An ambassador and interpreter, Samoset (c. 1590–c. 1653) of the Abenaki people was the first Native American to greet the English Pilgrims at Plymouth and to introduce them to the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.
The Abenaki chief Samoset from what is today Maine learned to speak English from fishermen who visited his coastal territory. So it was a surprise to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation when he entered their settlement and announced, "Welcome, Englishmen!" The first Indian to greet the Pilgrims, Samoset fostered goodwill and trade with the Europeans. He introduced the white men to Squanto, an emissary of the great Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, who facilitated the long-term peace between the Pilgrims and Massasoit. In later years, Samoset signed the first land sale transaction to the colonists.
Samoset, whose name means "He Who Walks over Much," was born circa 1590 in what is today the state of Maine in the New England region of the United States. From Pemaquid Point on the southeast coastline of the state, Samoset was a member of the Abenaki people, which means "People of the Eastern Dawn." Like most of the tribes in New England, the Abenaki spoke the Algonquian language and could easily communicate with the native Nauset and Wampanoag people of the region. Samoset was a sagamore, or lesser chief, of his tribe.
Near Pemaquid Point, between the Kennebec and the Penobscot rivers, colonial Englishmen and Frenchmen vied for fishing and fur rights. Samoset would have had frequent contact with these fishermen, and was able to pick up a moderate understanding of the English language. It is assumed Samoset had the opportunity to ship with Captain Dermer from Monhegan Island to Cape Cod around the time of the English Pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth in what is today Massachusetts and what was then the Patuxet region.
The English Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, after fleeing religious persecution in England and Europe. After roughly half of the Pilgrims fell victim to disease and harsh conditions and died during the first winter, the survivors were too weak and in short number to defend themselves against any large planned attack by Indians.
As the remaining Pilgrims were establishing plans for a militia to defend their settlement, men on patrol had noticed two Indians on a hill about half a mile away and sounded an alarm. The colonists had complained that some of their tools that they had left on the ground had been stolen, presumably by the roving Indians. William Bradford wrote in Of Plymouth Plantation , "All this while the Indians came skulking about them, and would sometimes show themselves aloof off, but when any approached near them, they would run away; and once they stole away [the Pilgrim's] tools where they had been at work and were gone to dinner."
Myles Standish and Stephen Hopkins were chosen to confront the Indians. They armed themselves and approached the area, but the Indians fled before they could make contact. A militia was a necessity as the Pilgrims were unwilling to let the Indians see how few and weakened they were and what easy prey they would be in case of attack.
As the colonists decided to conclude their plans for a defense, they were interrupted the day of March 16, 1621, by an Indian walking directly into their encampment—it was Samoset. Alexander Young, who collected the historical documents recording the lives of the Pilgrims and events at Plymouth Plantation, reprinted in Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth , "He very boldly came all alone, and along the houses, straight to the rendezvous; where we intercepted him, not suffering him to go in, as undoubtedly he would out of his boldness."
Samoset walked toward the white men, saluted them, and announced, "Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen!" in English. The startled colonists described him as a tall and straight man with long black hair down his back and short hair in the front, and without a beard. In a pragmatic gesture of caution but also a gesture of peace, Samoset carried with him his bow and an empty quiver. In his hand he held two arrows, one tipped and ready for battle, the other untipped.
To the Puritan Pilgrims, Samoset was considered virtually naked, as he wore only a fringed loincloth around his waist and moccasins on his feet. The day was mild but windy, and they offered him a horseman's coat to cover his body. In Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers , documents describe how the Pilgrims gave Samoset food, "He asked some beer, but we gave him strong water, and biscuit, and butter, and cheese, and pudding, and a piece of mallard; all which he liked well."
As Samoset was the first native that the Pilgrims encountered up close and were actually able to converse with, they questioned him considerably to learn everything they could about him and the area. Although Samoset spoke in broken English, the Pilgrims admired his ability to communicate with them, reporting in Mourt's Relation , that "he was a man free in speech, so far as he could express his mind, and of a seemly carriage."
Samoset explained that he was originally from Monhegan Island, which was five days' journey by land but one day by ship, and he was a sagamore, a lesser chief or lord, there. He had been in the Patuxet region for the past eight months visiting the Wampanoag tribe, but that he was intending to return to his people shortly.
He had learned English from contact with the English fishermen and traders who visited the Monhegan region. In fact, he even became acquainted with some of the ship captains and commanders and knew them by name. Historians speculate that when Samoset greeted the Pilgrims, he had mistaken the Mayflower in Plymouth harbor as just another fishing vessel.
In their conversations, Samoset provided much beneficial information to the Pilgrims, describing the land, the people, places, and distances. In Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers , documents record, "He discoursed of the whole country, and of every province, and of their sagamores, and their number of men and strength."
Samoset explained that the region the Pilgrims had settled in originally belonged to the Patuxet, who, along with some neighboring tribes, fell victim to a terrible plague four years earlier that ravaged the region, leaving no one alive. To a degree, the Pilgrims accepted the fate of the Patuxet as divine providence that they should take over the territory. Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers , records "There is neither man, woman, nor child remaining, as indeed we have found none; so as there is none to hinder our possession, or to lay claim unto it."
Samoset had mentioned that one of the few Patuxet left, who was not present during the plague, was an Indian by the name of Squanto, who had a better command of English. Samoset said that he would arrange a meeting between Squanto and the Pilgrims. Samoset also talked about Massasoit, the great chief of the Wampanoag tribe, who was currently in the area with the 300-strong Nemasket people.
Samoset described the Pilgrim's other neighbors, the Nauset, who were angry with the white men for killing numerous Indians and taking others as slaves. In "The Pilgrims & Plymouth Colony: 1620" on Rootsweb, it is reported that Edward Winslow wrote that the Nausets were, "ill-affected towards English, by reason of one [man named] Hunt, a master of a ship, who deceived the people, and got them under colour of trucking [trading] with them, twenty out of this place where we inhabit [Plymouth] and seven men from Nausites, and carried them away, and sold them for slaves, like a wretched man (for 20 pound a man) that cares not what he does for his profit."
Samoset stayed much of the afternoon and evening talking with the Pilgrims, who suspected that their guest was not intending to leave. When they realized they needed to put him up for the night, the Pilgrims first planned to have him sleep on the Mayflower, where it would be easy to watch him and where he would be unlikely to commit any treachery. However, the water in the harbor was too low and the wind too strong for the shallop, or shallow boat, to reach the Mayflower. So Stephen Hopkins allowed Samoset to lodge at his house where he set a guard upon the Indian.
That next Saturday morning, Samoset left the Pilgrims after they gave him a knife, a bracelet, and a ring. He promised to return shortly with more men and goods to trade, such as beaver and deerskins.
Samoset returned the next day with five Indian men. They wore fur leggings and carried bows and arrows, along with deerskins and wildcat-skins. They even returned some of the Pilgrims' tools that had been lost or stolen from the fields. The Pilgrims refused to engage in commerce with the Indians, however, since it was Sunday, and asked that they bring their goods another time.
Nevertheless, the Pilgrims entertained their guests and offered food. The Indians in turn were friendly and amiable, singing and dancing, and introducing the white men to a cornmeal biscuit the Indians carried with them on long journeys. When the Indians left, Samoset was either actually sick or pretended to be sick in order to remain with the colonists for several more days. When he finally left that Wednesday, they gave him a hat, a pair of stockings and shoes, a shirt, and some cloth to tie around his waist.
On the next day, Thursday, March 22, 1621, Samoset returned to the colonists with a special companion, Squanto. Also known as Tisquantum and considered the last surviving member of the Patuxet, he had been kidnapped by Europeans and brought to Spain and to England, where he learned to speak English quite well. He had been returned to America before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth.
Samoset and Squanto conducted some business with the Pilgrims, offering dried herring. But the real reason for Squanto's visit was to inform the colonists that the great sachem, or king, of the Wampanoag named Massasoit was waiting nearby with the Nemasket and wanted to meet with the Pilgrims.
Later that day, Massasoit did appear, with his brother Quadequina and 60 of his men, at the top of the hill overlooking the colonists. Although there was some initial reluctance on the part of both parties to send emissaries, they eventually met and exchanged gifts and entertainment. The meeting was the beginning of Massasoit's long-term friendship and defense pact with the Pilgrims.
Samoset appears again in historical accounts in 1624 in his home region of Maine when he made deals with the English trader Christopher Levett. Calling Levett his "cousin," Samoset decreed that only the Englishman could buy the fur his tribe had to sell. This monopoly angered competing traders so much so that one company attacked Samoset. Trade relations quickly degraded into beatings and corruption that led to retaliation by the Indians, and eventually progressed into full-scale wars in the latter part of the century.
Nevertheless, Samoset continued to live in peace with the white men. An accomplished diplomat for more than 30 years, Samoset recognized the need for mutually beneficial alliances and treaties with the European colonists that would help his people survive the wars, plagues, and slave traders. On July 15, 1625, Samoset signed the first land sale transaction between the eastern coastal Indians and the colonists. He deeded 12,000 acres of Pemaquid Point to John Brown, thus establishing that the true owners of the land in the new world were the Indians, not the English Crown. After Samoset signed another deed of land in 1653, he disappeared from historical records and is believed to have died soon after in what is today Bristol, Maine.
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