"The First Thanksgiving" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.
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Murdock: How Squanto became a Thanksgiving symbol

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As you gobble your Thanksgiving turkey, imagine being a Pilgrim in March 1621. Hardly four months after the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock the previous November, you still struggle for food, shelter and survival in the state of nature.

Suddenly, an Indian reaches your outpost. Friend or foe? What brought him here? How would you ever communicate with him?

And then he opens his mouth. He speaks English! More amazingly, he does so with a British accent and the demeanor of someone who had lived and worked among England's elite.

Who on Earth was this incredible man?

Squanto, aka Tisquantum, was born about 1580 in present-day Plymouth, Mass. He was a Patuxet Indian, associated with the Wampanoag tribal confederation. After a nondescript youth, Squanto became embroiled in English Capt. John Smith's efforts to explore and map what we now call Cape Cod. In 1614, Smith assigned Capt. Thomas Hunt to stay behind and trade with the Patuxet and Nauset natives.

But Hunt deceived Smith and double-crossed the Indians. He lured about 20 tribesmen onto his ship, ostensibly to discuss the beaver trade. Instead, as MayflowerHistory.com explains, Hunt kidnapped them to sell them into slavery. Hunt sold several Indians in Spain. However, local friars sabotaged his scheme. They gained custody of, freed and Catholicized the remaining Indians, including Squanto.

Back home, what the Spanish Franciscans called Hunt's "devilish plot" justifiably enflamed the Nauset and Patuxet. French sailors experienced this rage when the Nauset burned their boat, killed most aboard and enslaved the rest.

Meanwhile, Squanto somehow talked his way to London. He met and lived there with John Slaney, treasurer of the Newfoundland Co. Squanto learned English and mixed with top British shippers and merchants. The Newfoundland Co. employed Squanto as an interpreter and expert on North American natural resources.

Squanto soon found himself bound for Newfoundland, where he worked for its governor, John Mason. Thomas Dermer, another ship captain, envisioned the now Anglophone and Anglicized Squanto as a translator and envoy between his justifiably furious Indian brethren and his new, outward-looking British employers. Dermer wrote headquarters about Squanto's diplomatic potential, whereupon they both were summoned to London to discuss next steps.

In 1619, Dermer and Squanto crossed the Atlantic yet again. Destination: Plymouth. To Squanto's horror, a suspected smallpox outbreak had annihilated his village. Squanto moved in with the nearby Wampanoag, including its leaders, Massasoit and Squanto's brother Quadequina.

Dermer left to reconcile separately with the Nauset. Unimpressed, they attacked and captured him. Squanto negotiated Dermer's release. Dermer sailed away without Squanto. Indians again ambushed him at Martha's Vineyard. Although injured, he escaped and fled for Jamestown, Va. There, his wounds consumed him.

Squanto met the Pilgrims on March 22, 1621, accompanied by Massasoit and Quadequina. He negotiated peace and commercial ties with the English exiles. Like a 17th century American Indian Henry Kissinger, Squanto arranged truces and trade deals among the Plymouth Colony and various regional Indian leaders. This fruitful peace lasted five decades.

Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels, plant corn more efficiently and convert fish into fertilizer.

Squanto got himself in trouble for trying to gain personally by playing the Pilgrims and Indians off each other. Massasoit ordered the Pilgrims to surrender Squanto for execution. A combination of Gov. William Bradford's foot dragging, and more urgent priorities, eventually hushed Massasoit's calls for Squanto's scalp. Squanto survived, yet again.

But Squanto's incredible luck soon ran out. While helping Bradford acquire seed corn for the next season, Squanto's nose began to bleed while in Cape Cod's Manamoyick Bay. Squanto called this an Indian death omen. Indeed, he passed away days later in November 1623. Squanto "bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances," wrote Bradford: "His death was a great loss."

Squanto's colorful life is among the countless, fascinating treasures that await those willing to learn how ours became the greatest of nations.

Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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