March 16, 2021, marks the 400th anniversary of a meeting that was crucial to the development of what would become the United States, involving a Wabanaki man from what would eventually be known as Maine.
Despite that meeting’s significance, however, in most classrooms across the country, few students are taught about Samoset, the Eastern Abenaki man who in 1621 became the first Indigenous person to make contact with the settlers at Plymouth Colony, better known today as the Pilgrims.
Rather, most schoolchildren learn about Tisquantum, who is more commonly known as Squanto, the Patuxet man who was the second Indigenous person to meet the Pilgrims, and who later became a much closer liaison between Natives and colonists than Samoset ever was, thanks to his fluency in English.
But Samoset was the first, according to David Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University and the author of “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.”
“He made that initial contact with the Mayflower colonists, and then very shortly, Squanto takes over, with his better English language skills, and Samoset takes his leave,” Silverman said. “But Samoset, an Abenaki man, was the first.”
According to Silverman, Samoset was a member of the Eastern Abenaki, at that time a network of loosely connected bands of Indigenous people who lived along and in between the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers. They were part of the broader Wabanaki people, which includes the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, among others.
While there are very few details about his background, it is known that Samoset lived at some point along coastal Maine, and that he spoke enough English to communicate with the colonists. Silverman suspects that Samoset had likely had dealings with other white settlers in New England, such as the Popham Colony in what is now Phippsburg, and with the English fishing fleet in the Gulf of Maine. He also suspects that Samoset likely had longstanding ties to the Wampanoag people, the tribe whose members lived where the Mayflower colonists landed in 1620.
That’s likely why Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag confederacy, recruited Samoset to be the first Indigenous person to extend initial diplomatic outreach to the Mayflower colonists. For several months after the colonists first arrived, the Wampanoag had been cautiously observing them, keeping a safe distance. Other, earlier European settlers in New England had violently attacked Indigenous people, raiding villages and murdering people, so Massasoit was understandably cautious.
“By the spring of 1621, Massasoit had decided it was time to reach out. He had two people among his group that could speak English, but he holds Squanto in reserve, choosing to send Samoset out first,” Silverman said. “[Samoset] doesn’t tell the colonists where, exactly, he’s from, but he tells them he’s ‘from the eastward,’ which means, essentially, Maine.”
After Squanto enters the picture, Samoset leaves and apparently heads back to what is now Maine. He turns up just one more time in any known documents, in a record a year later kept by an English sea captain named Christopher Leavitt. Still using his English skills, Samoset was brokering relations between Leavitt’s expedition and Native people. After that, almost nothing else is known about his life, though it is believed Samoset died sometime in the 1650s.
Silverman said that despite the shadowy details surrounding both Samoset’s life and many of the other interactions between Indigenous people and European settlers at that time, those early encounters had an enormous impact on the future. That it was a Wabanaki man who set into action a series of events that would irrevocably change the world has even deeper meaning for today’s Wabanaki, and for Mainers more broadly.
“These are deeply consequential things,” Silverman said. “If things went south between the Natives and the Mayflower settlers, like they did at Popham or in Roanoke, there’s no way that colony would have survived. These things would have changed the course of history. These are events that have reverberations for centuries to come.”