The Pequot War is remembered as one of the first and most destructive colonial wars in early America – and, potentially, the first genocide. Sounds fun, right?!
A Brief History of the Pequot Nation
Prior to the English arriving, the Pequot Nation consisted of some 13,000 souls stretched across a large area of southern Connecticut. In the decades leading up to the arrival of the Pilgrims in the New World, the Pequot had expanded their influence in the area, creating a large trade network. By controlling the movement of shells used to make wampum – decorative assortments of beads that became increasingly popular as a trade item during the era of the European colonialism – the Pequots established themselves as the most powerful nation in southern New England.
Following European contact, the demographic catastrophes occuring up and down the east coast passed by the Pequot. Eventually, however, disease made its way into their towns. Once European pathogens arrived among the Pequot, their population of 13,000 fell to 3,000: a whopping 77% percent decrease. Nevertheless, they retained their spot as the preeminent nation in the area.
The Pequots’ dominant position in southern New England attracted the ire of several of their neighbors. The Mohegan (who some sources say were once part of the Pequot and split off under their leader Uncas) and the Narragansett vied with the Pequots for a better position in the geo-politics of the region.
This was the world into which the Puritans stepped.
Puritans Arrive in New England
From the moment they arrived in the Americas, the Puritans took a rather dialectical stance toward the Native Nations of New England. Like most other Europeans, when they arrived on the shores that became their new colonies, the Puritans found that they needed help. The Plymouth colony famously would not have survived had the Wampanoag Nation, led by Massasoit, not provided them with food. As they planted and stabilized their colonies, Puritan leaders proved more than willing to trade with Native Nations, and even ally with them in times of war, when it benefited them.
But, the Puritans also carried around a deep seeded mistrust of Native Americans. Before they had even left Europe, the would-be Puritan colonists read tales from other travelers and explorers about the idolatry and devil worship they perceived among the Indigenous populations they had met. While, in retrospect, these tales lack any level of cultural insight, the Puritans seemed to take them to heart. Perhaps this is why, despite all he did for them, Massasoit didn’t get an invite to the first Thanksgiving, and essentially had to party crash.
When they arrived in America, the practices of their Native American neighbors seemed to confirm their worst fears. According to one Puritan colonist, Reverend Samuel Purchase, the Native Nations of New England were “bad people, having little of Humanitie but shape, ignorant of Civilitie, of Arts, of Religion; more brutish than the beasts they hunt…captivated also to Satans tyranny in foolish pieties, mad impieties, wicked idleness…”
While they saw it as part of their mission in the New World to convert the peoples they encountered to Christianity, if those peoples declined their offer, or were thought to be a threat to Christians in America, the Puritans had no problem smiting them with the wrath of the Old Testament.
So, after Puritans arrived in the Pequots’ territory in Connecticut, intent on building another colony, it didn’t take too much to set them on the warpath.
A Preamble to the Pequot War: The Stone Affair
Ironically enough, the breaking point for Puritan aggression was the death of a man who had pissed off authorities in both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. Captain John Stone (not to be confused with Captain John Smith, Captain John Rolfe, or any other Captain John Somebody who came to the Americas seeking fame and fortune), made his living as a trader and/or pirate. In his forays through Puritan New England, he attempted to steal a ship from Plymouth and was kicked out of Massachusetts Bay due to what one historian labeled as “conduct unbecoming a Puritan asylum-seeker.”
A wanted man with the Massachusetts Puritans, Stone began making his way south to Virginia. On his way, he decided to make a stop on the Connecticut River, where his piratical crew kidnapped several West Niantic, an ally nation of the Pequots. While we don’t know exactly why the Pequot knew of the kidnapping, it seems they did and sent a party to follow Stone. When Stone’s crew made camp, a group of Pequot-West Niantic soldiers boarded the ship to rescue the kidnapped. In the ensuing fight, Stone was killed. Though it’s probably impossible to know whether a West Niantic or Pequot warrior dealt Captain Stone his fatal blow, the English whole-heartidly blamed the Pequot.
Following Stone’s death in 1634, the Pequot sent a delegation to Boston to offer furs and wampum to the Bay Colony, hoping to continue trade and friendship with the English. In return, the Bay Colony informed the Pequot emissaries of their “willingess to be friends to trade with them, but not to protect them.” For a military alliance, the Bostonians demanded Stone’s killers be turned over to them, so that they might doll out some of good old English justice.
For the Pequot and other Algonkian cultures, the payment of wampum was often used to atone for someone’s death. Not realizing the threat the English posed, and thinking the matter of Stone’s death settled, the Pequot never handed over Stone’s killers. The Puritans, however, continued to stew on the event, giving their already large (if unfounded) fears of the Pequot room to grow.
The Pequot War Begins
According to English sources, as part of their attempt to settle the Stone affair, the Pequot offered the Puritans in Boston the right to settle in Connecticut and promised to “further us what they could if we would settle a plantation there.” It didn’t take long for the Puritans to take the Pequot up on this promise. Less than a year later, in 1635, the Connecticut Company had begun the construction of forts for their new colony. By early 1636, colonists had set up shop on the Connecticut River.
Still carrying around the baggage from John Stone’s death, and fearful for the survival of their new colony, the Connecticut Colonists, and their cousins back in Boston, caught wind of an impending Pequot attack. Whether the Pequot ever intended to attack an English settlement is impossible to know, but the colonists’ minds were already so warped by fear and suspicion of Native Americans, that they readily believed an army was at their door.
In 1636, men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony set out on a preemptive and punitive expedition. And while that alliteration was fun, the results of the English foray into Pequot territory was not. Citing Stone’s death nearly three years earlier, the Bay Colony forces burned crops, plundered homes, and assaulted villages before returning to Boston.
Obviously, as a sovereign people, the Pequot could not let this stand. Thus began the cycle of violence known as the Pequot War.
The Burning of Fort Mystic
While a year’s worth of fighting constitutes the conflict we call the Pequot War, the most (in)famous battle occurred at Fort Mystic. Calling Fort Mystic a fort, however, is pretty generous – it was, in truth, a palisaded town.
The original battle plan for the English and their Native allies was to enter the town from the two openings in the palisades on either side of the village. But, their night time assault didn’t go off as stealthily as planned. As one of the English soldiers noted, “so it pleased God we came up within two rods of the Palisado [palisade], before we were discovered, at which time a dog began to bark, and an Indian cried out…” (37-38) With their cover blown, the English began shooting through the cracks in the wall before forcing their way into the town.
Pequot soldiers streamed out of their homes, while the women and children “hid under beds that they had.” (38) Realizing they could not outfight the Pequots within the town walls, which had proved more cramped than the English expected, the Puritan troops began to set their homes ablaze. As William Hubbardlater recounted, “entering one of their wigwams, I took a fire brand… and suddenly kindled a fire in the matters wherewith they were covered, and fell to retreat and surround the fort.”
WIth their homes now burning down around them, the Pequot fled through the openings in their towns walls, only to be met with guns and arrows. The English encircled the town, while their Mohegan and Narragansett allies formed a perimeter around the Puritan gunmen to catch or kill any Pequots who made it past the musketballs. As the Pequot tried to escape, they “were suddenly slain either by the English or Indians.”
According to one contemporary English account, “in little more than one Hour’s space was their impregnable Fort with themselves utterly Destroyed, to the Number of six or seven Hundred.”
The Aftermath of the Mystic Massacre
Hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children burned alive or were gunned down in the attack on their town near Mystic River. And though the English-Mohegan-Narragansett alliance counted this destruction as a win, once it was over they were still in the middle of Pequot lands.
As the English and their allies beat a retreat out of hostile territory, they met several Pequot attacks. The English, again, seem to have had the upper hand here. Though seventeenth-century firearms weren’t exactly accurate, their range worked as an effective countermeasure. According to one English commander, their forces killed hundreds more Pequots in these counterattacks and only lost one of their own men. On top of that, the English added even more wanton destruction, burning another town they came across during their retreat.
After Fort Mystic, the Pequot war effort broke down. They had sustained too many losses to continue, and, according to some sources, their sachem, Sassacus, was killed in the month following the attack.
With Pequot sovereignty disintegrating, and the Pequot people themselves fleeing to friendly Native Nations to seek asylum, the English dealt the final deathblow to the Pequot Nation. In 1638, Puritan, Narragansett, and Mohegan leaders gathered in Hartford, Connecticut to sign the Treaty of Hartford. The treaty, if you can really call it that given that the Pequot weren’t present, outlawed the Pequot language, seized all former Pequot lands (which, the treaty stipulated, the English would not share with their allies), and laid out the disbanding of any Pequot still left in the territory (many of whom were sold into slavery).
As the Treaty of Hartford seems to have been an attempt to wipe Pequot culture off the historical map, and the Pequot War itself proved so destructive to the once influential nation, many have asked, was the Pequot War genocide?
So, Was the Pequot War a Genocide?
The best answer is probably, “yes and no.” Though this is frustrating, it probably hits closer to the truth than taking a firm stance on one side or the other.
When the Puritan colonists arrived in the New World, they hoped to convert all the Native peoples they encountered to Christianity. So, when they first encountered the Pequot, they probably looked to create lasting bonds forged through the crucible of conversion. But, when Native Nations proved unwilling to convert to Christianity, or were perceived as a threat to the Christian communities of the New World, the Puritans saw no problem attending to these matters “as the children of the Old Testament dealt with the foes of Israel.” Indeed, they felt that “sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents” and that they “had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”
When the Puritan communities of Boston and Connecticut River perceived a threat from the Pequot, whether real or imagined, they sought to defeat this threat through war. But armed conflict is a far cry from genocide. As the Pequot War dragged on, however, the actions the English began to take certainly appear genocidal in nature.
In order to gain a firm grip on the sovereignty over the lands in Connecticut, Puritan combatants killed hundreds, if not over a thousand, Pequot men, women, and children during their attack on Fort Mystic and the retreat that followed. The following year, these same men followed up this Pequot demographic disaster by attempting to ban their culture through legal actions. This certainly sounds like genocide.
It’s important to note, however that when we speak of genocide here, we do not speak of the same type of ethnic cleansing that leaps out of the pages of twentieth-century history books.
I’d like to quote historian Michael Freeman, because he can sum it way better than I:
“To call this event genocide rather than a war is not to say that the Puritans were proto-Nazis nor that there were no significant differences between the Nazi genocide of the Jews and the Puritan attack on the Pequots. It is certainly not to rewrite history. It is, rather, to register the Pequot War for what it historically was: one of the many cases in which nation-destruction was part of the process of nation-building.”
Sources on the Pequot War
- Bill Anthes, “Learning from Foxwoods: Visualizing the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation,” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2 (Spring, 2008): 208.
- Jeremiah Jones, “Puritanism and American Exceptionalism: A Genealogy of Their Impact of Native Americans 1620-1864,” Digital Commons @ DU, 16.
- Michael Freeman, “Puritans and Pequots: The Question of Genocide,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2 (June, 1995): 284.
- Freeman, “Puritans and Pequots,” 287.
- Alfred A. Cave, “Who Killed John Stone? A Note on the Origins of the Pequot War, The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 3 (July, 1992): 515.
- Cave, “Who Killed John Stone?” 516.
- Cave, “Who Killed John Stone?” 517.
- Cave, “Who Killed John Stone?” 516.
- Lion Gardener, ed. W.N. Chattin Carlton, Relation of the Pequot Warres (1660), accessed via https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/38/.
- William Hubbard, A Narrative of the Indian Wars in New-England: From the First Planting Thereof in the Year 1607, to the Year 1677: Containing a Relation of the Occasions, Rise and Progress of the War with the Indians, in the Southern, Western, Eastern and Northern Parts of Said Country (New York: William Fessenden. 1814), 38. Accessed via Google Books.
- Hubbard, A Narrative of the Indian Wars in New-England, 39.
- John Mason, ed. Paul Royster, “A Brief History of the Pequot War (1736), Digital Commons @ University of Nebraska – Lincoln, 10.
- “The History of the Pequot War,” http://pequotwar.org/about/.
- “Pequot War,” https://connecticuthistory.org/topics-page/pequot-war/.
- Freeman, “Puritans and Pequots,” 284.
- Steven M. Wise, An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion on the Banks of the Cape (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2009), 33.
- Freeman, “Puritans and Pequots,” 293.