The Pequot War

The settlement of Connecticut began in 1631, in which year an Indian sachem, named Wahquimacut, visited the governors of the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies. He described the country occupied by his own and kindred tribes as a rich and beautiful valley, abounding in game and corn, and traversed by a river called "Connecticut," a noble stream, of surpassing purity of waters, and full of excellent fish. He begged each settlement to send Englishmen to the valley, offering to give each emigrant eighty beaver-skins annually, and to supply them with corn. This anxiety for white settlers was probably instigated by the desire to obtain their aid against the Pequot Indians, who dominated the region. Governor Winslow, of Plymouth, went to see for himself this Indian Paradise. His report must have been very favorable, for other explorers followed, and in 1633 a trading-settlement was made on the Connecticut coast. This excited the ire of the Dutch, who had already established themselves at Hartford. Wouter van Twiller, the Dutch governor, proceeded in martial array to suppress the intruders, but as the latter stood boldly on the defensive he marched back again, concluding that he could best show his wisdom by letting them alone. In 1635 several settlements were made in the new colony, and John Winthrop, the agent of Lord Say and Seal and Lord Brook, the proprietors, was sent to build a fort at the mouth of the Connecticut, which he did just in time to scare back the Dutch, who had sent an expedition for the same purpose.

The succeeding winter was one of excessive severity, and the colonists and the garrison of the fort at Saybrook suffered terribly. Most of them made their way back to Boston, by land or water, to escape the danger of starvation. The few that remained barely survived the horrors of the winter. But with the coming of April again upon the land many of the fugitives returned, while others followed them, and the colony rapidly augmented. It was not long, however, before trouble with the Indians began. The most important of the Connecticut Indians were the Pequots and the Mohegans, the former under a head sachem named Sassacus, who was bitterly hostile to the whites, the latter under the celebrated Uncas, who allied himself with the settlers. The Narragansetts and other tribes, from their hostility to the warlike Pequots, favored the English, through whom they hoped to be revenged upon their dreaded foes.

A series of murders by Indians followed the settling of the colony. In 1634 two traders were slaughtered. The next year other murders took place. In reprisal an expedition from Massachusetts attacked the Indians, much to the dissatisfaction of the Connecticut settlers, who feared they would pay bitterly for this assault. Their prevision was correct. The Pequots lurked about the fort, torturing all who fell into their hands. They similarly waylaid the settlers, killing and destroying, until the situation grew unbearable. War was resolved upon, and on the 10th of May, 1637, an army of ninety Englishmen, under John Mason, and seventy Mohegans, under Uncas, embarked at Hartford for the Pequot strongholds. Fort Mistick, the smaller of the two Pequot forts, was approached at night, with the intention of effecting a surprise. The story of this Indian war we select from G. H. Hollister's "History of Connecticut," in which it is detailed in homely but graphic language.]

ABOUT two hours before day, the men were roused up and commanded to make themselves ready for battle. The moon still shone in their faces as they were summoned to prayer. They now set forward with alacrity. The fort proved to be about two miles off. A long way it seemed over the level though stony ground, and the officers began at last to fear that they had been led upon the wrong track, when they came at length to a second field of corn, newly planted, at the base of a high hill. Here they halted, and "gave the word for some of the Indians to come up." At first not an Indian was to be seen; but finally Uncas and Wequash the guide showed themselves. "Where is the fort?" demanded Mason. "On the top of that hill," was the answer. "Where are the rest of the Indians?" asked the fearless soldier. The answer was, what he probably anticipated, "Behind, and very much afraid." "Tell them," said Mason, "not to fly, but to stand as far off as they please, and see whether Englishmen will fight."

There were two entrances to the fort, one on the northeastern side, the other on the west. It was decided that Mason should lead on and force open the former, while Underhill, who brought up the rear, was to pass around and go in at the western gate.

Mason had approached within about a rod of the fort, when he heard a dog bark, and almost in a breath this alarm was followed up by the voice of an Indian, crying, "Owanux! Owanux!"--Englishmen! Englishmen! No time was to be lost. He called up his forces with all haste and fired upon the enemy through the palisades. The Pequots, who had spent the night in singing and dancing (under the belief that the English had retreated), were now in a deep sleep. The entrance, near which Mason stood, was blocked up with bushes about breast high. Over this frail obstruction he leaped, sword in hand, shouting to his men to follow him. But Seely, his lieutenant, found it more easy to remove the bushes than to force the men over them. When he had done so, he also entered, followed by sixteen soldiers. It had been determined to destroy the enemy with the sword, and thus save the corn and other valuables that were stored in the wigwams. With this view the captain, seeing no Indians, entered one of the wigwams. Here he found many warriors, who crowded hard upon him, and beset him with great violence; but they were so amazed at the strange apparition that had so suddenly thrust itself upon them, that they could make but a feeble resistance. Mason was soon joined by William. Hayden, who, as he entered the wigwam through the breach that had been made by his impetuous captain, stumbled against the dead body of a Pequot, whom Mason had slain, and fell. Some of the Indians now fled from the wigwam; others, still stupefied with sleep, crept under mats and skins to hide themselves.

The palisades embraced an area of about twenty acres,--a space sufficient to afford room for a large Indian village. There were more than seventy houses in this space, with lanes or streets passing between them. Mason, still intent on destroying the Pequots and at the same time saving their property, now left the wigwam, and passed down one of these streets, driving the crowd of Indians that thronged it before him from one end of it to the other. At the lower extremity of this lane stood a little company of Englishmen, who, having effected an entrance from the west, met the Indians as they fled from Mason, and killed about half a dozen of them. The captain now faced about, and went back the whole length of the lane, to the spot where he had entered the fort. He was exhausted, and quite out of breath, and had become satisfied that this was not the way to exterminate the Indians, who now swarmed from the wigwams like bees from a hive. Two of his soldiers stood near him, close to the palisades, with their useless swords pointed to the ground. "We shall never kill them in this way," said the captain; and then added, with the same laconic brevity, "We must burn them!" With these words the decree of the council of war to save the booty of the enemy was annulled; for, stepping into the wigwam where he had before forced an entrance, he snatched a firebrand in his hand, and, instantly returning, applied it to the light mats that formed the covering of their rude tenements. Almost in an instant the whole village was wrapped in flames, and the frightened Pequots fled in dismay from the roofs that had just before sheltered them. Such was their terror that many of them took refuge from the English in the flames, and perished there. Some climbed the palisades, where they formed but too fair a mark for the muskets of their enemies, who could see to take a dead aim in the light of the ghastly conflagration. Others fled from the beds of mats or skins where they had sought a temporary concealment, and were arrested by the hand of death in the midst of their flight. Others still, warping up to the windward, whence the fire sped with such fatal velocity, fell flat upon the ground and plied their destroyers with arrows. But their hands were so palsied with fear that the feathered messengers either flew wide of their aim or fell with spent force upon the ground. A few, of still stouter heart, rushed forth with the tomahawk, to engage the invaders of their homes in a hand-to-hand combat. But they were nearly all, to the number of about forty, cut in pieces by the sword. The vast volume of flame, the lurid light reflected on the dark background of the horizon, the crack of the muskets, the yells of the Indians who fought, and of those who sought vainly to fly, the wail of women and children as they writhed in the flames, and the exulting cries of the Narragansetts and Mohegans without the fort, formed a contrast, awful and sublime, with the quiet glories of the peaceful May morning, that was just then breaking over the woods and the ocean.

Seventy wigwams were burned to ashes, and probably not less than five hundred men, women, and children were destroyed. The property, too, shared the same fate. The long-cherished wampum-belt, with the beads of blue, purple, and white, the war-club, the eagle plume, the tufted scalps, trophies of many a victory, helped only to swell the blaze that consumed alike the young warrior and the superannuated counsellor, the squaw and the little child that clung helplessly to her bosom. Of all who were in the fort, only seven were taken captive, and about the same number escaped.

The English, however, were in no enviable situation. Two of them had been killed, and about twenty wounded. They were without provisions, in the midst of an unfamiliar country, and within a short distance of the fort of Sassacus, tenanted by hundreds of fierce warriors. Fortunately, the vessels were now seen gliding into the Pequot harbor.

By this time the news of the destruction that had fallen upon his tribe at Mistick, heralded, no doubt, not only by the handful of men who had escaped from the fort, and by the clouds of smoke that floated from the fatal scene, but by the dismal cries that attended this exterminating sacrifice, had reached the fort of Sassacus, and three hundred warriors came rushing towards the English with the determination to revenge themselves for an injury not yet half revealed to them. Mason led out a file of his best marksmen, who soon gave the Pequots a check. Seeing that they could not stand his fire, he commenced his march towards Pequot harbor. Of the twenty wounded men, four or five were so disabled that it was necessary to employ about twenty other men to carry them; so that he had but about forty men who could engage in battle, until he succeeded in hiring some Indians to take charge of the wounded. They had marched about a quarter of a mile, when the Pequot warriors, who had withdrawn out of the range of their muskets, reached the spot where, not two hours before, their fort had sheltered so much that was sacred to them. When they came to the top of the hill, venerable to them from so many associations connected with the history and glory of their tribe,--when they saw the smoking palisades, the flames of their wigwams, not yet extinguished, the blackened bodies that lay scattered where death had overtaken them,--in their grief and rage they stamped upon the ground, tore the hair from their heads, and then rushed madly down the hill, as if they would have swept the enemy from the face of the earth. Captain Underhill, with a file of the bravest men, was ordered to defend the rear. This he did with such efficiency that the Indians were soon compelled to fall back. Yet such was their resolve to have their revenge upon the English that during their march for the next six miles they pursued them, sometimes hanging upon their rear, sometimes hidden behind trees and rocks in front, discharging their arrows in secret, at others making desperate attacks, that could be repelled only by the too deadly use of the musket. They fought at fearful odds, as was evinced by the dead bodies of their warriors picked up by the Mohegans who followed in their train, while not an Englishman was injured during the whole line of their march. At last, wearied with a pursuit that only brought harm to themselves, they abandoned it, and left the English to continue their march unmolested, with their colors flying, to Pequot harbor. Here they were received on board their vessels with many demonstrations of joy.

This disaster utterly disheartened the Pequots. They accused Sassacus of having brought ruin upon them, and in dismay burned their remaining fort and fled for safety. Sassacus and about eighty of his principal warriors made their way towards the Hudson. They were rapidly followed, and at length traced to a swamp within the limits of the old town of Fairfield.

In this swamp were hidden about eighty Pequot warriors, with their women and children, and about two hundred other Indians. A dismal, miry bog it was, covered with tangled bushes. Dangerous as it was, Lieutenant Davenport rushed into it with his men, eager to encounter the Pequots.

The sharp arrows of the enemy flew from places that hid the archers, wounding the soldiers, who, in their haste to retreat, only sunk deeper in the mire. The Indians, made bold by this adventure, pressed hard upon them, and would have carried off their scalps had it not been for the timely aid of some other Englishmen, who waded into the swamp, sword in hand, drove back the Pequots, and drew their disabled friends from the mud that had threatened to swallow them up. The swamp was now surrounded, and a skirmish followed that proved so destructive to the savages that the Fairfield Indians begged for quarter. They said, what was probably true, that they were there only by accident, and had never done the English any harm.

They were permitted to withdraw, with their women and children.

But the Pequot warriors, made up of choice men, and burning with rage against the enemy who had destroyed their tribe and driven them from their old haunts, fought with such desperate bravery that the English were glad to confine themselves to the borders of the swamp..

Some suggested that they should cut down the swamp with the hatchets that they had brought with them; others, that they should surround it with palisades. Neither of these propositions was adopted. They finally hit upon a plan that was more easily executed. They cut down the bushes the bushes that grew upon a little neck of firm upland that almost divided the swamp into two parts. In this way they so lessened the area occupied by the Pequots that, by stationing men twelve feet apart, it could all be surrounded by the troops. This was done, and the sentinels all stationed, before nightfall. Thus keeping watch on the borders of the morass, wet, cold, and weary, the soldiers passed the night under arms. Just before day a dense fog arose, that shrouded them in almost total darkness. A friendly mist it proved to the Pequots, for it doubtless saved the lives of many of them. At a favorable moment they rushed upon the English. Captain Patrick's quarters were first attacked, but he drove them back more than once. Their yells, more terrible from the darkness that engulfed the scene of the conflict, were so unearthly and appalling, the attack was so sudden and so well sustained, that, but for the timely interference of a party sent by Mason to relieve him, Patrick would doubtless have been driven from his station or cut to pieces. The siege had by this time given place to a hand-to-hand fight. As Mason was himself marching up to aid Patrick, the Pequots rushed upon him from the thicket. He drove them back with severe loss. They did not resume the attack upon the man who had recently given them such fearful proofs of his prowess, but turned upon Patrick, broke through his ranks, and fled. About sixty of the Pequot warriors escaped. Twenty lay dead upon the field. One hundred and eighty were taken prisoners. Most of the property that this fugitive remnant of the tribe had attempted to carry with them fell into the hands of the English. Hatchets of stone, beautiful wampum-belts, polished bows, and feathered arrows, with the utensils employed by the women in their rude domestic labors, became at once, as did the women themselves, the property of the conquerors. The captives and the booty were divided between Massachusetts and Connecticut. Some were sent by Massachusetts to the West Indies, and there, as slaves, dragged out a wretched but brief existence.. Those who fell to the colony of Connecticut found their condition more tolerable. Some of them, it is true, spent their days in servitude; yet its rigors softened as the horrors of the war faded from the recollections of the English.

Sassacus seems not to have been present at this battle. Foiled and discomfited at every turn, he fled far to the westward, and sought a refuge among the enemies of his tribe, the Mohawks. But he looked in vain for protection at their hands. He had defied them in his prosperity, and in his evil days they avenged themselves. They beheaded him, and sent his scalp as a trophy to Connecticut. A lock of his black, glossy hair was carried to Boston in the fall of the same year, as a witness that the proud sachem of the Pequots was no more.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 1)