The Pequot War
History of the Pequot War
Traditional Pequot territory encompassed an area of approximately 250 square miles in southeastern Connecticut and included the present towns of Groton, Ledyard, Stonington, North Stonington and the southern parts of Preston and Griswold. The Thames River and Pawcatuck Rivers formed the western and eastern boundaries respectively, Long Island Sound the southern boundary and the southern portions of Preston and Griswold the northern boundary. Some historic sources suggest that Pequot territory may have extended 4-5 miles east of the Pawcatuck River to an area called Weekapaug in Charlestown Rhode Island prior to the Pequot War. Within this territory lived a population of approximately 8,000 Pequot (4,000 after the smallpox epidemics of 1633-1634), residing in 15-20 villages of between 50 to 400 people. Pequot villages were principally located along the estuaries of the Thames, Mystic and Pawcatuck Rivers and along the coastal tidal marshes along Long Island Sound.
In the 1620s and early 1630s, the Pequot Tribe subjugated a number of tribes along coastal Connecticut, the Connecticut River, eastern Connecticut and eastern Long Island in an effort to control the fur and wampum trade. By 1635 the Pequot had extended their political and economic control over much of southern New England and forged a confederacy of dozens of tribes through coercion, warfare, diplomacy and intermarriage.
The Pequot War is best understood within the broader cultural, political and economic changes that occurred in coastal Long Island and the Connecticut River Valley following the arrival of Dutch traders in 1611, and English traders and settlers in the early 1630s. Within a few years after the arrival of the Dutch, the Pequot positioned themselves to control the fur and wampum trade in much of southern New England through a combination of coercion, warfare and diplomacy. Within a decade after the arrival of the Dutch, the Pequot controlled all of coastal Long Island Sound in Connecticut and Long Islands, the Connecticut River Valley and much of interior eastern Connecticut. Dozens of tribes in southern New England became tributary to the Pequot as they expanded their political, social and economic control of the region through diplomacy and warfare. For a time the Dutch and Pequot controlled all trade in the region which resulted in a relatively stable, though potentially volatile situation, as many Native tribes were resentful of their tributary status to the Pequot. The arrival of English traders and settlers in the Connecticut Valley in the early 1630s changed the delicate political balance and resulted in intense competition and conflict between all parties as they sought to control the trade or wrest themselves from Pequot subjugation. The primary causes of the war were largely the result of English efforts to break the Dutch-Pequot control of the fur and wampum trade and Pequot efforts to maintain their political and economic dominance in the region.
The murder of trader John Stone and his crew in the Connecticut River by the Pequot in the summer of 1634 is usually cited as initiating the processes that led directly to the Pequot war. However, Stone’s death was the culmination of decades of conflict between Native tribes in the region further amplified by the arrival of the Dutch and English. Although the Pequot provided several explanations for Stone’s death, all of which suggested they viewed their actions as justified, the English felt they could not afford to let any English deaths at the hands of Natives go unpunished. As tensions grew between all parties, the murder of trader John Oldham by the Manisses Indians of Block Island in July, 1636 resulted in a military response by the English of Massachusetts Bay that led directly to the Pequot War.
The first action of the Pequot war took place in late August 1636 when Massachusetts Bay organized a force of ninety soldiers under the command of Colonel John Endicott to launch a punitive expedition against the Manisses of Block Island in retaliation for the murder of Oldham a month earlier. The expedition then proceeded to Pequot territory to exact retribution for the murder of John Stone. The force sailed from Boston on August 24, 1636 bound for Block Island with instructions to kill all the men and take away the women and children.
After a briefly contested amphibious landing along the east beaches of the Island (the first recorded amphibious assault in the New World), the expedition established a base camp near their point of landing and a short distance from their ships anchored along what is now Crescent Beach. The English spent two days searching the island for the Manisses who fled into the swamps for safety. While a few Manisses warriors skirmished with the English, no significant action took place. The English burned five or six villages and destroyed several cornfields and then sailed to Saybrook Fort before proceeding to the Pequot (Thames) River with instructions to take by force if necessary the murderers of John Stone and his crew. The English force disembarked on the east side of the Pequot (Thames) River at the site of a major Pequot village (possibly the present site of the United States Naval Submarine Base). Negotiations were unsuccessful and the English landed and burned the village. One of the Native guides/interpreters who accompanied the English killed a Pequot “and thus began the war between the Indians and us (English) in these parts” (Gardiner 1901 : 11). The Pequot viewed this action as an unprovoked attack and immediately began military operations against the English outpost at Saybrook Fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River.
From September 1636 through mid-April 1637 the Pequot laid siege to Saybrook Fort, attacked soldiers and work parties who ventured too far from the fort, destroyed English cornfields and cattle, and burned warehouse used to store trade goods Saybrook Fort Study Area; Warehouse Point Study Area). Early in the siege English soldiers venturing from their blockhouse two miles south of the fort were attacked by Pequot warriors, two of which were killed. Lieutenant Lion Gardiner evacuated the blockhouse in September and Pequot warriors burned the structure soon after along with English warehouses north of the fort. Later that month three English settlers were killed and another captured as they gathered hay on an island north of the fort. On February 22, 1637 Lion Gardiner and twelve men ventured to Saybrook Neck to burn reeds when they were ambushed by approximately 100 Pequots. Four English soldiers were killed and another four were wounded. Throughout the spring Pequot warriors attempted to cut off all river traffic to and from the upriver Connecticut colonies of Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor. At the same time, the Pequot pursued various diplomatic initiatives with neighboring tribes to enlist their aid against the English, including overtures to their traditional enemies the Narragansett. This effort failed due to long standing mistrust and years of warfare between the Pequot and Narragansett and the Narragansett entered the war on the side of the English.
On April 23, 1637 a large force of Pequot warriors attacked English settlers at Wethersfield on their way to their fields in the Great Meadow along the Connecticut River. The Pequot killed nine men and women and captured two girls who were brought to Pequot territory ostensibly to show the Pequot how to make gunpowder. As a result of the Wethersfield attack, Connecticut declared war on the Pequot on May 1, 1637 and raised a force of ninety soldiers from the three river towns for an expedition against the Pequot. Captain John Mason of Windsor was given command of the Connecticut forces and issued instructions to attack the Pequot fortified villages at Mystic and Weinshauks (home of Sassacus). After rendezvousing at Saybrook Fort, Mason’s force of seventy Connecticut soldiers and nineteen Massachusetts Bay soldiers stationed at Saybrook Fort under the command of Captain John Underhill (who replaced 20 of Mason’s men who were unfit for service), along with 60 Mohegan and Connecticut River Indian warriors under the Mohegan sachem Uncas, sailed in three vessels to Narragansett to join with the Narragansett in a combined effort against the Pequot.
The English arrived at Narragansett on May 18, 1637, and spent two days negotiating with the Narragansett sachems. On May 23, a force of approximately 80 English (10 remained with the ships), 60 Mohegan and River Indians under Uncas, and 200 Narragansett Indians marched 30 miles through Narragansett and Eastern Niantic territory to Mystic. The last 10 miles were a forced march in extreme heat that so exhausted the English they decided to attack only Mystic, the nearest of the two Pequot fortified villages (Weinshauks was located 2 ½ miles southwest of Mystic). The English forded the Mystic River at dusk on May 25th and marched two miles to Porter’s Rocks where they made camp for the night. At dawn on May 26, the English and their Native allies approached the 2-acre circular palisaded village at the top of Pequot Hill to begin the attack.
The English split their forces to gain entry to the fort simultaneously through entrances in the northeast and southwest quadrants. The 20 soldiers under John Mason forced their way through an entrance in the northeast quadrant while twenty men with John Underhill stormed an entrance in the southwest quadrant. The original battle plan was to “destroy them by the sword and save the plunder”, but the English entry was so hotly contested, and the lanes between the rows of wigwams and lanes so narrow, the English could not effectively deploy their men (Mason in Prince 1736: 28). Within a few minutes after gaining entry to the fort the English suffered two dead and twenty wounded – fifty percent of the force that entered the fort. Recognizing “we should never kill them after that manner; the Captain [Mason] also said, We must burn them, and immediately stepping into a wigwam where he had been before, brought out a firebrand, and putting it into the matts with which they were covered, set the wigwams on fire” (Mason in Prince, 1736: 28-29). Within minutes the entire village was on fire fanned by a strong northeast wind. The English retreated outside and encircled the fort to prevent anyone from escaping, all the while firing into the fort killing anyone who attempted to escape. The Mohegan and Narragansett formed an outer ring and killed dozens of Pequot who slipped through the English line. In an hour more than 400 Pequot were killed. The English reported only seven Pequot were captured and seven escaped.
By this time the combat effectiveness of the English was severely compromised. The English and their Native allies were exhausted and the English suffered over 30% causalities during the course of the battle. Four or five of the English were so severely wounded they had to be carried. Mohegan and Narragansett casualties are unknown, although one account identified forty Native casualties and another described several Narragansett killed by the English who mistook them for Pequot. The English were also critically low on ammunition and half of the combat effective English were needed to carry the wounded:
And thereupon grew many difficulties: Our provisions and munition near spent; we in the enemies country, who did far exceed us in number, being much inraged: all our Indians, except Onkos, deserting us; our pinnaces at a great distance from us, and when they would come we were uncertain.” (Mason in Prince 1736: 11)
The English ships that were to meet the force in the Pequot (Thames) River and carry them to the safety of Saybrook Fort had not yet come into view, and the English were at a loss as to what course of action to take. The English and their Indian allies established a temporary camp just to the south of the burned fort to gain a view of Long Island Sound and hopefully their ships. The force considered moving several miles south to a neck of land (Noank Neck) at the mouth of the Mystic River to await the ships in a more defensible location. Shortly after the camp was established, hundreds of Pequot warriors from nearby villages mounted a series of counterattacks against the English Allied forces still waiting on Pequot Hill. Captain Underhill with fourteen soldiers and an unknown number of Native allies advanced a short distance to meet the first counterattack. The Pequot would not venture within range of the English guns, and Underhill ordered the Mohegan and Narragansett to continue the fight so the English could observe Native combat. After a short time, Underhill returned to the main body still positioned on Pequot Hill just south of the destroyed fort. Shortly after group of fifty Narragansett warriors, fearing the English were critically low on ammunition and unable to defend them against future Pequot attacks, left the main body in an attempt to ford the Mystic River and head east to the safety of Narragansett country. The Narragansett had not traveled far before they were attacked by Pequot warriors from villages on the east side of the Mystic River. A runner returned to Mason and Underhill seeking assistance, and Underhill along with 30 soldiers went to the aid of the Narragansett and battled the Pequot for an hour before returning to the main body where Mason still waited with the wounded.
Shortly after Underhill’s return, the English spotted their ships in Long Island Sound sailing west for the Pequot (Thames) River and the rendezvous with Mason and Underhill. As the English and Native Allied force made their way west toward the base of Pequot Hill they were attacked from the east by Pequot warriors who had arrived from Weinshauks and had come upon the remains of the Mystic Fort. The Pequot rushed headlong down the hill and after a furious battle the Pequot broke off the engagement. After a brief stop at a stream at the base of Pequot Hill (Fishtown Brook) to refresh themselves and tend the wounded, the column continued the eight mile march to Pequot River with Mason at the head of the column with the wounded and Underhill at the rear. The force was ambushed all along their avenue of retreat as the Pequot fired at them from swamps and boulders. As a countermeasure the English fired volleys into the swamps and thickets they encountered along the way. Underhill and the rear guard also faced constant attack from the flanks and rear. Underhill reported more Pequot warriors were killed in these actions than at Mystic. The English lost one killed and several more wounded during the retreat. Native allied casualties are unknown.
During the retreat the English encountered a small hamlet of several wigwams which they burned, but not before salvaging mats and poles to fashion stretchers for the four or five English wounded unable to walk, “some of them with the heads of the arrows in their bodies” (Trumbull 1765: 24). The Pequot counterattacks inexplicitly stopped two miles from the Pequot River, perhaps because they had lost so many warriors in the counterattacks. The English marched to the top of a hill overlooking the Pequot river “with our colours flying” and saw their vessels at anchor (Mason in Prince 1736: 12).
Underhill and the English wounded and some of the Native allies went aboard the English ships and sailed to Saybrook Fort. Mason and the remaining English and most of their Native allies stayed the night on the western shore of the Pequot River. The next morning the force marched the 20 miles to the Connecticut River, arriving in the early evening where they stayed the night until they were transported over the river and to the safety of Saybrook Fort. Along the way the force burned several wigwams and captured ten warriors and eight women. Six of the warriors were executed “the other four given to as many sachems, one to each.” Four of the women remained at the fort and the other four transported up river to the Connecticut colonies. A dispute arose among the English and Native allies regarding the disposition of the women which the English resolved by executing them (Trumbull 1765: 25).
In the weeks following the destruction of Mystic Fort the remaining Pequot villages (estimated at 18-20 communities and 3,500 people) abandoned their territory for fear of additional attacks by the English. Many Pequot sought refuge among the Narragansett, Montauk and other Native tribes in the region hoping to escape from the English. Sassacus and Mononnotto, the remaining chief sachems, elected to continue the fight against the English and Narragansett. Sassacus reportedly burned Weinshauks before he abandoned Pequot territory to seek allies and support to continue the fight against the English and Narragansett. Sassacus, with five or six sachems and perhaps two hundred men, women and children, made their way west along the Connecticut coast intending to seek refuge and support from their allies and tributaries at Quinnipiac (New Haven) and Sasqua (Fairfield). A large group of Pequot warriors under the sachem Mononotto went north to continue the fight against the Narragansett and join with the Wunnashowatuckoogs, a Nipmuc band in east-central Connecticut who were allies and tributaries of the Pequotato. In June of 1637 a major battle took place somewhere in east-central Connecticut between the Pequot/Wunnashowatuckoogs and the Narragansett and their Nipmuc allies/tributaries in one of the few recorded Native-Native battles of the Pequot War. The Pequot were defeated and Mononotto fled west along the Connecticut coast to join Sassacus at Sasquanikut (Fairfield).
It was not until late June/early July that that English organized another campaign against the remaining Pequot. This force consisted of 100 English soldiers and an unknown number of Native (Narragansett / Mohegan / Montauk) allies embarked from Saybrook Fort first sailing for Long Island in pursuit of Sassacus. The Montauk, once allies and Pequot tributaries, submitted to English authority and relayed that Sassacus was at Quinnipiac (New Haven). The English force disembarked at present day Guilford, and executed three Pequot sachems they captured at a neck of land known today as Sachems Head. The English continued on to Quinnipiac to learn that Sassacus, who had been informed of their approach, escaped to Sasquanikut (Fairfield), home of their allies and tributaries the Sasqua. The English force continued on foot to the Housatonic River, encountering scattered groups of Pequots along the way. After crossing the Housatonic River with assistance from their vessels, the English eventually caught up with Sassacus’ group at Sasquanikut where the last major battle of the Pequot War took place (Fairfield Swamp Fight) on July 13 -14, 1637 at Munnacommuck Swamp, known today as the Pequot Swamp.
The English force of approximately 100 soldiers and an undetermined number of Indian allies forded the Mill River and proceeded southwest along Mill Hill which provided a commanding view of the area to the south and west. At the southwest tip of the hill the English observed the Pequot and their Sasqua allies in a village on the far side of the swamp less than two miles away. The Pequot and Sasqua spotted the English at the same time and fled into the swamp for safety.
The English marched to the base of the hill and continuing on, they encircled the swamp which was approximately one-mile in circumference. Following several hours of combat the English allowed the women and children to surrender with promises to spare their lives (all were sold into slavery either in the Caribbean or New England colonies). The English force of 100 soldiers was not sufficient to prevent Pequot warriors from escaping the swamp and they proceeded to cut the swamp in half to more effectively surround it and contain the remaining warriors inside. What followed was a 24-hour battle that was one of the fiercest of the war, and one of the only battles where Pequot warriors were reported to have used firearms against the English. Hand-to-hand fighting took place throughout the day and night as the English tried to gain entry into the swamp and Pequot warriors attempted to escape. On the morning of July 14, under cover of fog, approximately 60-80 Pequot warriors broke through a section of the English lines and escaped, although many were wounded and killed in the attempt. English accounts of Pequot casualties differ, ranging from seven dead to as many as 60.
Hours before the English reached Munnacommuck Swamp, Sassacus, with six sachems, a few women (perhaps Sassacus’ daughter) and a body guard of 20 warriors fled north up the Housatonic River and west up the Ten Mile River into eastern New York with the intention of reaching Mohawk territory near Albany, New York to enlist their aid against the English. The Pequot were discovered by a contingent of Mahican or Mohegan (the primary sources are not entirely clear) and Mohawk warriors near the “Stone Church” in Dover Plains, New York. Following a brief skirmish, Sassacus’ group made their way to Paquaige in late July (west of Danbury, CT]) where they were surprised in their wigwams by the Mohegan and Mohawk. Sassacus was killed immediately and the few Pequot who managed to escape were quickly found and executed. The Mohawk sent the “locks” to Agawam (Springfield) and Hartford, reaching Boston on August 5, 1637 effectively ending all Pequot resistance.
The Pequot War ended where it began, on Block Island. On August 1, 1637 Israel Stoughton, based in occupied Pequot country to pursue refugee bands of Pequot, sailed to Block Island with a small force to seek satisfaction from the Manisses. Stoughton and his men killed several Manisses and burned several wigwams before the Manisses submitted to English authority – the last action of the Pequot War.
The Treaty of Hartford ratified by the English, Mohegan and Narragansett on September 21, 1638 was the official end to the Pequot War. The treaty stipulated that the surviving Pequot were to be dispersed among the Mohegan and Narragansett, and no longer to be called Pequot. The treaty also stipulated that the surviving Pequot would never be allowed to live in their former territory.
var _gaq = _gaq || ; _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-18761652-1']); _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']);