The interpreter who made the first Thanksgiving possible

The First Thanksgiving
Photo Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

26 November 2020

Ever wonder how the Native Americans and the English pilgrims managed to communicate well enough to plan the first Thanksgiving feast? The answer is, of course, through an interpreter!

We may think of interpreters as the faceless voices in meetings, but cooperation among nations would be pretty difficult without them, and things were no different in the 17th century.

Tisquantum, or Squanto as he is better known to school children across the USA, was born in around 1580, in the territory that is today Massachusetts.

In the early 1600s, 24 young men of the Patuxet people, including Squanto, were captured and taken to be sold as slaves in Europe. To cut a long story short, Squanto managed to escape and ended up in London where, having learned some English, he joined the Newfoundland Company.

In 1619, Squanto was sent to New England as the interpreter for the head of a trade mission, Captain Thomas Dermer. Finding himself so close to his village, Squanto returned home, only to discover the devasting news that the Patuxet had been wiped by disease, carried there by the European settlers.

Not long after, Dermer’s party was captured by the Wampanoag tribe. Distrustful of his association with the Europeans, Squanto was also held.

Around the same time, the Wampanoag became aware of a recently arrived group of European settlers. Struggling through the harsh winter, many of the colonists had died and the survivors were weak and malnourished, yet the natives were nonetheless wary of the newcomers, since anyone approaching them tended to be taken prisoner. Eventually though, the Chief of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, allowed an Indian by the name of Samoset to visit the colony. Samoset had befriended some English fishermen who worked along the coast, learning enough English to communicate with the pilgrims and apparently ask them for a beer!

Samoset and the pilgrims

Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Some days later, Samoset returned to the Plymouth Colony with Squanto. With Squanto acting as interpreter, Chief Massasoit and the pilgrims were able to negotiate an alliance, promising to help each other if they were attacked by enemy tribes. Massasoit released Squanto who moved to the Plymouth Colony to strengthen the alliance. There he taught the pilgrims how to farm the land so that they were able to prepare for the next winter and after their first successful harvest, they famously invited Squanto and the Wampanoag Indians to join them in a thanksgiving feast.

Squanto teaching the pilgrims to plant corn

Photo credit: Wiki Commons

The following year, in November 1622, Squanto, the last of the Patuxet, died after contracting a disease.

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AIIC. “The interpreter who made the first Thanksgiving possible”. November 25, 2020. Accessed July 06, 2022.


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