachs’ chants were audible. These sounds, coupled with the variously costumed tribesmen milling about, suggested something out of the ordinary was afoot.
The women who had accompanied him into the village explained to locals that Squanto had come from England, and spoke English. He was introduced to the visiting chief of the Abenaki people, Samoset, who also spoke that language. The two traded stories of experiences with the English. Samoset had learned their language as a boy while associating with them at a fishing camp on Monhegan Island in the Gulf of Maine.
Squanto had been with a group of Patuxets lured onto an English ship, ostensibly for trading, before being shipped with a load of dried fish to Malaga, Spain, and sold into slavery. He had served as gardener for a wealthy Moorish vintner two years before a Spanish friar assisted his escape to London. There he worked for the ship-maker Slany who hoped to found a colony at Newfoundland and found Squanto’s ability to communicate with the natives useful. After six years of service to Slany, Squanto expressed a desire to return to his people, and Slany arranged for him to ship with Captain Dermer who was exploring the North American coastline.
Squanto learned From Samoset, that when the English arrived earlier that winter in their great canoe, the Nemasket chief Corbitant had ordered an attack on them. The musket fire that responded to the flurry of arrows shot into the English encampment put the Indians to flight, and since there had been a standoff between the two peoples.
The to-do in Nemasket that Squanto had observed upon entering the village was the result of the regional grand sachem of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, having summoned a council of area chiefs to decide on a suitable collective response to the English presence. During these deliberations, there had been tension between the outlooks of the peace-loving chief Massasoit and the angry Corbitant, the latter convinced that the English arsenal included not only exploding firearms, but magic for spreading plague. Corbitant recalled the earlier depredations of the Spanish and believed the tribes should organize for an all-out attack on the new arrivals weakened at the moment by malnutrition and disease. Hoping for demonic assistance for putting the English to flight, Corbitant had, without informing Massasoit, invited area wowachs to the council.
Samoset’s knowledge of the English people, and his ability to speak their language, had made him a confidante and advisor to the peace-loving Massasoit who believed warring on the newcomers was unadvisable. An all-out offensive effort by the Indians, superior in numbers, could undoubtedly destroy the colony the English called Plymouth. However, there was every indication that immigration from abroad was going to continue, and in light of that Massasoit believed the Indians’ best interest would be to assist the English with the difficulties they were now experiencing, cultivate brotherhood.
Squanto’s ability to communicate in English would interest Massasoit, Samoset knew, and the two men were walking across the village to the weru where Massasoit was staying during the council, when they encountered Corbitant. Samoset introduced Squanto and mentioned his origins in Patuxet and his recent return from England. Corbitant looked at the Squanto’s getup suspiciously, voiced a perfunctory welcome, and went about his business.
Massasoit, an impressively large, strongly built man with an oiled face and scalp and a deerskin wrapped around his shoulders, sat by the fire in his weru. Samoset described for him Squanto’s experience with the English, and their encounter with Corbitant just now.
“He didn’t seem overjoyed by Squanto’s presence.”
Massasoit smiled. “He probably saw Squanto as an incarnation of Windigo—if not an English spy.”
“I’ve described to Squanto your conflict with Corbitant.”
Massasoit held to the fire a splinter of wood that he used to light a long-stemmed pipe. He blew a puff skyward to honor the Great Father, and a second puff to the earth, acknowledging the Great Mother, then inhaled deeply smoke he blew out his nose. He handed the pipe to Squanto, who smoked briefly, then passed it on to Samoset.
Massasoit spoke in his Algonquin tongue: “I can understand the support for Corbitant’s position among certain of the chiefs. Peoples from across the Great Water have cheated us in trading. They’ve enslaved people. They’ve raped our women. They’ve killed Indians simply because they don’t like their looks.”
“We’ve done the same to them,” Samoset observed.
Massasoit nodded agreement. “We’re as strange to them, as they are to us, so distrust is inevitable…Samoset, you have led me to believe that difficulties across the Great Water have brought these peoples here.”
Squanto nodded his agreement
“For them to have braved the dangers of the Great Water, those difficulties must have been very great They deserve our sympathy. They are human, not devils. Expressions of brotherhood on our part will be reciprocated.”
The pipe having gone the round again reached Massasoit, who paused in his remarks to relight it. “I heard recently from a diviner that a stranger would come from afar who would assist us in seeking peace with the English.” He smiled at Squanto. “Our land is very great. There are ample land and provisions for all. With the assistance of you two English speakers, we will seek peaceful relations with the newcomers, and discuss our willingness to become the subjects of their powerful King James.”
“That will infuriate Corbitant and his allies,” Samoset observed.
“He will get over it, especially if King James assists us in subduing our enemies, the Narragansetts.”
* * * * *
Englishmen in a field beyond Plymouth village were shooting at targets on a sunny, unseasonably warm January afternoon, when the tall straight Indian with black hair hanging long at the back of his head, approached, alone and unarmed.
“Could you fellows spare a thirsty man a beer?” Samoset asked.
The English lowered their muskets. One of the Englishmen led Samoset into his house where his screaming wife fled out the back door with her two children.
Samoset, offered a seat in the rocking chair by the fireplace and plied with beer, bread, and cheese, described the plague that had decimated the Indians at their village Patuxet of which the white men, who had been puzzled by the remains of the village, had been unaware. Samoset answered his hosts’ questions about tribes in the vicinity and described a voyage he’d once made to London and back with English fishermen. Then he explained the will of the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit that there might be peaceful relations between the Indians and the English.
A few days later, Samoset returned to Plymouth with Squanto and arranged a meeting between Massasoit and the English representative Edward Winslow. The treaty agreed to at the meeting of the two leaders stipulated that when the English and the Wampanoag met for consultations in any matter, neither side would be armed; that expressions of hostility of any kind on either side would be punishable; and that if either side should be attacked by a third group, the other would come to its defense.
At a banquet celebrating the agreement, Massasoit announced that the English-speaking Squanto would reside with the newcomers to evaluate their needs which the Indians might supply, as well as to provide practical advice about local planting, hunting, fishing, and participation in the fur trade.
The English settlers, for their part, represented Squanto’s timely return to America as a “divine providence.” Squanto had the satisfaction of knowing that not only had he assisted in preventing war in which many would have died, but that his presence had increased the likelihood of future peaceful relations between the two races.
There was a disconcerting rumor that Corbitant and his followers were conspiring to ally with the Narragansetts to overthrow Massasoit, install Corbitant as the regional sachem, and attack the English; but if that were to occur, surely King James would lend a helping hand.
James Gallant was the winner of 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature for his story collection, La Leona and Other Guitar Stories, published in 2020. Fortnightly Review (UK) published a collection of his essays and short fiction, Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations. His first novel, The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: a Novel of Atlanta, was published by Grace Paley’s small press, Glad Day Books.