Understanding the Pequot War

Posted on July 18, 2008. Filed under: Puritans | Tags: , , , |

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.

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