The pioneers that we now know as the Pilgrims were anxious, given many tales of vicious tribes, about how they might be welcomed on the shore of the Americas. And yet the first words they heard from a Native’s mouth were: ‘May I have a beer, please?’ in perfectly intoned and inflected English and accompanied by a girthy smile.
His name was Samoset and he had learned his English from his pal, Squanto of the Patuxet tribe. This fellow had already crossed the Atlantic six times; twice kidnapped into slavery. So, it is Squanto’s tale that is truly worthy of note.
Born circa 1580 near Plymouth, Massachusetts, Squanto was captured by Captain George Weymouth, while the young man was innocently pulling in lobsters for his family on the Maine coast in 1605.
He believed the ship was a friendly trading vessel, for there had been numerous visits by merchants. He told of his heartbreak as he was chained, taken to the boat, as his mother wept and wailed on the beach.
In London, Squanto worked for the merchant John Slaney, who was sympathetic to his cause. He taught him English so he could be a translator on a ship back home one day. Slaney showed him the bustling London of King James. After nine years and now fully bilingual, Squanto returned to the Americas, acting as a guide to the English explorer, John Smith.
It was not long before Squanto was again captured; this time by another British explorer, Thomas Hunt, and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Here he found another sympathetic home, for he lived there with monks, who taught him Spanish and the scriptures, before crossing the ocean for a fourth time in 1619.
The boat landed in Newfoundland. When he realized that the trek from Newfoundland to his childhood home was too far to walk, Squanto returned to London, this time voluntarily, for he knew his language abilities and experience would soon be in-demand. He was right and soon embarked upon his sixth and final crossing of the Atlantic.
His return to Massachusetts, however, was a devastating one. His tribe had been wiped out by smallpox, brought in by the white man. He was found grieving by Samoset, and was taken to live with his nearby tribe, the Wampanoags.
With Squanto ‘s help, Samoset expanded upon the scant English that he had learned from fishermen and traders. And it was Samoset who then uttered these famous and shockingly welcome words to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The pair then acted as interpreters and mediators between the settlers and the Wampanoag, Chief Massasoit.
The settlers’ failing crops and inability to deal with the harsh winters were responsible for many deaths. Squanto taught them to plant at the correct depth and time of year. They taught the settlers and their leader, William Bradford how to catch eels, lobster and how to use fish carcass for a fertilizer.
The crop thrived and in the November of 1621, the ninety warriors, enough to wipe out the settlement, brought a feast of deer, turkey and cranberry, which would be the first Thanksgiving.
In 1622, Squanto then further enhanced his reputation when he used his hunting skills to find a lost boy. He exaggerated his influence with the colonists, and even going so far as to suggest to the tribe that the English had storage pits containing the plague and would release it if they didn’t do what he wanted.
The two groups found a fine symbiosis. Samoset and Squanto brokered a peace between the Natives and the Pilgrims that lasted for fifty years, highlighting the potency of language as a peacemaker and of course, the remarkable healing power of a beer between friends.