American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Uncas

For most Americans, the name "Uncas" conjures up the fictional character of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. The historical Uncas (1588?—1683), however, was a Mohegan (not a Mohican) and far from being the last of his tribe. Uncas recognized, earlier than other Native leaders, that the arrival of English colonists permanently altered the balance of power in southern New England. He closely allied himself with the newcomers, and for more than four decades he presided over the rise of the Mohegans. Under his leadership, the Mohegans rendered valuable military assistance to both the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies during the Pequot War and King Philip's War. Because of Uncas's willingness to enter into alliances with the New England colonies against other Native peoples, as well as his part in slaying the Narragansett sachem Miantonomo, some scholars of Native America have cast him as a historical villain. However, his actions also strengthened the Mohegans, enabling them to retain a measure of independence in colonial New England, long after other Native peoples had been displaced or coerced into moving into one of the Praying Towns.

At the time of English and Dutch settlement, the Mohegans were a small southern New England tribe that occupied the lands between the Connecticut and Thames Rivers. Dominated by the more numerous and powerful Pequots, the Mohegans paid them tribute in the form of goods and wampum. On at least five occasions, Uncas attempted to undermine the authority—whether by a coup or other means is not documented—of the Pequot sachem, Sassacus. He always failed, and Sassacus forced him into exile among the Narragansetts. Each time, however, Sassacus permitted Uncas to return and retain leadership of the Mohegans, but only after ritually humiliating himself. Sassacus further punished Uncas each time by reducing the amount of Mohegan territory under his control. Uncas and the Mohegans were finally able to throw off Pequot domination by siding with Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Bay Colonies when the Pequot War erupted in 1637. The colonial military leaders were distrustful of Uncas and the Mohegans at first, but he demonstrated his loyalty by delivering to them four Pequot heads and a captive. He also participated in planning and leading the attack on the Pequot's stronghold at Mystic. As a reward for his services, Uncas received a large share of the Pequot prisoners. While the colonists sold most of their Pequot prisoners as slaves and shipped them to British sugar colonies in the Caribbean, the Mohegans adopted most of their prisoners and incorporated them into the tribe.

Seeking even closer ties to the English, Uncas enhanced his standing with them by occasionally feeding them rumors of Indian plots against their colonies. By presenting himself as an ally, Uncas and his people avoided displacement and received comparably favorable treatment from the English. The Mohegans were able to retain a good deal of autonomy.

Uncas proved useful yet again to the New England colonies when the Narragansett sachem Miantonomo, who had been an English ally during the Pequot War, began to speak out against them. Miantnomo approached other Native groups and argued that, just as the English thought of themselves as "English," Native people should unite in the face of the European invasion and stop thinking of themselves as Narragansetts, Nipmucks, or Pokonokets. At about this time, Miantonomo signed a treaty with Massachusetts that required him to notify the colony if he went to war against another Native American tribe. Miantonomo sought, and was granted, permission to attack the Mohegans, who had been waylaying Narragansett hunters. Captured by the Mohegans during the ensuing war, Miantonomo reportedly attempted to purchase his freedom. Despite receiving a ransom from the Narragansetts for Miantonomo's safe return, Uncas turned him over to the colony of Connecticut. Wanting to be rid of a troublesome Native leader but not wanting Miantonomo's blood on their hands, the Connecticut authorities gave him back to Uncas, with the implicit understanding he would have Miantonomo executed.

Uncas lent further assistance to the New England colonies during King Philip's War in 1675–1676. While he could no longer lead warriors in the field himself, his son, Oweneco, assisted the English. After the war, Uncas reaffirmed his alliance to the colony and began selling Mohegan lands to them until his death in 1683.

Roger M. Carpenter


Further Reading
Jennings, Francis. 1975. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.; Oberg, Michael Leroy. 2003. Uncas: First of the Mohegans. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
 

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