New England, Early Seventeenth century: Strong cultural and religious differences exist between Native Americans and European settlers. In 1619, diseases carried by Europeans cause a massive epidemic, killing about 90% of of the Native population along the coast of New England. The epidemic does not reach the Pequots or their Narragansett and Niantic neighbors. Early Dutch settlers maintain a virtual trade monopoly with the Native Tribes for beaver furs used to make stylish hats in Europe. The arrival of the English in Massachusetts offers a trading alternative for the Natives. The Europeans view the Natives as heathens and agents of Satan. They also fear for survival in what they see as "the howling wilderness." These perceptions further fuel misunderstandings and miscommunications that will lead to bloodshed.
1633:A second epidemic does not spare any of the tribes. The epidemic, caused by smallpox, reduces the Pequot population from about 8,000 to about 4,000 and seriously affects other tribes in the region. The catastrophic loss of population upsets all aspects of Native life, creates uncertainty about the Natives' policy toward the Europeans, and increases competition for trade. These events, along with increasing Native-European trade conflicts, set the stage for disagreements resulting in violence and blood vengeance. Conflicts within and among the Native Tribes contribute to the confusion. Hostilities are mounting. Cousin and clan brother are pitted against one another.
Early 1634:Pequot strength is concentrated along the Pequot (now Thames) and Mystic Rivers in what is now southeastern Connecticut. In a desperate attempt by the Pequots to regain their trade monopoly lost to other tribes, they attack and kill some Narragansetts attempting to trade at a Dutch trading outpost called the House of Hope. The Dutch retaliate. In one of the skirmishes that follow, the Dutch kidnap the Pequot Grand Sachem Tatobem. Despite the Pequots' payment of a ransom, the Dutch execute him. With the death of Tatobem, his son Sassacus becomes Grand Sachem of the Pequots.
Spring 1634:A scurrilous Englishman and pirate named John Stone sails up the Connecticut River and kidnaps several Indians for ransom. Stone and his crew fail to keep a careful watch, and unidentified Indians board the vessel and kill all nine Englishmen aboard. The English blame the Pequots, and for two years, they demand that the Pequots deliver the heads of those who had killed Stone and his crew. The Pequots counter that if the killer of Stone was a Pequot, the Pequot must have killed him in retribution for the Dutch murder of Tatobem. The Pequots also assert that they would not know the difference between a Dutchman and an Englishman. The mystery of who killed Stone is never totally solved.
The Pequots invite the English to settle in Connecticut as a token of friendship and do not interfere with new settlements. In 1633, the English Puritan settlements at Plimoth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies begin expanding into the rich Connecticut River Valley to accommodate the steady stream of new immigrants from England.
1635:Pequot Uncas has plans that clash with Grand Sachem Sassacus' strategy in dealing with the Europeans. He is concerned that the only way for his people to survive inevitable violence with the Europeans (and to prevent being swallowed up by them) is to try to create a peaceful alliance with them. He breaks clan ties with the Pequots. Assuming the ancient Wolf Clan name of Mohegan, he forms his own tribe and chooses to align with the English. Uncas and his followers settle at Shantok.
Block Island, July 1636:Another death transforms the situation. Members of a Narragansett tributary tribe kill Captain John Oldham. Soon thereafter, a punitive expedition sets sail from Boston under the command of John Endicott to punish the Block Islanders and to demand the killers of John Stone from the Pequots in Connecticut. Captain Endicott believes he is working God's will against the savages. After a brief Indian resistance on Block Island, the Indians disappear. Endicott spends two days burning their empty villages, shooting stray dogs, and destroying Indian food supplies. Sailing on to Pequot territory, Endicott meets with Pequot envoys. He distrusts them and believes they are procrastinating. The talks break down and violence erupts. The colonist troops proceed in rampant destruction and looting.
The Pequots are furious. Directing their anger against the nearest Englishmen, they besiege Fort Saybrook the following fall and winter and attack the Wethersfield settlement. In response, the English declare war on the Pequots.
In the last hours of moonlight, May 26, 1637, English Puritans, with Mohegan and Narragansett allies, surround the fortified Pequot village at Missituck (Mystic). Within an hour, 400-700 men, women, and children are put to the sword or burned to death as the English torch the village. Unfamiliar with war targeted at civilians, for the first time Native Tribes experience the total devastating effects of warfare practiced by Europeans. The Mystic massacre turned the tide against the Pequots and broke the tribe's resistance. Many Pequots in other villages escape and hide among other tribes.
The English, supported by Uncas' Mohegans, pursue Sassacus and the retreating Pequots down the New England coast until most are either killed or captured and given to tribes friendly to the English. Some are taken by the English as domestic servants, and a few are sold into slavery. Sassacus and a few of his followers escape, but ultimately are executed by the Mohawks as a token of their friendship toward the English.
1638:The Treaty of Hartford dictates the terms of the English victory. The colonists outlaw the name Pequot , forbid the Pequots from regrouping as a tribe, and require that other tribes in the region submit all their inter-tribal grievances to the English and abide by their decisions. Gradually, with the help of sympathetic English leaders, the Pequots are able to reestablish their identity, but as separate tribes in separate communities: the Mashantucket (Western) Pequots and the Paucatuck (Eastern) Pequots, the first Indian reservations in America.
The Effects of War
Contact with European settlers and the resulting Pequot War had a profound and indelible effect on Native Culture in Northeastern America. In less than a generation, the world into which most surviving Indians had been born, and for which they had been prepared, vanished forever.
Although a small conflict by today's standards, the Puritans' religious rhetoric made their victory over the "heathens" in the Pequot War a significant factor in the formulation of Colonial/American Indian policy over the next three centuries. The underlying causes of the War are complex and its consequences are far-reaching. For the first time, northeastern tribes experienced the total warfare of European military methods. For the first time, the English Puritans realized they held the power to dominate the people they saw as Godless savages.
The story of the Pequot War is an American story, a key element in our colonial history. As noted historian Alden T. Vaughan wrote in his book New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians 1620-1675:
The story of the War also is a human story, an important part of American cultural history. Through this story, a larger issue is illuminated: the clash of cultural values that ultimately led to the domination of all Native American tribes by European settlers. On a more personal level, the story is especially significant for the descendants of the Native Americans and colonists who fought the War, as well as for all Native peoples across America. For many Native Americans, it sounds a theme that is not unique to seventeenth-century New England: dominance through subjugation of indigenous peoples. It later surfaced as the concept known as Manifest Destiny, and it echoed again and again across North America for the next 250 years. Many Native Americans believe it still echoes today.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:1. Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643 by Neal Salisbury. Copyright © 1982 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher.
2. The Pequot War by Alfred A. Cave(Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by The University of Massachusetts Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
3. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675 by Alden T. Vaughan. Copyright © 1965, 1979, 1995 by Alden T. Vaughan. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Used by permission of the author and the publisher.
4. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest by Francis Jennings. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture. Copyright © 1975 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
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