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Pequot War

'The Pequot War in 1637 saw the virtual elimination of the Pequot Indians as a tribe. The Massachusetts and Connecticut settlers from England and their allies captured or killed most of the Pequots.

This article uses the term tribe to describe various bands of Indians. The New England Indians were not that formally organized. What we now view as a tribe was a village or collection of villages adhering to a leading sachem. These alignments shifted as leaders arose and populations changed.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Causes for War
3 Battles
4 Aftermath
5 Controversy about the war
6 External links
7 Further reading


In the 1630s, the Connecticut River Valley was in turmoil. The Dutch traders and English settlers were each striving to include the area in within the sphere of influence of their colonies in New Amsterdam and Massachusetts respectively. The Indian tribes were contending with each other for dominance and control of the European trade. The Indian population was severely reduced in 1634 by the latest in a series of smallpox epidemics.

By 1636, the Dutch had fortified their trading post, and the English had built a trading fort at Saybrook. Farmers and crafters from Massachusetts had settled at the new river towns of Windsor, Hartford and Weathersfield.

The very word Pequot is derived from an Algonquian language phrase meaning "the destroyers". They had moved into southeastern Connecticut in the area around the Pequot River and the Mystic River some time before European contact and dominated or eliminated the tribes there. They were aggressively working to extend their area of control in all directions, at the expense of the Wampanoag to the north, the Narragansett to the east, the Connecticut Valley tribes to the west, and the Long Island tribes to the south.

Any single narrative description of the War tends to be confusing because of the number of parties involved. From a distance of several hundred years, many of these are unrecognized, since they have been consolidated into larger states. There were several independent colonies involved, each of which had its own leadership. There were also several tribes of native Americans, sometimes dealt with in summary based on their alliances or tributary status at the time. Participants included:

Causes for War

Before the war formally began, efforts to control fur trade access resulted in a series of escalating incidents and attacks and increased tensions on both sides. The split between to Pequot and Mohican widened as they aligned with different trade sources, the Mohican with the English and the Pequot with the Dutch. The Pequots attacked a group of Mattabesic Indians who attempted to trade at Hartford. Tension also increased as Massachusetts began to manufacture wampum, the supply of which the Pequots had formerly controlled.

In 1634 a trader, John Stone. and his crew were killed by a tribe that was a client of the Pequots. Stone had sailed from Boston and they protested his killing but the Pequot sachem, Sassacus, refused any demands. While this increased tensions, there was no other action. Stone was actually from the West Indies and had been banished from Boston for his behavior.

Then on July 20, 1636 a respected trader named John Oldham was attacked on a trading voyage to Block Island. He and several of his crew were killed and his ship looted. The Massachusetts Bay colony's retaliation is viewed as the start of actual war.


News of Oldham's death became the subject of sermons in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In August, Governor Vane sent Captain John Endicott to exact punishment on the Indians of Block Island. Edicotts party of about 90 men sailed to Block Island and attacked the Niantic village. Most of the natives escaped, but 14 were killed, while two of Endicott's men were injured. Seeing this as unsuccessful, the English burned the village and what crops they couldn't carry away. He then went on to Fort Saybrook.

The men at Saybrook were not happy about the raid, but agreed that some of them would accompany Endicott as guides. He sailed back up the coast to a Pequot village, where he repeated last year's demand of payment for the death of Stone and more for Oldham. After some discussion he concluded that they were stalling and attacked. But the stall had worked, and all the residents escaped into the woods. He had to content himself with again burning the village and crops before sailing for home.

Pequot raiders

The Massachusetts' force had gone home, but the Connecticut settlers were left to deal with the Pequot anger. The Pequots sent war messages to their allies, but even though they claimed thirty-six tributary villages, this was only partly effective. The Western Niantic joined them, but the Eastern Niantic remained neutral. The Mohican and Narragansett openly sided with the English. The Narragansett had warred with and lost territory to the Pequots in 1622. Now their friend Roger Sherman urged them to take the English side.

Through the fall and winter, Fort Saybrook was effectively besieged. Any who ventured outside were killed. As spring arrived in 1637 the Pequot stepped up their raids on the Connecticut towns. On April 12 a raid at Weathersfild killed nine men and women, a number of cattle and horses, and took two girls as hostages. In all, the towns lost about thirty settlers in these raids.

In May, the river towns met in Hartford. (see: History of Connecticut). They raised the militia and put Captain John Mason in command. He set out with 90 militia and 70 Mohican warriors under Uncas to repay to Pequots. At Fort Saybrook, he was joined by Captain Underhilll and another twenty men. They proceeded to the principle Pequot village, near modern Groton, but the Pequot chose to simply defend their fortified village and he didn't have the forces to take it, so he sailed east. He stopped at the village of Misistuck (Mystic), but the scene was repeated.

The Mystic Massacre

Believing that the English had returned to Boston, the Pequot sachem Sassacus took several hundred of his warriors to make another raid on Hartford. But, Mason had only gone to visit the Narragansett, who joined him with several hundred warriors. He also picked up some Niantic braves. With his force up to about 400, on May 26, 1637 they attacked the village at Mystic by surprise, having come overland. A part of Mystic's warriors had accompanied Sassacus, but the village contained over 500 Pequots, including women and children. Surrounding it they set it afire, and Mason ordered any who escaped the flames killed. Only a handful made it to the woods, and In an hour all the rest were dead.

Believing the mission accomplished, they all set out for home. The militia became temporarily lost, but in doing so they narrowly missed the returning war party. They suffered only two dead and about twenty wounded in the battle. Their allies were not so lucky, and half of them never made it home.

The Pequots hunted down

The slaughter at Mystic broke the Pequots, and deprived them of their allies. They abandoned their villages and fled mostly in small bands to seek refuge with other tribes. Many were hunted down by the Mohican and Narragansett warriors. The largest group, led by Sassacus, was denied aide by the Metoac on Long Island. So, he led about 400 west along the coast towards the Dutch at New Amsterdam and their Indian allies. But when they crossed the Connecticut River, they killed three men they encountered near Fort Saybrook.

In mid-June, George Mason set out from Saybrook with 160 men and 40 Mohican scouts under Uncas. They caught up with the refugees at Sasqua, a Mattabesic village near modern Fairfield. Sourunded in a nearby swamp, they refused to surrender. Several hundred, mostly women and children were allowed to leave with the Mattabesic. Then the remainder fought. Sassacus was able to break free with perhaps 80 warriers, but 180 of the Pequot were killed or captured.

Sassacus and his folowers reached Dutch territory, but unfortunately entered a Mohawk village. They were slaughtered, and Sasacus' head was sent to Hartford as a symbolic offering to prove the Mohawk's friendship. Remaining bands were hunted down, and the War was over.


In September the victorious tribes met with the General Court of Connecticut and agreed on the disposition of the Pequots and their lands. The agreement was known as the first Treaty of Hartford, and was signed on September 21, 1637. Prisoners were distributed as slaves to the Mohican, Narragansett, and Metoac tribes. Some of the elderly not wanted by the tribes became household servants in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The colonists gained the Pequot lands, and the Pequot were officially declared not to exist. However, a remnant was later recovered from captivity and assigned to reservations in Connecticut.

This was the first time the New England Indians had encountered the European version of warfare. The idea of a total war was essentially new to them. After the war, the colonists represented such a power that no tribe or group of tribes would stand against them for a generation. There was a fairly long period of peace until continued population pressure resulted in the general uprising known as King Philip's War in 1675.

Controversy about the war

In the 1990s, some of the events of this war became a target for historical revisionists, to support more politically correct views of the treatment of the Pequots. While the colonists, especially some Puritan divines did preach the war as a crusade against the godless savage, the narrative here is believed accurate, removing only book length details. Some of the revisionist claims have become so widespread as to require discussion.

The Mystic Massacre is one area attacked. Descriptions are used such as English and Dutch mercenaries massacred over 700 women and children. While John Underhill did later work for the Dutch colony, there were no Dutch settlers or soldiers involved. While Underhill and Mason had careers that included military service, there were no mercenaries involved. Underhill is described as the main actor in the massacre, which he wasn't. He did publish an account of it in England, so gets blamed. Historical estimates of the number of Pequotes killed have ranged from 400 to 700, with 500 to 550 as most common. These numbers have become over 700 in some recent accoiunts. No estimate has been foiund for the number of Niantic and Narragansett deaths in the original attack or subsequent fighting.

The Taking of Heads is also maligned and misstated. A favorite is that after the Mystic massacre, New Amsterdam residents celebrated to victory of their mercenaries by kicking Pequot heads in the street like soccer balls. While Sassacus was beheaded within the territory that Europeans viewed as New Amsterdam, but it was sent back to Hartford. Another Indian head, from a warrior killed during Mason's pursuit, was hung in tree as a warning. The area where this occurred is still known as Sachem's Head near Guilford, Connecticut.

Thanksgiving has also been dragged into the discussion. The Pilgrims are reported to have declared their second formal Thanksgiving in 1637. A Hartford preacher did declare June 15, 1637 as a day of prayer and thanksgiving for the safe return of the militia from Mystic. But, this was by no means a general Pilgrim festival, and Hartford at the time only had about 450 settlers.

Poisoning Indians is also mentioned, with statements like the Pilgrims poisoned hundreds of Pequots in the 1620s. There has been, historically, a poisoning incident reported in 1624. But, it occurred in the Powhatan Wars, somewhere in Virginia or Maryland and had nothing to do with the Pilgrims or the Pequots. The Powhatan war was indeed genocidal, as both sides sought to eradicate the other. Hundreds of Virginia's settlers as well as hundreds of Powhatans were killed, and entire villages on both sides destroyed.

See also: Pequot, History of Connecticut, Algonquian, Mohican

External links

Further reading