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.