The foreigners called their colony Plymouth; they themselves were the famous Pilgrims. As schoolchildren learn, at that meeting the Pilgrims obtained the services of Tisquantum, usually known as Squanto. In the 1970s, when I attended high school, a popular history text was America: Its People and Values. Nestled among colorful illustrations of colonial life was a succinct explanation of Tisquantum’s role:
A friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Capt. Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians.
My teacher explained that maize was unfamiliar to the Pilgrims and that Squanto had demonstrated the proper way to plant it—sticking the seed in little heaps of dirt, accompanied by beans and squash that would later twine themselves up the tall stalks. And he told the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil by burying fish alongside the maize seeds. Following this advice, my teacher said, the colonists grew so much maize that it became the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving. In our slipshod fashion, we students took notes.
The story in America: Its People and Values isn’t wrong, so far as it goes. But the impression it gives is entirely misleading.
Tsquantum was critical to the colony’s survival. He moved to Plymouth after the crucial meeting and spent the rest of his life there, during which time he indeed taught the Pilgrims agricultural methods, though some archaeologists believe Tisquantum picked up the idea of fish fertilizer from European farmers, who had used the technique since medieval times. But America: Its People and Values never explains why he so enthusiastically helped the people who had invaded his homeland. Skipping over such complexities is understandable in a book with limited space. The lack of attention, however, is symptomatic of a larger failure to consider Indian motives, or even that Indians might have motives.
Much the same is true of the alliance Massasoit negotiated with Plymouth. From the Indian point of view, why did he do it? The alliance was successful from the short-run Wampanoag perspective, for it helped to hold off the Narragansett. But it was a disaster from the point of view of New England Indian society as a whole, because it ensured the survival of Plymouth Colony, which spearheaded the great wave of British immigration to New England. All of this was absent not only from my high-school textbooks, but from the academic accounts they were based on.
This omission dates back to the Pilgrims themselves, who ascribed the lack of effective Native resistance to the will of God. “Divine providence,” the colonist Daniel Gookin wrote, favored “the quiet and peaceable settlement of the English.” Later writers tended to attribute European success to European technology. In a contest where only one side had rifles and cannons, historians said, the other side’s motives were irrelevant. By the end of the 19th century, the Indians of the Northeast were thought of as rapidly fading background details in the saga of the rise of the United States—“marginal people who were losers in the end,” as James Axtell of the College of William and Mary dryly put it in an interview with me. Vietnam War-era denunciations of the Pilgrims as imperialist or racist simply replicated the error in a new form. Whether the cause was the Pilgrim God, Pilgrim guns or Pilgrim greed, Native losses were foreordained; Indians could not have stopped colonization, in this view, and they hardly tried.
But beginning in the 1970s, historians grew dissatisfied with this view. “Indians were seen as trivial, ineffectual patsies,” Neal Salisbury, a historian at Smith College, told me. “But that assumption—a whole continent of patsies—simply didn’t make sense.” Salisbury and other researchers tried to peer through the colonial records to the Indian lives beneath. Their work fed a tsunami of inquiry into the interactions between Natives and newcomers in the era when they faced each other as relative equals.
“When you look at the historical record, it’s clear that Indians were trying to control their own destinies,” Salisbury said. “And often enough they succeeded”—only to learn, as all peoples do, that the consequences were not what they expected.