First Formal Contact Between English Colonists and Native Americans

Samoset (ca. 1590 – 1653) was the first Native American to make contact with the Pilgrims.

On March 16, 1621, the settlers were more than surprised when Samoset strolled straight through the middle of the encampment at Plymouth Colony and greeted them in English. He was a member of an Abenaki tribe that resided at that time in Maine. He was a sagamore (subordinate chief) of his tribe and was visiting Chief Massasoit. He had learned his broken English from the English fishermen that came to fish off Monhegan Island. After spending the night with the Pilgrims, he came back two days later with Squanto, who spoke English much better than Samoset.

The orthography of Samoset's name varied depending on which Englishman was discussing him. Although he appeared as Samoset in some accounts, in others he appeared as Somerset. This odd Anglicisation of this American Indian name probably came naturally to English explorers, many of whom hailed from the West Country. Even Captain Christopher Levett, a Yorkshireman, referred to this Native American as Somerset in his account of his journey to explore New England in 1623 and 1624.

The Pilgrims lived out of the Mayflower, and ferried back and forth to land to build their storehouses and living houses: they labored all through the winter months of December, January, February, and didn't start moving entirely to shore until March. And during that entire time, they saw almost no signs of any Indians, aside from a few fires burning in the far distance. On March 16, they got a surprise: an Indian named Samoset walked right into the Colony and welcomed them in broken English. Samoset was from an Indian group in Maine, and had picked up a few English words from the fisherman that came into the harbors there. He informed them there was an Indian, Tisquantum, who had been to England and could speak better English than he could.