Few American-history texts mention or discuss the Pequot War of 1636-37 between the Puritans and the Pequot Indians of Connecticut. Neil Asher Silberman argues, however, that it deserves examination. In both its degree of violence and its covetous motivation, this conflict set the pattern of Anglo-Native American relations through 1890. Marked by racial and cultural differences and often fueled by the settlers’ desire for more land, the Indian wars frequently concluded with the near or total extermination of their adversary. Although New England had seen nothing like the Pequot War before, the colonists to the south in Jamestown had already tasted the ferocity of the Indians wars when 350 settlers–the entire settlement numbered under 2,000–died from a surprise Indian attack in 1622. In this and in the Indian wars to come, neither side held the patent on brutality.
The Pequot War displayed another element of future Anglo-Native American relations: Both white and Indian combatants deliberately used the other for their own benefit. The Narragansetts and Mohegans willingly joined with the settlers in the war against the Pequots. They were quite content to use the Puritans to gain the upper hand against their traditional Indian rival, just as the colonists were pleased to use the various Indian tribes to their own benefit. It was a partnership that would continue for the next 250 years.
THE OLD GRUDGE WAS TO BE SETTLED DECISIVELY, or so the governor and magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony hoped. Few could have predicted, though, that the hastily organized military campaign of fewer than a hundred Englishmen against a small tribe of Indians in southern New England would establish a pattern of violent settler-Indian confrontation that would spread across the entire North American continent during the next 250 years. Until the “Pequot War” of 1636-37, military conflicts in North America between Native Americans and arriving Europeans had been primarily local, meant to settle individual grievances or punish specific cases of kidnapping, murder, or theft.
Now, for the first time, not just individuals but entire nations were pitted against one another, with survival or extermination the ultimate stakes. The explosive chain of events that sparked the first full-scale war between European settlers and Native Americans in New England began on September 5, 1636, when a convoy of three ships from Boston bearing a force of 90 musketeers, officers, and pikemen dropped anchor in Pequot Harbor (now the Thames River between New London and Groton, Connecticut), determined to make a military point. John Endecott, the commander of the Puritan forces, carried instructions from Governor Henry Vane to parley with the Pequot. He was to demand that they immediately hand over the killers of Captain John Stone, an English trader who had been murdered by local Indians at the mouth of the Connecticut River in 1633. Because three years had passed and that crime had remained unpunished, the Puritans would also demand guaranties that no such incident would happen again. Endecott had further been instructed to demand a huge reparation payment–a thousand strings of the valuable shell beads called wampum-and to take several Pequot children back to Boston as hostages. If the Pequots proved so foolish as to ignore or refuse to comply with the Bay Colony’s ultimatum, Endecott was authorized to engage their warriors in battle and take the prisoners and the booty by whatever force necessary.
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When a Pequot ambassador paddled out in a canoe to find out why the Baymen had come into Pequot Harbor, Endecott instructed his interpreter to reiterate the charges that had remained unresolved since the first meeting between the two peoples in October 1634–almost two years before. In reply, Endecott once more heard the same excuses: that the men responsible for Stone’s murder were members of the neighboring tribe of Western Niantics, not Pequots; that Stone had tried to kidnap those Indians and hold them for ransom; and that in any case most of the responsible parties in this unfortunate incident were now dead.
Endecott had neither the time nor the patience to listen to the Pequots’ excuses; he had come to establish the Bay Colony’s supremacy over southern New England’s most powerful tribe. After suggesting to the Pequot ambassador that if his people “desire their own peace and welfare, they will peaceably answer our expectation,” he sent the man quickly off to summon Sassacus, the most powerful Pequot sachem (chief). As the ambassador paddled back toward the wooded eastern bank of the river, Endecott ordered his own ship’s boats lowered in order to ferry his well armed forces ashore.
Laughters Turns to Horror
Several hours passed as Pequot messengers shuttled back and forth between the sachem’s residence at the village of Weinshauks and the Puritan forces, who stood in a nervous cluster on the riverbank, sweating under their heavy helmets, corselets, and bandoliers. By afternoon it had become clear that the Pequots were merely delaying, and John Endecott resolved to prepare his forces for a fight. Like most of the other military leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Endecott had served in the English mercenary forces during the Dutch-Spanish wars in the Low Countries, where he had learned the art of carefully choreographed European combat. Now the time had come for Pequots and Puritans to join in battle. Therefore, directing one of the ensigns to unfurl the colors and ordering the drummer to begin a steady beat, Endecott led his men to a grassy clearing by the river that he chose as a suitable campaign field.
Unfortunately, the Pequots didn’t have the benefit of European training. A crowd of spectators soon gathered in obvious amusement at the edge of the clearing to watch the strangely attired Englishmen march to a drum beat and wave their colorful flag. “None would come near us,” complained Captain John Underhill, one of the Puritan officers, “but standing remotely off did laugh at us for our patience.” Naturally the Baymen, tense and ready for battle, did not appreciate the Pequots’ laughter. And as they angrily fired their muskets at the horrified spectators and relentlessly pursued them into the thick forests of the interior, a new phase of English Indian relations in southern New England got under way.
“We spent the day burning and spoiling the country,” John Underhill later reported with satisfaction, and “no Indians would come near us, but ran from us, as deer from the dogs.” By the following day, when the Baymen returned to their ships and set sail for Boston, their demands were still un answered, but they had learned an important lesson: Static battle formations would be of little use in this American wilderness; more flexible tactics would have to be used. And the Pequots, for their part, returning to their homes to find a grim landscape of burnt wigwams, plundered com-storage pits, and lifeless bodies, had learned an equally useful lesson. Their conflict with the English would soon become a struggle for survival, and the presence of Puritan forces on their territory would never be a laughing matter again.
Native American Stories
Relations between the Pequots and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had never been easy. Each side confronted in the other a more formidable adversary than either had ever encountered. The Pequots, unlike the small, plague-ravished tribes of eastern Massachusetts, were a powerful nation. They had enjoyed more than 20 years of lucrative commerce in beaver pelts with Dutch traders from Manhattan and had extended their authority over the other tribes of the Connecticut shoreline and far up the Connecticut Valley. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, on the other hand, were no less powerful in seventeenth-century New England politics. Unlike the few canny Dutch traders who cared only for commerce, or the few “Pilgrims” of Plymouth, these Englishmen had begun arriving in large numbers in the early 1630s, bringing along their wives, children, hogs, and cattle, to establish new “plantations” and to take over large amounts of land.
Only a sudden decline in the fur trade of the Connecticut Valley had brought the two peoples together. The Pequots, falling out with the Dutch in a violent trade dispute, sought an alliance with Boston in 1634. The leaders of the Bay Colony were wary, but intrigued by the possibilities for trade and settlement. The matter of Captain Stone’s murder by Pequot tributaries, though never completely resolved in the treaty negotiations, was not brought up again for nearly two years. But by the summer of 1636, the unpunished death of an Englishman proved a useful pretext for solving an even more pressing problem. For by that time, the leaders of the Bay Colony were engaged in a struggle for power within the colony itself.
During the previous fall and winter, dissident groups from the Bay Colony towns of Dorchester, Watertown, and Newtown (later renamed Cambridge) had founded the towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield in a massive westward migration (the first of its kind in American history) to the rich farming lands of the Connecticut Valley. Their aim was to escape the tight political and religious control of the Bay Colony’s leaders, and they settled on land traditionally claimed by the Pequots, where English territorial claims were, at best, vague. The leaders of the Bay Colony were determined to maintain unquestioned legal control over the colonists in Connecticut, and that’s apparently why they suddenly brought up the issue of Stone’s murder. They believed that by conquering or establishing their supremacy over the Pequots, they would inherit a legal claim to the Connecticut Colony’s land.
Endecott’s hit-and-run attack on Pequot Harbor was, however, a disaster. The Pequots’ military response was not long in coming, and it was directed squarely at the small garrison at the mouth of the Connecticut River-Fort Saybrook–which the Bay Colony had established to maintain at least the legal fiction of control over the rebellious plantations farther upstream. All through the fall and winter of 1636-37, Lieutenant Lion Gardiner and his garrison at Fort Saybrook faced the wrath of the Pequots, who monitored all English movements and attacked any Puritans foolish enough to wander beyond the fortifications or to sail up the Connecticut River alone.
As frantic messages from Fort Saybrook arrived in Boston, it became clear that something had to be done. If Fort Saybrook were to fall, the Connecticut settlements would be the next targets. And if the dissident colonists there were sufficiently provoked and defeated the Pequots in battle, they would have earned, by right of territorial conquest, complete freedom from Bay Colony control. So on April 18, 1637, seven months after Endecott’s initial attack on Pequot Harbor, the governor and magistrates of the Bay Colony decided to put an end to the question of the rights to Connecticut once and for all. Meeting in General Court, the assembled magistrates and ministers planned not a raid but an enormous expedition, drawing troops from Boston, Plymouth, and Connecticut–under strict Bay Colony supervision-to deal the Pequots a fatal blow.
There might have been a way out of this looming conflict had the Bay Colony really desired peace and friendship with the Pequots, for by the spring of 1637-with the approach of planting season–the Pequots themselves were looking for a way out. After months of attacks and relentless siege tactics against Fort Saybrook, and having satisfied their injured honor with the deaths of thirteen Puritan colonists and traders, they sent three ambassadors to meet with Lieutenant Gardiner. “Have you fought enough?” they asked the English commander. They hoped that diplomacy would now take its course and the conflict would be resolved in the traditional Indian way.
But Gardiner, aware of the Bay Colony’s preparations, was in no position to end the hostilities with the Pequots, and his evasive responses to their cease-fire proposal infuriated the Pequot emissaries. “We are Pequots and have killed Englishmen,” they angrily responded, “and can kill them as mosquitoes, and we will go to Connecticut and kill men, women, and children, and we will take away the horses, cows, and hogs.” Up to this point, they had centered their attacks on Fort Saybrook, but since they had now been dishonorably rebuffed by its commander, they decided to change their strategy. On the morning of April 23, 1637, they struck a more vicious blow against the English. A force of 200 Pequot warriors suddenly descend ed on the fields of Wethersfield–a village 30 miles upstream from Fort Saybrook–killing six men and three women, and taking two girls away.
Ensuring Their Own Long-Term Defeat
In ordering this direct attack on English settlers rather than soldiers, the Pequot leaders ensured their eventual downfall. They had now provoked far more dangerous adversaries than the sedate ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As news of the attack on Wethersfield spread to the other towns of the Connecticut Colony, its outraged inhabitants recognized that they had finally gained a legitimate justification for independent conquest. Two weeks later, after the assembled leaders of the Connecticut plantations had authorized their own “offensive and defensive war” against the Pequots, a combined force of 80 Connecticut volunteers and a 100 Indian allies set sail down the river toward Fort Saybrook. The Pequot War would soon turn even bloodier. A race for the right of conquest was on. Major John Mason, commander of the hastily assembled and poorly trained Connecticut militia, arrived at Fort Saybrook on May 16 with a detailed strategy. He was well aware that his force of farmers and trades men was not capable of organized battle, and that his erstwhile Indian allies–the inland Mohegans, led by their sachem, Uncas–sought only their own gain by taking advantage of the Pequots’ misfortunes. Mason therefore planned to strike a blow at the Pequots that would not require his men to confront experienced warriors in a fair fight on a campaign field. Since terror had proved effective during Endecott’s earlier expedition, Mason decided to launch a surprise attack on one of the Pequots’ main villages; he believed he could “put them to the sword and save the plunder” for his men and the Connecticut Colony.
Mason, like Endecott, was a veteran of the wars in the Low Countries, yet he had perceptively recognized another European model as more appropriate for his military strategy. Southern New England was not, after all, the land of the Prince of Orange. It was much more like the uncivilized countryside of Ireland, where for the last half century English forces had been trying to subdue the local Irish population and establish their own colonies. In the course of that struggle between armies and clansmen, the English had learned that “uncivilized” enemies could be demoralized by raiding and destroying their villages. Since the technique had proved so successful in the Old World, Mason decided to test it in the New.
Bay Colony leaders were already contemplating a similar strategy. They would attack one of the two main Pequot villages under cover of darkness, execute all its warriors, and spare only the women and children who might be useful as servants or slaves. On May 17-as it turned out, the day after Mason’s arrival at Fort Saybrook-Governor John Winthrop finally ordered a large Bay Colony expedition to undertake this mission. Three days later he dispatched 40 men under Captain Daniel Patrick to rendezvous with the Pequots’ eastern neighbors–and longtime enemies–the Narragansetts, to prepare for the upcoming terror campaign. But Mason, it turned out, had departed from Fort Saybrook by sea and was also headed for Narragansett territory, with the same purpose.
When reports reached Boston of Mason’s unauthorized expedition, Governor John Winthrop and his colleagues became justifiably concerned. Mason’s anticipation of the Bay Colony’s tactics, though aimed at the same military objective, would endanger the Bay Colony’s territorial claims. So as Captain Patrick and his forces made their way southward through thick swamps and forests toward Narragansett Bay, they dispatched a runner to Major Mason to command him to wait. Mason, however, was intent on pursuing the claims of Connecticut, without any Bay Colony interference. After picking up Narragansett supporters, he crossed westward into Pequot territory at once, to attack where least expected.
The outcome was bloody beyond even the most sordid Puritan expectations. Two hours before dawn on Friday, May 26, 1637, the combined Connecticut and Indian forces reached a ford in the Mystic River, stopped to pray, and then proceeded southward to execute their bloody work. At the foot of a hill occupied by one of the two main Pequot villages, Mason divided his forces for the surprise attack. A sudden burst of English musket fire broke the predawn silence, and as Mason led one detachment of soldiers through a gate in the timber palisade that surrounded the village, they drew their swords, prepared to massacre every Pequot they could lay their hands on-in this case, several hundred women, children, and old men.
The Pequots, fearing an attack by the English in the direction of Fort Saybrook, had concentrated their main force of warriors at the other stockaded village, at Weinshauks, where their sachem, Sassacus, resided. The Pequot village of Mystic (in present-day Groton) was therefore ill equipped to defend itself. As terrified Pequot families began to flee down the main street of the village, they discovered that their only escape route was blocked by the other detachment of Puritans, who, with swords drawn and ready for action, were waiting for them inside the village’s southern gate.
By this time Mason had realized that hacking so many terrified noncombatants would probably be too bloody for his inexperienced soldiers, and he ordered them to put their swords away. Making his way to the nearest wigwam, he grabbed a brand from a smoldering hearth fire. “We must burn them!” he screamed to his men. Panic gripped the villagers as Mason’s soldiers set the highly flammable reed shelters alight. “And indeed,” Mason later reported in his memoirs, “such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and run into the very Flames.” As the fire spread quickly among the closely packed wigwams, Mason ordered his men to retreat. Once outside the wall, determined not to leave the work unfinished, he arrayed his troops in a tight ring around the burning village to prevent the escape of any of its inhabitants. While some tried desperately to climb over the high stockade wall, others resigned them selves to the flames. Only about 40 managed to escape the inferno, but emerging from the gates of the stockade, they were met by a concentrated volley of musket fire. The few who survived the flames and the gunshots, according to one of the Puritan officers, were “received and entertained with the point of a sword.” Never before had there been such a complete massacre of noncombatants. Within an hour approximately 500 Pequot men, women, and children were killed outright; only seven were taken prisoner, and not more than a handful escaped with their lives.
“Great and doleful,” reported Captain John Underhill, a participant in both Endecott’s and Mason’s expeditions, “was the bloody sight to the view of young soldiers that had never been in war, to see so many souls lie gasping on the ground, so thick, in some places, that you could hardly pass along.” Mohegans and Narragansetts who had joined the expedition in hope of inheriting the Pequots’ power were now clearly horrified by the Englishmen’s method of war. “It is naught, it is naught,” many of them told Captain Underhill before they fled the scene of the killing, “because it is too furious and slays too many men.”
But Major John Mason had achieved his objective, which, as a good Puritan, he saw as the work of Almighty God. “Let the whole earth be filled with his Glory,” he proudly wrote many years later at the conclusion of his account of the Pequot War. “Thus the Lord was pleased to smite our enemies in the hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance.”
The massacre at Mystic was not, however, the end of the smiting. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, determined not to allow the Connecticut forces to claim all the glory, went ahead with its own expedition against the Pequots. At the end of June, after a day of thanksgiving had been declared throughout the Bay Colony to celebrate the English victory over the Pequots, Captain Israel Stoughton arrived in Pequot Harbor with a force of 120 men. His main objective was to finish the killing, but the eradication of the Pequot tribe proved a more difficult task than it originally seemed. After landing his troops and reconnoitering the former heartland of Pequot territory, Stoughton found few potential victims. The village of Weinshauks, once the seat of the powerful sachem Sassacus, had been emptied of all its inhabitants and burned to the ground.
Mason’s Connecticut troops were not responsible for this additional act of destruction. After the massacre at Mystic, they had made their way over land to the Pequot River and, running short of ammunition and attacked by hundreds of enraged Pequot warriors, barely escaped with their lives. It was the Pequots themselves who had put the torch to their village at Weinshauks, for in a tribal conclave hastily convened in the aftermath of Mason’s attack, Sassacus had been powerless to persuade the other Pequot leaders to continue to fight. The English had shown that they had no standards of honor in combat, and most of the Pequot leaders, fearing that many more of their people would inevitably die in continued fighting, decided that they must now flee. Sassacus had no alternative but to do the same, and after setting fire to their fortress and wigwams, he joined a group of about 80 warriors and their families in a desperate flight westward along the coast toward the distant safety of the Hudson Valley. Another group of about 30 warriors and their families fled eastward to seek shelter with the Narragansetts, and a third group fled into a large swamp a few miles to the north that had long served the tribe as a secure place of refuge, a place they called Ohomowauke, the “Owl’s Nest.”
Determined to return to Boston with something to show for his efforts, and learning of the whereabouts of that group of fugitives. Captain Stoughton ordered his men to march northward toward the Owl’s Nest under cover of night. Somewhere in the vicinity, they captured 80 Pequot women and children, more than half of whom were quickly shipped off to Boston as slaves. Twenty-four Pequot warriors who were also taken prisoner faced immediate execution, but two escaped beheading by promising to lead Stoughton’s forces to an even more valuable objective: the hiding place of Sassacus.
The Connecticut colonists, in the meantime, were not willing to have their rights of conquest contested, and they dispatched Major Mason and a force of 40 volunteers back to Pequot territory to join Stoughton’s pursuit of Sassacus. Sailing westward along the coast, the combined Bay Colony and Connecticut forces finally located their quarry at a place called Sasco–later renamed Fairfield–where about 300 of the fugitive Pequots had taken cover, as was their custom, in a heavily overgrown swamp. The Puritans surrounded the Pequots, as they had at Mystic, but this time the massacre was not as complete. Nearly 200 frightened women, children, and old men surrendered to the English forces and soon followed the earlier Pequot captives into slavery.
The warriors, however, fought hand to hand for their freedom, and though 20 were killed, more than 60 others escaped. Much to the Puritans’ disappointment, Sassacus, too, remained at large and, it was reported by reliable Indian informants, finally made his way safely–with only about 20 followers–across the Hudson River into Mohawk territory. But with the conquest and dispersion of his people, Sassacus could no longer depend on his wealth and reputation to protect him from danger. On August 5, 1637, several weeks after the demobilization of the Connecticut and Bay Colony forces, the scalps of Sassacus, his brother, and five other Pequot sachems arrived in Boston via messenger as a sign of the Mohawks’ goodwill toward the apparent victors in the Pequot War.
With that symbolic action, the main fighting was over, though the matter of the legal rights of conquest to the Pequots’ territory remained for a while unresolved. Connecticut’s initial plan to establish a settlement at Pequot Harbor was firmly vetoed by the Bay Colony’s leaders, who claimed that they were entitled to share in the spoils. Angry petitions flew back and forth between Boston and Hartford until eventually the two sides reached an uneasy compromise. After a long legal battle, title to the now largely de populated Pequot territory was granted to the Connecticut Colony, though with a provision permitting a significant Bay Colony presence there.
In 1646 John Winthrop, Jr., the eldest son of the Bay Colony’s governor, established a new settlement at the former Pequot village of Nameag, just across the Pequot River from the “campaign field” where John Endecott and the Bay Colony forces had struck their first violent blow. To wipe out all memories of the earlier Pequot presence in this region, Winthrop renamed the place “New London” and rechristened the nearby Pequot River “the Thames.”
Surviving and reviving
IT’S CLEAR TODAY THAT THE PURITANS OF MASSACHUSETTS AND CONNECTICUT did not succeed in wiping out the Pequot tribe as thoroughly as they had hoped. Just off Connecticut State Route 214, about nine miles northeast of New London, the modern houses, clinic, and tribal offices on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation provide ample evidence that the Pequot nation refused to die. The massacres of 1637, for all their savagery, killed only about a quarter of the Pequot population–primarily those in large villages along the coast. With the extermination of the old tribal leadership, scattered bands began a long struggle to survive.
One of the largest groups was slowly hemmed into the tract of forest and swampland known as Mashantucket, around their traditional place of refuge, the Owl’s Nest. During the eighteenth century, much of that original 3,000-acre reservation was taken over by arriving Connecticut settlers, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, barely 200 acres were left. By 1910 only four Pequot families lived on the reservation, and by the early 1970s only three elderly women remained. But the old tribal traditions were never completely forgotten by the Pequot families who lived in other parts of southern New England, and when the state of Connecticut proposed that the last, tiny fragment of Pequot territory become a public park, the surviving Pequots were unwilling to see their claim to the land taken away from them.
In 1975 Richard Hayward, the grandson of one of the remaining residents of the reservation, began mobilizing his people for the legal and political struggle that eventually brought the Mashantucket branch of the Pequot tribe to life again. In 1983, with federal recognition and a cash settlement of $900,000 to compensate them for the lost lands of their original reservation, the Mashantucket Pequots began to buy back every available parcel of adjoining real estate. Even though the old tribal lands, now occupied by cities, towns, shopping malls, beach resorts, and even a nuclear submarine base, could never be fully reclaimed, the Mashantucket Pequots at least established their reputation as wronged parties in early New England history.
In the woods just beyond the tribal offices, on every new parcel of land added to the reservation, and along the nearby coast of Long Island Sound, Dr. Kevin McBride and a team of archaeologists from the University of Connecticut have begun a painstaking reconstruction of 10,000 years of Pequot cultural history. McBride and his staff, supported by funds from the tribe’s annual budget, have already mapped and uncovered dozens of ancient Pequot sites, ranging from prehistoric rock shelters to seventeenth century hunting camps and even apparently an early-seventeenth-century settlement thought to be the doomed Pequot village of Mystic. These finds provide modem Pequots with a powerful new connection to their land and traditions, but have also reawakened bitter memories of the Pequot War.
Hayward, now serving as tribal chairman, has a unique perspective on that tragic seventeenth-century conflict, and he spoke about it frankly in his office at tribal headquarters. “I can’t help thinking about that old man,” he said. “I mean that ambassador who paddled out in his canoe when the English soldiers first arrived here. What could he have said to avoid all the bloodshed? What could he have done? So much has changed here that it’s probably impossible to guess how things could have been different. But we’ve got to keep on learning all we can about our history. And we’ve got to use the Pequot War as a lesson to ourselves and our children–about how important it is to keep our traditions alive.”
The landscape of the Pequots’ traditional tribal territory has changed dramatically since the early seventeenth century, but the sites of the major episodes of the Pequot War can still be found. At Saybrook Point, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, a small public park and a low timber fence mark the approximate location of the fort in which the small Puritan garrison was besieged and attacked by enraged Pequot warriors throughout the fall and winter of 1636-37. Nothing is left of the original Fort Saybrook; its remains were obliterated at the end of the nineteenth century by the construction of a railroad roundhouse and right-of-way. Today, the drifting scent of fried clams from the beachside drive-ins and the continuous hum of pleasure boats cruising up and down the Connecticut River make it difficult to visualize the complete isolation of Fort Saybrook when it stood at the edge of the tidal salt marshes as a lonely symbol of English authority.
A few miles to the east, Pequot Harbor–now the Thames River–is busy with seagoing traffic from the marinas and ferry dock of New London on the western shore and from the naval base at Groton on the east. The riverside “campaign field” where the Puritans, led by John Endecott, first challenged the Pequots is now covered by the sprawling modem warehouses, workshops, and dry-dock facilities of the Electric Boat shipyard, home and birthplace of America’s nuclear submarine fleet. Farther east, the remains of the Pequot War’s bloodiest battle lie buried in a quiet residential neighborhood of Groton. In the backyards and gardens of the expensive homes along Pequot Avenue, Dr. McBride has excavated portions of what seems likely to be the village destroyed before dawn on May 26, 1637, by Major John Mason and his force of Connecticut volunteers.
A larger-than-lifesize statue of Mason snatching his sword from his scabbard and striding manfully forward stands in the middle of a small traffic circle on Pequot Avenue. Erected by the state of Connecticut, belatedly, in 1889 to mark the 250th anniversary of the Mystic battle, its bronze inscription praises “the heroic achievement of Major John Mason and his comrades who near this spot in 1637 overthrew the Pequot Indians and preserved the settlements from destruction.” But Mason’s military achievement is no longer a cause for celebration in Groton; the Pequots’ legal battle to regain their tribal territory has become a source of concern. In fact, many Pequot Avenue homeowners were reluctant to allow archaeo logical excavations on their property, fearing that the discovery of ancient Pequot relics would spark a modem Pequot land suit.
The Pequots, however, are realistic. They have abandoned their territorial claims along the coastline and are devoting all their efforts to the development of their small inland reservation. There at Mashantucket, contemporary town houses, tribal offices, a clinic, and a highly lucrative bingo hall–attracting eager gamblers from as far away as Hartford, Providence, and Boston–have sprung up on land cleared from the forest. But while the battle sites of the Pequot War are today largely obscured, the Pequots have not forgotten them. Just off Connecticut Route 2, near the thickly wooded swampland that once served as the Pequots’ traditional place of refuge, stands a symbol of both modernization and continuity: an up-to-date restaurant built and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot tribal council and called, appropriately enough, “The Owl’s Nest.”
The author of Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology, and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East (1989), Neil Asher Silberman is an archaeologist and historian. His latest book is Invisible America: Uncovering Our Hidden Past.
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This article originally appeared in the Spring 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Pequot Massacres
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