“Those Pequots were a great People, being strongly fortified, cruel, warlike, munitioned, &c. and the English but an handful in comparison.”
In the introduction to his short memoir of the expedition that he led against the Pequot Indians in 1637, John Mason asserts that little has been done to commemorate this important action and that previous accounts have been inaccurate or insufficient. He addresses his memoir, likely written in the late 1650s, to a public that seemingly failed to recognize the importance of the expedition, or perhaps had little desire to dwell on a controversial and brutal campaign against an apparently inferior enemy. Rather than offering sensationalistic descriptions of combat, Mason recounts strategies and troop movements, intending to memorialize the hardships faced by the militia. While he portrays the Pequots as a prideful, warlike people deserving of their fate, he does not extend that judgment to all American Indians, avoiding the common Puritan view of Indians as satanic savages. For Mason, some Indians proved to be trustworthy, such as the Mohegan sachem Uncas, whom he called his great friend.
On May 26, 1637, Captain John Mason led a small force of Connecticut militia and Mohegan, Narragansett, and Eastern Niantic Indian allies in an early morning surprise assault on a fortified Pequot village. After lighting the village on fire, Mason’s troops waited outside and slaughtered all those who managed to escape. Of the estimated three hundred to seven hundred Pequot men, women, and children who were living there, Mason believed only fourteen to have survived. Few events shaped the early history of New England as much as this one action. The near obliteration of the Pequot people that followed from this attack allowed the English colonists to better expand their settlements into Connecticut and take increased control of the fur trade. More importantly, the war established the colonists’ dominion over southern New England and the Indian bands that remained in the area.
The English colonists’ justification for starting the conflict seemed slight: the Pequots sheltered the Indian murderers of an unscrupulous English trader who had been previously expelled from the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies. The punishment seemed excessive: the slaughter and enslavement of thousands of Pequot men, women, and children. While the Pequots were far from blameless in inciting the violence, the provocative actions and rigid demands of colonial leaders escalated the dispute. The Pequots had eagerly sought a relationship with the English based on trade and mutual support, but the colonial leaders wanted Pequot subjugation, accompanied by exorbitant tribute payments.
An exploration of the root causes of the war involves going beyond a single incident of a murdered trader. One must comprehend a complex web of cross-cultural relationships between the various regional American Indian bands and the English newcomers. While the colonists’ concerns about trade and land acquisition likely played a role in the conflict, the overriding causes had more to do with general English fears of a pan-Indian menace, accompanied by a Puritan Christian ideology that supported the colonists’ belief in their own cultural superiority. Equally important is that the war came about as a consequence of rivalries and factionalism among the indigenous groups, with the Indian leaders attempting to use the English to gain advantages in their own power struggles.
In his writing about the war and its causes, John Mason offers a window into the clash between the Ameican Indian and English cultures, revealing how English misunderstandings and general anxieties about their Indian neighbors translated into an effort to physically and culturally exterminate the Pequots.
John Mason was an English military officer who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1630s. His parentage and place and date of birth are unknown, though the year of his birth is often given as 1600. He first appears in the records of the colony in 1632, when Massachusetts governor John Winthrop sent a militia under Lieutenant Mason, as he was then, to pursue pirates who were raiding the coast of New England. The Massachusetts government called upon Captain Mason’s military expertise again in 1634 for a commission to examine the Boston peninsula for prospective locations for fortifications, the construction of which they had him oversee the following year. Also in 1635, he served as a deputy representing the town of Dorchester to the Massachusetts General Court. That same year, Massachusetts allowed settlers to move into Connecticut, and Mason joined the group from Dorchester who founded the town of Windsor. In 1639, he married Anne Peck (1619–71), the daughter of Robert Peck, a prominent minister of Hingham, Massachusetts.
Mason served as the chief military officer in Connecticut for over thirty years. At the request of the Connecticut General Court, he moved to the strategic post of Fort Saybrook in 1647, where he had command in times of danger. Mason also became a powerful figure in the Connecticut government; he was a deputy in the Connecticut General Court (1637–41), a magistrate (1642–59, 1669–71), and a commissioner for the United Colonies of New England (1647, 1654–57, 1660–61). In 1660, Mason became the deputy governor of Connecticut, a position he held for eight years, during which time he was the acting governor for several years when Governor John Winthrop Jr. was in England.
Mason resided at Saybrook for twelve years. In 1659, he and a group of Saybrook residents purchased land from the Mohegans and founded the town of Norwich, Connecticut. At the same time, Mason obtained from the Mohegan sachem Uncas the rights to all unimproved Mohegan lands. By this unusual measure, Mason became the Mohegans’ guardian, helping secure their lands from the encroachment of both English colonists and other Indian bands. In return, Mason and his heirs received income from Mohegan land sales. In 1671, Mason reserved a portion of the land for the Mohegans to use in perpetuity.
Rev. Simon Bradstreet recorded in his journal that John Mason died on January 30, 1672. According to Thomas Prince’s introduction to Mason’s A Brief History of the Pequot War, which Prince published posthumously in 1736 and in which this document appears, he was seventy-three years old.
In the introduction to his Pequot War memoir, John Mason emphasizes how, in contrast with other accounts of the war, he will address the subject in a clear and straightforward manner. Yet when he begins his account with a summation of the reasons why the English decided to attack the Pequots, his description of these events and the participants is noticeably vague. Unlike the bulk of his account, this opening section for the most part does not derive from his personal knowledge or participation. The absence of specifics could therefore indicate his uneasiness with presenting matters about which he had little observational foundation. But it also suggests that he had little interest in exploring such details. As one of the most powerful men in the colonies, if Mason wanted to clarify the issues, he could have discussed the advent of the war with other colonial leaders and provided his readers with more information. Because a thorough examination of the war’s origins might have called into question Mason’s contention that the English “had never offered [the Pequots] the least Wrong,” he perhaps had misgivings about whether the war would seem as justifiable if his readers better understood the state of affairs.
On April 23, 1637, Pequots attacked settlers near the town of Wethersfield, Connecticut, killing nine and capturing two young girls. At a special meeting the following week, the Connecticut General Court voted to conduct an “offensive and defensive War” against the Pequots and appointed Captain John Mason to command a militia force conscripted from the three towns in Connecticut: forty-two men from Hartford, thirty from Windsor, and eighteen from Wethersfield. The Wethersfield attack undoubtedly incited Connecticut to immediately declare war, but the conflict’s origins went back to the previous August, when a militia force from Massachusetts burned a Pequot village and the Pequots responded by attacking several English parties in the vicinity of Fort Saybrook, near the mouth of the Connecticut River. While these actions did not immediately ignite a war, they made it less likely that the two sides could come to a peaceful resolution. Even before the Wethersfield raid, the Massachusetts General Court was preparing to attack the Pequots, convening a special meeting on April 18 during which they voted for war and ordered the enlistment of 160 men for a military expedition.
John Mason traces the origins of the conflict back to the murder of the trader John Stone, an event that occurred three to four years before the decision to go to war. With “bloody Design,” according to Mason, the Indians murdered Stone and his crew and divided the plundered goods among Pequot and Niantic (“Nayanticke”) leaders. By providing a sensationalist description of this crime—an event with no English witnesses—Mason gives his readers reason to conclude that such evildoing warranted a brutal English response. His account, however, is hazy about who did the actual killing. According to him, it was not Pequots but Indians from a place that the Pequots “Tyrannized over” who “had frequent recourse unto them.” As to how the colonies came to blame the Pequots and why it took several years after the Stone murder for the war to begin, Mason offers no explanation. When it comes to establishing specific dates or details leading up to the conflict, his account is vague, stating no more than that the colonial leaders were “unsatisfied” with their treaties with the Pequots.
Stone was killed while traveling to a Dutch trading post called the House of Good Hope, located on the west side of the Connecticut River, about forty-five miles from the river’s mouth. Only a year earlier, the Dutch purchased this small plot of land from the Pequots with the agreement that all bands would have access. When representatives of one of the Pequots’ enemies (likely the Narragansetts) tried to visit the post, however, the Pequots attacked them. In response, the Dutch kidnapped the principal Pequot leader, Tatobem, and demanded a large ransom. Although the sum was quickly paid, the Dutch traders killed Tatobem and sent back his corpse.
Hoping to gain English trade and protection, a Pequot delegation visited Boston in October 1634. Massachusetts authorities apparently found out about Stone’s death from these envoys. They explained how Stone and his crew had been killed because the Pequots mistakenly thought they were connected with the Dutch traders who murdered Tatobem. The Pequot envoys also accused Stone of provoking the attack by kidnapping two Indian men to serve as guides. Since the Western Niantics resided near where Stone kidnapped the Indian guides, they likely belonged to that band. Mason probably had in mind the Western Niantics as the “Tyrannized over” band who he thought had killed Stone. Very possibly members of both the Pequots and the Western Niantics participated in the attack on Stone, although Pequot representatives at several times admitted that their people had done the killing.
Rather than start a war with the English, the Pequot delegation wanted them as trading partners, and they hoped to convince the English to establish settlements in Connecticut. Once the Massachusetts authorities found out about the crime, however, they chose to use it to their advantage, demanding the surrender of those who had committed the crime as well as a large tribute payment. For the Massachusetts authorities, Stone’s killing was not the underlying concern. He had an unsavory reputation for being a pirate, adulterer, and drunkard, and he had been banned from the Puritan colonies; Massachusetts would not go to war over his death. What they wanted was greater submission from the Pequots, and the crime provided diplomatic leverage, a way that they could demonstrate their dominion over the Indians.
The Pequots had long been the most powerful band in the region, “a potent and warlike People,” as Mason calls them. Their territory stretched through eastern Connecticut and Long Island, and they presided over smaller bands in the area. This included the important wampum-making operations on Long Island that since the 1620s had provided the primary currency for the lucrative fur-trading enterprise between the Dutch, the English, and the other Indians. By the 1630s, however, the Pequots were increasingly vulnerable. The Narragansetts who controlled the Rhode Island region vied for trade with the Dutch and English and undermined the Pequot tributary system by gaining the allegiance of some of the lesser tribes in the area. In addition to an ongoing Narragansett conflict, the Pequot leadership had recently faced a rebellion by some tributary Mohegan sachems, and although the uprising was not successful and resulted in the banishment of the Mohegan leaders, it weakened the band. Among the exiled rebels was the sachem Uncas, who would later play a large role in the Pequot War and its aftermath.
In his campaign against the Pequots, Mason took advantage of the rivalries between the Indian bands in order to recruit allies, but he seemed unsure of their loyalties, intentions, and specific relationships with each other. With intricate tribute systems, frequently shifting alliances, and intermarriages, the political, social, and economic system of the New England Algonquin bands bore little resemblance to a familiar European model. For Mason, and probably for most of the colonists, the greatest fear was that the Pequots would be able to “in all likelihood [Espouse] all the Indians in the Country” against the English. That such an alliance failed to come about Mason attributes to an act of God “more than an ordinary Providence.” Even though he was one of the more knowledgeable colonists on Indian affairs, Mason seems to have been unaware of the extent to which intertribal politics played a part in the war’s origins, failing to comprehend that many of the regional bands, such as the Narragansetts, Wampanoags, Massachusets, and Mohegans, had come to depend on the English and Dutch for trade and protection. While these bands often had ties to the Pequots, their Algonquin tribal loyalties were complicated by long-standing antagonisms, as well as by their more recent economic connections to European fur trading and settlements.
The Massachusetts military expedition that burned the Pequot village in August 1636, the event that triggered the war, had been organized not to attack the Pequots but to punish another band of American Indians. In July 1636, near Block Island, thirteen miles off the coast of Rhode Island, a boat captain spotted Indians canoeing away from a drifting boat; seeing other Indians on deck, he fired on them and then rammed the boat, causing most of them to jump overboard. On boarding the vessel, he discovered the body of the boat’s captain, John Oldham. Contrary to Mason’s sensationalistic recollection that “all his Company” had been killed, the two Indians and two English boys who had been with Oldham were not on board and were unharmed. For the English colonists, the obvious suspects were the Block Island Indians, a branch of the Eastern Niantic band, then tributaries of the Narragansetts. Some colonial officials later suspected the involvement of several Narragansett lower sachems, and the Narragansett sachem Miantonimo eventually executed one of them for the crime.
In contrast to the unhurried manner in which they dealt with the Stone murder, the Massachusetts General Court straightaway recruited a force of ninety volunteer soldiers to serve under John Endecott and ordered them to put to death all Block Island men and take the women and children into captivity. This force invaded Block Island on August 24, 1636. They spent two days burning the Indian villages and crops, but the Indian residents proved frustratingly elusive and the soldiers managed to kill few, if any. After this disappointing venture, they sailed for Fort Saybrook and from there up the Thames River, then called the Pequot River, until they came upon a Pequot settlement.
Unlike his brutal orders regarding the Block Island Indians, Endecott’s mission to the ÿÿPequot settlement was meant as intimidation. He had been instructed to demand the murderers of Stone, an exorbitant amount of wampum, and Pequot children as hostages. The Pequots at first welcomed the English and tried to parley. After some delay, the Pequot villagers located a senior sachem, who reiterated a story about the mistaken killing of Stone. He also explained that the principal sachem Sassacus was then on Long Island and therefore unavailable to discuss their demands. As the session stretched on, the English grew irritated at the delays and became more threatening. Both sides gathered their troops, and Endecott declared they should fight. His plans, however, were thwarted when instead of facing them in European-style battle, as he had expected, the Pequots fled. In their English armor, the Massachusetts forces could not give chase, so they burned two riverside villages and returned home.
The following year, after declaring war, the Connecticut General Court instructed Mason to follow a route similar to Endecott’s, taking his men from Fort Saybrook up the Pequot River to attack the fortified village of Weinshauks, where the principal sachem, Sassacus, resided. Around May 15, 1637, Mason and his troops reached Saybrook. Arriving ahead of them were sixty to seventy Mohegans under Uncas, who had volunteered to accompany Mason. Twenty Massachusetts men recently stationed at Saybrook under Captain John Underhill also joined Mason’s force, allowing him to send twenty Connecticut men back to their towns.
In his memoir, Mason goes to great lengths to explain why at this point he made the strategic decision to disobey the orders he had received. Because the Pequots continually guarded the river and considerably outnumbered the colonial forces, and thus could “impede our Landing, and possibly dishearten our Men,” Mason presented a plan to his officers wherein they would sail further north along the coast and then go back to the river by foot, even though it meant marching a considerable distance. The other officers disagreed with this plan until the unit’s chaplain prayed about it, upon which he became, as Mason says, “fully satisfied to sail for Narragansett.”
This force sailed into Narragansett Bay, coming ashore on May 22 near the settlement of the Narragansett sachem Miantonimo (Myantomo). Mason received the sachem’s permission to proceed through the territory but no offer of assistance because, according to Mason, “he thought our Numbers were too weak to deal with the Enemy, who were (as he said) very great Captains and Men skilful in War.” The next day, the army marched nearly twenty miles southwest along the coast to an Eastern Niantic village. While these Indians were tributaries of the Narragansetts, Mason still feared that they would warn the Pequots, so he insisted that no Indians enter or leave the village. The following day, Miantonimo appeared with several hundred warriors and offered their assistance. They were then joined by several hundred of the Niantics.
With this greatly enlarged force, Mason led another day’s long march southwest along the coast. They planned to strike both of the Pequots’ two fortified villages at once, but when they learned that the village of Weinshauks was too remote to reach in good time, they decide to direct their attack at the village of Mystic, which was about seven miles closer. The following morning, they surrounded this village of tightly packed wigwams ringed by a twelve-foot-high palisade log wall. The English force broke into two commands, with Mason leading his men through the northeast entrance and Underhill taking the other entrance, on the southeast side. Once his unit was inside the fort, Mason soon perceived that they could not fight effectively in the crowded spaces against inhabitants who were running and hiding, so he instructed his men to burn the village and lit the wigwams on fire. When Underhill saw this happening, his unit did the same. The English forces then withdrew and slaughtered all those who fled the burning village. Mason estimates that they killed around six or seven hundred people that morning, although he fails to mention that a large portion of the victims were women and children. The Narragansett allies, according to Underhill, were shocked that the English could be so brutal.
The Pequot War essentially began and ended with the Mystic massacre. Soon after the fight, the Pequot political structure started to collapse. Some of the lower Pequot sachems and their supporters looked to become tributaries of other bands, and the principal sachem, Sassacus, moved west with his supporters, intending to join the Mohawks in New York. Colonial leaders, however, instructed other Indian bands to reject Pequot alliances. In his memoir, Mason describes how other Indians began to hunt the Pequots and bring the English their heads. Mohawk leaders killed Sassacus and other leading sachems and sent their scalps to the English. Connecticut and Massachusetts forces made a few more raids against remaining settlements, executing numerous Pequot men and taking many of the women and children as slaves.
In September 1638, the colonial leaders and their American Indian allies met in Hartford, Connecticut, and signed a peace treaty. As part of this agreement, they divided the remaining Pequot refugees as war prizes among the Mohegan, Narragansett, and Eastern Niantic bands. The treaty stipulated that there could never be another Pequot settlement or use of the Pequot name. With the removal of the Pequots, the English colonists established themselves as the clearly dominant power, and under the Hartford treaty, the Indian allies formally accepted English sovereignty and agreed to pay yearly tributes.
Scholars of the Pequot War have tried to answer the question of why the war happened. What motivated the English to attack the Pequots? Was it a case of the Puritans wanting to dispossess and subjugate the Indians and looking for justification? Were the Pequots a particularly belligerent people who looked to destroy the English? John Mason’s account has been one the most important pieces of evidence referenced in this discussion. In 1975, the historian Francis Jennings published The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, an influential and controversial book that reexamines the evidence of early English and Indian conflicts, deliberately offering a reinterpretation that favors the idea of the Indians as the victims of English aggression. In Mason’s attribution of Stone’s murder to a band other than the Pequots, Jennings finds reason to believe that the English used Stone’s death as a convenient excuse to attack to the Pequots.
In the view of most subsequent historians, Jennings overreached in bending and selecting evidence for his interpretations. His work, however, sparked a renewed look at questions of Pequot culpability. In his important 1964 article “Pequots and Puritans: The Causes of the War of 1637,” Alden T. Vaughan originally placed the majority of the blame on the Pequots, but by the time he republished the article in 1995, his views had altered and he found the Puritans to be primarily responsible for starting the conflict.
The most detailed examination of these questions has been by Alfred A. Cave, whose book The Pequot War (1996) offers the premier modern study of the conflict. Cave specifically focuses on questions of the war’s origins in his article “Who Killed John Stone? A Note on the Origins of the Pequot War” (1992), and he concludes that misunderstandings and miscalculations on both sides caused the war. Rather than being a planned course of action by the English, the war evolved as an outgrowth of fears of Indian malevolence and untrustworthiness. Cave offers an ideological explanation whereby the Puritans’ religious prejudices marked the Indians as demonic. He points out that the Massachusetts political leaders seemed willing to forgive the Pequots for the killing of Stone, but religious leaders pressed for punishment.
One important shift in recent scholarship has been to go beyond seeing the Pequot War as simply an inevitable conflict between the English and the Indians. Bringing American Indian perspectives into the equation, Neal Salisbury’s influential ethnohistory Manitou and Providence (1982) considers how Indian customs and demographics played a role in the conflict. Historians now view the war within the context of Indian factionalism and rivalries, recognizing that leaders of the Narragansetts and the Mohegans helped spur the English to go to war in hopes of gaining more power in the region. Particularly insightful is Michael Leroy Oberg’s Uncas: First of the Mohegans (2003), a biography of the sachem who successfully achieved power and influence by becoming a friend and ally of John Mason and the Connecticut colonists.
Cave, Alfred A. “Who Killed John Stone? A Note on the Origins of the Pequot War.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 49.3 (1992): 509–21. Print. Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975. Print. Mason, Louis Bond. The Life and Times of Major John Mason of Connecticut, 1600–1672. New York: Putnam, 1935. Print. St. Jean, Wendy B. “Inventing Guardianship: The Mohegan Indians and Their ‘Protectors.’” New England Quarterly 72.3 (1999): 362–87. Print. Vaughan, Alden T. “Pequots and Puritans: The Causes of the War of 1637.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 21.2 (1964): 256–69. Print. Cave, Alfred A. The Pequot War. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1996. Print. Johnson, Eric S. “Uncas and the Politics of Contact.” Northeastern Indian Lives, 1632–1816. Ed. Robert Steven Grumet. Andover: U of Massachusetts P, 1996. 29–47. Print. Oberg, Michael Leroy. Uncas: First of the Mohegans. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006. Print. Orr, Charles, ed. History of the Pequot War: The Contemporary Accounts of Mason, Underhill, Vincent and Gardener. Cleveland: Helman, 1897. Print. Salisbury, Neal. Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500–1643. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. Print.