One of the most hazardous tasks a historian tackles is determining what motivated the actions of a past society. Even for a present-day society, this task is fraught with perils. Are a society’s motivations the sum of its adult participants? Do we give special weight to the goals of its leaders? Should we regard the society’s stated goals as accurate communications of motivation, discard them as intentionally deceptive, or dissect those statements as indications of deeper desires that are too painful to directly discuss? Consider the tremendous range of motives ascribed to the United States for its involvement in Southeast Asia in the period 1954-75.
Now, consider what happens when we add the complexity of examining the motives of a society no longer present, and which had far less complete records than are normally kept by governments today. A paucity of evidence can provide a rich opportunity for ideologues to ascribe any motive that they find convenient. The purpose of this paper is to examine the motivations behind the Pequot War; see how well the evidence matches up to the various theories of intent currently popular in the academic community; and suggest an alternative theory in which the English are not the protagonists, but pawns of intertribal warfare.
There are at least three theories of motivation for the Pequot War. The oldest theory, reflecting a traditional view of white and Indian relations, is that the Pequots, who had recently arrived in Connecticut, were “a more fierce, cruel, and warlike People than the Rest of the Indians, … and became a Terrour to all their Neighbors….” After repeated atrocities committed against both Indians, Dutch, and English settlers, the English and their Indian allies insisted that the Pequots turn over the killers of one Captain John Stone; once battle with the Pequots was fully engaged, it became necessary to burn their fortifications at Mystic, Connecticut, causing an enormous loss of life. According to this view, the Indian allies of the English had their own grievances against the Pequots, but the driving force behind the war was the English colonists.
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As early as 1856, historians began to argue a different theory of motivation that was not prepared to accept the Pequot War as a “just war” against an aggressive and dangerous tribe, and saw the English colonists as a group almost as savage in their actions as the Pequots against whom they fought. As an example of how pervasive this attitude has become, a recent American history textbook asserts that “the Puritans took advantage of old hostilities between Indian tribes,” and describes the conflict between Puritans and Pequots as though the English were entirely the aggressors. Significantly, it implies that the Narragansetts, the principal English allies against the Pequots, were a passive participant, rather than a major actor in this conflict.
The most recent theory of motivation, increasingly propounded since the 1960s, sees the Pequot War as motivated by the desire of the English colonists–primarily those of Massachusetts Bay–to acquire more favorable trading conditions with other Indian tribes, or to acquire Pequot lands. Francis Jennings’ The Invasion of America argues that Pequot extermination was a goal of the war, both to acquire Pequot land, and to assert Massachusetts Bay political domination over the settlements led by Thomas Hooker, who had moved south of the Massachusetts Bay colony’s boundaries in 1636.
What motivated the Pequot War? Why did it happen, and what was the intent of the various individuals and groups that led up to the gruesome burning of Fort Mystic on May 26, 1637? All sources agree that hundreds of Pequot men, women and children died by fire, or were cut down as they fled. It is not a proud moment in American history, but we must make an honest attempt to understand why it happened, and not let later wars between colonists and Indians unduly influence our understanding of it.
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A total of four English settlements played a part in the drama of the Pequot War: Massachusetts Bay colony; Plymouth colony; Thomas Hooker’s settlement in Connecticut; and Roger Williams’ Rhode Island exile, to the east of Connecticut. The major English players in the motivational drama were: John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts (1629-34 and 1637-40); Sir Henry Vane, governor of Massachusetts (1636-7); Edward Winslow, governor of Plymouth colony (1633-4 and 1636-7); William Bradford, governor of Plymouth (1635-6 and 1637-8); Roger Williams; John Winthrop, Jr., nominally governor of Connecticut colony; John Mason, Lion Gardener, and John Underhill, military commanders involved in the attack on Fort Mystic, or the mopping up operations against the surviving Pequots.
The Indian tribes who played a significant role are the Pequots, the Narragansetts (occupying Cape Cod and modern Rhode Island), the Niantics (tributaries of the Pequots), the Mohegans (Pequot in culture, but politically independent), and the Block Islanders (tributaries of the Narragansetts).
The major Indian personalities were: Uncas, the sachem of the Mohegans; Miantonomo, one of the prominent Narragansett sachems; and Sassacus, sachem of the Pequots.
We start out this effort with a number of serious disadvantages. Foremost among these is that only the English and Dutch left written records. This is a serious handicap, because it means that we are relying on information supplied by parties with an interest in justifying their actions, either before the outbreak of hostilities, or afterwards, when gentler souls on the English side may have reconsidered to what extent the English actions were justified.
Given that the records are all from one side, can a historian therefore consider them to be untrustworthy? If the historian discards all accounts of the 1637 Pequot War as partisan, he is left with nothing but archaeological evidence, which is completely inadequate for ascertaining something as tenuous as motivation. The historian is therefore left with at least three possible responses: abandon motivations as the quarry; recognize that these one-sided accounts are our only source of information, biased or inaccurate though they may be; or read into the evidence what he desires to find. As we will see when we examine Invasion of America’s treatment of the Pequot War, this last, least intellectually desirable approach, seems to have been taken up by Francis Jennings.
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The evidence that we will examine contains a great many assertions of fact. Some of these facts reflect poorly on the motivations and actions of the colonists who fought against the Pequots; others cast a positive light. If we desire to use the negative facts contained in these narratives to cast doubt on the colonial motives and actions, it implies that these narratives are sufficiently trustworthy to be used as evidence. Similarly, we must be prepared to accept that statements of fact that show positive colonial motives and actions are trustworthy as well. If we deny the essential accuracy of these narratives except when convenient, we find ourselves confronting the epistemological and logical paradox of the man who says, “I am lying.” He says he is lying–but how do we know he is lying, other than the word of a self-described liar? In the absence of evidence that shows intentional deception, we must assume that discrepancies reflect honest mistakes; in the absence of evidence that shows it is in error, we must assume that a primary source is accurate.
The case can be made that the narratives we have available to us reflect an intentional effort to portray the actions of the colonists in the best possible light, without directly lying. This is certainly a possibility that must be seriously considered. Yet, if the descriptions of the Pequot War provided to us have been shaded or altered in such a way as to hide actions that were considered shameful by the narrators, we should expect that the narratives would provide a highly sanitized description of the war–and as we will see, there is nothing sanitized about the description of the frightful and bloody slaughter that took place. Indeed, expressions of remorse, or at least regret, appear in a number of the primary sources.
As with many wars, a series of incidents preceded the Pequot War that created animosity and suspicion among the English, Dutch, and Pequots. The primary and early secondary sources on the Pequot War are careful to blame all three for these provocations, thus making it impossible to reduce the problem to a simple issue of racism.
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The first incident that led to war was the death in 1634 of Captain John Stone, “who came occasionally with a Bark into the River to Trade” with the Pequots. Stone was described by Puritans as “a drunkard, lecher, braggart, bully, and blasphemer.” He was a smuggler, a privateer, and it was rumored that he had engaged in cannibalism while shipwrecked in the Caribbean. Stone was in continual legal trouble with both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, and was finally banished on penalty of death.
As an indication of how pivotal an event Stone’s death was in leading to war, the question, “Who killed John Stone?” remains sufficiently important that Alfred Cave devoted an entire paper to answering this question. Cave devotes considerable energy and ink to defending the position–recently unfashionable–that the Pequots did, in fact, kill Stone and his associates as retribution for the murder of the “Pequot grand sachem Tatobem” by the Dutch. Tatobem’s death was, in turn, Dutch retaliation for the murder of other Indians (“most probably Narragansetts”) on their way to the Dutch trading post at Good Hope (near present-day Hartford, Connecticut) in late 1633 or early 1634. Cave sees the death of Stone and his crew as a result of Pequot misunderstanding of European practices regarding revenge and warfare. Cave has the advantage of access to Dutch records of these incidents, that were unavailable to the English colonists.
John Mason, one of the captains whose two narratives of the war will figure prominently in our later analysis of the actions taken against the Pequots, asserted that the killers of Stone “were not native Pequots; but had frequent recourse unto them…” Governor John Winthrop asserted that the Pequots admitted causing Stone’s death, but claimed it was in self-defense. Since Mason’s statement is not an eyewitness account, it is no more persuasive of a piece of evidence than Winthrop’s reporting of Pequot claims. Mason’s assignment of blame to non-Pequots has been used by Jennings to discredit Winthrop’s statements, not only as inaccurate, but intentionally deceptive, but Cave shows that not only in Winthrop’s later, alterable journals, but in his correspondence from 1634, Winthrop’s assertion of the Pequot claim of self-defense appears. If Winthrop intended, as early as 1634, to falsify records so as to justify a war waged several years later against the Pequots, why record that the Pequots had given a valid excuse for Stone’s murder? If deception was really the goal, why didn’t Winthrop record that the Pequots denied the murder completely (thus making them appear to be liars), or record that the Pequots were haughty and proud in their crimes?
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Additional evidence given by Cave to argue against fabrication by Winthrop is that there are discrepancies in the various accounts of Stone’s death. If every report matched exactly, we would suspect a common source–either factual or fictional. The discrepancies in Winthrop and Underhill’s accounts suggest that each received his account from different witnesses to the event, and indeed, Winthrop claimed his account came from Pequot ambassadors in Boston in 1634, while Underhill’s report came from “the Pequot ‘ambassador’ who parleyed with John Endecott… in 1636….” In addition, the account recorded by Underhill describes Stone killed while in a drunken stupor. If Stone’s death was falsely blamed on the Pequots as a justification for war, why fabricate such an unattractive account of the condition of the victim?
Examination of Winthrop’s History of New England shows that the Pequot claim of self-defense “was related with such confidence and gravity, as, having no means to contradict it, we inclined to believe it.” While the Pequot ambassadors said that the issue of extradition of the killers for trial would require approval of their sachem, Winthrop’s history asserts that at a meeting the next day, the ambassadors agreed to deliver the two men to the English. The two differing results are presented on the same page, with no explanation of the discrepancy. Winthrop’s letter to his son later that year also asserts that the final treaty included surrender of the killers. Jennings sees this discrepancy as evidence of deception by Winthrop, but the fact that they appear on the same page suggests that Winthrop believed that the matter had been resolved after the Pequot ambassadors had a chance to discuss the subject in private.
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We do not know for sure if the Pequot ambassadors made an agreement that they could not persuade their sachem to ratify, or if Winthrop misunderstood the treaty that was made, or even if the Pequots made such an agreement, and changed their minds later. There is no evidence, however, to establish any intentional deception on Winthrop’s part, and his correspondence strongly suggests that such a deception must have been planned far in advance, and included misleading his son in private letters–a most implausible explanation.
Another provocation for the conflict to come (at least, indirectly) was the death of John Oldham, apparently murdered in 1636 at Block Island, off the coast of the present-day Connecticut-Rhode Island border. About Oldham’s death we have far fewer details, but like Stone, there is some dispute about which tribe was responsible for his death. Cave argues that the death of Oldham was at the hand of “Block Islanders tributary to the Narragansetts,” but Cave does not tell us his source for that claim. It would appear that Lion Gardener’s account of the Pequot Wars is the source. Unfortunately, Gardener provides us with little information with which to judge the accuracy of this claim. Gardener tells us, “The Narragansets that were at Block-Island killed him,” but offers as evidence only that they “had [sterling]50 of gold of his…” Mere possession of Oldham’s effects is not sufficient reason to assume their complicity in his death, since Gardener also tells us that some Dutchmen had some of Oldham’s gold, acquired by trade with the Narragansetts.
John Underhill’s account of the Pequot War also claims that the Block Islanders killed Oldham, and asserts that Oldham’s death alone was the cause of the war. To Underhill, Stone’s death, and the Pequot guilt for harboring Stone’s killers, is an afterthought; the expedition against the Pequots was simply an appendix to punishing the Block Islanders. This position seems hard to defend, for without the expedition against the Pequots for Stone’s killers, this paper wouldn’t be about the Pequot War, but about the Block Islander Skirmish, and all the shorter for that reason.
William Bradford’s second-hand account of Oldham’s death seems to imply that the killers were not Pequots, but were harbored by the Pequots. Church’s account of the death of John Oldham provides us details of the recapture of Oldham’s vessel, with Oldham’s “head cleft to the brains,” and tells us that some of the Indians aboard the vessel were captured. Church also seems to hold that either the Pequots were responsible for Oldham’s murder, “or at least the murderers were sheltered by them.” It is possible that the presumptions of guilt were derived from the tribal membership of the Indians found aboard Oldham’s ship.
Yet another accusation came from Roger Williams, recorded several months after the major battles of the Pequot War had concluded. Williams claimed that Pequots indeed murdered Oldham, and were sheltered by “one Wequashcuck” a Niantic sachem. (Since Williams’ accusation dates from several months after the war, it obviously did not play a part in motivating the war.) Who killed John Oldham? The bulk of the evidence suggests what most of the participants on the English side had claimed: the Block Islanders, a tribe tributary to the Narragansetts.
The question may be legitimately asked why punitive efforts were not made against the Narragansetts for the killers of John Oldham, similar to the actions taken against the Pequots for the death of Stone. Church held that “[t]he Narraganset[t]s, who had some hand in the murder, now submitted to the terms offered by the English.” It appears that the Narrangansetts accepted without retaliation a punitive expedition in 1636 against their Block Island tributaries by Captains Endicott, Underhill, and Turner. Jennings, on the other hand, tells us that one of the Narragansett chiefs “took two hundred warriors in seventeen canoes to Block Island to deal out revenge in Massachusetts’s behalf for Oldham’s death.” Winthrop recorded that Miantonomo, a chief sachem of the Narragansetts, informed the Massachusetts Bay government that two of Oldham’s killers were being held captive by him, and that they would be turned over to the English for punishment. (One was turned over; the other died in Narragansett custody.) Jennings, however, uses the conflicting reports of Oldham’s death as evidence of some grand conspiracy by Massachusetts Bay officials to justify war with the Pequots, as if every eyewitness to a traffic accident can be relied upon to give identical accounts.
Larzer Ziff advances the theory that Stone’s death led to the Pequot War because the fur trade “led to the unhesitating need to kill Indians to assure the security of the trader,” and explains that the lack of a similar bloody war against the Narragansetts was because they were a more important military ally than the Pequots. However, Ziff provides no supporting evidence for this theory of motivation. Moreover, Ziff’s assertion that, “The fur trade corrupted the Indians by introducing artificial demands into their culture,” suggests that Ziff has an ax to grind against the Puritans. In 1637, there was certainly no awareness of the extent to which Indian culture was changing in response to English trade, and to call this change “corrupt” is one that would have doubtless caused an indignant response from any Pequot who had exchanged furs for a musket. While extant letters from Massachusetts Bay officials fail to make any assertions about trade and its relationship to the Pequot War, Plymouth Governor Edward Winslow’s letter of February 17, 1637, seems to argue against such a motivation:
Yet let me commend one thing to your consideracion how dangerous a thing it may prove if the Dutch (who seek it) and they should close by reason of the Pequots necessity: I speake not this as desiring the benefit of their trade, for we are weary of the worke as we are dealt withall.
Ziff also seeks to explain the reluctance of Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane to take action against the Pequots as reflecting the emerging Antinomian division in Boston, which culminated in Anne Hutchinson’s trial and banishment. Ziff argues that Winthrop and his followers were primarily interested in production of goods, and regarded trade as a necessary evil, while Vane, Hutchinson, and other Antinomians were proto-free marketeers uninterested in the fur trade, for, “their worldly interests lay elsewhere.” Ziff flatly denies that the Antinomian reluctance to pursue the Pequot War showed any real concern for the Pequots, and insists on the most negative interpretation of their actions:
[I]t indicates the negative fact that they were unwilling to join in a communal enterprise with those with whom they had so profound a disagreement in other matters and who had so rudely turned their representatives out of elective office.
Ziff provides no source for his belief about the nature of Antinomian opposition to the Pequot War. Since he also asserts that Vane as governor had “dragged his feet” in sending an expedition against the Pequots, revenge for turning Vane out of office could not have been a motivation for actions taken by Vane while he was still governor!
Jennings sees the two year delay between Stone’s death and Endecott’s punitive expedition as an indication that Massachusetts Bay was deciding whether “profitable trade” was possible with the Pequots, and that Stone’s death was just an excuse for a war motivated by the pursuit of land and trade opportunities. At the same time, Jennings finds it hard to believe that Stone’s death would have motivated action by any of the New Englanders at all, because of Stone’s criminal history. Jennings’ position seems to be that they should have been immediately driven to action by Stone’s death–and yet he acknowledges that there were reasons why both colonies might only have regarded Stone’s death as the regrettable end of a troublemaker.
Rather than focusing attention on the long interval between Stone’s death and the start of the war, it is more important to recognize that Stone’s death was only one of the provocations that led to the Pequot War. It was probably not the most emotionally affecting incident for the colonists, especially in light of Stone’s reputation. The actions which took place in the period between Governor Winthrop’s meeting with the Pequot ambassadors in 1634, and the decision to make war upon the Pequots in 1637, played a far more inflammatory part than the death of Stone.
The punitive expedition by Captain Endecott against the Block Islanders in 1636 also included an attack on the Pequots on the mainland, with the goal of forcing Sassacus, chief sachem of the Pequots, to turn over the killers of Stone. “The movement, instead of intimidating, did but irritate that warlike nation.” Sassacus attempted to ally with the Narragansetts against the English, but they declined the invitation.
In response to the punitive expedition, the Pequots launched a series of kidnappings, murders, and tortures of prisoners from the frontier communities then being established in Connecticut, which, not surprisingly, inflamed the colonial attitude towards the Pequots. The tortures inflicted are described in gruesome detail in several sources, both primary and secondary; to read them is to get some grasp of the reactions provoked:
A few days after, they took two men out of a boat, and murdered them with ingenious barbarity, cutting off first the hands of one of them, then his feet…. Soon after, two men sailing down the river were stopped and horribly mutilated and mangled; their bodies were cut in two, lengthwise, and the parts hung up by the river’s bank. A man who had been carried off from Wethersfield was roasted alive. All doubt as to the necessity of vigorous action was over, when a band of a hundred Pequots attacked that place, killed seven men, a woman, and a child, and carried off two girls.
Gardener’s account tells us something of the tortures inflicted by the Pequots: “some flayed alive, others cut in pieces, and some roasted alive…” Gardener identifies “the brother of Mr. Michell, who is the minister of Cambridge” as one who was “roasted alive.” Gardener also informs us that:
I would fain die in the field, with honor, and not to have a sharp stake set in the ground, and thrust into my fundament, and to have my skin flayed off by piece-meal, and cut in pieces and bits, and my flesh roasted and thrust down my throat, as these people have done, and I know will be done to the chiefest in the country by hundreds, if God should deliver us into their hands…
Mason adds to the list of tortures performed by the Pequots: “their Flesh being first slashed with Knives, and then filled with burning Embers.”
Torture of captives was part of the tradition of Indian warfare among many Eastern Woodland Indian tribes, perhaps as emotional compensation for the more limited scale on which the warfare was usually conducted. The Puritan reaction, however, was self-righteous anger (despite the retaliatory torture of Pequots by Mason’s men at Saybrook).
It is important to recognize the major part that the Indian allies of the English played in encouraging the war, even though they hesitated once the battle of Fort Mystic began. Plymouth (and indirectly, Massachusetts Bay) had been informed in 1636 by Uncas, a Mohegan sachem, that the Pequots had planned to attack and take one of the Plymouth trading vessels the previous year. (The attack was never carried out, however.) Jennings suggests that the report may have “originated in Uncas’s malicious imagination…” Jennings argues that because the Mohegans were an offshoot of the Pequots, Uncas might have perceived a potential benefit from provoking war between English and Pequots; Uncas had an interest in becoming grand sachem of both Mohegans and Pequots. It would be entirely credible for Uncas to believe that a major defeat of the Pequots would cause Sassacus to fall from power as grand sachem, opening up an opportunity for himself.
Roger Williams informed Governor Winthrop of the great willingness of the Narragansetts to assist in making war on the Pequots, providing intelligence about Pequot positions, and the best locations from which to attack Fort Mystic. Indeed, Williams describes the Narragansett sachems as anxious for the English to start the war as soon as possible. According to Williams, the Narragansetts had the goal of stealing Pequot canoes, killing all the men, and most of the women and children. But two days later Williams asserted, “That it would be pleasing to all natives, that women and children be spared, etc.” By “all natives,” it would appear that Williams was referring to tribes other than the Narragansett. After the Fort Mystic massacre, the Narragansetts expressed their desire “for some smale interrest and priveledg in Pequot Cuntrye…” This desire, however, might have been only an after-the-fact attempt to gain from the Pequot loss.
A few weeks later, Daniel Patrick was informing Increase Nowell that, “The Narregansets woulde be the onelye lords of Indeans; the Inglish if god will, may, I doubt not, receive tribbute of all but Narregansets…” Israel Stoughton complained to Governor Winthrop the same day that the Narragansetts “are so eagerly sett upon their owne ends, to gett booty etc. and to augment their owne Kingdome etc., that upon the matter they use us as their stalking horse…” Stoughton, in the same letter, described a “Squa-Sachem” of Long Island who was apparently a Pequot tributary, who sought peace with the English, yet from Stoughton’s description, Miantonomo, one of the two chief sachems of the Narragansett, attempted “to prejudice us against her… that we might fall foule with her, albeit he can shew in truth no cause.”
Was the destruction of Pequot power the Narragansett goal before the battle of Fort Mystic, or merely a logical outcome, once their major rival for power had been removed as a military force? Stoughton reported that Pequot captives “told it… playnely, That were it not for the English the Pecots would not yet feare the Narra: but would take their Country…”
Were the Narragansetts the major instigators of the Pequot War, for their own advantage? The Narragansetts by themselves could not have achieved the decisive victory over the Pequots that English arms and organization made possible. Even after the destruction of Fort Mystic, Roger Williams reported that a council of surviving Pequots, including Sassacus, debated whether to continue fighting, first against the Narragansetts (not the English), or to remove to the west. This suggests the Pequots regarded the Narragansetts as their principal enemies, not the English. We must consider the possibility, however, that the Pequots regarded the English as too dangerous an enemy to attack.
In examining evidence about the supposedly recent arrival of the Pequot tribe in New England, Alfred Cave observes that:
Both Winthrop and Bradford recorded in the early 1630s that several “River Indian” sachems had invited the English to settle in the Connecticut Valley, but both concluded that the sachems’ motive was to use the Puritans to regain the power they had lost to the Pequots. Neither Winthrop nor Bradford regarded the River Sachems as victims of an external aggressor but rather viewed them as “treacherous” connivers who hoped to manipulate the English.
While Cave argues in “The Pequot Invasion” against the Pequots as recent arrivals in their 1630s location, based on archaeological evidence, oral tradition, and the lack of any evidence from the earliest accounts to establish that they were not long indigenous, he does agree that the Pequots had, shortly “after their first contact with the Dutch in 1622,” fought and beaten these “River Indians.” These tribes, as well as the Narragansetts to the east, resented Pequot hegemony.
Did Winthrop forget his earlier perceptions of why other tribes sought English assistance against the Pequots, or did the attacks on Stone, Oldham, and the frontier settlements put him in too much fear to remain neutral any longer? The English colonists, rather than being regarded as the prime villians in the Pequot War, should perhaps be regarded as pawns in intertribal power politics.
In summary, a variety of motivations existed for the English to make war on the Pequots, all consistent with their claimed goal of forcing the Pequots to turn over suspected murderers. But in addition to the English motivations, there are other motivations as well on the part of Uncas, and the Narragansetts. We must consider this as evidence that the Narragansetts manipulated the English into war against the Pequots.
An accelerant is an incendiary that turns a small fire into a large one. When fire investigators try to determine the cause of a structure fire, they look for char marks that show that gasoline, kerosene, or some other hot-burning liquid may have been used. In a similar way, we can find accelerants at work in the Pequot War–actions and fears on both sides that made it into a much more deadly confrontation than might otherwise have been necessary, for Indian tribal conflicts rarely turned into such bloody wars.
Captain Endicott’s expedition against the Block Islanders and the Pequots was both punitive, and an attempt to extort extradition of Stone’s killers from the Pequots. As many sources agree, including all of the primary sources, the goal was to punish the Block Islanders for the death of John Oldham, and to encourage the Pequots to give up the killers of Stone and Oldham to colonial justice. There is agreement from the primary sources that only one Pequot was killed, many wigwams were burned, and a considerable quantity of corn taken. Secondary sources are less certain about the number of Pequots killed, but otherwise agree about the damage done. There is some disagreement, however, about the effectiveness of this effort. Church claims, “It was Endicot’s first trust of such a kind, and he did not execute it with good judgment.” Palfrey appears to suggest that Endicott’s effort was unsuccessful because he “could get no audience of [the Pequot’s] chief men.” This would be consistent with the instructions given by Governor Henry Vane of Massachusetts Bay Colony May 4, 1636 to Connecticut Governor John Winthrop, Jr., which appears to be the basis on which Endicott’s expedition was dispatched. While the damage sounds minor, it appears that it exceeded Pequot notions of acceptable warfare, provoking a more dramatic response (in the form of the attacks on the frontier English settlements) than was the norm for Indian warfare.
Another accelerant to the bloody confrontation was Pequot blasphemy. The Pequots, like many Indian tribes when engaged in warfare, taunted their enemies. Edward Johnson recorded the Pequot insult that, “Englishmans God was all one Flye” and boasted of power that “Puritans read… as literal pledges of allegiance to the devil.” Underhill reported that some of the Pequot warriors taunted the English that if one of the Pequot warriors “could kill but one of you more, he would be equal with God, and as the Englishman’s God is, so would he be.” When we consider the willingness of Massachusetts Bay to execute troublesome Quakers for violating banishment orders, the Pequot blasphemies help to explain the bloody results of the Pequot War.
Both Indians and Englishmen believed in the powers of the supernatural. Roger Williams warned Governor Winthrop in September of 1636 that,
The Pequts heare of your preparations etc. and comfort themselves in this that a witch amongst them will sinck the pinnaces by diving under water and making holes etc. as allso that they shall now enrich themselves with store of guns but I hope their dreames (through the mercie of the Lord) shall vanish, and the Devill and his lying Sorcerers shall be confounded.
The current generation may find this a laughable threat, but to understand the level of fear provoked by such concerns, consider the psychological effect of Hitler’s threats of new “secret weapons” during World War II–and how psychologically destructive it was when the V1 and the V2 first started to deliver their cargoes of death to Britain. Fear of such supernatural attack may explain the willingness to use fire against Fort Mystic, and the actions taken by the English soldiers to assure themselves of being right with God. As an example of this spiritual concern, the Massachusetts soldiers were delayed by the discovery “that some of the Officers, as well as of the private Soldiers, were still under a Covenant of Works; and that the Blessing of God could not be implored or expected to crown the Arms of such unhallowed Men with Success.” The greater the English fear, the greater their willingness to use all means within their power to destroy Pequot resistance.
Another cause of the level of blood shed in the attack on Fort Mystic on May 26, 1637, may have been the relative numbers of soldiers on each side. The colonial army that attacked the Pequot fort consisted of 77 Englishmen, 60 Mohegans, and 400 Narragansetts and Niantics (the last two among the least reliable allies). Mason’s eyewitness account asserts that immediately before the battle began, many of the Indian allies had fled, being “exceedingly afraid.” Underhill expressed concerns about Mohegan fidelity, because of the common origins of Pequots and Mohegans, and feared that once the battle was under way, the Mohegans might suddenly change sides. This meant that the effective fighting force was reduced to perhaps only the 77 Englishmen. Nor should we consider that the English regarded themselves as clearly superior soldiers. While Mason appears to have held Indian fighting skills in low regard, Edward Winslow complained shortly before the battle that Gardener “much discourageth common men by extolling the valor” of the Pequots. Even Mason, however, once confronting a larger force, might have reconsidered his views. Underhill, attacking the other side of Fort Mystic, may have been in considerable fear as well, for he regarded the English soldiers as “unexpert in the use of their arms,” and the Pequots as brave fighters.
There are conflicting descriptions of the number of Pequots the Englishmen were confronting. Gardener claimed that at least 300 Pequots died in Fort Mystic, and that “many prisoners” were taken. William Bradford’s second-hand account claimed 400 Pequots died. Mason’s eyewitness account claimed 600-700 Pequots were killed, with only seven taken prisoner, and seven escaped. Mason’s account also describes another fort, some distance off, that contained an additional 150 Pequot warriors. This means that the English expedition was outnumbered at least 4.5:1, and if we believe Mason, as much as 11:1, although it is clear that many of the Pequots were not warriors. Captain Mason was well aware that, “Their Numbers far exceeded ours.” The possibility of losing the battle–with potentially torturous consequences for prisoners–must have weighed heavily on the mind of Captain Mason, who made the decision, once the battle was underway, “We must burn them.”
The Pequots had already made clear their acceptance of the notion of total war–or so the English thought. Gardener describes an encounter before the battle at Fort Mystic in which one of the Pequots boasted: “We are Pequits, and have killed Englishmen, and can kill them as mosquetoes, and we will go to Conectecott and kill men, women, and children…” To the colonists, such boasts were doubtless good reason for taking no chances of leaving any Pequot braves alive to carry out such threats against their loved ones at home. Roger Williams also informed Governor Winthrop in late August of 1636 that, “the Pequts and [Niantics] resolve to live and die together and not to yeald up one…”
Yet evidence was available that suggested the Pequots view of war did not match their boasting. Edward Winslow’s letter to Governor Winthrop shortly before the battle of Fort Mystic observed, “The Pecoats follow their fishing and planting as if they had no enemies.” Underhill’s description of battle between Pequots and the Indian allies of the English, shortly after the burning of Fort Mystic asserted that, “This fight is more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies.” The Indian tradition of proud boasting was nothing more than a vigorous attempt to intimidate one’s enemies; traditionally, New England Indians “saw little logic in spilling oceans of blood over matters of largely symbolic importance.” It appears that the English played for keeps, and even when they saw that Indian warfare was fought at a very restrained level, it appears not to have significantly impacted English thinking about the limits of warfare.
Finally, the Old Testament model of extermination must be considered. When the Israelites captured Canaanite cities, they killed every inhabitant, so that proximity would not lead the Israelites into worshipping Canaanite gods. Did the English colonists subscribe to this model? The evidence is contradictory. In 1630, John Cotton articulated this view of the relationship of the Puritans to the Indians, quoting Psalms 44:2, “Thou didst drive out the heathen before them.” Similarly, Underhill compares the deaths at Fort Mystic to the Old Testament wars:
Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. Sometimes the case alters; but we will not dispute it now. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.
Winthrop’s views, on the other hand, seem to be subtly different. Winthrop, in 1630, argued that “if we leave them sufficient [land] for their use we may lawfully take the rest.” A letter from Winthrop to John Endecott in 1634 argues that the widespread death of the Indians from infectious diseases demonstrated God’s support for the Puritan expansion in the new land.
There is a large difference between taking advantage of the gradual dying out of the Indians, and intentional extermination. Winthrop’s claim does not justify extermination, but Cotton’s does, and Underhill’s statement may be honestly read as supporting extermination, or death to all the warriors. The colonists already regarded their actions as establishing a “city on a hill” of purified Christianity in the New World; the analogy to the Israelites, who purified Canaan by exterminating the Canaanites, would have been obvious. If evidence for intentional extermination of the Pequots down to the last man, woman, and child were present, this would tend to argue that John Cotton’s Old Testament view influenced the actions taken during the Pequot War.
What restraints were present during the Pequot War? Initially, the unnecessary killing of non-combatants restrained both sides. The Pequots were used to a style of warfare that left few dead, and the initial expedition by Endicott caused few Pequot deaths. But once the colonists perceived that the Pequots intended to do them great harm, there was no logical alternative but complete defeat of their enemies. It appears that the Pequots failed to understand one important European attitude about warfare: it was not a game, and if fought at all, it was to be as total a victory as could be achieved.
There seems to be some question about the extent to which the English regarded women, children, and the elderly as “non-combatants.” Hirsch asserts that “atrocities committed during the Thirty Years War… elicited universal condemnation,” arguing that the English actions during the Pequot War did not reflect the prevailing European notions of fair play. Instead, he sees the breakdown of the notion of non-combatants as a result of the fears engendered by the isolated and dependent position of the English colonists, in conjunction with the Pequot raids on frontier settlements, where the deaths of English women must have seemed evidence of Pequot barbarism. At the same time, Hirsch points to a number of modern writers on this subject who claim that non-combatants were perfectly acceptable victims under prevailing European standards, and therefore, the slaughter at Fort Mystic is unsurprising.
Finally, in examining the restraints which operated on the Puritans, we must consider the very high standards to which they felt themselves obligated. This does not mean that every Puritan always lived up to these standards, but most people seek to justify–or rationalize–the actions which they take. In the case of Governor Vane’s orders to Endicott’s expedition, the instructions were very clear–that war was a last resort, if the Pequots would not turn over the offenders for trial.
The actions and statements of various English colonists after the Pequot War suggest remorse consistent with a belief that the matter had gone beyond a point where all, participants and spectators, could be completely comfortable with the results, in spite of an overwhelming victory. Gardener’s retrospective description of the Pequot War has a mournful tone to it, and apparently not just for the English casualties of the war:
Thus far I had written in a book, that all men and posterity might know how and why so many honest men had their blood shed, yea, and some flayed alive, others cut in pieces, and some roasted alive, only because Kichamokin… a Bay Indian killed one Pequit…
Similarly, Roger Williams, who had played a major part in organizing Indian allies against the Pequots, expressed concern “that some innocent blood cryes at Qunnihticut,” and pointed to 2 Kings 14:5-6 as evidence that guilt did not extend to children. Two weeks later, he clarified that his concern was that the Pequot women and children should not be enslaved, or at least, not permanently. “If they have deserved Death, tis Sinn to spare: If they have not deserved Death, then what punishments? Whether perpetuall slaverie.”
There is evidence that the New England colonists did, at least occasionally, recognize an obligation to provide color-blind justice–at least in peacetime. In 1638, four Englishmen participated in the robbery and murder of a Narragansett. One escaped English jurisdiction; another died as a result of wounds suffered when the Narragansetts took him captive; and the two remaining Englishmen were tried, convicted, and executed for a crime against an Indian. While the motivations included concern about Narragansett retaliation if no justice was done, Bradford emphasizes that those who expressed opposition “that any English should be put to death for the Indeans” were of a “rude & ignorante sorte.” On a less severe scale, Massachusetts Bay had whipped one of the colonists “for soliciting an Indian squaw to incontinency” some years before the Pequot War. These incidents suggest that the English concern for justice included justice for crimes against Indians.
Thomas Shepard’s sermon, “The Parable of the Ten Virgins,” delivered before 1640, suggested that the Pequot War was an event sent by God for the purpose of awakening the Puritans from spiritual slumber: “The Lord awakened us by the Pequot hornet, yet what use is there made of it?” This is another reminder that the Pequot War was regarded not merely as an unpleasant event, but perhaps an indication of God’s displeasure with the Puritans. This is suggestive that feelings of guilt were present about the war, and that at least some English colonists recognized that justice had not been done.
There is one piece of evidence that suggests the decision to burn Fort Mystic may not have been completely made on the spur of the moment, and it has apparently been missed by Jennings, who, one would think, would leave no such evidence out of Invasion of America. Underhill’s description of Captain Mason setting fire to Fort Mystic describes Mason’s use of a firebrand on the west side, and “myself set fire on the south end with a train of powder.” Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if Underhill is referring to a “train” hundreds of feet long, or simply the result of emptying his powder horn and lighting it. Yet even on the same page, Underhill reported, “Mercy did they deserve for their valor, could we have had opportunity to have bestowed it.” This suggests, though does not prove, that Underhill’s actions with the “train of powder” were an impulsive act, not a premeditated act of extermination.
The evidence suggests that the massacre at Fort Mystic was not premeditated, but the actions of a commander who had stumbled into a battle prematurely, found himself suddenly outnumbered, afraid that this problem was going to get dramatically worse if he fought the Pequots in a traditional way, in terror of torture if captured, and who saw an immediate tactical solution to his problem: fire. This does not mean that a plan could not been hatched in advance for the extermination of women and children, but the evidence for such a plan is simply not present.
Was genocide the intent of the English, as some modern historians have claimed or implied? Genocide is a very emotionally charged word. It is a word that evokes images of gas chambers, bulldozers burying mountains of rotting corpses, and crematoria. It is the nuclear weapon of accusations. Strong language should be held in reserve for circumstances that unambiguously call for it, or we are at risk that the word will cease to have any real meaning, much as “fascist” was used in the 1960s by some political activists and academics to refer to any political opinion to the right of Eugene McCarthy.
Genocide is a term of recent origin, coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin to describe the actions of National Socialist Germany and its allies in establishing a Judenrein Europe. In the strictest sense, it refers to the intentional effort to achieve the complete physical extermination of an identifiable ethnic or national group. Katz observes that the term “genocide” has been recently used “by American historians and others to describe various persecutions past and present…” Such overheated rhetoric was readily audible during the recent Columbus quincentennial, in spite of its general inapplicability, except in a sense so broad as to render the term “genocide” meaningless.
Can we apply the term to what happened to the Pequots? While many Pequots died in battle, and at least 30 male prisoners were killed by the English shortly after the burning of Fort Mystic, there is abundant evidence that the English did not intend the extermination of the Pequots. Mason describes the taking of Pequot prisoners in subsequent battles, who were turned over for absorption into Indian tribes allied with the English.
Bradford’s account of their disposition differs from Mason’s, with Bradford asserting that the prisoners were divided “some to those [Indians?] of the river, and the rest to us.” The male children were sent to Bermuda, presumably into slavery, and “the women and maid children are disposed aboute in the townes.” Bradford’s account is not clear whether the Pequot females in Plymouth were enslaved, but Hirsch brings together a number of pieces of documentary evidence to show that they were enslaved for life, and some were sent to colonial prisons. Roger Williams’ proposal of late June, 1637, that “such Pequts as fall to them be not enslaved, like those which are taken in warr” was apparently not taken. While the actions taken were nothing of which to be proud, they are not consistent with genocidal intent.
Katz does an effective job of demolishing Francis Jennings’ arguments in The Invasion of America that extermination was the intent of the war, pointing out that Jennings “proves” his position by a highly selective reading of the primary documents, leaving out those pieces of evidence that would tend to support the “heat of battle” explanation that seems most justified to this reader. Examination of Jennings’ argument directly, comparing it to the sources quoted, confirms Katz’s claim; Jennings clearly misrepresents Mason’s account of the events that led up to the burning of Fort Mystic.
As one example, Jennings asserts that, “Mason had determined that massacre would be his objective.” No such assertion is to be found in Mason. Similarly, Jennings quotes Mason’s remark, “We had formerly concluded to destroy them by the Sword and save the Plunder,” as demonstrating an intention to slaughter all the inhabitants of Fort Mystic, but this position is not supported by the context of Mason’s remarks. Jennings also asserts that Mason lied about the reasons why his Indian allies withdrew from the battle until the victory was assured by use of fire, yet he provides no evidence to prove that claim. Careful examination of Jennings’ claims and use of evidence reveals a consistent policy of misrepresentation of primary sources and selective reading.
Another problem with Jennings’ argument is that it assumes a level of agreement and organization among the English colonists in preparing to exterminate the Pequots. At the same time, Jennings argues that attempts to bring Thomas Hooker’s Connecticut flock under the political authority of Massachusetts Bay caused Winthrop to provoke a war with the Pequots, so that Massachusetts Bay could claim Connecticut by right of conquest, thus extending their political claims. Either the colonies were working together to wipe out the Pequots, or they were fighting each other over political control–both claims seem to be made by Jennings, and they appear to be inconsistent.
The lack of agreement among the three colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay is readily shown. At the same time that Massachusetts Bay was starting to negotiate with the Pequots about extradition of Stone’s killers, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were not on friendly terms, because of fighting at Kennebunk that led to the death of a Massachusetts Bay man. Similarly, in May of 1636, Massachusetts Governor Vane’s letter to Connecticut Governor John Winthrop, Jr., found it necessary to emphasize that Massachusetts concerns about the Pequots “concernes not only this state but all the English upon the River…” If, as Jennings argues, the Pequot War was all some great conspiracy by Massachusetts Bay for commercial ends, in which Governor Winthrop played a major role, it is all the more surprising that his son would need to be persuaded to take part.
As late as March 20, 1637, Governor Winthrop’s letter to William Bradford acknowledged “you objecte that we began the warr, without your privitie, and managed it contrary to your advise.” Even more telling against Jennings’ claim of Winthrop intentionally provoking a war with the Pequots is the later admission, “our first Intentions being only against Block Iland, and the Interprice seeming of small difficultie, we did not so much as consider of taking advise, or looking out for aide abroad.” To acknowledge that the war was, essentially, a mistake, would not have ingratiated Massachusetts Bay to Plymouth; indeed, it would have suggested that Massachusetts Bay didn’t quite know what it was doing, at a time when Plymouth’s alliance was very important.
Thomas Hooker also showed the reluctance of Connecticut settlers to participate in the Pequot War. Hooker and his settlement finally decided to join in the war because their Indian neighbors “were so importunate with us to make warr presently that unless we had attempted some thing we had delivered our persons unto contempt of base feare and cowardise, and caused them to turne enemies agaynst us…” At the same time, once committed to the war, Hooker requested that Winthrop “not to do this work of the Lords revenge slackly…”
The English actions after Fort Mystic seems an entirely understandable response to fear of the Pequot tribe nursing a grudge that might lead to yet another war; reducing their females to an enslaved status was certainly generous compared to the Old Testament model. Governor Edward Winslow, in spite of the initial reservations expressed by Plymouth about war with the Pequots, finally threw Plymouth’s lot in with Massachusetts Bay. He agreed that it was “necessary for you to proceed in the war begun with the Pequots, otherwise the natives we feare will grow into a stronger confederacy to the further prejudice of the whole English.”
Roger Williams warned Governor Winthrop of reports that the surviving Pequots had entered a league with “the Mauquawogs or Mohowawogs [Mohawks?] which signifies Man Eaters in their language: These Caniballs have bene all the talke these 10 dayes, and the [Narragansetts] are much troubled at them.” Williams went on to express concern that the Pequots would also turn cannibal, and “cut of all hopes of safe residence at Qunnihticut…” Williams again was reporting Narragansett concerns that would seem certain to provoke the most extreme fear from the English, encouraging the continuing hunt for surviving Pequots, and their enslavement or death.Having established that physical genocide was not accomplished by the English (and it was within their power to have carried it out, had they desired it), what about cultural genocide? First of all, it is important to recognize that this term is vague. The term is often used to describe the intentional destruction of significant cultural identity or elements of a people. But while physical genocide can be reduced to the question: “Did all members of that people, or nearly all members of that people, die?” cultural genocide is not so easy to measure or define.
All populations have culture. All cultures change with time, in response to both internal and external influences. Those external influences may be imposed (e.g., prohibiting Indian children from using their native language in school), or they may be the result of seduction, as American popular culture has done in many parts of the world today. An argument could be advanced that the survival of the Pequot gene pool means nothing, if the carriers of those genes were absorbed into other Indian tribes, especially since the absorption was not voluntary. But even acknowledging this, can we find evidence of English intent to destroy the Pequot culture?
Before the series of raids that provoked the Pequot War, there is no clear evidence of any intention to destroy the independent existence of the Pequots. As we have seen, the war could have been avoided by the Pequots turning over the suspected murderers for trial; the willingness of the Massachusetts government to negotiate with the Pequots in 1636 makes little sense otherwise. Jennings points out that for the Pequots to turn over the killers (who were apparently of a tributary tribe) would have violated Pequot diplomatic obligations, and he suggests that the demand for the killers was simply a ploy by Massachusetts Bay to justify war.
Why would Winthrop bother with negotiations, if the decision had already been made to exterminate the Pequots? It is possible that a plan was already hatched to wipe out the Pequot tribe, but why negotiate, when such efforts might arouse suspicions of potential hostilities among the Pequots? Perhaps a secret plan already existed, and negotiations were intended to give the illusion of morality to the population that would, of necessity, have to fight the war, but before we assume such a Machiavellian scheme, some evidence must be provided to support such a claim.
After the war was fully under way, of course, the evidence is clear, from the enslavement of the females, and the foreign sale of the surviving males, that the English intended the Pequots to no longer be a threat. But there is one additional problem with the claim of cultural genocide: the continued existence of the tribe.Katz quotes Alden Vaughan that, “Toward the end of 1637 the few remaining [Pequot] sachems begged for an end to the war, promising vassalage in return for their lives…. With the Treaty of Hartford, signed on September 21, 1638, the Pequots ceased to exist as an independent polity.” But did they? Three different sources, two from the nineteenth century, one from the twentieth century, assert the continued existence of the Pequots as a tribe past the time of the Pequot War.
Sometime between the end of the Pequot War in 1638 and the beginning of King Philip’s War, four decades later, a Captain George Denison was appointed by the United Colonies of Connecticut to “set aside 8,000 acres as a home for the scattered remnants of the Pequot tribe, the first Indian reservation in North America.” Another indicator of the continued existence of the Pequots as a tribe is an biographical note about Lion Gardener, written in July, 1832, by William T. Williams, which describes “a remnant of the Pequots still existing. They live in the town of Groton, and amount to about forty souls” living on a reservation, and still holding a grudge against the remnants of the other tribes. The most persuasive evidence of Pequot survival as a cultural entity is a book of nineteenth century essays, written by a Pequot. If the goal was cultural genocide, the English failed to achieve it; the continued presence of Pequots as an independent polity suggests that English enslavement and death was not aimed at all Pequots, but only those Pequots who were not prepared to surrender.
Was land acquisition a goal in warring against the Pequots? Jennings argues that Massachusetts Bay sought warfare with the Pequots in order to consolidate land claims. Yet after describing a nefarious scheme to war against the Pequots, in order to have a better claim to Connecticut than the Connecticut colonists, Jennings admits in a footnote, “All this motivational description must be inferred from the situation.” Further, there is nothing in the primary sources that suggests real estate was an English goal of the war, or even a beneficial side effect of wiping out the Pequots as an independent tribe–as even Jennings admits.
There are, however, pieces of evidence that suggest the English acquisition of the Pequot land may have been an afterthought. Israel Stoughton’s letter of August 9th to Governor Winthrop described the Pequot lands in glowing terms: “I am confident we have not the like in English possession as yet, and probable ’tis the Dutch will seaze it if the English do not.” If the plan from the beginning was to dispossess the Pequots of their land, then Stoughton was apparently not in on the scheme.
There are, without question, later conflicts with the Indians in which the charge can be validly made that the war was fought with the goal of acquiring land. Certainly, by the nineteenth century, there can be no dispute that the goal with respect to some of the Plains Indians tribes was extermination. But we must be careful to distinguish the motives of 1637 from the motives of later periods. In the nineteenth century, Indian raids were a threat to individual lives, but there was no risk of the Indians driving Euro-Americans into the sea; in 1637, the English colonists did, and accurately, could, fear exactly that. In the nineteenth century, motivations were often colored by a hundred years of fear of “savages”; in 1636, while the Virginia colony’s Indian problems were known, the willingness of the English colonists to ally themselves with the enemies of the Pequots suggests that race (though not tribe) was a minor issue (if any) in the decision to go to war. We must not let our anger about atrocities of a later era and against other tribes color our perceptions of the Pequot War. The Pequot fort was not Sand Creek Canyon; Captain Mason was not Colonel Chivington; and 1864 was not 1637.
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