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.