The Puritan-Pequot War

Introduction

At no time in the early history of European migration to North America did any man or woman have “an easy time” of it.  Many did not long survive in the new world.  If hostilities did not kill them,  they starved.  Lack of adequate nutrition made new arrivals susceptible to illnesses and diseases.  If illness or disease did not kill them, they froze to death.  Whether subsequent waves of colonists understood what they were getting into at the time they signed up for transportation to the new world is unknown to us.  We only know that their story was more often than not tragically brief.

No matter where they came from, Spain, France, or the British Isles, the immigrant’s stories were remarkably similar.[1]  They arrived in North America incrementally — by the dozens and the hundreds — and for some of them, their tragedies began even before they arrived.  The Atlantic passage offered no luxurious accommodations.

In raising modern children, parents endeavor to provide a solid foundation for their offspring, such as core values, behavioral expectations, the certain skills development.  Not every parent today is successful in accomplishing this, of course — for a myriad of reasons — but at least most parents have it in their minds to lay a better framework for their children than their parents laid down for  them.

The early Americans were undoubtedly similarly motivated, but their effort took on a more practical approach.  Children of settlers had to learn survival skills early in their lives.  They had to know, for example, how to hunt for food, how to dress slain animals, what to do with the animal’s entrails, how to preserve the meat for as long as possible, and how to cook it.  There was no play time for Teddy, no dolls for Sally.

Why they came

For most of history, people died within 25-miles from the place where they were born, so the decision taken by Englishmen to leave their homes, communities, their extended families, and all that they knew about life to embark upon a life-changing adventure in the New World was a momentous one.  As previously mentioned, the extent to which these migrants understood what they were getting themselves into is unknown, but they had to have compelling reasons for their motivations to risk their lives in such an undertaking.

The early migrations to Roanoke and Jamestown were commercial enterprises.  The Roanoke Colony, chartered by Queen Elizabeth I of England was an utter failure.  Jamestown, chartered under King James I of England was more successful.  Subsequent colonies were essentially commercial enterprises but motivated for settlement by civil unrest in England under James I and later, under Charles I of England.

Elizabeth I of England died without heir on 24 March 1603.  James VI of Scotland was next in the line of succession and was coronated as King James I of England on 25 July 1603.[2]  Religious unrest followed James to England.  By then, James knew how to navigate the minefield of opposing religious groups.  In England, as head of the Church of England, he initially adopted a position of tolerance in matters of religious preference.  This lasted until Guy Fawkes, a zealot Catholic, attempted to kill James by placing a large cache of explosives under the House of Lords in 1605.  After the plot was discovered, James I became less tolerant of religious zealots (no matter what their affiliation).  James I required that all subjects of England and Scotland attend protestant church services under the auspices of the Church of England (known today as the Anglican Church).

Catholics weren’t happy about this law, but they had little choice in the matter — if they knew what was good for them.  But not all protestants were happy about it either because many Anglican rites and ceremonies closely resembled those of the Catholic faith.  These protestants wanted to “purify” the Church of England from all of its bad (Catholic) habits.  They were called Puritans.

Understanding Puritanism

Puritanism was a movement within the Protestant Reformation that emerged in the 16th Century.  Its goal was to transform English society into a “godly society” by reforming (or purifying) the Church of England of all remaining Roman Catholic teaching and practices.  For the most part, Queen Elizabeth I of England tolerated the Puritan movement because most Englishmen, at the time, were Calvinists and most English Bishops were sympathetic to Puritan objectives.[3]  The major point of contention between Puritans and church authorities involved liturgical rites, such as making the sign of the cross during baptisms and exchanging rings during marriage ceremonies.

During the reign of King James (1603-1625), some Puritans decided to separate from the Anglican Church because they were no longer willing to wait for James to initiate additional church reforms.  More to the point, the separatists refused to attend church services that they found offensive.  The risk associated with this refusal was death by execution, which is what happened to Henry Barrow and John Greenwood.  Thus, to escape persecution, some Puritans migrated to the Netherlands where they could worship as they saw fit.

When James died, his son Charles ascended to the throne.  While a high-born Anglican, Charles married a Roman Catholic, which prompted England’s protestants to suspect him of being a secret Catholic.  This would become a problem for Charles, of course, but more than that, Charles was a firm believer in the divine right of kings.  He did not much appreciate having to share his power with Parliament.  His many disagreements with Parliament (composed entirely of protestants) reinforced the suspicion that he was really a Catholic.  For whatever reason, Charles began to undermine Calvinist teachings, and as part of this process, he became less tolerant of Puritan views.  He imposed strict limitations on Puritan sermons and even went so far as to suspend some Puritan ministers from preaching the gospel.

Religious persecution, therefore, became the number one reason for Englishmen to migrate away from England.

Pilgrims[4]

There was a difference between Puritans and Pilgrims, but not much.  Both groups advocated changes to the Church of England, but where the Puritans wanted to reform the Church (changes from within), Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the Church of England.  These separatists were the people who migrated to the Netherlands.  What changed their minds about living in the Netherlands was that their children were losing their English identity.  They wanted to separate from the Church of England, but they wanted to remain Englishmen.  The separatists concluded that the best way to do that was to migrate to English colonies in North America, where they could worship in their own way.

Separatists settled in New England in 1620 as part of the Plymouth Colony.  We remember them most for creating the Mayflower Compact, a social contract based on Puritan political theory.[5]  Most Puritans emigrating to North America settled in New England, but the so-called “great migration” was short-lived and not as large as many believe.  It began in earnest in 1629 and ended in 1642 (the start of the English Civil War).  The reason for this was that King Charles I shut down all emigration to the colonies.  Nevertheless, between 1629-1642, approximately 21,000 Puritans migrated to North America.

America’s Harsh Realities

Despite the efforts parents made in preparing their offspring for an unforgiving existence, there was never any guarantee of success.  And — make no mistake — failure meant only one thing: an early death.  The American-born offspring of early settlers suffered, too, in similar ways, albeit at different places.  America’s early settlers may have had different reasons for taking on the challenges of colonization, but they shared the same general outcome: a somewhat short lifetime of suffering.

There may be no greater example of suffering and Puritan intolerance than the Pequot War of 1636-38, aspects of which were repeated many times over more than 10 generations.  Of the Pequot War, Professor Bernard Bailyn (1922-2020) tells us that the period of early Puritan settlement could qualify as the age of slaughter.[6]  It was a time when disease-ridden, barely civilized colonists held on to their adopted homeland by their fingernails.

The Pequot[7]

The Pequot and Mohegan at one time were allied tribes that before the arrival of Europeans split into competing groups.  The Pequot people migrated to the upper Hudson River Valley toward central and eastern Connecticut sometime around the year 1500, but as it always seems, the evidence for this is debated among native Indian historians and archeologists/anthropologists.

The region of present-day Connecticut was in considerable turmoil in the 1630s.  It was primarily an Indian kerfuffle but did involve English colonists because of their trade relationships with warring tribes.  At the core, the Pequot determined to extend their territories northward and eastward into the traditional lands of the Wampanoag and Narragansett (respectively), westward into the territory of Algonquian and Mohegan, and south into the Lenape people on present-day Long Island.  By displacing these other tribes, the Pequot would gain greater access to European fur traders.

Allied with the Pequot were (in their own language) Nehântick Indians, who populated Connecticut and Rhode Island.  The Nehântick tribe divided themselves into eastern and western groups, primarily the result of Pequot dominance in the area of the Connecticut River.  Western Nehântick became allied with and subordinate to the Pequot, while the eastern group closely allied themselves with the Narragansett people in Rhode Island.

While this was going on, European (notably Dutch and English) settlers competed for increased trade with the natives into the northern interior.  By 1636, Indian hostilities forced the Dutch to bolster their western fortifications and the English established a fortified trading post at Saybrook (present-day Middlesex County, Connecticut).  The English (Puritan) established additional colonies at Windsor (1632), Wethersfield (1633), Hartford (1635), and Springfield (1636).

When open warfare erupted, the Pequot and Western Nehântick tribes opposed the perceived interests of the Narragansett, Mohegan, Eastern Nehântick, Massachusetts Bay Colonists, Plymouth Colonists, Connecticut Colonists, and Saybrook Colonists.

The War

In 1634, Nehântick Indians murdered John Stone and seven other trappers.[8]  Apparently, Dutch traders seized Chief Tatobem and held him for ransom, demanding an extraordinary amount of wampum for his safe return.[9]  Despite receiving the demand, the Dutch killed Tatobem anyway and sent his body back to the Pequot, which caused them considerable irritation.

Among the English settlers, Stone’s murder was no great loss.  Earlier, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Stone because of “malfeasance, drunkenness, adultery, and piracy.”  In the minds of these “Christians,” he got what he deserved — but colonial officials felt obliged to protest the killing (on account of the fact that Stone was, after all, white) and, moreover, English officials knew that the Nehântick knew that Stone was English.  The Pequot did send wampum to atone for Stone’s killing, but officials demanded that the tribal chief turn the Indians responsible for his death over to the colonists for trial and punishment.  This the Pequot chief would not do.

In 1635, a hurricane destroyed the colonist’s crops, increasing pressure on the colonists for food for the next several years.  The possibility of starvation was real, precipitating even greater tensions between the Pequot and English colonists.

In 1636, Narragansett-allied Indians attacked the trading vessel of John Oldham during his voyage to Block Island (Rhode Island).[10]  Killed in the assault was Oldham and several crewmen and worse, the Indians looted his ship.  This was an intentional attack designed to discourage settlers from trading with their Pequot rivals.  Again, Oldham was somewhat out of favor with colonists on account of his drunken, trouble-making behavior.  He had been exiled from the Plymouth Colony shortly before the incident at Block Island.  Colonial officials from Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all deduced that the Narragansett Indians were the real culprits because of their alliance with the Nehântick.  Whoever these Indians were, they escaped and found sanctuary with the Pequot.

News of Oldham’s death became the focus of sermons in Massachusetts Bay.  In August, Governor Sir Henry Vane (the Younger) (1613-1662) send John Endecott to exact revenge on the Block Island Indians.[11]  Endecott mustered 90 men, sailed to Block Island, and ended up attacking two abandoned Nehântick villages.  Only one Indian was killed in the foray, but two of Endecott’s men received minor wounds.  After discovering and stealing the Block Island Indian’s food stores, Endecott set fire to their villages and proceeded to the Saybrook Colony.

No one at Saybrook was happy about Endecott’s raid because they did not think that Oldham’s demise was much of a loss or any of their affair.  Still, two colonists agreed to accompany Endecott as guides, and the party proceeded along the coast to a Pequot village.  Having made his demand to the Pequot chief for the murderers of John Oldham, Endecott waited patiently for the tribal council’s decision.  Meanwhile, Pequot villagers scattered to the four winds.  Incensed, Endecott burned the village and destroyed the tribe’s crops and food stores.  Endecott returned to Massachusetts Bay leaving Connecticut colonists to deal with an agitated Pequot population.

Soon after, the Pequot began enlisting the aid of their allies.  The Western Nehântick joined the Pequot, but the Eastern group wanted nothing to do with retribution warfare.  Mohegan and Narragansett joined the side of the colonists, mostly because their friend Roger Williams urged them to do so.

Pequot Indians effectively besieged Fort Saybrook for most of the autumn and winter period.  The Indians killed anyone foolish enough to venture outside the fort.  With the arrival of spring, the Pequot increased their murderous raids on Connecticut villages and towns.  Wangunk Indians (central Connecticut) attacked Wethersfield, killing six men and three women, kidnapped two young girls, and made off with a number of cattle and horses.[12]

The leaders of Connecticut river towns met in May, raised a militia, and placed John Mason in command of it.  Mason promptly set off with 90 male colonists and 70 Mohegan Indians under the war chief Uncas.  Mason’s mission was to vigorously attack the Pequot at their fort.  En route, at Saybrook, John Underhill joined Mason with another twenty men.  Mason set sail from Saybrook to Narragansett Bay intending to fool Pequot spies into thinking the colonists were not preparing to attack them.  At Narragansett, Mason enlisted the aid of an additional two hundred Narragansett Indians.  From there, Mason marched his men twenty miles overland toward Fort Mistick (present-day Mystic), a Pequot village.

The Battle of Mistick River began in the pre-dawn hours of 26 May 1637 when Mason’s force surrounded one of two main Pequot fortified villages.  Considering the size of Mason’s force, only twenty managed to breach the palisade, and they were quickly overwhelmed.  To facilitate their escape, the beleaguered men started a fire, which did create the chaos needed to make their getaway, but it also trapped most of the Pequot in what became a violent firestorm.  Of the few Pequot who managed to get out of the burning fort, Mason’s men cut them down.  There were only fourteen survivors out of a 500-person village.

John Mason, who may not have been sane, declared his victory the work of God.  His Indian allies, however, had another view: it was a cold-blooded slaughter.  Disgusted with Mason, the Narragansett’s attempted to break off and return home but were prevented from doing so by Pequots from the Weinshauks village.  Underhill’s men rushed to their aid, after which the Narragansett rejoined Mason’s formation for their own safety.

According to Professor Bailyn, the war was the worst example of butchery imaginable, perpetrated by the colonists.  Its savagery, he suggests, may have been the result of Puritan zealotry.  Bailyn suggested that the Puritans looked upon the Indians as heathens and as pawns of the anti-Christ.  His research led him to conclude that the barbarity displayed by the Puritans was entirely consistent with their uncompromising attacks on the church and state as they fled from England.  It was, he said, the same vicious insult and vile denunciations they inflicted upon one another, as well.  If there was a pawn to the work of Satan, it was likely Puritan zealotry.

Dr. Bailyn stated, “The savagery of the theological struggle, the bitterness of the main contenders and the deep stain it left on the region’s collective memory were driven by elemental fears peculiar to what was experienced as a barbarous environment — fears of what could happen to civilized people in an unimaginable wilderness … in which God’s children (as the Puritans thought of themselves) were fated to struggle with pitiless agents of Satan, pagan Antichrists swarming in the world around them. The two kinds of struggle, physical and metaphysical, were one: threats from within (the soul) merged with threats from without to form a heated atmosphere of apocalyptic danger.”

To many Americans today, our colonial period is a blur in time.  The reason for this is that the colonial period is only presented in summary form, dishonestly presented, and because few college-bound students have much interest in history beyond “gender studies.”  Life in the colonies was a horrid experience.  There was nothing romantic about it. Still, if given the opportunity to learn the truth of the colonial experience, most young adults are able to deal with its reality.

The colonial period was a time of the founding, of course, but it was also a time of floundering, terror, desperation, human degradation, and widespread torture.  Whether native Indians learned flaying from European colonists isn’t known, but we do know that Puritans were capable of doing it and then disemboweling their victims while they were still alive.  And we know that Puritan barbarism lasted long enough to find its way into our history books — if anyone would read them.

In the freezing winter of 1692, two pre-teenaged girls began shuddering, shaking, shrieking, and barking like dogs.  According to their examining physician, the girls were suffering the effects of an evil hand.  Keen to discover the source of this evil, Mary Sibley encouraged the two girls to bake a witch cake.  The cake, soaked in urine, was then fed to a dog so that everyone may learn the identity of the evil-doer.  The girl’s father was not happy to learn of this bizarre concoction, but a few days later, the two girls identified three marginalized women of the community.  The news of this spread throughout New England, and suddenly, more young girls began to display a similar behavior: convulsions, visions of hairy beasts, being “touched” by invisible spirits.

In May 1692, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony established a special (Oyer and Terminer) court to hear evidence and determine the facts associated with these bizarre behaviors.  The people who gathered in the court listened to testimony about flying witches, supernatural beings, satanic beasts, and black Sundays.  Suspected witches confessed to hair-raising sins and named their neighbors and family members who were “in league” with Satan.  It wasn’t long before the contagion spread to neighboring communities.  The court of inquest lasted for over a year.  In that time, 19 witches had been hanged, five more died in jail, one man was pressed to death with stones for refusing to enter a plea.  Some say that others were purged by drowning.

Conclusion

According to some apologists, the massacre at Fort Mystic and the loss of even more warriors during their withdrawal broke the spirit of the Pequot.  Ultimately, they abandoned their villages and moved westward to seek refuge with the Mohawk.  The sachem Sassacus led approximately 400 warriors along the seacoast.  When they crossed the Connecticut River, the Pequots randomly encountered three men from Fort Saybrook and promptly killed them — suggesting that the Pequots’ spirit wasn’t entirely broken.

In mid-June, Mason mustered 200 men (including 40 Mohegan warriors) and set off after the offending Pequots.  The Mason expedition caught up with and surrounded their enemies in a swamp near present-day Fairfield.  Mason allowed several hundred Pequot to surrender, mostly women and children.  Sassacus slipped away in the early morning hours with eighty to 100 warriors and continued west.  Traveling into Mohawk land, Sassacus appealed to the Mohawk for refuge.  Instead, they murdered him and sent his head and hands to Hartford (presumably seeking favor with the English).

In September, Mohegans and Narragansetts met with the General Court of Connecticut and agreed to the disposition of the two-hundred Pequot survivors that surrendered to the Mohegans.  Other less fortunate tribal members faced a different result.  After capture, some Pequot were enslaved and shipped to the West Indies; others became household slaves of the English settlers in Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay.  At that time, the English declared the Pequot extinct; afterward, the Puritans allowed no Indian to refer to themselves as Pequot.

The Pequot War was the first time the Algonquian people experienced European-style warfare.  There were no other wars with native Americans for 38 years until King Philip’s War in 1675.  But there was one enduring effect of the Pequot War — American Indians learned how to take body parts from their slain enemies and sell them to colonists as trophies of war.

Sources:

  1. Aronson, M. Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials. Atheneum, 2003.
  2. Bailyn, B.  The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675. Knopf, 2012.
  3. Davis, K. C.  “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.”  Smithsonian, 16 September 2016.
  4. Demos, J.  Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England.  Oxford University Press, 1982.

Endnotes:

[1] The French began their assault on North America in 1534; Spain established a colony at St. Augustine in 1565, the British at St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Roanoke between 1583-1586. 

[2] James’ mother was Mary Queen of Scots.  She was a staunch Catholic.  After Mary was executed by order of Elizabeth I, her son James was made King of Scotland as James VI.  As he was only 3-years old at the time, Scotland was governed by a series of regents until James reached the age of majority in 1581.  Throughout this period, Scotland suffered the effects of civil war between Catholic supporters of Mary, and protestant supporters of James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton (James VI’s last and longest-serving regent).  Consequently, James VI was raised as a protestant.  

[3] Emphasizing the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible.

[4] There were no pilgrims with a capital P in 1600; “Pilgrim” within the meaning of “separatist” didn’t exist until two hundred years later.   

[5] The story of the compact is a bit complicated as it involves delays and last-minute changes to arranged shipping.  The original destination of the Mayflower was the Colony in Virginia.  However, storms forced these Pilgrims to Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  With provisions running short, their only recourse was to disembark.  Some passengers among them who were not religious separatists decided that they would live on their own hook with no allegiance to any other.  To prevent this from happening, Pilgrims decided to establish their own government while remaining loyal to the English Crown.  Thus, the compact was an agreement among them to govern by majority rule — a social contract whereby all signers agreed to abide by the community’s rules for law and order.  

[6] Bernard Bailyn may have been one of America’s greatest historians.  He was a professor of history at Harvard University from 1953 until his death, a specialist in British-colonial and Revolutionary War history.  He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for History in 1968 and 1987, and in 2010, received the National Humanities Medal.

[7] English speakers have, from the beginning of their American experience, made difficult our understanding of native American people because it is the victor who writes history. Mohicans (also, Mahican) were not of the same tribe as Mohegans.  They were completely different people with some similarities in their language (about as similar as English and German) and customs, which was due to their affiliation with the Algonquin language group of native Americans.  Mohicans and Mohegans were no more alike than Mohegans and Abenaki.  The Mohegan people called themselves MAHIINGAN (Wolf); the Mahican called themselves MUHECONNEOK (People of the Hudson River). 

[8] The Pequot later explained that their allies murdered Stone and his boys in retribution for the killing of a Pequot chief (sachem) named Tatobem by Dutch trappers.  The Pequot did not realize that Stone was English (rather than Dutch), and besides, all white people looked the same.  Subsequent evidence suggested that the Nehântick Indians knew full well that Stone was English, offering some credibility to the argument that Europeans weren’t the only liars in North America.

[9] The word “wampum” was used to describe the exchange of goods between native Americans and the European colonists.  Example: animal hides, food, other supplies, knowledge, and assistance in exchange for highly prized beads.   

[10] Named for Adriaen Block, a Dutch seaman/merchant whose voyages to North America followed those of Henry Hudson.  Block’s discoveries led to the eventual colonization of Connecticut and Rhode Island.  

[11] Vane was a close ally of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, serving one term as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  He fell out of favor with the Puritans because he supported separatist Roger William’s colony in Rhode Island and supported religious tolerance.  He also supported the establishment of Harvard College.  John Endecott (d. 1664), on the other hand, was a short-tempered zealot who seldom made rational decisions.  Endecott served five separate terms as Massachusetts Bay Colony governor.   

[12] Wangunk Indians were known by several names, including Wongunk, Wongum, Mattabeett, Pyquag, and Sequins.  Members of the Eastern Algonquian language group, they associated with Podunk, Suckiag, and Mohegan groups.  Their lands became the focal point of the developing European fur trade because of their access to rivers and inland forests.  The Wangunk fell victim to Pequot expansion from around 1600.  Those today who regard themselves as descendants of Wangunk culture are not recognized by the Federal government — which, of course, means that they don’t exist.  


About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, Colonial America, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Indian Territory, Indian War, Pioneers. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Puritan-Pequot War

  1. Andy says:

    An excellent description of the harshness of early colonial days. The explanation of Puritans and Puritanism should be taught in public schools throughout the country. It is, after all, a cornerstone of the colonial period. Unfortunately, many parents would rebel at teaching arguing that it is teaching religion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mustang says:

      I value your comment, Andy. If we apply the analogy of acorns falling from trees, it does not require a massive leap to connect the dots between Puritan intolerance (then) and protestant intolerance (now), those belief systems spreading out over the continent with each westward-moving pioneer. Your point about systemically avoiding the truth of the early colonists on “religious” grounds is a good one, noting that it is only somewhat recently that educators paid any attention at all to the witch trials — which we can only describe as exponentially bizarre. I suspect that the hypocrite gene lives in all of us so that if we strip away the “religion” aspect of the Pequot War, we will find that our story is one of human beings behaving as human beings. The arrival of Europeans to America’s shore only added a new dimension to Native American relationships. Indians have been killing one another for tens of thousands of years and others around the world have used religion as their excuse for bad behavior equally as long.

      Again, thank you for your comment. I appreciate your insights.

      Like

  2. I’m not comfortable broad-brushing “The Puritans” as seen here.
    I have heard arguments from two different sources I’ve spoken with that the Mayflower Pilgrims were not Puritans (who arrived later), or that they were Puritans but of a different sect.
    The two sects being primarily separatist and non-separatist.
    The Puritans being Indian haters doesn’t not comport with the Bradford experience.
    And it seems they were indeed Puritans, so I’ll go with the two sect notion.
    That some Puritans went off the rails is not disputable.
    But having travelled the area in Connecticut over 30 years, I enjoy your description of the history of that time and area. Now the Mohegan’s are most well known for a luxury casino.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent history lesson we all need to remember. I felt I was back in third grade when I was learning the real American history that now is sugarcoated and watered down. You are easy to understand and keep it interesting and to the point. It is sad not all Americans take the time to learn our true history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Instead, this “woke” generation wants to slant it any way they can. A mish-mash of history if you will. If we want to invest in this nation we must do it honestly and with truth, which is sorely missing nowadays. Thanks for the great read!

    Sempre fi

    Liked by 1 person

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