More links between wars in Europe and Puritan New England

I’m in the middle of researching those Puritans who fought in the Pequot War who also served in the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. So far, I know Lion Gardener who built and manned the fort at Saybrook, Connecticut fought with the English volunteer force in the Netherlands under Sir Horace Veer. And John Mason, who led the attack on Mystic was also with the English volunteers in the Netherlands.

It’s hard to start from scratch on this, because there are no lists of who fought as an English volunteer readily available on the Internet. But I’ve found that Gardener may well have been at the critical siege of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, or Bois-le-duc.

The interest in these ties is that they support my thesis that the Puritans in far-off New England, faced with exotic Native American enemies, actually saw themselves as Protestants in the thick of the battle for Europe, facing the too-familiar heretic foe. Catholics were no better than Pequots to the Puritans, and the grim and brutal battle philosophy of European soldiers and generals was transported to New England.

This means that the brutality shown by the Puritans to the Pequots in that war (1637, in the thick of the Thirty Years’ War) was not a brutality uniquely sparked by and reserved for Native Americans. It was the standard-issue European religious-war intolerance that called for the complete decimation of the enemy. Just as Protestants in Germany who fell under Imperial control were forced to convert or to leave their homes forever, so defeated Native Americans were forcibly converted or banished from their lands.

If anyone out there has more data on Puritans who fought in the Pequot and the Thirty Years’ War, let me know!

Understanding the Pequot War

Welcome to the conclusion of my series on the Pequot War. Here we ask ourselves just why this conflict took place.

I’ve already said, in part 1, that in 1637 the Massachusetts Bay Colony felt the threat it faced from “Indians” was equal to threats from the French, Dutch, and Spanish, and far less significant than the threat represented by its own English king . A handful of tiny settlements in Connecticut were all that was at stake, and MBC ended up sending fewer than 120 men to fight in just one battle. The Pequots were not particularly aggressive toward the Puritans, and only attacked after they had been provoked.

So why did it happen? To answer this question, I think we have to look at MBC and the colonies in Connecticut as part of a larger world. We have to see them as they saw themselves: soldiers in God’s army, fighting against the forces of evil. In short, they were part of the Thirty Years’ War.

From 1618-1648, brutal war was fought in Europe, mostly in Germany, between Catholic and Protestant forces. Each side engaged in incomprehensible atrocities, killing civilians and soldiers, burning towns, praising God for destroying their enemies… exactly the things the Puritans did to the Pequots in New England. For the Puritans saw themselves as the westernmost outpost of Protestantism in the world, and hoped to actually lead European Protestantism by its pure example—and its freedom from opposition. The Puritans were the only Protestants who were not surrounded by hostile or undecided fellow-Christians, and they hoped to use that lack of threat to be bold, and go far in their reformation.

So anyone who menaced them was threatening the whole future of Christianity, and, like their fellow-soldiers in Europe, New England Puritans reacted with merciless violence when heretics threatened them. To the Puritans, any non-Calvinist was a heretic, including Catholics and all other varieties of Protestants. Native Americans were really no more heretical or pagan than harlot-of-Rome papists.

When the Puritans were primed to spring with violence on anyone who threatened them, they had several potential enemies in mind (again, the Dutch, French, Native Americans, and England itself). The Pequots merely sprung the trap first. By making the first attack, they unleashed the full force of Puritan war upon themselves.

It was just the luck of the draw, in a way: if the Dutch had sprung the trap first, there would have been a bloody war with Manhattan instead, that would have involved thousands of Puritans rather than dozens.

For many decades historians have been certain that Puritans hated Native Americans above all others, considered only Native Americans to be heretics/pagans, and were dying to have an “Indian war.” I believe this is untrue. In 1637 New England, at least, all threats were equal, all foes were pagans, and war with Indians was seen as maybe just a foretaste of the war that would come with England itself.

Not even 40 years after the Pequot War ended, another, far more terrible war would be fought with Native Americans: King Phillip’s War (1675-6). It was fought for different reasons than the Pequot War. KPW was about land, and restricting New England to white settlement. It was the classic “Indian war” that would be fought over and over, hundreds of times, as English settlement and then the United States expanded.

But the Pequot War was a far-flung battle in a European war of religion, and while it set a bad precedent for relations between English settlers and (Native) Americans, in a perverse way, for the Puritans it was not about America at all.

Don’t be fooled–the Confederacy was pro-slavery!

If you haven’t been over to Kevin Levin’s invaluable and fearless blog Civil War Memory, get over there now! If anyone is dedicated to blasting myths about the Civil War and the ideology of the Confederacy, it’s Kevin. The work he does is risky, because a lot of people have a lot at stake in trying to tell us that the Confederate South loved black Americans and treated enslaved black people with  more love and kindness than you have for your own children today.

But it’s not true, and Kevin proves that in every post. Thanks, Kevin, and keep it up!

The fighting of the Pequot War

Part 4 of my series on the Pequot War, which deals with the war itself.

As I said in Part 1, the term “war” is almost a misnomer, because there were only two substantial battles, and the war itself lasted only about three months. Most of that time was spent by the Puritan militia traveling around rather than fighting.

We left off in 1637, where in January the people of Boston offered up a day of fasting to appeal for God’s help on many  matters, including the problems the Protestant armies were facing in the Thirty Years’ War, the attempts by Parliament to take control of Massachusetts Bay Colony, internal religious dissension, and “the dangers of those at Connecticut, and of ourselves, [from] the Indians.” There had been several skirmishes between Pequots and Puritans in different locations, and a band of Pequot warriors was at that time besieging the new settlement at Saybrook, Connecticut, where a small number of Puritan men were holed up in the fort.

The Pequot siege and attacks were in response to the group of Massachusetts militia who had gone around southern Connecticut burning Pequot villages in retaliation for the Pequot killing of a Puritan trader named John Oldham. Now Connecticut settlers angrily wrote to Massachusetts Bay Colony saying their militia had not done enough, and that they expected MBC to send more soldiers to Connecticut to finish the job. Settlers in the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven officially declared war on the Pequots in the spring of 1637.

When MBC met on April 18 to “prosecute the war,” they called up just 160 men, and agreed to cull 40 of them so that 120 would be sent to fight the Pequots. This is out of a population of tens of thousands. The MBC took no further action. In May, they heard of the Pequot attack on the town of Wethersfield, CT, in which 9 settlers were killed and two girls taken captive. At this news, MBC met to work out how to provision the soldiers who would be sent to Connecticut.

Clearly, MBC was dragging its feet. Why? We can’t be certain, but it does seem the colony was hoping that Plymouth and Connecticut would handle the problem themselves. Perhaps MBC felt the threat from Parliament was greater, and required most of the militia to remain in Boston in case a warship arrived from England to take over. Maybe it was trying to pressure Connecticut into accepting MBC governance, which Connecticut had been reluctant to do. For whatever reason, it was Connecticut militia, led by John Mason, which actually began the war.

In May 1637, Mason and his force of 80 Puritans and 100 Narragansetts arrived at Saybrook and broke the siege. They then marched through Connecticut looking for the great sachem of the Pequots, Sassacus. Repeatedly urged by their Narragansett allies to keep marching, because the great fort of Sassacus was not far, the Puritans spent days marching awkwardly through the forest. When they got to the great fort, it was deserted. Just as they were losing faith in their allies, they learned that the Pequots had removed to Mystic.

Mystic was a permanent settlement that had been fortified. Around 800 men, women, and children were there, including Sassacus. The Puritans arrived at Mystic in the evening and, exhausted from their march and low provisions, decided to attack at dawn. They overslept, and frantically roused everyone in the morning to make the attack.

Inside the walls of Mystic, it was like a city grid. There were long avenues with houses on either side. When the Puritans broke down the gates and finally got in, there was no way to corner the Pequots, who rushed through the sidestreets and into and through houses, constantly scattering. The English exhausted themselves again trying to catch the Pequots, and finally, literally panting for breath, one grabbed a torch and set a house on fire.

The idea caught on quickly. Rather than hunt for and fight each individual warrior, the English would burn the entire settlement down. The fire spread quickly, and the innocent people inside tried to flee, but those who made it out were shot down with arrows and bullets. 500-700 Pequots were burned alive or shot at Mystic, and only 150 of those were warriors. The rest were women, children, and the elderly.

As the Connecticut militia regrouped after the attack, too weak to pursue the few Pequots who escaped, the Massachusetts militia finally showed up, led by John Underhill. They were embarrassed that they had missed the big fight, and were eager to fight a battle to prove their worth. There were really no more large groups of Pequots to fight, and the Connecticut men told them this, but the MBC men were determined, and set out through the forest on their own exhausting march.

They reached New Haven, where about 80 Pequot men and 200 women and children were barricaded in the center of a swamp. On July 16, the English attacked, again suffering great difficulties in moving around in the swamp and in cornering the Pequots. Knowing what had happened at Mystic,  about 180 Pequot women and children came out of the swamp fort to surrender. They were parceled off as slaves to the Puritans’ allies, 80 going to the Mohegans, 80 to the Narragansetts, and 20 to the Niantics.

With nowhere to go, with no one willing to hide them or join them, Sassacus and his dwindling band of warriors kept on the move through Connecticut, until Sassacus was killed by Connecticut Native Americans who were afraid he would bring down the English on them. On August 5, the MBC militia were called back home. The war was over.

It had been devastating for the Pequots. Their already low numbers were substantially reduced by death and slavery, and no other group would shelter them. The Puritans in Connecticut made it illegal for Pequots to live in Connecticut, to speak the Pequot language, or even to say the name “Pequot.”

Looking back on the Pequot War, we can only ask why it was really fought by the Puritans. The Pequots were not the largest or the most powerful Native Americans in New England. MBC was never threatened, only scattered settlements in Connecticut. So why did it happen?

We’ll answer that question in the final installment, Understanding the Pequot War.

What caused the Pequot War?

Part 3 of my series on the Pequot War, where we look at its causes.

We’ve seen how the Puritans in Massachusetts and Connecticut were worried about being attacked from many sides: the French to the north, the Dutch to the west, and their own Parliament in England. They were not really focused on a Native American danger until 1634, when the Pequots killed an Englishman, John Stone, on the Connecticut River.

The Pequots were a powerful nation that had recently taken control of the territory that is now eastern New York and Connecticut. The Narragansetts, Niantics, Mohegans, and other groups in Connecticut paid tribute to the Pequots, who controlled the important wampum trade (the best wampum coming from Long Island, to the south).

As with any ruling group, the Pequots faced a mixture of consent and rebellion toward their government. The Narragansetts and Mohegans in particular were looking for ways to overthrow the Pequots in Connecticut. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Pequots were beginning to lose their grip on Connecticut. The arrival of Europeans speeded up that process.

When the Dutch established themselves on Manhattan, they were on the fringes of Pequot territory. When the Dutch set up a trading post on the Connecticut River, on the south shore of Connecticut, the Pequots were directly challenged for control of the area. The local peoples began trading with the Dutch,  and the Pequots struck back, killing a group of Native Americans on their way to the Dutch trading house. And, in 1634, Captain John Stone, lately of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was killed as he put in for the night on the banks of the Connecticut River on his journey to Virginia.

Stone had been unloved by the Puritans in Massachusetts. He was a drunk and a lawbreaker, and had been on the edge of banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony when he decided to leave for Virginia. When the MBC first heard of his death, in January 1634, at the hands of the Pequots (as it was reported), they “agreed to write the governor of Virginia (because Stone was one of that colony) to move him to revenge it.” (Winthrop diary, 21 January 1634).

The odds of the governor of Virginia taking any action at all on this matter were slim, to say the least. In short, the Puritans were glad Stone was gone, and had no interest in avenging his death. In fact, the MBC officers received a Pequot ambassador and his party in September 1634. The Pequots were asked about Stone’s death. According to MBC Governor John Winthrop’s account of the conversation, the Pequots said Stone had attacked them first, and was justly killed in revenge. Winthrop records that this seemed believable and the Puritans accepted it.

“The reason why the Pequots desired so much our friendship,” Winthrop continued, “was because they were now in war with the Narragansetts whom till this year they had kept under [their control], and likewise with the Dutch who had killed their old sachem and some other of their men, for that the Pequots had killed some Indians who came to trade with the Dutch at Connecticut; and by these occasions they could [now] not trade safely anywhere… They agreed to deliver us the 2 men who were guilty of Stone’s death, to yield up Connecticut, to give us 400 fathom of wampum, and to peaceful trading”. 

So the MBC had a treaty proposal for the Pequots to take back to their sachem. It specifically did not include the Puritans pledging to defend the Pequots against other Native Americans. But when the Puritans heard that 200-300 Narragansetts were coming to kill the Pequot ambassador and his party, they sent out a party of militia to stop the attack. It turned out to be only about 20 Narragansetts on an annual hunt, but the Puritans told the Narragansetts about the peace treaty, asked them to honor it, and promised to give the Narragansetts some of the wampum they would receive from the Pequots in return.

For a year, nothing else happened. Although the Pequots did not accept the treaty, their sachem realizing there was no way he could hand over all of Connecticut, all sides—Puritan, Narragansett, and Pequot—stayed mostly out of each other’s hair.

This peace was broken in July 1636, when John Oldham was found dead on Block Island. Oldham had a trading post at Wethersfield, Connecticut, and had sailed to Block Island to trade. He and all but two boys in his party were killed. The Puritans heard about this from the Narragansetts; their sachem Canonicus sent messengers with a letter from Puritan settler Roger Williams, who had founded Rhode Island in Narragansett territory, saying that the Narragansett leader was very sorry for the death of Oldham. Winthrop wrote Canonicus back saying that until the two boys taken prisoner by the Narragansetts were returned, and the killers of Oldham killed by the Narragansetts and their bodies brought to Boston, the MBC would be “suspicious” of Canonicus and his people. Miantonomi, the nephew of Canonicus, fulfilled these two requests.

How does this help start the Pequot War? When the Narragansetts set out to find Oldham’s killers, those men fled to the Pequots. Because all the suspected killers could not be found by the Narragansetts, the Puritans sent a party of militia to Block Island to finish the job. The plan was to kill the men on Block Island, then sail to Connecticut to confront the Pequots about the refugees they were harboring. But the militia found Block Island seemingly deserted, and assumed all the people there had fled to the Pequots in Connecticut. The militia men burned down many villages on Block Island, then went to Connecticut, only to be kept waiting for hours to see the Pequot sachem, who never appeared.

Furious, the Puritans spent the day burning Pequot villages, then left for Boston. The Pequots had now been doubly insulted, first by the Narragansetts, then by the Puritans. They wasted no time in attacking Saybrook, an English settlement in their Connecticut territory on October 8.

So as 1636 comes to a close, the war is about to begin in earnest. In part four, we’ll go through the battles and the diplomatic maneuvering of the war.

Puritan New England on the Edge: 1637

In part 2 of my series on the Pequot War, we look at the condition of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the settlements in Connecticut and New Haven on the eve of war.

The MBC was founded in 1630 by Puritans led by John Winthrop. They had left England because persecution of Puritans was being stepped up by King Charles I’s new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. The Puritans who founded the MBC were determined to be self-ruling. But they faced many threats to their security.

To the north, in today’s Maine, were the Catholic French, stretching out from Canada. To the west, in Manhattan and western Connecticut, were the Dutch, whose government claimed the land the Puritans settled on. In Europe, the Thirty Years’ War was being fought against the Spanish; if the Spanish won, Catholicism would triumph in Europe, and the Dutch possessions in New York would become Spanish (since Spain was fighting in part to resume control over Holland). And at home in England, Laud was urging King Charles to take direct control of Massachusetts and bring it in line by outlawing its Puritanism.

These threats were immediate and real. You notice there is no mention of Native Americans. To most Puritans, Native Americans were the least of the threats facing the colony. The Native Americans were few, and unarmed, and frankly, off the radar for the Puritans, whose focus was completely on fellow Europeans, both in Europe and in America.

As early as 1633, just three years after settlement, the MBC found out that a group of English men, some former American settlers, had presented a petition to the king saying the Puritans in America were traitors, and ought to be destroyed. Friends of the colony still in England stepped in to deny this claim, and the king was persuaded not to act. But the next year, news came that the Commission for Regulating Plantations run by Archbishop (and Puritan-hater) Laud had been granted authority over the colony. Months later, the commission demanded that the Puritans send back their patent to England for “revisions.”

The patent was the grant signed by the king that allowed the Puritans to settle in Massachusetts and to govern themselves as they saw fit, so long as they did not make laws contrary to English law. If it was sent back to Laud, it would be destroyed, and Laud would write a new patent making Massachusetts a royal colony, under the king’s control.

Several times over the next few years the colony refused to surrender its patent. It began arming itself for war with England, fortifying Castle Island and other positions. During this stressful time, the French attacked and destroyed a trading post set up in Maine by Plymouth Colony, and the Dutch refused to abandon a trading post they set up on the Connecticut River.

So the Massachusetts Bay Colony was alarmed and preparing for war well before trouble with the Pequots arose in late 1634. When it did, the Pequots were seen as just one more threat to the colony. Contemporary historians often describe the Puritans as chomping at the bit to have an Indian war, but in reality, the Puritans were certain that at least one war was coming to them, and when it turned out to be an Indian war, they must have been a little surprised.

Next time: What caused the Pequot War?

The Pequot War: was it really a war?

Welcome to part 1 of my series on the Pequot War in Connecticut in 1637. The Pequot War is known as the first war between Native Americans and English settlers in North America, and its importance to our nation’s history is unquestionable.  Sadly, most Americans have never heard of it, and there’s a lot of myth clouding the story of what really happened at that time. 

The use of “war” in the Pequot War is almost a misnomer. The conflict between Connecticut and the Pequots featured only two real battles and went on only sporadically for only about three months in 1637. Fewer than 200 men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony were called up to serve, out of a population of tens of thousands. In short, the Pequot War does not seem at first glance to really merit the title of war.

The reasons it is called a war, however, are many. First, the Puritans of Connecticut and Massachusetts called it a war. Connecticut colonists declared war formally, and Massachusetts recognized the declaration. Second, it was the first planned armed encounter between English settlers and Native Americans in North America. There had been sudden attacks by English on Native Americans, and vice-versa, many times, particularly in Virginia. The Pequot War was a planned conflict that was fought as a war by its participants and ended with a peace treaty.

But the biggest reason it is called a war is because of the devastation it brought to the Pequots. The one great battle of the war, the attack on the Pequot settlement/fort at Mystic, Connecticut, cost the lives of 500-700 Pequots, and only 150 of those were warriors. The rest were women, children, and the elderly, brutally burned alive in the fort by the English. At the second, much smaller battle, the New Haven swamp fight, 180 more civilian Pequots surrendered and were portioned off as slaves to the Narragansetts and Niantics, with a few being sent as slaves to the West Indies.

These losses were near-fatal to the Pequots, who were already greatly reduced in number from the smallpox epidemic that had ravaged all Native Americans in 1619, killing 90% of the American population of New England the year before the Pilgrims arrived. On top of the deaths at Mystic and the slavery of New Haven, the Puritans ordered the Pequots never to live in Connecticut again, ordered other groups not to take in Pequots, even women and children, and made speaking the Pequot language or even saying the name “Pequot” illegal.

So what caused the Pequot War? What led the Puritans to try to erase the Pequots from the map? We’ll begin to get to the bottom of things in part 2: Puritan New England on the edge.

Why the Puritans persecuted Quakers

It seems simple enough: the Puritans believed Quakers were heretics. In fact, anyone who was not an Anglican was a heretic, including Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Quakers, Ranters… in short, anyone who was not Anglican.

Heretics were seen as blasphemers who put barriers in the way of salvation; they were also considered traitors to their country because they did not belong to the official state religion. This was true throughout Europe in the century following the Protestant Reformation: whatever religion the king chose became the official state religion of his country, and all other religions or sects were made illegal. In fact, the Puritans had left England because they had been considered heretics there, and had been persecuted by the government. Technically, they were not heretics because they did not leave the official Church of England (the Anglican Church), but their demands for big changes to that church made them outsiders. It was enough to get the anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to launch a campaign of persecution against them.

So when Quakers showed up in Boston in the 1650s, it’s no surprise they were persecuted. Puritan Congregationalism was the official—and only—religion of New England. Like every other state they knew of in Europe, the Puritans enforced a state religion that it was treason to oppose. But it wasn’t just about their religion. The persecution of Quakers was also part of the Puritans’ determination to rule themselves, independent of England.

The Puritans who had remained in England during the Great Migration to America of the 1630s drifted apart from their New England brethren. They were more inclined to allow toleration of other professions of Christian faith. The impossibility of reforming, or purifying, the Anglican Church in England was slowly rejected in favor of the much more doable task of simply confirming England as a Protestant nation by allowing any and all Protestants to worship relatively freely. The English Puritans also supported presbyterianism, a system in which the state governs the church and appoints a hierarchy to oversee all churches.

To the New England Puritans, both toleration and presbyterianism were unacceptable. They had spent painstaking years establishing a system of church government called the New England Way that was based on the independence and power of the individual congregation. The state in Massachusetts did not appoint clergy, nor was there one over-arching body that regulated churches. Each church was a sovereign unit. And only one church was tolerated in Massachusetts: the Puritan, or Congregational church (which was, to them, the purified Anglican church in America).

Worried that the English government would try to force its new rules of toleration and presbyterianism on them, the Puritans of Massachusetts made preparations to fight for their independence. They elected their own governor and General Court (a combined legislature and judiciary). They built many forts to protect their harbor and drilled their militia men regularly. And they continued to persecute Quakers, who, determined to bring their version of the Gospel to New England, continued to trespass into Boston despite the harsh and often cruel punishments they knew they would receive.

Those Quakers were not meek and mild innocents who just wanted to talk. They were as righteous a group of zealots as most Puritans, and when they entered a Massachusetts town they tried to wreak maximum havoc: bursting into church services, yelling in the streets, banging pots and pans together, and even stripping off their clothes (to show their lack of attachment to worldly things). The Puritans reacted with vehement rejection, and submitted Quakers who would not heed the warnings to leave and never return to terrible punishments. Boring holes through their tongues was just one of these.

The Quakers had no one to turn to for help until 1660, when the monarchy in England was restored, and Charles II came to the throne. One of his first acts as king was to send a letter to the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (the most powerful New England colony) ordering the persecutions of Quakers to stop. According to the “King’s Missive,” any Quaker accused of breaking the law in Massachusetts should be sent unharmed to England for trial.

Charles II issued his order for two reasons. First, he was a Catholic sympathizer, and Quakers and Catholics were about the only groups who found absolutely no acceptance in England. If Charles could win tolerance for Quakers, perhaps he could win eventual tolerance for Catholics. Second, he cast a dark eye on Massachusetts’ independence. Disgruntled ex-colonists who left New England to return home told Charles the Puritans were rebels. It didn’t help that two of the judges who had condemned his father, Charles I, to death had fled to New Haven and received a hero’s welcome there.

The new king put Massachusetts in a bind: if they stopped persecuting Quakers, and sent them to England for trial, that lessened the authority of their locally elected General Court. If they gave up the authority to prosecute Quakers, what other bit of their independence would they have to give up next? It was a slippery slope leading to direct English rule. But on the other hand, if they did not stop persecuting Quakers, they would be in violation of the King’s law, traitors, and would be immediately occupied by English soldiers and forced to accept a royal governor (rather than their own elected governor). Massachusetts made its choice: they would stave off English rule as long as possible rather than call down instant English rule on themselves. Slowly the persecution of Quakers came to an end.

They would win many small battles with the king and maintain their independence until 1691, when Massachusetts’ charter was revoked and the powerful colony came at last under direct rule from England. By that time, toleration was the rule even in New England, and Quakers were no longer a dangerous and radical sect but commonplace members of society. But resentment of English rule did not die out amongst New Englanders; less than 100 years later, the descendants of the Puritans would buck off English rule in America for good.

(For more on the Puritans and Quakers, their differences, and their battles, see Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathies.)