Ruth Conrad


Prof. Malore Brown


Children's Biographies of Squanto

            The four biographies being examined here make interesting reading as much for the variations they reveal in the progression of children's biography as for any literary merit or the quest for information.  Even the evolving titles give an indication of the different ways the books change over the years.  The first is entitled Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims, published in 1954 by Clyde Robert Bulla, and illustrated by Peter Burchard.  The second is Squanto: Indian Adventurer, published in 1965 by Stewart and Polly Anne Graff, and illustrated by Robert Doremus.  The third is Squanto: The Pilgrim Adventure, published in 1979 by Kate Jassem, and illustrated by Robert Baxter.  Finally, there is Squanto: The Indian who saved the Pilgrims (1500(?)-1622), published in 1987 by James R. Rothaus, and illustrated by John Nelson and Harold Henriksen.  It was frustrating that none of these books listed any kind of source for their research, or any other follow-up for a curious reader. 

Of course, although Squanto (or, more properly, Tisquantum) led an interesting life, and is worthy of a good child's biography, there are a couple of problems facing modern biographers as they try to recreate him.  First of all, Squanto himself left no written record; this is because he was almost certainly illiterate.  Given that many white men of the time were illiterate, and that Squanto himself had to overcome a language barrier, it is hardly surprising that he might have considered learning to read and write as a waste of time.  This means, however, that a biographer researching Squanto would have to rely on the records and the writings of the white observers around him, whereupon the second problem comes into play, in that many of the white observers around him had extremely Euro-centric viewpoints, and frequently considered the Native Americans they encountered as little more than savages.  Although the known facts about Squanto indicate a fascinating story, there is, in reality, only a very little known about the type of person Squanto was.  This has not stopped some biographers from trying, of course. 

            Bulla's biography, Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims, is predictably told in narrative fashion, with a great deal of dialog.  It is very readable, in spite of the fact that it is mostly text, because of the relatively large size of the font and the easy flow and copious detail of the story.  But, even by 1952 standards, it is somewhat surprising that this was not classified as a fictional work, rather than a biography, and still more amazing that (at least in one library system) it can still be found in the biography section.  The copious detail and frequent dialog would not necessarily condemn this book, if they had been more plausibly phrased and/or more thoroughly researched.  However, any book which can have it's main character on a slave ship on the way to sale in Malaga, Spain, and yet still have that character saying "All white men are not bad like Captain Hunt.... Many white men are good." (Bulla, 63) deserves to have its credibility challenged.

            Bulla's story is not immediately implausible, and he does have some basic facts about the story right.  He starts out, rather predictably, with Squanto's childhood in his Patuxet village, as a ship sails in to explore.  A lot of time is spent examining the relations between the sailors and the Indians, and more informed readers might begin to question the story when Captain Weymouth and his sailors nicely ask Squanto to accompany them on the ship, and even allow him time to consult his parents and tribe (Bulla, 18-20).  Squanto then happily sails off with his sailor friend, Charles Robbins, whose existence appears to be entirely fictional.  Again, quite a bit of time is spent looking at life aboard the ship for Squanto, and he seems to have picked up the English language remarkably quickly, since he seems to understand everything everyone says by the time the ship gets to London.  Bulla then has Squanto living with Charles Robbins, gaping at horses (29), and allowing himself to be put on display for the curious English masses (38-41), all of which seem rather improbable.

            Bulla skates over several years with the statement that Squanto is looking for a way home, but cannot find a ship that will take him until1614, when John Smith's expedition took him back for his homeland.  Even though Smith is a well-known historical figure (and thus portrayed as a wise, kind, and beneficent father figure), Bulla does not spend much time detailing the life Squanto had aboard this ship, skating from the first meeting with Smith in London to Squanto’s release in America comparatively quickly (46-51).  This is because Bulla wants to cut to the next exciting part, which is Squanto's capture a few days after leaving Smith, by Captain Hunt, the other captain of the Smith expedition, who wanted to make some quick money by capturing Indians and selling them on the slave market.  Although not much is said of Squanto's trip over with John Smith, Bulla has quite a bit of narrative going on during the trip back across the Atlantic to Malaga (55-67).  Bulla then has Squanto "rescued" from his buyer at the slave mart by "Brother Luis and Brother Diego" (68-69), who seem to then let Squanto go almost immediately, when, in reality, Squanto seems to have spent several years with the Spanish friars, and did not necessarily leave with their approval (Yaffles, "Slave Trade").  Bulla is correct, however, in stating that from Spain, Squanto worked his way back to London, where he housed with a man by the name of John Slanie (also spelled as Slaney in other books).  For the next eight pages, Bulla then has Squanto forming quite a relationship with Slanie and his two children; although Slanie was real, the children appear to be fictional devices intended to keep a child reader interested (73-80).  It is only in the final fifth of the book that Slanie finds Squanto passage home with a Captain Dermer, only to discover that his village has been wiped out by a plague, after which discovery, he goes to live with the Wampanoag (80-92). It is only in the last ten pages that he finally meets the Pilgrims and decides to stay and help them (96-105).  The book ends even before the first Thanksgiving was supposed to have place, and never mentions Squanto's death.  There something of irony in the idea of subtitling this book Friend of the Pilgrims, when, in fact, the Pilgrims are hardly mentioned at all!

            After having done a little research on Squanto, one thing stuck out about this version of it: Bulla tended to focus on those areas about which the LEAST is known.  It was as if he wanted to avoid or skim over the facts, and skip to those places he could fictionalize with impunity.  It is not that Bulla does not have any of the information available on Squanto.  Aside from some fictional characters (Charles Robbins, the Slanie children) inserted to move the story along, and some misrepresentations as to how long Squanto spent in some areas (he was in London the first time for about eight or nine years, in Spain for at least two years, and in London for the second time only about a year), much of the checkable information in the book is correct, such as characters and dates.  Bulla just does not seem to want to have to conform to the restrictions that might be placed on his flights of fancy if he writes about previously documents parts of history. This portrayal also de-emphasizes the impact Squanto's upbringing would have had on his perception of England and Europe, and tries to make Squanto over in the image an English or European boy.  The illustrations foster this impression.  While there are not pictures on every page of the book, one can usually be found every two or three pages.  These illustrations are done in shades of gray, and generally depict objects rather than characters.  When characters are shown, the only things which generally separate and make Squanto recognizable are the braids in his hair; his skin color and facial features are not noticeably different than anyone else's.         

            The second book, Squanto: Indian Adventurer, by Stewart and Polly Anne Graff, is interesting, in that it starts out with a forward from a descendant of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, to which tribe Squanto's village, Patuxet, also belonged.  This accounts, perhaps, for the short introduction to the Wampanoags in the beginning of the book (4-5), and hopefully gives the reader a little confidence as to the veracity of the Native American portions of the narrative.  Unfortunately, they did not date check; the Graffs have Squanto leaving for England with Captain Weymouth for the first time in 1612 (7), when Weymouth actually left in 1605.  Once again, the Graffs have Squanto watching the European boat arrive at his homeland, although, unlike Bulla (who only alluded to the fact that Squanto was young when he first left America) the Graffs have given Squanto's age at this time as 14 (8).  In this book, Squanto is shown as quite a curious lad, making contact with the men from the ship before he tells his village about their arrival (15-17), and then getting in trouble for it from his parents and the chief (19-21).  Still, he is politely asked to come with them, and is given permission by the tribe (23-24).  All of this little scene makes one wonder if the Graffs are not at least partially basing this portion on Bulla's earlier (fictional!) account, since there is no historical evidence pointing to the assumption that Squanto left willingly the first time, and even some evidence that he was tricked into it (Yaffles, "Taken to England"). 

            For the next little while, the Graffs have Squanto working for Captain Weymouth in England, being fascinated by the new sights, and finally, starting to feel homesick, all in a stretch of a few pages (25-28), until, in 1614, Weymouth tells him about John Smith's expedition to America (29).  Once again, Smith's expedition is quickly skated through, so that the more juicy details of Squanto's capture by Hunt can be speculated over (Graff, 30-32).  Since it is known that some of the other Indians kidnapped by Hunt were also Patuxet, conversations in that hold on the way to Malaga must have been interesting, and seem to have fired the imaginations of these first two biographers, at least. 

            Although the Graffs’ version of Squanto’s stay in England is slightly more realistic than Bulla’s (if somewhat shorter than actual history dictates), Bulla’s earlier influence again seems to dominate in this coverage of Hunt’s kidnapping and attempted sale, as Squanto is again rescued at the last minute, by some monks, as they are called this time (32-36).  The Graffs continue to sound like a toned-down version of Bulla as the monks apparently release Squanto as quickly as possible, whereupon he makes his way to England and works for John Slaney before finally finding passage back to America in 1619 with Captain Dermer, only to discover his village deserted (37-40). 

            It is only at this point in the story that the Graffs really seem to come into their own, and leave Bulla’s interpretation behind.  It is right about now that there starts to be a lot of documentation about Squanto’s life and actions (at least compared to the dearth of information previously!), and the Graffs do not seem to have Bulla’s difficulty in forming their narrative to fit historical fact.  Now they start relating stories which none of the other biographers bother to mention. One such incident is the time when Squanto helped Captain Dermer after Dermer had gotten himself captured by the Wampanoag.  This happened a short time after discovering the loss of Patuxet, and it was only through Squanto’s intervention that Dermer’s life was saved (Graff, 41-45). 

            The next major event, chronologically, is when Samoset comes to tell Squanto that the Pilgrims have landed where Patuxet used to be, thus entangling Squanto’s life with those of the Plymouth Colony (49).  Squanto helps Miles Standish and Governor Carver work out a treaty with Massasoit, and then stays with the Pilgrims (Graff, 50-53).  The Graffs are then the only biographers who mention the existence of Hobomok, the Wampanoag who eventually takes Squanto’s place as interpreter after Squanto’s death, and who also lived with the Pilgrims (59).  They are the only ones to cover Squanto’s help rescuing Johnny Billington when the boy got lost, and was recovered by the nearby Nauset Indians (61-62).  After this is the obligatory first Thanksgiving coverage, all due, of course, to Squanto’s help in showing the Pilgrims how survive in the New World.  Then the Graffs are again the only ones who mention the threat the Narragansetts gave to the Pilgrims, in the form of a snakeskin filled with arrows.  It was Squanto’s advice to fill the snakeskin with gunpowder and balls, thus intimidating the Narragansetts and keeping the peace (67-69).

            But perhaps one of the most interesting things which only the Graffs attempt to cover are the charges leveled against Squanto by other Indians, saying he was attempting to use his influence with the Pilgrims to control the nearby Indians (72-73).  In the Graffs’ version, this charge is leveled by Hobomok (who is shown as a somewhat contentious character), and denied by Squanto; the Indians react by demanding that Squanto be turned over to them, while “[t]he Pilgrims believed Squanto” (Graff, 74).  It is fascinating that the Graffs felt the need to whitewash one of the few instances in which one is able to get a glimpse of Squanto’s true character; one of the web sites on Squanto’s life has a fascinating quote from Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth Pilgrims, giving a more accurate account of the reactions of the Pilgrims:

“ ‘Thus by degrees we began to discover Squanto, whose ends were only to make himself great in the eyes of his countrymen by means of his nearness and favor with us; not caring who fell so he stood… In general his course was to persuade them he could lead us to peace or war at his pleasure, and would oft threaten the Indians, sending them word in a private manner, we intended shortly to kill them, that thereby he might get gifts to himself to work their peace, insomuch as they had him in greater esteem than many of their sachems. For these and like abuses the governor sharply reproved Squantum.’ " (Yaffles, “End of Life”)


Although the Pilgrims were not best pleased with Squanto, they did not want to lose their best translator; still, to make peace, they might have turned him over, as Massasoit had demanded, if the sighting of a ship on the horizon had not completely distracted everyone (Yaffles, “End of Life”).  Instead of admitting this less than heroic version of their hero, the Graffs have the Pilgrims ready to battle their Indian neighbors to protect an unfairly accused Squanto, until the ship distracts everyone (73-74).  Finally, the Graffs wrap their book up with an account of Squanto’s death a few months later, when he fell sick on a short trading trip (78-80).

            Probably the Graffs touched up this last peccadillo because they did not want to confuse the children by showing Squanto as less perfect, especially after having sung his praises for the previous seventy pages. Still, after the fiction in Bulla’s book, they are a definite improvement, and should be given credit for attempting to cover areas of Squanto’s life which all the others skipped over.  Even the pictures are an improvement; the tri-color illustrations are at least able to make the skin color differences plain, and the pictures are more plentiful, and usually bigger than in the previous book. 

            The next biography to look at is Squanto: The Pilgrim Adventure, by Kate Jassem.  As these biographies progress, each one tends to get shorter, and to have more illustrations.  While the first two books were aimed at a more literate audience, this book seems to be targeting a younger audience, as it generally has no more than ten to fifteen lines of text per page, and has a picture on almost every page.  Once again, this narrative starts off with a fourteen-year-old Squanto sighting the incoming ship (Is Jassem once again basing her book on the one before?  There is no way to know exactly how old Squanto was at this point!), and running to tell the village (Jassem, 5-7).  Once again, Weymouth politely asks Squanto if he wants to go, and Squanto eagerly gets approval from his tribe (12-14).  Unlike her predecessors, Jassem makes mention of the fact that Weymouth did not head directly back to England; Weymouth was exploring the coast of New England, and Squanto’s tribe was neither their only stop nor their last one (16).  Also unlike the previous two, Jassem does not really mention dates. Perhaps this is because she does not want the children to be confused or put off by such details; she does, after all, mention time span, such as the nine years Squanto spent in England this first time (Jassem, 20), so she must have had these dates available, and probably correct, as well.

            Jassem spends the next five pages of her book covering Squanto’s voyage with John Smith, longer than either of the other two, which is saying something, since her book is only half the length of Bulla’s, and about thirty pages shorter than the Graffs’.  It is finally acknowledged that Squanto was doing more than just hitching a ride home; he was allowed to come along so that he could help as Smith mapped out portions of the coastline in the New World.  Jassem even fit in a quick reference to Smith’s earlier encounter with Pocahontas (21-25).  After having spent so much time on Captain Smith, the story then flies through Captain Hunt’s nefarious role in a couple of quick pages; perhaps Jassem did not want to have to make the kids deal with such unpleasant topics for long.  She does make one observation that none of the other biographers wanted to touch, when she says, “In Spain, Squanto was sold in the slave market.  For several years he worked for his masters…” (Jassem, 28).  There is some dispute over whether or not Squanto was sold as a slave and then escaped, or whether he was rescued at the last moment; historical records are somewhat ambiguous on this point, although the more commonly held view (at least in these biographies) is that he was rescued by some Franciscan friars (Yaffles, “Slave Trade”).  Personally, the more plausible view would be that Squanto was sold as a slave, perhaps to the friars. (Who says men of God couldn’t be slave owners?)

            Another point which only Jassem covers is the fact that, after getting back to England for the second time, Squanto then hops a boat for Newfoundland, NOT directly to New England (28-29).  This is because there were no established settlements at this time in New England, and thus, no trading routes, but there WAS a settlement in Newfoundland.  It then takes several months before he can find passage further south (Jassem, 30).

            Next, of course, Squanto must discover that his village has been wiped out, and this particular book then has Squanto living in the woods until Samoset tells him about the Pilgrims (Jassem, 34-35).  Squanto then goes to meet the Pilgrims, helps Massasoit create the peace treaty, and finally stays to teach the Pilgrims about the land (Jassem 38-44).  Jassem ends her narrative with a quick account of the first Thanksgiving, although there is a brief after word about his death.

Although this book is not bad, factually speaking, it is not particularly eye-catching.  The biggest reason for this insignificance is the illustrations; it might have been more successful if the illustrations had been more interesting.  Although they are not bad, the watercolor pictures done solely in shades of brown are nothing more than bland, and are not much help as the reader tries to visualize the text, and they are unlikely to catch a child’s eye as s/he scans the shelves.

The final biography under examination, Squanto: The Indian who saved the Pilgrims (1500(?)-1622) by James R. Rothaus, immediately stands out for several reasons; first of all, it does not start out in narrative, and it is refreshing to find a book on Squanto which does not start with him running back to his village to tell everyone about the ship.  Secondly, Rothaus is the first one to tell his audience that Squanto’s real name is Tisquantum; over the years, only the name Squanto seems to have stuck in the general public’s mind, but people of his time seem to have often called him by his full name, as well as several different variations such as Tisquanto, Squantum, and Squanto. 

Another unique feature of Rothaus is the way he covers Squanto’s first trip to England, saying”[Weymouth] kidnapped five Indians and brought them back to England…Many historians believe that one of these Indians was Tisquantum.” (Rothaus, 9).  This is the first biographer to admit that Squanto had not been eagerly waiting for the English to cart him off.  Because of the abrupt way Rothaus describes Squanto’s transplant into England, he does not have to explain why Squanto spent so much time in England; it is not as if Squanto had a great deal of choice in the matter.

One oddity about Rothaus’s text which emerges at this point, and seems to be rather disruptive, is the way that he switches his writing styles.  While the first third of the book has been written in an informative, somewhat impersonal style, he suddenly switches to narrative for Squanto’s encounter with John Smith, and thereafter, tends to switch back and forth interchangeably.   In the interests of time, and to keep it simple for his projected audience, Rothaus does not spend much time on any one part of Squanto’s story at this point; even Hunt’s betrayal only gets a few sentences (16).  Rothaus does have Squanto rescued by monks (17); perhaps he feels that it is easier for the kids to understand if he just chooses one of the possibilities, rather than try to explain ambiguity, and so chooses the more palliative option.

Like Jassem before him, Rothaus pretty much skips over what Squanto did in England the second time, although he does see fit to mention the difficulties the Pilgrims are having in England right about this point (20), giving a fair idea of what his emphasis will be later on in the story.  The next time Squanto comes up is when Dermer is taking him home via Newfoundland, where they find out about Squanto’s village (Rothaus, 21), and where Dermer parts company with Squanto, at least in this kiddie version. 

Once again, Rothaus goes right back to the Pilgrims, ignoring Squanto almost completely for a page and a half, even though this is supposed to be his story.  Here, Samoset walks into the Pilgrim settlement saying “ ‘Welcome’ in the English he had learned from Squanto.” (Rothaus, 25), when, in fact, Samoset “…had learned some broken English among the Englishmen that came to fish at Monchiggon, and knew by name the most of the captains, commanders, and masters that usually came [along the New England coast]” (Johnson, “Mourt’s Relation”).  Then, after Samoset tells Squanto about the Pilgrims, Squanto does the usual hero’s rush that all the other biographies have as well, where Squanto almost single-handedly negotiates the peace treaty, handles other Indian relations, and shows the Pilgrims what they are doing wrong (Rothaus, 25-28), as if Massasoit or the rather firm-minded Pilgrims would have tolerated such interference, even if it had been benign.  Then there is a quick paragraph on the first Thanksgiving, another quick paragraph on Squanto’s death a year later, and finally, an equally quick paragraph summing up modern opinion on Squanto.  The last sentence in the book is a rather standard example of how history has been rewritten to canonize Squanto, saying “[W]e remember Squanto – friend, helper, peace-maker, and brother.” (Rothaus, 30).  This is rather generally wrong; history has shown that Squanto was usually only a friend and helper (at least in the Pilgrims’ case, which is what is being referred to) only as long at this help also furthered his own cause.  Squanto was rather demonstrably NOT a peace-maker, almost starting a war at one point (Yaffles, “End of Life”), and whether he would have considered himself a brother to the Pilgrims is debatable, but rather unlikely.

Rothhaus is aiming at the youngest audience yet; his book is the shortest, and has a fairly large font size, and fairly easy words.  His is also the most successful visually; there tend to be large, colorful pictures on every other page.  His could have been one of the best biographies, for all that it is the shortest (or perhaps because it is the shortest, keeping him from letting his imagination get away from him!), if only he could have smoothed out his presentation style a little, and kept from dumbing down portions of the story to supposedly make it easier for children to understand.

All of these biographies were a little disappointing; Bulla was a complete write-off, but each of the other three had parts which they covered more accurately than the others.  It would be nice if one could take the beginning of Rothaus’s text, up to the end of Squanto’s first stay in England, the middle of Jassem’s text, from Squanto’s voyage with Captain Smith until his second, and final, trip back with Captain Dermer, and the end of the Graffs’ text, with all the details of Squanto’s life after he finally got home to stay.  Such a biography might make for bit of a hodge-podge, but at least would be pretty much correct, barring, of course, the Graffs’ fudging in regards to charges brought against Squanto. Of course, no children’s biographer is likely to tell this part correctly at any rate, since it does not place Squanto in the best light.

Squanto did, of course, play an important role in helping the Pilgrims adapt to the new land they found themselves in, whatever his personal reasons for helping them might have been.  He has an interesting history, which lends itself well to storytelling, and deserves to be written about, and even praised.  Still, the virtual whitewash he has gotten from children’s biographers over the years is a bit galling; kids, especially older kids, would probably appreciate hearing about those times when Squanto was less than perfect.






Works Cited

Baccalieu Consulting. “End of Life” Yaffles & Yaffles.  Last accessed: 12/7/00


Baccalieu Consulting. “Index for Squantum”. Yaffles & Yaffles.  Last accessed: 12/7/00


Baccalieu Consulting. “Slave Trade” Yaffles & Yaffles.  Last accessed: 12/7/00


Baccalieu Consulting. “Taken to England”.  Yaffles & Yaffles.  Last accessed: 12/7/00


Bulla, Clyde Robert. Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims.  New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, Company, 1954.


Graff, Stewart and Polly Anne.  Squanto: Indian Adventurer.  Champaign, Illinois: Garrard Publishing Company, 1965.


Jassem, Kate.  Squanto: The Pilgrim Adventure.  Mahwah, New Jersey: Troll Associates, 1979.


Johnson, Caleb.  “Mourt’s Relation” Mayflower Web Pages.  Last accessed: 12/7/00


Johnson, Caleb.  “The History of Tisquantum” Mayflower Web Pages.  Last accessed: 12/7/00


Rothaus, James R.  Squanto: The Indian who saved the Pilgrims (1500(?)-1622).  Mankato, Minnesota: Creative Education, Inc., 1988.