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.