I said it before and I’ll say it again: Truth is always more knobbly and interesting than that tasteless gruel they serve up in our schools as U.S. History; a subject most students regard as the most boring they are forced to endure.
But how can stories of real human beings interacting across time be boring? Only if you turn the human beings into cardboard cutouts, which is precisely what history textbooks do.
Take Squanto for example, Cardboard Version: The brave Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, providentially encountered a native in the new land named Squanto, who had somehow learned to speak English! He taught them how to bury fish to fertilize corn and they had a big feast that fall which became Thanksgiving.
What’s the real deal with Squanto?
First, his real name was Tisquantum and he was a member of the Pawtuxet band of the Wampanoag (People of the First Light,) a once-powerful group on the east coast near present Cape Cod.
Squanto was kidnapped several times in his life and thus traveled around the world more than most of us. First seized by an English captain in 1605, he was taken to England with four fellow-tribesmen. Bringing natives to England was thought of as a “civilizing” tactic to stimulate investment in the colonies, (as with Bennelong from Australia, and “Pocohantas” from Virginia.)
The natives were taught English in hopes that they would smooth future trade relations; then returned home. About a decade later, when Squanto was apparently working on said trade relations, an English explorer grabbed him and 20 other natives to sell as slaves in Spain. This treachery infuriated the local natives, according to Cotton Mather: The captain “most dishonestly, and inhumanely…carried them with him to Malaga, and there for a little private gain sold those silly savages for rials of eight.”
Spanish friars rescued Squanto from the slave traders, and he eventually returned to England where he lived with John Slaney, a wealthy merchant. Later, Squanto traveled to Newfoundland on an expedition, then back to England in 1618.
By now Squanto was a mature, cosmopolitan sort of guy-multi-lingual, able to move comfortably in English merchant circles. He had seen the world, he was a diplomat.
But you know how it is-there’s no place like home. Now imagine his horror when he finally made it back to his village. Once bustling and prosperous, it was falling apart and strewn with rotting corpses. European diseases had hit two years earlier and so viciously that almost none had survived to even bury the dead.
What was he to do? What would you do? He found some relatives and acted as go-between for the natives and the settlers that arrived the next year in the now-depopulated lands that his people had once farmed. For Euro-Centric historians, Squanto’s story starts right then, but obviously there is a dramatic and fascinating story that precedes it.
At age 42, according to Mather, “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.”
In fact, it was one symptom of smallpox and Squanto died shortly thereafter. Admit it; the real story is much more interesting than the candy-arse cardboard version. This was a real man, a brilliant man, a man who saw the world, survived kidnapping, enslavement, and alien cultures…a man who survived finding his people and old way of life obliterated and rotting into the forest floor.
For Squanto, meeting a few raggedy English settlers and helping them stay alive was probably relatively insignificant. I wish history told the stories, as truthfully as possible, including the stories of real human beings living their real human lives-instead of ODDAA (One Damn Date After Another.)