Pequot War

The “match” in matchlock was actually a length of cord soaked in a chemical compound (usually potassium nitrate, aka saltpeter) to make it burn slowly. The match was held in an S-shaped lever (the serpentine) over a pan of priming powder. Pulling the trigger lowered the match, igniting the priming powder, which then (by means of a touch-hole) ignited the main powder charge in the barrel and fired the projectile. A later, spring-loaded variation, the snap lock, “snapped” the serpentine down into the pan.

Shoulder-fired matchlock guns—variously known as arquebuses, hackbuts, calivers, culverins, and eventually muskets—had many drawbacks, most notably their unreliability in wet weather and the fact that the smoldering match could betray the firer’s position to the enemy. Despite their deficiencies, matchlock firearms proved remarkably enduring—largely because they were inexpensive to manufacture and simple to use.

By the mid- to late sixteenth century, Northern Europe saw the development of the snaphance, or snaphaunce, lock. (The term came from a Dutch word for “pecking bird.”) In the snaphance, the cock held a piece of flint, which sprang forward on the trigger-pull to strike a piece of steel (the frizzen), sending sparks into the priming pan. A similar type of lock, the miquelet, appeared around the same time in Southern Europe. Technical refinements to both eventually led to the introduction of the true flintlock early in the seventeenth century.

Captain John Smith, while prisoner on a French pirate ship in 1615, wrote A Description of New England about the bountiful land he had explored the previous year. Published in 1616, the book’s title struck a responsive chord in English ears. So did Smith’s description of the New England coast, which had previously been known more for its forbidding than its inviting character. Smith’s New England coast was lined “all along [with] large corne fields, and great troupes of well proportioned people.” When the Pilgrims, dissatisfied with the religious intolerance of the Old World, began to think of immigration to the New, Smith offered his services to them. They declined in order “to save charges,” he noted, “saying my books and maps were much better cheape to teach them, than myselfe.” By the time the Pilgrims had arrived on the New England shore, most of the “corne fields and salvage gardens” were still there, but many of the natives had disappeared.

Of the approximately 25,000 Indians living between the Penobscot River and Narragansett Bay, perhaps one-third had succumbed to a series of mysterious plagues that struck in the years between Smith’s voyage and the Pilgrims’ landing. Smallpox, measles, and other European diseases to which the Indians lacked immunity had depopulated the land. The pious English interpreted this phenomenon as an expression of God’s providential concern for His people. The real source of the providence was more likely the explorers and fishermen who had visited the coast since the beginning of the century and perhaps even before.

The natives were enslaved as well as infected. One brutal sea captain named Thomas Hunt, whom a contemporary dismissed as “a worthless fellow of our nation,” kidnapped twenty-four friendly Indians during a voyage in 1614, took them to Malaga in southern Spain, and sold them into slavery. Through such contact, the coastal societies were devastated and disillusioned. One observer of the destruction wrought by European diseases along the New England coast noted that “the bones and skulls . . . made such a spectacle . . . that, as I travailed in that Forrest nere the Massachusetts, it seemed to mee a new found Golgotha.”

Not surprisingly, the decimated natives at first showed little sign of themselves near Plymouth. On the first Christmas Day at the colony, the Pilgrims heard distant shouting and saw smoke rising some miles away. But when Miles Standish, the chief military man in the community, went to investigate, he found only empty huts.

Still, the Pilgrims, desperately weak from their voyage, lived in constant fear of attack. Their first real meeting with an Indian, however, was most amicable. The Plymouth leaders had gathered in March 1621 to discuss defenses when “a certaine Indian came bouldly amongst them, and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand. . . .” This astonishing apparition was Samoset, a Maine Indian, who had picked up the English tongue from coastal traders. The Pilgrim Fathers sat listening all afternoon and on into the night while he told them of the nearby tribes.

The natives nearest the Pilgrims were Wampanoags. Samoset left promising to return with some members of the tribe, and within a few days be was back with Massasoit, the grand sachem, or chief, of the Wampanoags, and an Indian named Tisquantum. This latter, whose name was shortened to Squanto by the Pilgrims, had been kidnapped, taken to England by a ship captain, and later returned to his native country. He was, in the words of Governor William Bradford, “a spetiall instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” His English was even better than Samoset’s, and he instructed the Pilgrims “how to set their corne, wher to take fish, and to procure other comodities, and was also their pilott to bring them to unknowne places for their profitt. . . .”

Squanto performed his first service to the colonists by arranging a treaty between them and Massasoit. In some pomp (a green carpet was laid on the ground for the comfort of the seated negotiators), the Pilgrims and Wampanoags agreed to avoid any injury to each other and to aid each other in repelling attacks by outside enemies.

The treaty proved a durable document. The peace it brought the Pilgrims allowed them to get their community firmly established and to learn something of the ways of their strange new allies. In 1621, the powerful Narraganset tribe sent the colony a bundle of arrows tied up in a rattlesnake skin, which Squanto interpreted as “a threatening and a challenge.” Governor Bradford removed the arrows, filled the skin with powder and shot, and returned it to its owners with the message that if they wanted war, they were welcome to begin it when they pleased. The Narragansets backed down.

A harsher example of Pilgrim sternness came two years later, when Bradford got word of a planned attack on the settlement of Wessagusett, a new community up the coast from Plymouth. The colonists there were a seamy lot who had courted trouble by various abuses, including stealing corn from the neighboring Massachuset Indians. Nevertheless, the people of Wessagusett were Englishmen, and their fate was linked to that of the Pilgrims, so Plymouth sent Captain Standish to the settlement. There, under the guise of conferring with Witawamet, chief of the Massachusetts and the suspected ringleader of the rumored attack, Standish lured him and his tribesmen from the woods into the open. At a signal from Standish, the English immediately killed all the Indians except Witawamet’s eighteen-year-old brother, whom they hanged a little later. The Massachusetts thus humbled, the Pilgrims took Witawamet’s head back to Plymouth and mounted it on the wall of their fort, where it grinned a warning to all Indians who would conspire against Englishmen.

Standish’s solution did not sit well with John Robinson, the spiritual mentor of the Pilgrims, who wrote from Holland, “Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you killed any!” “Besides,” he noted prophetically, “where blood is once begun to be shed, it is seldom staunched of a long time after.” The behavior of the Pilgrims’ military leader is reminiscent of the bullying tactics of Captain John Smith in Virginia. Thomas Prince, the eighteenth-century historian, observed that Standish “spread a Terror over all the Tribes of Indians round about him. . . .”

Whether Standish’s tactics were harmful or helpful to the colony, Plymouth survived and prospered during its first decade of existence. In the next decade, however, major decisions relating to war and peace in New England would be taken out of Plymouth’s hands by the dominance of the settlers who came in 1630 and founded the Massachusetts Bay colony. The “Great Migration” from Europe that began that year was under the leadership of well-educated and well-established men such as John Winthrop. In proportion to its population, the Massachusetts Bay colony had more university graduates than England itself. Its aims were godly; its leaders shrewd. And it was powerful; by the middle of the decade, there were 8,000 people living in Massachusetts Bay, while Plymouth had not grown beyond 600.

Like their Plymouth counterparts, the Massachusetts Bay settlers landed in an area that had been cleared by the plague. Although welcomed by the surviving Indians, the new arrivals were frightened by reports of native cruelty. They feared men who, in their warfare, liked nothing more than to “tormente men in ye most bloodie maner that may be; fleaing some alive with ye shells of fishes, cutting of[f] ye members and joynts of others by peesmeale, and broiling on ye coals, eate ye collops of their flesh in their sight whilst they live; with other cruelties horrible to be related.”

Fear of this sort of treatment was evident in the instructions that Captain John Endecott, the agent of the New England Company in the Massachusetts Bay colony, received from overseas. “We trust you will not be unmindful of the mayne end of our plantation by indevoringe to bring the Indians to the knowledge of the gospell,” the communication began. But it concluded by reminding Endecott of the Virginia massacre, which had resulted from being “too confident of the ffidellitie of the salvages.”

The Massachusetts colonists were anything but confident. When, for example, on an early spring night in 1631 a man in Watertown innocently fired his musket into the air to scare wolves away from his cattle, the whole colony went on alert. People who lived within earshot spread the alarm, and before morning drums were beating in Boston and settlers were grabbing for their weapons.

Into this atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust flowed a steady stream of new settlers. And as the colonists migrated away from the ordered settlements of the bay into the Connecticut Valley, the causes of a future war began to take shape.

Most of the New England tribes were of the Algonquian linguistic family. Among those tribes were the Pequots (who with the Mohegan Indians were related to the Mahican Indians of the Hudson River area, whence they had originally come). By 1634, the Pequots, who jealously guarded their prerogatives against both the Narragansets on Narragansett Bay and the Dutch who had established trading posts up the Connecticut River, were confronted by English colonists in what the Pequots regarded as their domain along the lower reaches of the Connecticut Valley.

Into this volatile situation sailed one Captain John Stone. A coastal trader, Stone had managed to make himself unwelcome in every settlement north of Virginia. He had tried to steal a ship in New Amsterdam, had drawn a knife on the governor of Plymouth, had spoken “contemptuously . . . and lewdly” to officials in Massachusetts Bay, and had still found time along the way to be charged with drunkenness and adultery. With that gaudy record, Stone might as easily have been done in by white men as red. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the latter. One day while his ship was riding at anchor at the mouth of the Connecticut River, a band of Indians – not Pequots but members of a tribe dominated by the Pequots – swarmed aboard and massacred all hands.

Though Stone was a highly unsatisfactory martyr, English blood had been spilled, and the Massachusetts Bay authorities demanded that the Pequots surrender the murderers to English justice. Already at war with the Narragansets and Dutch, the Pequots found it prudent to be conciliatory toward this potential third enemy. They agreed to a treaty by which they promised to hand over Stone’s murderers along with a heavy indemnity. At the same time, Pequot spokesmen insisted that Stone’s killers had acted in retaliation for the murder of their chief, who had been kidnapped by a white trader and sent back dead after his ransom was paid. Whether the original deed had been committed by the Dutch or the English – the Pequots asserted that they could not tell one European from another – the Indians’ act of retaliation was at worst a tragic misunderstanding for which the Pequots begged pardon and offered reimbursement.

The new treaty failed to avert war. The Indians paid part of the indemnity but reported that those of Stone’s assassins who remained alive had fled and could not be taken. In July 1636, word came that another trading captain named Oldham had been killed by natives off Block Island. Again, the killers were not Pequots. Block Island was inhabited by Narragansets, but the English managed to include the Pequots in their plan of retaliation. Although Canonicus and Miantonomo, the Narraganset leaders, were quick to condemn and make reparations for the Block Island murder and pledged neutrality in the dispute with the Pequots, the Bay colony ordered Captain Endecott to take a force of ninety colonists and put to the sword all the men on Block Island. Once the Block Island males had been exterminated and the women and children taken for slaves, Endecott was to sail to Pequot territory on the Connecticut River, where some of the murderers of Oldham were rumored to have fled, and demand the killers of both Stone and Oldham along with 1,000 fathoms of wampum for reparation.

Endecott carried out his orders with merciless efficiency. His men tracked down the few Block Islanders they could find and, disappointed at running out of Indians to kill, chopped up the natives’ pet dogs. Leaving the ravaged island behind him, Endecott then sailed for Saybrook, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where fort stood manned by Connecticut settlers.

Lieutenant Lion Gardiner, commanding the fort, received Endecott sullenly. “You come hither,” Gardiner complained, “to raise these wasps about my ears, and then you will take wing and flee away.” Ignoring Gardiner’s protests, Endecott sailed a few miles northeast to Pequot Harbor at the mouth of the Pequot (now Thames) River, where the Indians greeted him warmly, crying, “What cheer, Englishmen, what cheer, what do you come for?” When Endecott told them, the Pequot emissary sent to determine his purpose begged him to wait until the Pequot chiefs arrived on the scene so that the matter could be discussed in peace. Endecott, professing to see the Pequot request as a stratagem to deceive him, refused all demands for parley and “spent the day burning and spoyling the Countrey.”

His job done, Endecott sailed away, leaving Lieutenant Gardiner to watch his own prediction come true. The Pequots, having tried to avoid a fatal confrontation, now saw that the English intended to start a war. They came in force and invested the little fort at Saybrook, where they “made many proud challenges, and dared them out to fight.” A party from the fort went out, was nearly surrounded, and got back only with difficulty. One group of settlers fared worse. Three were killed outright, one was roasted to death, and one came floating past the fort a few days later with an arrow in his eye. Gardiner readied his works for a siege.

The Pequots, on their part, prepared for the war that was obviously coming by sending ambassadors to urge the Narragansets to join them against the English. Massachusetts Bay got wind of the Pequot embassy and sent to Rhode Island begging help from the clergyman Roger Williams, who was famous for his rapport with the natives. Williams had not long before been expelled from Massachusetts for his heretical teachings, and he must have taken a sour pleasure in the request. Nevertheless he responded nobly, at once setting out by canoe for Narraganset headquarters. “Three days and nights,” he wrote, “my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassadors, whose hands and arms, methought, wreaked with the blood of my countrymen . . . and from whom I could not but nightly look for their bloody knives at my own throat also.”

The Pequot spokesman insisted that if the Narragansets sided with the English, the English were sure to turn on them once the Pequots were out of the way. But Miantonomo, the chief of the Narragansets, had no love for the Pequots, and Williams prevailed upon him to reject the Pequot offer and ally himself with the English against them. Not long afterward, in March 1637, the Narragansets formalized the treaty with a gift to the Bay colony – forty fathoms of wampum and a Pequot hand.

Late in April, 200 Pequots attacked a group of colonists who were working in a field near Weathersfield, up the Connecticut River from the Saybrook fort. Nine settlers, a woman and child among them, were killed. The Indians paddled past the fort with the clothing of the murdered settlers held up on poles in a grim parody of English sailing ships.

While Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth worked to coordinate their attacks on the Pequots, Connecticut forces under Captain John Mason of Windsor, an able soldier who had seen action campaigning with the English in the Lowlands, were the first in the field.

On May 10, Mason set out from Hartford with ninety colonists and sixty Mohegans (a splinter group related to the Pequots but allied with the English) under Chief Uncas. The English were a little nervous about the loyalty of these Indian allies, but Uncas soon reassured them. No sooner had he reached the Saybrook fort than the Mohegan chief attacked a nearby Pequot party and returned with four heads and one prisoner. According to a contemporary account, the captive scornfully “braved the English, as though they durst not kill a Pequut.” Mason’s soldiers disabused the prisoner of this idea by tying one of his legs to a post and, manning a rope tied to the other leg, tearing him to pieces. Captain John Underhill arrived on the scene with a small contingent of Massachusetts soldiers in time to dispatch the terribly maimed captive with a pistol shot.

Mason and Underhill joined forces and moved against the main settlement of the Pequots. Though Mason was under orders to launch an amphibious assault against the chief Indian fort on Pequot Harbor, he decided that such a move was too risky. Instead, he proposed a flanking maneuver against a second Pequot fort up the coast on the Mystic River; this would allow the English to sail past the main stronghold and debark in Narraganset territory, where native allies could be recruited to help in the attack.

The English obtained 600 Narraganset and Eastern Niantic warriors under a chieftain named Ninigret for the expedition. Though some of the latter melted away as the army moved toward the fort, Mason still had a strong force when he approached the Pequot camp on the evening of May 25. Mason asked the nervous Narragansets to remain in an outer circle around the fort while the English undertook to show them how Englishmen could fight. The captain and his men went to sleep that night listening to the Pequots noisily celebrating the arrival of 150 warriors who had just come in from outlying villages to help fight the English.

Mason stormed the fort at dawn. The English forces crept to within a few feet of the palisades, fired a hasty volley, and swarmed inside through the two entrances at opposite ends of the camp. Though taken by surprise, the Pequots fought fiercely and stubbornly, “with a resolution that would have done honour to Romans,” as the historian Benjamin Trumbull later put it. As the struggle continued, Mason abandoned his plan to seize the camp intact for its booty, grabbed a firebrand, and set it aflame. As the eighty closely packed huts, which housed 800 Indians, went up in smoke, the Pequots poured out of the stockade to meet death from English and Narraganset swords and muskets. Others – hundreds of them – remained huddled inside the huts and were burned, women and children, old and young, “in promiscuous ruin.”

The massacre was over in half an hour. According to Underhill, his Narraganset allies were appalled by the ferocity of the settlers. “Mach it, mach it,” they cried, “it is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slaies too many men.” Something of the shock the Narragansets must have felt at this glimpse of how settlers waged war is indicated by Underhill’s assessment of native tactics. “They come not near one another,” he wrote, “but shoot remote, and not point-blank, as we often do with our bullets, but at rovers, and then they gaze up into the sky to see where the arrow falls, and not until it is fallen do they shoot again. This fight is more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies. . . . They might fight seven years and not kill seven men.”

The English suffered only slight losses in the attack – two men killed and about twenty wounded. Behind the English terror tactics was a theological imperative, “In a word,” as Captain Mason put it, “the Lord was as it were pleased to say unto us, The Land of Canaan will I give unto thee tho’ but few and strangers in it. . . .” Underhill found the justification equally simple; citing David’s war, he noted that “we had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

Stunned by the total victory of the English, the remaining Pequots in the area fled, led by Sassacus, their sachem. But they were slowed down by women and children, and the pursuing English trapped them in a swamp near New Haven. Old men, women, and children were allowed to come out unmolested. Eighty warriors refused to surrender and tried to break through the English cordon on July 14. Twenty of them made it; the rest retreated back into the swamp. When the colonists went in to ferret them out, they found the natives huddled close together on the ground. The English charged their muskets with ten or twelve balls apiece and tore apart the beaten Indians at close range.

Among those who had escaped was Sassacus, but there was no sanctuary for him or his followers. Other tribes, getting word of what the white soldiers could do, were quick to send the victors Pequot heads in hopes of placating them. Sassacus’s head arrived early in August, sent by the Mohawks he had approached for asylum.

The few beaten remnants of the tribe sued for peace, which they got on harsh terms. The Treaty of Hartford, signed on September 21, 1638, stipulated that they be divided as vassals among the settlers’ Indian allies; eighty to Uncas and his Mohegans; eighty to Miantonomo and his Narragansets; twenty to Ninigret and his Niantics. The name of the tribe was to be erased from the lexicon even of the surviving Pequots, who were forced to assume the identity of their new hosts and denied the right to live in their old homeland. In the same treaty, the English, now in a position of dominance, forbade the Mohegans and Narragansets to war against each other without the permission of the colonists.