Read: Thanksgiving used to look a lot like Halloween, except more racist
The traditional Pilgrim-centered account of the era, according to which the Wampanoags all but consented to their own displacement, comes from documents left behind by English colonists and later white Americans—including missionaries, diplomats, fur traders, curious travelers, and others. Yet to acknowledge that Wampanoag perspectives are distorted or selectively represented in the historical record is not to say they are absent. However imperfectly, those same sources also shine light on how these events looked to the Wampanoags, who had been dealing with European voyagers intermittently since at least 1524 and nearly annually since 1602—that is, years before the Pilgrims arrived.
In 1614, Captain Thomas Hunt had anchored his ship in the harbor of the Wampanoag community of Patuxet—the very site where the colony of Plymouth would be founded six years later—and invited curious members of the tribe onboard. Though meetings between European explorers and Native Americans tended to degenerate into bloodshed, the lure of trade was too enticing for either party to resist. Europeans sought furs, particularly beaver pelts, to sell back home. The Wampanoags wanted to pick through the strangers’ merchandise of metal tools, jewelry, and cloth. And so a number of them—including a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto for short—went aboard Hunt’s vessel.
Hunt double-crossed them, seizing 20 of their men, then stuffing them below decks. Soon seven other Wampanoags farther east at Nauset fell into the same trap, joining their tribesmen on a horrific oceanic journey toward an unimaginable destiny. It would have come as cold comfort when they discovered Hunt’s actual plan to sell them as enslaved people in Málaga, Spain, alongside his catch of fish. That is the last we hear of most of these unfortunate souls, who disappeared into Iberia’s mass of bound laborers drawn from around the globe.
Tisquantum very nearly shared this end but for two strokes of fortune. First, a group of friars blocked his sale, doubtlessly citing a routinely ignored Spanish law that Native Americans should not be enslaved. Then, after an uncertain period of time, Tisquantum made contact with one of Málaga’s many English merchants who, in turn, took him to London.
Finally, in 1618, Tisquantum got his chance to return to his native land. He was introduced to Captain Thomas Dermer, who, back in 1614, had been part of the very exploring and fishing expedition that had kidnapped Tisquantum. By this point, Tisquantum had learned enough English to offer his services to Dermer in exchange for passage home. As it turned out, Dermer was just the right person for such an overture. Dermer’s employer, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, was a prime mover of English colonization schemes and, as such, a collector of captive Native Americans who could serve as cultural brokers.