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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    Centuries later, understanding of the Pequot War continues to evolve

    The Battle of Mistick Fort as seen in a reproduction of a 1638 engraving on display in the Battlefields of the Pequot War exhibit at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center Wednesday, October 26, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A timeline of the Pequot War in the Battlefields of the Pequot War exhibit at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center Wednesday, October 26, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Native American military items found at The Battle of Mistick Fort as seen in the Battlefields of the Pequot War exhibit at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Wednesday, October 26, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Items from The Battle of Mistick Fort on display in the Battlefields of the Pequot War exhibit at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, Wednesday, October 26, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    When Kevin McBride looks at stories about the Pequot War ― something with which he has a lot of experience ― he sees two narratives: colonist support or “lo the poor Indian.”

    “It’s a much more complex story than that,” said McBride, former research director for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut, who specializes in Native American archaeology.

    He has found it interesting to see the evolution of perspectives on the 1630s war, a conflict in which English colonists killed hundreds of Pequots in Mystic and the subsequent withdrawal.

    “There’s probably no other event in American history where you could more track, over 400 years, the evolving perspectives,” McBride said. “And it’ll change again, just because it’s been written about so much.”

    The earlier narratives were decidedly colonialist ones, portraying the Pequots as the bad guys attacking and killing everybody. But McBride saw a paradigm shift in the 1970s, with the publication of the influential books “New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675” by Alden Vaughan and “The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest” by Francis Jennings.

    At Connecticut College, the Pequot War is part of the curriculum in a survey course on Native American history that Kris Klein Hernández is teaching this fall. His approach challenges the traditional declension narrative ― declension means decline ― pervasive in the framing of Native American history.

    “Most Native American histories end after the War of 1812, because it’s understood that the supremacy of both Great Britain ― and of course then Spain and the Southwest ― now control the majority of the area,” Klein Hernández said. He said past students have asked, “Native Americans are extinct, so why are we talking about them?”

    When he teaches the Pequot War, he talks about survivance, a term first used in Native American studies by Anishaabe writer Gerald Vizenor.

    “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of Native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry,” Vizenor wrote in his 1999 book “Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance.”

    Klein Hernández wants students to think about how survivance looks different in the Pequot War compared to the Dakota War, or even compared to modern-day Indigenous issues. He also tries to bring in speakers who are indigenous to the land he is discussing.

    “What I try to do is get my students to make their own conclusions, because there are books out there that will tell them how to think,” he said. “My job is to get them to critically question perspectives.”

    Unearthing history

    Walking through the Pequot War exhibit at the museum, it’s clear the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation didn’t want to only share a Pequot perspective on the war. One wall, for example, has three short videos with re-enacted perspectives from three English, Dutch and Pequot men.

    In the latter, a man portraying a Pequot villager explains that the Pequots agreed to give the Dutch wampum and beaver furs in return for good cloth and metal tools, but the trade made other tribes jealous and the Dutch began to mistreat them.

    “We see the English watching us with suspicion. We know they want us gone,” the man says in the video. “But this is the Pequot land. We will not be gone! We have lost many people to sickness. But we will defend our territory.”

    The Pequot War exhibit has existed since the museum’s opening in 1998, but the gallery expanded a few years ago with the addition of artifacts from archaeological surveys.

    One issue with further understanding the war is that “it’s impossible to create a new narrative from the Pequot perspective” because there is nothing written down, McBride said.

    The English written accounts of the Pequot War come from militia captains John Mason and John Underhill, Saybrook Fort commander Lion Gardiner, and Philip Vincent, about whom historians know little.

    For McBride and a team of researchers, reading and re-reading these sources was preparation for the National Park Service-funded Battlefields of the Pequot War project, which began in 2007 and involved archaeological studies of the Siege and Battle of Saybrook Fort, Battle of Mistick Fort (also known as the Mystic Massacre), and the Battle of the English Allied Withdrawal that followed the attack on Mystic.

    “You want to create a spatial and temporal timeline, so you can envision where the English were, and the Pequots,” McBride said. The question then becomes, “What does the historical record say about the archaeology? How do you reconcile that?”

    McBride said while most of the war narratives talk about the Battle of Mistick Fort, more Pequots died in the withdrawal, which took place in 10 hours across 4.5 miles.

    The researchers knew that one of the English tactics was surprise attacks on villages, and there was one village they were looking for because of one line in John Mason’s narrative. It took an entire summer to find it.

    The archaeological work was done from 2010 to 2012 at the site of the Battle of Mistick Fort ― today a residential neighborhood in Groton ― and from 2012 to 2016 along the withdrawal.

    McBride recalled being at the Mystic site every day for six months, where there was some digging but mostly metal detecting. While the process did unearth lead and iron battlefield objects, it also uncovered chain links from logging or extracting quarry blocks, nails, barbed wire, coins and harmonica parts, along with modern debris.

    “The worst for us were .22 casings and bullets and beer pop tabs,” McBride said.

    Coated in rust, remaining items found were not always immediately identifiable as battlefield objects and were taken back to the lab at the museum.

    The weapons then identified serve as visual evidence of who was fighting: McBride noted that a brass arrow with a conical point was only made by the Wangunk, who were traditional enemies of the Pequots, while Mohegans and Narragansetts also fought against the Pequots.

    “It’s surprising that you have Indians who will ally with the English against other Indian groups,” said Ann Marie Plane, history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in the Mystic Massacre episode of the 2006 History Channel miniseries “10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.” She continued, “That’s one thing that people often don’t know about these conflicts. We think that it’s Indians pitted against Europeans, but it’s much more complicated than that.”

    Cause and effect

    “What caused the Pequot War? There is no single cause, no simple answer,” an informational panel in the Mashantucket Pequot Museum states. “Competing interests, racial prejudice, misunderstandings, personal ambitions, and cultural differences all contributed to the conflicts. It was a war the Pequots did not choose to fight. Instead, the Pequot War was forced upon them, and it created losses and sorrows that reverberated for centuries.”

    In the 1620s and 1630s, the Pequots were the most powerful group of Native people in the region, trading extensively with Europeans and subjugating other tribes so they could dominate the wampum trade.

    The museum goes through the events leading up to the war. The Dutch built a trading post in present-day Hartford in 1633, and the English soon built a competing post. The Pequots murdered a few other Natives trading at the Dutch post, and then the Dutch killed the Pequot Sachem Tatobam.

    This put an end to trading with the Dutch and the Pequots sought trade with the English, who were interested but demanded the Pequots turn over the killer of disreputable English privateer John Stone. Trade began despite Pequot refusal to acquiesce; the Pequots said they killed Stone to avenge the murder of Tatobam.

    Then English trader John Oldham was killed by non-Pequot Natives, and the English sought to avenge his death. What started the war, McBride said, was a Massachusetts Bay contingent of 90 soldiers landing at Pequot settlements on what is now the shore of the Thames River in Groton in 1636. After a day of negotiations, they burned wigwams and killed 13 Pequots.

    McBride said the event “that really turned the war” was a Pequot attack on Wethersfield in the spring of 1637. The Pequots had not killed women or children to this point, but here they killed three women and took two girls captive. In response, the General Court of Hartford ordered an “offensive war” against the Pequots.

    Mason and Underhill led the English, along with Mohegan and Narragansett allies, in attacking the Pequot village at Mystic on May 26, 1637, killing as many as 600 Pequots. More than 1,500 Pequots were ultimately killed or captured.

    The war was effectively over when the Mohawks killed chief Pequot Sachem Sassacus, and what became known as the Treaty of Hartford divided captured Pequots between Narragansetts and Mohegans.

    The Pequots were even forbidden to call themselves Pequots.

    But they eventually regrouped into the two tribal nations we know today: People living under Mohegan rule became the Mashantucket Pequots, and those captured by the Narragansetts and Eastern Niantics became Eastern Pequots.

    According to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, the population at Mashantucket dropped by more than 85% and the Mashantucket Pequots lost more than 65% of their land during the 1800s. Colonists reduced the reservation size to 204 acres and only three women held onto the land by the 1960s, according to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. But the following decade, Pequots returned to Mashantucket and regained land, and the tribe was federally recognized in 1983.

    Lee Mixashawn Rozie, an indigenous musician and historian from Windsor who has Maheekanew, Mohawk and Cherokee ancestry, noted ― as others have ― that Indigenous people were horrified at how the English conducted war.

    He said for many years after the war, many Indigenous people did not make much of the fact they were Indian, unless they wanted to live on a reservation – which many didn’t.

    Rozie said of the Pequot War, “The after effects were so vivid and so long-lasting that it’s important to understand it.”


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