American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Pequot War

Title: scenes from the Pequot War
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The Pequot War was the first major outbreak of armed hostilities between Native people and the English settlers of New England. Its outcome radically altered the demographic balance in southern New England. Before it, the English colonists were a tiny minority. After it, they were unquestionably dominant. The Pequot and Narragansett, the two principal Native nations between Boston and Providence, were devastated in the war.

In the early 1630s, the Puritans battled the Dutch for control of the lucrative fur trade around the Connecticut Valley. The Pequots considered this area to be their territory. In 1634, the Pequots, or their tributaries the Western Niantics, murdered a Narragansett trading party in the area. This event triggered a sharp escalation of conflict between the local Indian groups and the Dutch and Puritans.

The papers of Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island), provide an insightful window into the English side of the war. When word reached Boston that the Pequots were rallying a Native alliance to drive the Massachusetts Bay settlements into the sea, the Massachusetts Council sent urgent pleas to Williams to use his influence and his "utmost and speediest Endeavors" to keep the Narragansetts out of it. Within hours after the appeal arrived in the hands of an Indian runner, "scarce acquainting my wife," Williams boarded "a poor Canow & . . . cut through a stormie Wind and with great seas, euery [sic] minute in hazard of life to the Sachim's [Canonicus's] howse" (Ernst, 1932, 252). After traveling thirty miles in the storm, Williams arrived at a Narragansett town larger than most of the English settlements of his day, knowing that the success or failure of the Pequot initiative might rest on whether he could dissuade his friends from joining in the uprising.

Canonicus listened to Williams with his son Mixanno at his side. The younger sachem was assuming the duties of leadership piecemeal as his father aged. The three men decided to seal an alliance, and within a few days officials from Boston were double-timing through the forest to complete the necessary paperwork. Later, Williams also won alliances with the Mohegan and Massachusetts nations, swinging the balance of power against the Pequots and their allies. The Indians welcomed the Puritan deputies with a feast of white chestnuts and cornmeal with blackberries ("hasty pudding," later a New England tradition), as Williams translated for both sides, sealing the alliance.

The Puritan deputies were awed at the size of the Narragansett town, as well as the size of the hall in which they negotiated the alliance. The structure, about fifty feet wide, was likened to a statehouse by the men from Boston. Canonicus, so old that he had to lie on his side during the proceedings, surprised the Puritans with his direct questions and shrewd answers. The treaty was finally sealed much to the relief of the Puritans, who thought the Narragansetts capable of fielding 30,000 fighting men. Although they had only a sixth that number, the Narragansetts still were capable of swinging the balance of power for or against the immigrants, who had been in America only sixteen years at the time.

Following the murder of the Narragansett trading party, the Dutch held the Pequot sachem, Tabotem, hostage in an effort to punish the Indians. A series of Pequot killings of whites ensued, followed by a Pequot raid on the settlement of Wethers-field in retaliation on April 23, 1637, that left thirty whites dead. The war escalated and reached its climax with the burning of a thatch fort in the Pequot village at Mystic, trapping as many as 600 Indian men, women, and children in a raging inferno. The few who managed to crawl out of this roaring furnace jumped back into it when they faced a wall of Puritan swords. Puritan soldiers and their Indian allies waded through pools of Pequot blood, holding their noses against the stench of burning flesh.

The wind-driven fire consumed the entire structure in half an hour. A few Pequot bowmen stood their ground amid the flames, until their bows singed and they fell backward into the fire, sizzling to death. Bradford recalled: "Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof" (Bradford, 1967, 296).

Having described the massacre, Bradford then indicated how little guilt the Puritans felt about it. "The victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory" (Bradford, 1967, 296). While a few Puritans remonstrated, many put the war in the category of God's necessary business, along with all sorts of other things, from smallpox epidemics to late frosts and early freezes.

The Pequot War had the effect of destroying most of the Pequot tribe. Local tribes, vastly reduced by war and disease, were in no position to offer serious resistance to non-Native encroachments and subjugation in southern New England for forty years, until the onset of King Philip's War.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Bradford, William. 1967. History of Plymouth Plantation. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Modern Library.; Ernst, James. 1932. Roger Williams: New England Firebrand. New York: Macmillan.; Segal, Charles M., and Stineback, David C. 1977. Puritans, Indians, and Manifest Destiny. New York: Putnam.; Stannard, David E. 1992. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.; Vaughan, Alden T. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620–1675. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
 

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