Uncas on the road less travelled

When Mother told me an Indian princess was at my parents' gas station, I was sure she was joking. I thought all the Indians were out West riding ponies and shooting at cowboys - certainly not driving around Old Mystic in cars.

As a kid I was obsessed with British royalty; Princess Elizabeth was my idol. From studying her pictures in "Life" magazine, I seriously doubted she slept in a wigwam. Mother had to be wrong about the woman buying gas.

If my parents' customer was a Mohegan, she'd have been surprised to know that one of her ancestors would be honored in the 21st century by a European queen.

The arrival of colonists in Connecticut destabilized Indian society by bringing diseases and cultural discord over religion and property. Rivalries among the English, Dutch, Pequots, Mohegans and Narragansetts created a volatile situation that fostered misunderstandings, opportunistic alliances, and violence.

Uncas, the Mohegan sachem during most of the 1600s, was in a tough spot. He needed to solidify tribal authority, assert power over the rival Pequots (whose leader was his father-in-law), and deal with the problem of the English. Judging them to be comers, he cultivated friendship with the English and became the native ally they were seeking. He hoped this strategy would ensure the survival of his people.

When several incidents escalated tensions between the English and the Pequots, the Mohegans joined the colonists in battles against the Pequots at Block Island, Saybrook, Wethersfield and Mystic. The Pequot War solidified Uncas' supremacy over the Pequots and nearly annihilated these rivals.

Uncas continued to work his relationship with the English, adroitly balancing cooperation with tough stances to ensure his support wouldn't be taken for granted. By 1675 his importance to the Puritans had waned, although there was a resurgence of prestige when his sons led native forces fighting alongside the colonial militia in another conflict, King Philip's War.When Uncas died in 1683, an era had passed.

Was Uncas a self-serving opportunist, a genuine friend to the English, or a pragmatic survivor called by fate to walk a complicated path? A proper remembrance of such a man isn't easy, and there were some ironies along the way.

There's a monument to Uncas on Sachem Street in Norwich. In 1833 Andrew Jackson, who was campaigning for reelection, was at the ceremony when the foundation stone was laid. Jackson, who had the heart of a lion along with some horrifying faults, was leading his country through a divisive time that prefigured the Civil War. Just three years earlier Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act, wrenching entire tribes from their homes and forcing them to walk a "Trail of Tears" where thousands died. But this complex man had an adopted Indian son of his own, and perhaps he could respect another warrior who'd also led his people during a turbulent time.

In 1896 The Day reported on New London's 250th anniversary festivities. Guests included a contingent of Mohegans who made a poignant sight standing under a tactless banner that read, "Last of the Mohegans."

In another well-intentioned but flawed tribute, the Boy Scouts installed a stone in memory of Mahomet, Uncas' great-grandson. Relying on published but inaccurate information, they misspelled Mahomet's name and inscribed the wrong death date.

Back in 1735 Mahomet had gone to London to petition King George for the return of land that the colony had usurped. Before his plea was heard, Mahomet died of smallpox and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 2006 Queen Elizabeth symbolically righted this wrong by dedicating a memorial to Mahomet in Southwark Cathedral. The founder of Harvard had been baptized at Southwark, Shakespeare's brother is buried there and the sanctuary contains monuments to heroes like Nelson Mandela. Tribal members attended the ceremony and conducted a traditional Mohegan funeral blessing. It was a fitting tribute to North-American royalty.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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