by Princess Zuri McCann, Special Collections Assistant
Indigenous people resided in Connecticut for over 10,000 years before settlers arrived. The Pequots, a native Algonquin people, are estimated to once have had over 8,000 tribal members. Sassacus, the Pequot sachem, also led the Mohegans before they separated from the Pequots to form their own tribal nation. The Mohegans were led by their sachem, Uncas. Before the Pequot war, the English and the Pequots had a dispute over popular goods traded by the Pequot tribe, especially wampum and furs. The Pequots received things like kettles, axes, and cloth from settlers. A divide between the Pequots, Mohegans and Narragansetts came when the Pequots decided to end their trade with the English in New England in favor of trading with the Dutch.
On May 1, 1637, Connecticut Colony declared war on the Pequots, already one year into battles. The declaration threatened the Pequot’s claim to their land in Southeastern Connecticut. The Pequot War began in 1636 after the death of two English traders: Captain John Stone and John Oldham and lasted until 1638. Though there had been a conflict for years, the interference from the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Sir Henry Vane, ultimately led to a declaration of war. One of the English traders may have been killed by the Western Niantic Tribe, but Vane sent John Endicott (the founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony) to Block Island to avenge the deaths and find the murderers. Endicott burned the Western Niantic tribe’s villages before sailing to the Western Niantic Tribe’s allies, the Pequots, and performing the same actions to their land and killing their members. The Pequots in turn began raiding and killing English colonists.
The war saw the decimation of the Pequots after the English, Mohegans, and Narragansetts joined together against them. Led by Captain John Mason on May 26, 1637, in Mystic, CT, an attack resulted in the burning and killing of over four hundred men, women and children after Mason set fire to their village near the Mystic River. Some members were able to flee and joined tribes in New Netherlands, now called New York. Women and children were usually spared during attacks between tribes, but Capt. John Mason decided to attack everyone while they slept. Many captured people, especially women and children, were enslaved and sent to the Caribbean, other Connecticut tribes or Massachusetts. Some escaped from slavery.
(1638) The figure of the Indians’ fort or palizado in New England and the manner of the destroying it by Captayne Underhill and Captayne Mason / RH. Connecticut, 1638. [Photograph] Pequot Library Special Collections
The final fight in the war was the Fairfield Swamp Fight, which led to the ultimate defeat of the Pequots. The fight took place from July 13-14, 1637 in the Sasqua Village area now known as Fairfield, CT. Sassacus was one of the members who survived the fire and fled to New York. He sought refuge with the Iroquois Mohawks who beheaded him and cut off his hands to send back to the Connecticut Colony. The war ended with many Pequot tribal members killed and the remaining members enslaved.
The September 21, 1638 Treaty of Hartford escalated the suffering for the Pequots by forcing them to relinquish their name, outlawing its use. The remaining Pequots were also forced to stop using their language, and forced off of their land. Some were placed with the Mohegans. Others joined the Narragansett, Eastern Niantic, and Metoac tribal nations. The battles caused a decline in the number of Pequots for years after the war. The language was lost for many years, but members of the tribal nation are trying to bring it back.
There are currently two Pequot Tribal Nations: Mashantucket (Western) and Paucatuck (Eastern). The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation resided in Connecticut and Massachusetts after the war. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is one of the only federally recognized tribes in Connecticut. The other federally recognized tribal nation is the Mohegans. The Mashantucket Pequots became federally recognized on October 18, 1983 on the basis of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Claims Settlement Act. Both the Western and Eastern Pequots have fought for federal recognition.
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation owns multiple businesses including the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, CT—part of Ledyard— which opened in 1992. The Tribal Nation also owns a Spa at Norwich, Lake of Isles Golf Course and Pequot Health Care (PHC). The Mashantucket Pequot people also own and operate the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, which opened on August 11, 1998 in Leyard, CT.
There have been calls to acknowledge Capt. John Mason’s role in the Pequot War and reconsider celebrating him despite his founding of some Connecticut towns. On November 18, 2021, the State Capitol Preservation & Restoration Commission considered removing a 1910 statue of Capt. John Mason from the State Capitol; however, the majority of members voted against it. A 1889 statue of Mason once resided in Mystic, the location of the massacre he led, but it was later moved to Windsor in 1995 and voted to move to the Windsor Historical Society in 2020 after protests from the Indigenous community.
The month of November was Native American Heritage Month which began in 1990. Before the bill was approved on August 3, 1990, there had been other attempts to acknowledge and celebrate Native American heritage, including an American Indian Day and American Indian Week.
Pequot Library’s Special Collections houses a section on the Pequots and other Native Americans. The library also curated a Special Collections exhibition in early 2018 called “Living in the New World.” The exhibition covered the lives of Indigenous people when settlers first arrived in America.
For more details about the Pequot War, Book Riot provides information on the Pequot War and compiled a list of books. There was also recently a talk at the Boston Public Library on November 1, 2023 called “Origin Stories: The Pequot War and Indigenous Enslavement in New England,” which involved a discussion between author and historian, Margaret Newell, Michael Thomas from the Pequot Museum board, and Rashad Young, of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. The Boston Public Library also carries the earliest map of New England drawn from a 1665 survey done by William Reed. Pequot Library owns a reproduction of the map. The upper left hand corner is shown as “Pequid Country.”
Foster, John, and William Hubbard. “A map of New-England, being the first that ever was here cut, and done by the best pattern that could be had, which being in some places defective, it made the other less exact; yet does it sufficiently shew the scituation of the country, and conveniently well the distance of places.” Map. London: s.n., . Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, https://collections.