“Boast not, proud English, of thy birth and blood; Thy brother Indian is by birth as good. “~Roger Williams~The Story of the Pequot Wars
“Hold on to the land.” ~Elizabeth George~(1894 – 1973), a leader of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation
Between 1616 and 1619, disease most likely smallpox introduced by European contact, killed thousands of New England Algonquian. However, the the Pequot and Narragansett tribes escaped these epidemics, and consequently became rivals for domination of the Connecticut region.
The first meeting of the Pequot with Europeans occurred in 1614, when Dutch traders from the Hudson River Valley began expanding east along the northern shore of Long Island Sound beyond the Connecticut River. By 1622 the fur trade on the lower Connecticut River had grown enough that the Dutch established a permanent trading post near present-day Hartford. Their intention was to trade with all of the tribes in the region, but the Pequot wanted to dominate the entire Dutch trade in the region.
They first attacked the Narragansett, who were powerful rivals, and the Pequot wanted to keep them from trading with the Dutch. The Pequot then strengthened their dominance with the Dutch by making war with (and subjugating) the neighboring Nipmuc and Mattabesic tribes. However, some Mattabesic chose to ignore them and tried to trade with the Dutch ,forcing the Pequot to attack several groups of Mattabesic who had gathered near the Dutch trading post for trade.
The resident trader for the Dutch West India Company, Jacob Elekens, had grown annoyed with the Pequot efforts to monopolize the fur trade, and to retaliate, he seized Tatobem, a Pequot sachem (chief or leader) and threatened to kill him unless the Pequot ended their harassment and paid a ransom for his release.
The Pequot brought 140 fathoms of wampum to the post for Tatobem’s release, which Elekens accepted, but having expected beaver rather than these strange little shell beads, he killed Tatobem, and all that the Pequot got in exchange for their wampum was his dead body. Understandably outraged, the Pequot attacked and burned the trading post, but fur trade was far too important for the Pequot and Dutch to permit a dead sachem and charred trading post stand in the way of mutual prosperity. The Dutch replaced Elekens with Pieter Barentsen who spoke Algonquin and was trusted by the Pequot, and after a suitable round of apologies and gifts “to cover the dead,” trade resumed.
Two important changes resulted from this brief confrontation which had lasting impacts. The Dutch never again attempted to prevent the Pequot from dominating the other tribes, and in effect granted them a monopoly in the Connecticut fur trade. Unchallenged, the Pequot aggressively expanded their control over the Mattabesic tribes along the Connecticut River, either by forcing them to sell their furs to Pequot traders or exacting a heavy tribute for the privilege of trading directly with the Dutch. The Pequot grew powerful and rich.
Meanwhile, an English colony moved into the region in1620. It had appeared the tiny English colony at Plymouth would fail. But somehow, against all odds, it survived, and by 1627 the Dutch had become concerned enough about the possibility of English competition in the fur trade that they sent a representative to Plymouth to negotiate a trade treaty.
The resulting document guaranteed the Dutch a monopoly along the entire southern coast of New England including the Connecticut Valley. However, at most, the Dutch gained only a few years with this maneuver. After the Puritans began arriving in Massachusetts after 1630, Plymouth’s agreement with the Dutch was generally ignored.
By 1633 Boston traders had reached the Connecticut River and built a trading post at Windsor. In violation of their 1627 agreement, the English post intercepted furs from the interior before they could reach the Dutch downstream. The Dutch responded by purchasing land from the Pequot (actually the Pequot sold land belonging to the Mattabesic) and built a fortified trading post (House of Good Hope).
Native reaction to the English post was mixed. As a rule, the Mattabesic and Nipmuc who were forced to pay tribute to the Pequot welcomed the English, seeing not only an opportunity of better prices for their furs, but a chance to escape the Pequot. This, of course, was not something Sassacus, the Pequot grand sachem, favored.
The Pequot War
In 1637, long-standing tensions between the Puritan English of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay colonies and the Pequot escalated into open warfare.
There was much confusion on both sides and when the tribe killed an Englishman thinking he was Dutch, war was soon upon them. The Mohegan and the Narragansett sided with the English. The major battle, known as the Mystic Massacre, was a surprise attack by Connecticut militia and Narragansett allies on the Perquot fortified village of Misistuck. It resulted in the death of between 400-700 Pequot, mostly women, children, and old men, since most of the warriors were away on a raiding party. Many of the warriors were later killed in a swamp battle. All told, perhaps 1,500 Pequot were killed in battles or hunted down. Others were captured and distributed as slaves or household servants. A few escaped to be absorbed by the Mohawk or the Niantic on Long Island.
Of those enslaved, most were awarded to the allied tribes, but many were also sold as slaves in Bermuda. The Mohegan in particular treated their Pequot hostages so severely that colonial officials of Connecticut Colony eventually removed them. Two reservations were established by 1683. While both of their land bases were exceedingly reduced by what would eventually became the state of Connecticut, they continue to exist to the present.
Many of the Pequot gradually drifted away from the confines of their small reservations, and their numbers in Connecticut continued to decline until there were only 66 by the time of the 1910 census. Currently, there are almost 1,000 Pequot, but things have changed dramatically for the Mashantucket in recent years. Connecticut sold off 600 acres of their reservation without permission in 1856, and a lawsuit filed in 1976 to recover this land resulted in a $700,000 settlement. Federal recognition was received in 1983, and after a successful bingo operation, an incredibly profitable gambling casino was opened in 1992 which has made the Mashantucket Pequot the wealthiest group of Native Americans in the United States. After a 350 year truce, the Mashantucket may actually have won the Pequot War.
Tribalpedia’s Questions for Comprehension and Discussion
1. The Pequot and what other tribe escaped the epidemics that killed thousands of New England Algonquains?
2. Which Europeans were the first to contact the Pequot 1614?
3. Why did the Pequot attack the Narragansett tribe?
4. At one point, the Pequot Nation dominated the trade business and became powerful and rich. Then the English moved into the territory, and began trading with other tribes. Why did this lead to a war between the English colonies and Pequot of 1637?
5. How did the war end for the Pequot?
Today, two small independent Pequot tribal nations inhabit areas of Connecticut– the Mashantucket Pequot and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation (a.k.a. Paucatuck Pequot).
In 1986, they opened a bingo operation, followed in 1992 by the establishment of the first phase of Foxwoods Resort Casino. Revenues from the casino have enabled development and construction of a cultural museum. The ceremonial groundbreaking for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center took place on October 20, 1993. This date marked the 10th anniversary of federal recognition of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation.
The new facility, opened on August 11, 1998, is located on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation, where many members of the nation continue to live. It is one of the oldest, continuously occupied Indian reservations in North America.
In March 2000, the BIA granted preliminary approval to the two tribes’ requests, but it could not decide whether the groups should be recognized as one tribe or two. The Mashantucket Pequo claimed that the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot were a part of their tribe.
Pequot Myth: Big Eater’s Wife
Big Eater ate and ate. He never stopped eating. He had his wigwam and two canoes on an island close to the mainland shore. Big Eater was powerful, but sometimes an evil ghost woman can defeat the most powerful man.
One day Big Eater was looking across the water, and there on the opposite shore he saw a beautiful young woman digging clams. How could he know that she was a ghost-witch? He hailed her across the water: “Beautiful girl, come live with me. Be my wife!”
“No,” she said. “Yes – No. Yes. No. Yes, yes, yes! Well, all right.” Big Eater got in one of his two canoes and paddled over. The woman was even more beautiful close up. “All right, pretty one, step into the canoe.” “Yes, but first I must get my things.”
Soon the girl came back with a mortar and pestle and some eggs. She put them in the canoe, and Big Eater paddled her over. They ate. The beautiful woman said: “Oh my, what great heaps of food you can eat!” “Yes, I’m powerful that way.”
So they lived happily for a long time. But after a while this girl got tired of Big Eater. She thought, “He’s fat, he’s not young. I want a change; I want to have a young, slim man loving me. I’ll leave.”
So when Big Eater went out fishing in one of his canoes, the girl made a doll, large as a grown woman. She placed the doll in her bed, took her mortar, pestle, and eggs, put them in Big Eaters’ second canoe, and paddled off. Big Eater came home early from fishing.
Thinking it was his wife he was climbing in with, he got into bed. He touched the doll, and the doll began to scream and shriek. “Wife,” he said, “stop this big noise or I’m going to beat you.”
Then he saw that it was a doll lying in bed with him. Big Eater jumped up and looked around. The mortar and pestle and eggs were gone. He ran down to the shore, got into the remaining canoe, and paddled furiously after his wife. Soon he saw her, also paddling hard.
But he was stronger than she and pulled closer and closer. He drew up behind her canoe until both almost touched. “Now I’ll catch her,” he thought. Then the woman threw her mortar out of the canoe over the stern. At once all the water around him turned into mortars, and Big Eater was stuck. He couldn’t paddle until at last he lifted his canoe and carried it over the mortars. By the time he gained clear water again, his wife was a long way off.
Again he paddled furiously. Again he gained on her. Again he almost caught her. Then she threw her pestle over the stern, and at once the water turned into pestles. Again Big Eater was stuck, trying to paddle through this sea of pestles but unable to. He had to carry his canoe over them, and when he hit open water again, his wife was far distant.
Again Big Eater drove through the water with all his strength. Again he gained on her; again he almost caught her. Then from the stern of her canoe the woman threw the eggs out. At once the water turned into eggs, and once more Big Eater was stuck. The eggs were worse than the mortar and pestle, because Big Eater couldn’t carry his canoe over them. Then he hit the eggs, smashing them one by one and cleaving a path through the gooey mess. He hit clear water, and his wife’s canoe was only a dot on the horizon. Again he paddled mightily.
Slowly he gained on her again. It took a long time, but finally he was almost even with her. “This time I’ll catch you!” he shouted. You have nothing left to throw out.” But his wife just laughed. She pulled out a long hair from her head, and at once it was transformed into a lance. She stood up and hurled this magic lance at Big Eater. It hit him square in the chest, piercing him through and through. Big Eater screamed loudly and fell down dead. That’s what can happen to a man if he marries a ghost-witch.
Myth: Pyramid Mesa
Words and Phrases from the reading
The Pequot War