Tisquantum, aka Squanto
DJ Name: Squantunes
It’s almost Thanksgiving! You know what that means: time to scan the grocery store aisles for some Stove Top stuffing (made by Shufflette Ruth Siems), chop up some beans for a green bean casserole (@ Dorcas Reilly) and, of course, wade through rivers to get to the squishiest mud so that you can dig out hibernating eels to complete your feast. Wait, what? You don’t eat eel for Thanksgiving? How very un-American of you!
The very first Turkey Day dinner ~maybe~ featured turkey. Instead, Indigenous groups and European colonizers sat and slurped down eels, thanks in part to people like Tisquantum, who’s often remembered as Squanto, who were native to the land and understood cold weather eel habits enough to make sure no one went to bed hungry that night. Nom!
Squanto knew the Massachusetts land inside and out, and he spoke English so he acted as an intermediary between the Europeans and Natives when the Mayflower docked in Cape Cod Bay. And along with that knowledge of the land, he knew the best ways of hunting for and harvesting eels, which were considered quite tasty back in the 1600s. While he was out shuffling his feet in the mud searching for the slippery fishies, he queued up his favorite playlist that he wants us to share with you now and we promise that it’s eely good.
Squanto was born circa 1585 in Patuxet, or present-day Plymouth, and was a member of the Patuxet tribe, which was part of the Wampanoag confederation. Not much is known about Squanto’s early years, but we do know that he had a bit of a run-in with European explorers when he was in his 20s or 30s. In 1614, Captain John Smith (yes, the guy who was a smitten kitten with Pocahontas, allegedly), along with his men and ships, arrived in Massachusetts to do some land surveying and map out Cape Cod and the surrounding area. After doing their mapping bizness, John Smith set sail back to Europe and left his associate, Thomas Hunt, large and in charge. Johnny Smith’s plan was for Tommy Hunt to set up a trading relationship with the Patuxet tribe, but that’s not exactly what went down. Instead, Tommy lured members of the Patuxet tribe, including Squanto, onto this ship, kidnapped them and then set sail back to Spain.
Over the course of the six-week sea journey, the captured Natives were chained to each other in the under belly of the ship and given just a smidge of water, raw fish and stale bread to snack on. That is some fine cruise-worthy dining, right? Wrong. The ship docked in Málaga, Spain, where Tommy intended to sell his captured Wampanoag men into slavery. Meanwhile back in the Northeast, members of the Patuxet tribe were outraged when they learned of the kidnappings. They refused trade with new colonizers and set fire to some of their ships. The outrage eventually slowed because a smallpox plague set in, but more on that later. Upon arrival in Spain, no buyers were interested in purchasing the Natives. And religious friars stepped in to stop the sales and then used the opportunity to preach their Christian beliefs of glory, glory, alleluia and all that to the kidnapped men like Squanto.
Safe from being sold, somehow Squanto said “¡adios!” to Spain and “cheerio!” to London. Nobody seems to know how he arrived in England, but when he got there he befriended a lad named John Slaney. John was a merchant and ship builder so smarty pants Squanto saw his relationship with Slaney as his cruise ticket home. Slaney was a grantee of a land patent issued for Newfoundland, so when it was time to set sail he allowed Squanto to join as a guide. It was there that he met English colonizer Thomas Dermer, who was one of the OGs who joined John Smith during an earlier voyage. Squanto hyped Tom up to return to the New England area because of the opportunities of wealth available through the natural resources. Colonizer Tom couldn’t say no to the dollar signs that spun around in his eyes. Squanto would be his peacemaker and interpreter with the Natives who were still angry with many colonizers for capturing tribe members against their wills.
Because he was away, Squanto wasn’t aware of the devastating impact of the plague. It wiped out nearly every member of the Patuxet tribe. Squanto and Tom arrived in New England to very neglected land with overgrown weeds and dead bodies abound. The two continued inland where Squanto met up with Massasoit, who was the sachem (read: leader) of the Wampanoag nation. It was here that Squanto reunited with some very lucky relatives who survived the plague, but, like Squanto, they were men without their tribe. Safe to say Massasoit was not the biggest fan of colonizer Tom so he was attacked and taken captive. Squanto negotiated his release and Tom continued South. On his journey, he was attacked again and died once he reached Jamestown, Va., due to the impact of his wounds.
Shortlythereafter, the Pilgrims of the Mayflower sailed into shore at Plymouth Rock AKA a great rock in 1620 having fled religious persecution in England. William Bradford hopped off the ship with his dream and his cardigan and said, “We are gonna (plymouth) rock this new world,” allegedly. The Pilgrims explored a bit in their belted top hats and pointy shoes, but were attacked by the Nauset tribe during one of their expeditions. Nobody was injured and the Nauset fled back into the woods while the Pilgrims skrrt skrrted and decided to look elsewhere for a place to settle. They lived out of the Mayflower until their homes, storehouses and churches were built and had little interaction with Native tribes. That was until Samoset, a native who spoke English, approached them and said, “Hello!” before telling them about Squanto, the Native who lived in England and spoke the best English in all the land.
A few days later, Samoset introduced Squanto to the Pilgrims and together they ate turkey. JK. We aren’t there yet, silly! Instead, Squanto worked with the Pilgrims to form a peace treaty because nobody wanted anything (pil)grim to happen. Also the Pilgrims were starving and many were dying from a lack of nutrition so they needed help ASAP. The Wampanoag and Pilgrims signed, sealed and delivered a document that upheld clauses in their tree of trust such as thou shall not steal the buckles off of the pilgrims’ top hats; leaves must be raked every Tuesday; and corn is not up for grabs. It also featured line items like “That neither he nor any of his, should injure or do hurt, to any of their people;” and “That when their men came to them, they should leave their bows & arrows behind them.” We’ll let you decide which ones are legit.
The document was written in English and Squanto worked with them to translate to the Natives, but the Pilgrims definitely flexed on the Natives by favoring much of the language to their way of life. Like, they didn’t have bows and arrows so what form of protection would they then have to leave behind? Muskets, maybe? Well there were no mentions of, “Thou shalt leave muskets and armor behind them” is there? Hmm, seems sus! After the treaty was signed, Squanto remained with the Pilgrims as a bit of a diplomat who guided them around and introduced them to different Native tribes to spark trade relationships. He also taught them how to plant their corn using dead fish as fertilizer. And, how to fish for eel because it was a thicc, fatty, nutritious meal that essentially saved the lives of the very hungry Pilgrims down the road.
One of the “eely” best times to catch eel is in the Fall because they begin their great migration back to the salt water lyfe in the Sargasso Sea, just east of Bermuda, where they spawn and die after 30 years of livin’ it up in freshwater. Natives caught eels with river weirs, which were essentially two large stones in the shape of a “V” that funneled and trapped the fishies. Fish on, baby! The fish would then be dried and smoked for feasts to keep bellies happy all winter long. As the winter sets in, it becomes a bit trickier to catch these slimy swimmers because they burrow into the bottom of the river mud. So in addition to the weirs, Squanto also caught eels using his feet when it was nippy out. According to Pilgrim Ed, “He trod them out with his feet, and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument.” But even more from Pilgrim Ed shortly.
Because eels were common fare back in those days, it’s likely the English would’ve known many of the same tricks of the trade. European countries like England and the Netherlands had long-standing fishing traditions and the colonists surely would’ve sought out eel upon their arrival to remind them of Mummy’s homemade eel stew that she learned from watching Buzzfeed’s One Pot videos. Probably. That said, the English colonists possibly were unaware that the eels were living in the rivers when they arrived in Massachusetts in December. It was a frosty n chilly winter, and the eels were hibernating deep in the mud to keep their lil tails from freezing off.
So that’s where Squanto came in, showing the colonists how it’s done. “Squanto went at noon to fish for eels,” wrote Pilgrim Ed again. “At night he came home with as many as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of. They were fat and sweet.” Yum yum! He taught them how to grow crops and dig the slimy, slippery eels out from their hiding places and as the colonists’ first harvest season came to a close, they invited Squanto and Wampanoag to partake in a feast with them to celebrate a dank harvest season.
However, as his relationship with the colonists strengthened, the power started to go to Squanto’s head. He started telling tall tales (you know, like the kind about turkey’s significance at Thanksgiving) to other Natives of his exaggerated influence with the colonists, even claiming that he could ask the English to send the next plague on them to get them to do what he wanted (@covid, did Squanto send you…?). And, since Squanto liked to play fair, he did his fair share of manipulating with the colonists as well. Both sides could see Squanto’s true colors, though, and at one point the colonists hired another Native named Hobbamock to keep an eye on Squanto. Some say Squanto simply had a thirst for power, but it’s also true that he could’ve had a bone to pick with the colonists who had once attempted to enslave them and wanted to get back at them.
Squanto kept up his gig acting as interpreter and tour guide to the English colonists even as tensions continued to boil between the Native tribes and the colonists. However, Squanto passed away from a fever in Chatham, Massachusetts, around November 1622, so he missed most of the battles that would soon erupt between tribes and colonists (and, in fact, he died the same year but several hundred miles north of the Jamestown Massacre). When he died, he was working as a guide for William Bradford, still scooping up eels with his toes so he could concoct a delicious and nutritious meal later in the day.
So back to 2021. Now, are you going to hunt for eels in the muddy bogs near your home to serve on a platter to Grandma this Thanksgiving? Probably not, to be honest, because somehow history got edited a bit and now turkeys are seen as a superior main course. Nay, eels did not become an important figure in American mythology, a fat, shiny symbol of the promised land, writes Patrik Svensson in “The Book of Eels.” Rather, the eel soon thereafter became associated with the simple eating habits of the poor rather than with feast days, and also perhaps because the gift of the eel in the New World came from a Native man named Squanto.