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Why Mason statue should be moved from the Capitol

Major John Mason was a hero of his time and place, at least as judged by the European settlers who found a new nation by decimating — often brutally — and largely displacing the indigenous population.

In 1637, in the eyes of his colonial contemporaries, Mason had led a successful attack on the Pequot Tribe, on which the Massachusetts Bay Colony had declared war for the killing of settlers and attacks on their land. Other tribes, including the Mohegans, who had experienced their own battles with the Pequots, were aligned with the Puritan settlers in the war.

After his "successes" as a military commander, Mason became a prominent leader in the English colonies. In the 1660s he served as deputy governor and, for two years, as acting governor. He had a hand in writing the Connecticut Charter, which granted the colony unprecedented autonomy from the English crown. An early experiment in self-rule, it provided for a governor, deputy governor and 12 assistants, all elected annually by the "freemen" of the colony.

For leading the attack on the Pequots, Mason was promoted to major and received numerous land grants, including Mason's Island. Mason is the founder of Norwich, a town that grew from the "nine miles square" that was purchased from the Mohegan Sachem Uncas, with whom Mason had generated a friendship.

But from a modern perspective, the act for which Mason was and remains best known — the massacre at the Pequot's Mystic fort — is something to condemn, not celebrate.

When the initial attack on the Pequot stronghold did not go well for the attacking colonists, they turned to setting fire to the Pequots' shelters, showing no mercy to noncombatant women and children and proceeding to slaughter those who sought to escape the inferno.

"Many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children, others forced out, and came in troopes ... twentie, and thirtie at a time, which our souldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword; downe fell men, women, and children ... there were about foure hundred soules in this Fort, and not above five of them escaped out of our hands," wrote John Underhill, who joined Mason in leading the attack.

It was a bloodbath and, by modern definition, a war crime. The zealousness by which Mason and his forces continued to hunt down the surviving Pequots to near extinction was genocidal.

It marked a dark turning point. It was the first in a continuing slaughter of indigenous groups across North America, with peace treaties signed and then repeatedly broken by states and the U.S. government, and tribes forcibly removed to desolate reservations.

Which leads us to the debate whether to remove Mason's statute from the exterior of the Connecticut State Capitol building. The Connecticut State Capitol Preservation and Restoration Commission will be making a recommendation soon on the statue's future and recently held a public hearing on the matter.

This debate has happened before.

In 1889, another John Mason statue was placed at the intersection of Pequot Avenue and Clift Street in Mystic. Through the distorted prism of that time, state and local officials only saw a monument that honored a founder and his victory over "savage foes" — in the words of the keynote speaker — seemingly oblivious to the extreme insensitivity of placing it near the site of the slaughter.

In 1996, acting on the recommendation of a local committee, the state relocated the statue to Windsor, the town from which he hailed, and with a plaque that better outlined his overall contributions rather than simply glorifying the attack on the Pequot village. It was the right move.

A similar approach could be taken in the current matter by following the recommendation made by some to move the statue from the State Capitol to the Old State House in Hartford.

Such a move would not be an attempt to "cancel" history, but rather to more honestly recognize and recall it. The State Capitol is the seat of Connecticut's democracy, the house of all the people. The statue honoring Mason on the side of the Capitol is hurtful and an affront to some of those people. It would be wrong for it to remain in that place.

At the Old State House, also a symbol of state history and not current governance, the statue could be displayed with information that places Mason and his actions in historical context, without giving it the distinction that comes with its display outside the walls of the State Capitol.

The Day Editorial Board supports the removal of the Mason statue from the Capitol.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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