Digging for the truth about the Pequot War

Heather Manwaring uses a microscope to view a lead bale seal and Kevin McBride, Mashantucket Pequot Museum research director, observes, while Ralph Sebastian, right, and Zac Singer, left, catalog artifacts Wednesday in the museum's archaeology lab.
Heather Manwaring uses a microscope to view a lead bale seal and Kevin McBride, Mashantucket Pequot Museum research director, observes, while Ralph Sebastian, right, and Zac Singer, left, catalog artifacts Wednesday in the museum's archaeology lab. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Mashantucket - The past, it seems, is always evolving.

Few would know that better than the members of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center team that's been combing through the Pequot War's much-documented history and archaeological remains - some of them newly discovered - since 2007.

"What we thought we knew, we didn't," Kevin McBride, the center's research director and the team's leader, said in a recent interview. "There's still so much to learn."

So much to learn about perhaps the most significant event in southeastern Connecticut's history, an event that occurred 377 years ago and shaped the state and even the nation. In 2006, when the History Channel aired "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America," the series' first episode focused on the "Massacre at Mystic," the Pequot War's climactic battle.

It was a coincidence, McBride said, that soon after the documentary appeared, the museum landed the first of the seven National Park Service grants it has won for the "Battlefields of the Pequot War" project. Last year's $80,000 grant, the largest of the seven, brought total federal funding to $362,570.

Additional support from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns the museum and Foxwoods Resort Casino, has boosted overall funding for the project to more than $1 million, McBride estimated.

Ultimately, the researchers hope to preserve the Pequot War battle sites by having them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Much work remains, including the study of sites on Block Island and in Fairfield County, but much has been accomplished, including the debunking of some long-held assumptions about the "massacre" known as the Battle of Mistick Fort.

The battle, which took place May 26, 1637, has long been portrayed as an early-morning sneak attack in which a force of 77 Englishmen and some 250 Indian allies slaughtered 400 Pequots, most of them women and children. Capt. John Mason - posthumously immortalized in a statue that would become a lightning rod for local controversy centuries later - led a contingent that entered the fort from the east and eventually set its interior ablaze. Capt. John Underhill and his men entered from the southwest.

Researchers now believe it didn't go down quite the way it's often described.

By studying 22 original documents and comparing the first-hand accounts they contain with archaeological evidence unearthed at the site since 2010, the team believes the fight was not nearly as one-sided as it's been depicted, according to Dave Naumec, a senior researcher.

The English, in fact, came close to losing.

The Pequots, having caught wind of the impending attack, were bolstered by the arrival at the fort the night before of an additional 150 men, Naumec said. That suggests the Pequots were better prepared than previously believed and helps account for the archaeological evidence of fierce fighting on both sides.

And that fighting continued throughout the day, well after the fiery end of the violence within the fort itself.

Artifacts found outside the area defined by the fort's palisade indicate that as the English headed for the Thames River and the safety of ships in New London Harbor - "a withdrawal, not a retreat," said Laurie Lamarre, a project researcher - they were attacked repeatedly by Pequot reinforcements.

While the Pequots lost as many as 200 warriors in the Battle of Mistick Fort, an estimated 600 to 800 remained.

Though the original documents make scant reference to the withdrawal, the "six sentences" that do "give really good geographic markers," Naumec said. Such clues helped the research team extend the boundaries of the Battle of Mistick Fort study area, which has come to encompass 870 acres where events played out from the night of May 25, 1637, when the English and their Indian allies crossed the Mystic River en route to the fort, until late morning on the 26th.

The study area is bounded on the north by the head of the Mystic River, on the east by the west bank of the river, on the south by Long Island Sound and on the west by Fishtown Brook and Cow Hill Road.

In a technical report summarizing the findings of the research team's "Battle of Mistick Fort Documentation Plan," the authors wrote that the Pequots lost hundreds of men in the attacks on the withdrawing English, "virtually eliminating any possibility the Pequot could continue the fight" in future campaigns.

"The Battle of Mistick Fort was not the final episode of the Pequot War," the authors wrote, "but it was the beginning of a final stage, which led to the complete defeat of the Pequot."

It's clear now, McBride said, that neither the English nor the tribe should be blamed for everything that occurred in connection with the battle.

"This was not a land grab; the English attacked out of fear," Lamarre said.

The Pequots had precipitated the battle weeks earlier by attacking English settlers in Wethersfield, killing nine men and two women. In response, the Connecticut Colony declared war on the tribe.

'Battlefield archaeology'

In the back of the house at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, archaeologists sit before computer screens, studying images of artifacts recovered from Pequot War battle sites.

Employing "battlefield archeology" developed during the study of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, those involved in the Pequot War project's fieldwork have relied on ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry to target excavations in the search for artifacts. By the end of 2010, field crew and volunteers from the Yankee Territory Coinshooters, a metal-detecting club based in central Connecticut, had found scores of English musket balls and gun parts and brass projectile points used by the Pequots.

Naumec, the senior researcher, credited the volunteer "detectorists" with finding many of the artifacts unearthed in connection with the project.

The museum's own expertise and X-ray facilities were instrumental in identifying many items recovered from Mistick Fort and along the English's withdrawal route between Mystic and the area now known as Poquonnock Bridge in Groton. McBride demonstrated how X-rays revealed a piece of a flintlock gun mechanism buried within a lump of leaden debris.

Just as crucial to the archaeological phase of the project was the participation of private property owners willing to allow the work to go forward on their land. In New London County alone, about 100 residents signed waivers authorizing researchers to excavate on their property, Naumec said. Throughout the state, as many as 500 property owners have so far signed waivers while only 20 to 30 have declined to sign, he said.

"People are generally interested in history," Lamarre said. "Some have even asked us to 'come dig on my lawn.'"

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Dave Naumec, left, and Kevin McBride discuss the possibility that a fragment of hand-wrought metal could be a piece from English armor while the Archaeology Lab at Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.
Dave Naumec, left, and Kevin McBride discuss the possibility that a fragment of hand-wrought metal could be a piece from English armor while the Archaeology Lab at Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
Dave Naumec holds a 17th century flintlock cock arm fragment Wednesday in the archeology lab at Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center,  where analysis and cataloging of recovered objects takes place.
Dave Naumec holds a 17th century flintlock cock arm fragment Wednesday in the archeology lab at Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, where analysis and cataloging of recovered objects takes place. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
Artifacts from local Pequot War battlegrounds are displayed Wednesday in the archeology lab at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, where analysis and cataloging of recovered objects takes place.
Artifacts from local Pequot War battlegrounds are displayed Wednesday in the archeology lab at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, where analysis and cataloging of recovered objects takes place. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
This map shows the battlefield boundaries as submitted to the National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program.
This map shows the battlefield boundaries as submitted to the National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program. Mashantucket Pequot Museum
A 1637 engraving of Mistick Fort including in Captain John Underhill's Newes From America publication shortly after the war.
A 1637 engraving of Mistick Fort including in Captain John Underhill's Newes From America publication shortly after the war. Courtesy Mashantucket Pequot Museum
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