In 1634, Pequot Indians captured a vessel commanded by English trader John Stone at the mouth of the Connecticut River. They killed him in retaliation for the death of a Pequot leader. It was the only time in Stone’s life he could be considered innocent.
Stone was an independent trader who worked the New England coast. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reviled him for his rowdy ways, which included excessive drinking, blasphemy, bullying and sleeping with married women. He was, however, from a well-connected British family (a cousin was governor of Maryland). So rather than punish Stone, the Puritans banned him on penalty of death should he return.
As a freelancer, John Stone was half trader and half pirate, traveling between England, America and the Indies. He wreaked havoc as he went. He was, at one point, even accused of cannibalism. Stone kidnapped Indians and forced them to guide his ship and wasn’t above trying to sell them. His actions offended both the Indians and the colonists, who needed Indian trade.
As Stone took his small ship south into the mouth of the Connecticut River, he steered straight into a festering trade war. The Dutch West India Company had arrived in Connecticut in 1632, building a fort at the northeast corner of the Dutch New Netherland colony in the new world.
They built Fort Good Hope was at what is now Hartford. For a year the powerful Pequot tribe had exclusive rights to trade with the Dutch. But the arrangement angered other Indians in the area, notably the Narragansett.
Meanwhile, the English expanded into Connecticut with settlements of their own. They then stepped on Dutch claims and provided a competing trading partner that the Indians could deal with.
After a year of fighting, the Pequot leader Tatobem agreed that all tribes in the area could trade with the Dutch.
In 1634, however, the fighting continued and the Dutch stepped in with a rather ham-handed gesture. They kidnapped Tatobem and demanded ransom. After the colonists received the ransom, they delivered Tatobem back to the Pequot – already dead. Whether his murder was intended or not isn’t clear.
This development infuriated the Pequot. According to custom, the Pequot should either seek revenge by killing a Dutch leader or demanding a heavy payment. And so John Stone entered the picture.
Accounts of Stone’s arrival in Connecticut vary. He headed south hoping to find friendlier relations with the English in Virginia. One story holds that he arrived at an Indian settlement under pretext of trade, but soon he and his crew grew drunk and violent. Another version holds that the Pequot simply identified Stone as the target of their revenge plan.
Either way, John Stone didn’t finish his journey south to Virginia. Instead, the Pequot murdered him in Connecticut. While the Dutch may have accepted this as just, the British saw nothing just about it. Stone was not Dutch. How could his murder be seen as fair exchange for Tatobem – who the Dutch had killed? The Pequot acknowledged the error and tried to make payment to settle the dispute, but the British had other ideas.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to use Stone’s death to its advantage, hoping to gain something useful from his otherwise noxious life. At a meeting with the Pequot, the British laid out their demands: They would hand over Stone’s murderers for trial, cede territory to Massachusetts, and trade only with the English in the future.
Thanks, but no thanks, the Pequot replied, though eventually they and other Connecticut Indian Tribes would have little choice but to trade almost exclusively with the British. While the Dutch viewed the Fort of Good Hope as merely an outpost on the fringe of their New Netherland Colony, the British were expanding aggressively into Connecticut.
By 1642, the Dutch maintained just 15 men at Fort Good Hope. The British, meanwhile, were building a new town called Hartford, which would soon swallow up the fort. The Dutch council that ran the fort would note in council minutes:
Whereas our territory on the Fresh River (Connecticut River) of New Netherland, which we purchased, paid for and took possession of, and which in the year 1633, long before any Christians were on the said river, was provided with a blockhouse, garrison and cannon, has now for some years past been forcibly usurped by some Englishmen and given the name of Hartford.
‘Beating with mattocks’
The Dutch complained they had protested the English presence, but to no avail.
…They moreover treat our people most barbarously, beating them with clubs and mattocks, even to the shedding of blood…[W]e have…chosen patiently to suffer violence and to prove by deeds that we are better Christians than they who go about clothed with the outward semblance thereof, until in its time the measure shall at last be full.
When British and Dutch officials finally drew compromise boundaries in 1650, Hartford fell well within British territory. The Pequot, meanwhile, had suffered significantly from the loss of Tatobem. His son Sassacus would take over leadership of the Pequot, but only after a power struggle that resulted in many members of the tribe leaving.
Thanks to: The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America by Scott Weidensaul. This story about John Stone was updated in 2020.