Home Connecticut American Genocide: The Mystic Massacre of 1637

American Genocide: The Mystic Massacre of 1637

Tragic episode in the Pequot War

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Many modern New Englanders have heard of the Great Swamp Fight (Great Swamp Massacre) of 1675 that took place in Rhode Island during King Philip’s War. But few know of an equally horrific event that predated it in Connecticut 38 years earlier — the Mystic Massacre.

The Mystic Massacre: Background

“When a people is grown to such a height of blood and sin against God and man…there [God] hath no respect to persons, but harrows them, and saws them, and puts them to the sword, and the most terrible death that may be. Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with the parents….We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

Thus did Captain John Underhill, Massachusetts Bay Colony, justify the slaughter of hundreds of helpless Pequot women, children and the aged at Mystic, Connecticut Colony, in 1637.

Bas relief of Capt. John Underhill near the Underhill Burying Ground on Long Island.

The Pequot Indians were one of the numerous Native American tribes spread out throughout territory now called New England and Long Island when Dutch and English colonists arrived from the Old World. Up to the 17th century, the Pequot nation included the Mohegans, who split from the tribe and later turned into implacable enemies.

Modern archaeological and historical evidence has shown that the Pequots inhabited large portions of the area now known as Connecticut and the Connecticut River Valley. When the Europeans first arrived, they dominated the area between the Niantics in the west and the Narragansetts in the east. Estimates put the Pequot population at 16,000 in 1620.

A Pivotal Year

The year 1633 proved pivotal for the Pequot. Dutch settlers set up a trading post, the House of Good Hope, in Hartford. Then they seized and executed an important Pequot sachem, claiming violation of an agreement. That same year, an epidemic of some form of European-introduced disease wiped out 80 percent of the Pequot population.

Up to this point, the Pequot had powerfully opposed European incursion into their ancestral homelands. But their hegemony eroded swiftly as the English and Dutch carried out plans to expand trade and land ownership. The devastating epidemic and friction with neighboring Native American peoples also ate away at Pequot strength. Both the Dutch and the English waited to seize on any excuse to move against them.

A Murder Sets Off More Violence

In July 1636, Narragansett warriors allied with the Niantics raided an English ship near Block Island, killing a trader named John Oldham and some crew. Plymouth Colony had expelled Oldham as a troublemaker. The Narragansetts were rivals of the Pequot, and there is no evidence that the Pequot had anything to do with the raid. But proof didn’t matter, as with most colonial and later settler interactions with Native Americans. Retaliation against the Pequot followed swiftly. That inevitably led to Pequot raids. Pequot warriors raided Wethersfield in Connecticut Colony on April 23, 1637, killing six men and three women.

The turmoil in Connecticut and Block Island caused Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island colonists to get involved.  Massachusetts treated Oldhams’ death as a cause celebre, conveniently forgetting Plymouth Colony had expelled him. In August, Massachusetts Gov. Henry Vane sent a punitive expedition to Block Island. John Endicott led a party of 90 men, attacking empty villages, and claiming victory.

jack-oldham-pequot-war

John Endecott invades Block Island

He then marched along the coast to a Pequot village, making demands to give up the Niantic raiders. While the Pequots had given refuge to some of the Niantic raiders, they had no direct involvement in the killing of Oldham and his crew. Claiming that the Pequot were stalling, Endicott attacked and burned down the village and crops. Considering the Pequots had nothing to do with Oldham’s death, they were understandably upset.

Gathering Storm

Connecticut colonists then had to deal with the aftermath of the Massachusetts Bay Colony raid.

The Pequots had few allies. Only the Western Niantics joined them. Their traditional enemies, the Mohegans, joined the English. So did the Narragansett, urged by Roger Williams.

The spring of 1637 saw numerous raids on colonial settlements in Connecticut and the besieging of Fort Saybrook. For the Pequot however, spring marked the calm before the coming storm.

In May 1637, the colonial governments of Massachusetts and Connecticut decided to destroy the Pequot. For the English it was a crusade. For the Pequot, it was the coming Armageddon. Militias under Capt. John Underhill of Massachusetts Bay, Capt. John Mason of Connecticut Colony, and some volunteers from Plymouth Colony gathered near Mystick Fort (modern Mystic, Conn.). There warriors from the Narragansett and Mohegans joined them. They led the colonists to the site of the main Pequot fort.

The Mystic Massacre

Before dawn on May 26, 1637, colonial militia and their Indian allies surrounded one of two fortified Pequot villages at Mystick. Underhill, dividing his forces, began approaching the two village entrances. As they came forward, a dog sounded an alarm, alerting in turn an Indian, who called out “Owanux, Owanux” (“English, English”). Rushing forward, the attackers began firing into the village. The Pequot initially resisted, and they started to overwhelm 20 soldiers who had entered. Then the English set fires that rapidly spread, creating chaos.

Engraving depicting the attack on the Pequot Fort, published in 1638.

As the Pequot rushed to escape the fires, the waiting soldiers cut them down. It was a slaughter. The brutality and wanton killing shocked even the Narraganset and Mohegan allies.  One Native complained about the “manner of the Englishmen’s fight…because it is too furious, and slays too many men.”

It was not all one-sided initially, and the Pequot resisted where they could. But only a handful of warriors had manned the fort, trying to protect the rest: dependent women, children and the aged.

Casualties

The English killed between 400 and 700 Pequot. The Pequot killed two Englishmen and wounded 26. The disparity in deaths highlights the lack of warriors present.  In a small touch of irony, the English wounded about 40 Narraganset warriors because they had trouble telling one Indian from another. While there is some question as to the actual author, a quote attributed to Capt. Underhill noted:

Statue of John Mason at Mystic, since removed

“Captaine Mason [Connecticut] entring into a Wigwam, brought out a fire-brand, after he had wounded many in the house, then he set fire on the West-side where he entered, my selfe set fire on the South end with a traine of Powder, the fires of both meeting in the center of the Fort blazed most terribly, and burnt all in the space of hafe an houre…many were bujrnt in the Fort, both men, women and children, others forced out…which our souldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword; downe fell men, women, and children…not above five of them escaped out of our hands.”

Aftermath of the Mystic Massacre

The Mystic Massacre drained the spirit from the Pequot people and sent them on the run.  Abandoning their villages, they fled west along the coast to attempt to gain refuge with the Mohawks. There were about 400 warriors left, virtually none present at the massacre. The English eventually surrounded them in a swamp near modern Fairfield, Conn.  Called the Fairfield Swamp Fight, this time the mostly women and children were allowed to surrender. Sassucus, the Pequot chief, escaped with about 80 warriors and sought refuge with the Mohawk. The Mohawk in turn murdered him and his warriors, sending his head and hands back to the English at Hartford.

The Pequot War had now ended. The Narraganset and Mohegans met in Hartford and signed the Treaty of Hartford on Sept. 21, 1638. Only a few hundred Pequot survived the war. Some were divided up among the Narragansetts and the Mohegans. The rest were shipped as slaves to Bermuda, the West Indies or to colonial households. They were forbidden to call themselves Pequot or to ever inhabit their native land again.

Treaty of Hartford

The English viewed the victory over the Pequots as an act of God.

Survival of the Pequots

While all the actions of the colonists were directed to the extermination of the Pequot, in the end the Pequot identity survived. In another small touch of irony, the Mohegans treated their Pequot captives so badly that Connecticut Colony removed them to two reservations in 1683. Since that happened 66 years after the massacre, it seems likely that only a handful of these people were actual survivors of the massacre.

Mashantucket Pequot Museum Exhibit showing Pequot warrior (Ledyard, Conn.)

By 1910, there were only 66 Pequot listed on the U.S. Census. While numbers continued to fall, they rose again beginning in the 1970s. Various lawsuits followed resulting in a settlement for land illegally sold in 1856. In 1983, the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Land Claim act was passed. It recognied them as a tribe by Federal definition, and allowed the buy-back of their lands to create a reservation. In 2002, the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation was formally recognized.

The Pequot War Origin Story

Lest one think that at least some of the past wrongs were righted by this recognition, the State of Connecticut opposed their formal recognition to prevent casinos being established. The Bureau of Indian Affairs then withdrew the recognitions. Perhaps the Pequot War of 1637 is not yet over.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly given the American penchant for myths, a Thanksgiving myth arose out of the massacre. The governor of Massachusetts Bay announced a celebration of thanksgiving for the “victory.” This has somehow been interpreted by some in modern literature as one of the origins of the Thanksgiving we know today. It has no more basis in reality than the Plymouth Thanksgiving story. At least the Plymouth origin story highlights a good narrative. The Pequot War origin story stems from the celebration of mass murder.

The author of this story, William Utley, recently published his second book, “Fort Niagara: The British Occupation from 1759-1796” with Patricia Kay Scott.

Images: Statue of John Mason at Mystic By MoonWaterMan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47118910. Pequot warrior By User: Stilfehler at wikivoyage shared, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23029164.

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