An engraving depicting the assault on the Pequot fort during the Pequot War by Captain Underhill and Captain Mason.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

An engraving depicting the assault on the Pequot fort during the Pequot War by Captain Underhill and Captain Mason.

Native History: It’s Memorial Day—In 1637, the Pequot Massacre Happened

This Date in Native History: On May 26, 1637, a Puritan force fortified by Native allies massacred a Pequot fort in Connecticut, killing as many as 500 men, women and children and burning the village to the ground.

The pre-dawn attack on Mystic Fort marked the first time the Pequot were defeated, said Kevin McBride, an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut and director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

The massacre also marked a turning point in the Pequot War, a three-year war over the tribe’s traditional land—about 250 square miles in southeastern Connecticut—and the first major conflict between colonists and American Indians in New England.

“For the first eight months of the Pequot War, the Pequot never lost a battle to the English,” McBride said. “Tactically, the Pequot were superior, even without firearms. The English could not figure them out. Up until the Mystic Massacre, the Pequot had won every engagement.”

Southeastern Connecticut once was home to about 8,000 Pequot people residing in 15 to 20 villages. In response to the arrival of the Dutch in 1611, the Pequot tribe built a confederacy of dozens of tribes to control the fur trade and strengthen its political and economic power.

Until the English arrived in the 1630s, the Dutch and the Pequot controlled the region’s fur trade. With the addition of English traders and settlers, the power balance shifted. The Pequot War broke out when tribes under Pequot subjugation allied with the English.

Complicating matters were the Pequot murders of several English traders and colonists, McBride said. The English demanded that the murderers be turned over, and when the Pequot refused, the war began.

McBride called the Pequot a “complex society” and the Pequot War one of the most controversial and significant events in Colonial history. The attack at Mystic Fort, which was the first of three massacres that occurred during the war, changed the way Native forces looked at warfare.

The massacre, led by English Captain John Mason, was the first documented use of “total war” against American Indians, meaning the English force slaughtered all Pequot they came in contact with, making no distinction between armed warriors or helpless women and children.

“By any standards, it was a massacre,” McBride said. “The English did intend to kill everyone there, but they did not do it to steal land or to control trade. They did it out of fear that the Pequot and their Native allies would perpetuate a region-wide attack on the English.”

Justifying his conduct, Captain Mason declared the attack was an act of God, he wrote in his Brief History of the Pequot War, published posthumously in 1736.

God “laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to scorn making [the Pequot] as a fiery Oven… Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling [Mystic] with dead Bodies.”

The massacre occurred about two hours before dawn when 70 English soldiers and 250 allies attacked the fort, said Laurie Lamarre, a researcher at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The attack was unexpected both in timing and in technique, she said.

“This was the English-style warfare, and it was completely different from anything they’d experienced,” she said. “The Pequot, the most dominant tribe in the area, was defeated.”

But the Pequot didn’t go down without a fight, McBride said. The English lost about 50 percent of its men at the beginning of the battle and only burned the fort when they realized they were losing.

“The term massacre takes on a connotation of defenseless people,” he said. “What most historians don’t recognize is that the English almost lost that battle. If not for burning the fort and trapping the Pequot inside, they would have lost that battle.”

The enraged Pequot warriors also tailed the English for four or five miles after the retreat, McBride said. But the fort was devastated and the massacre marked a turning point in Pequot and Native history.

“The massacre had some important implications,” McBride said. “What the English did sent a very important message to Indian Country: We have the political will and military means to exact our will upon you. After the Pequot War, we have the policy of assimilation. After the war, there was no more attempt at diplomacy. Indian relationships were based on military threat.”

In the following months, the English massacred two more Pequot villages, on June 5 and July 28. Most of the surviving Pequot were sold into slavery or escaped to join other southern New England tribes.

But the Pequot would eventually return and once again become one of the most powerful tribes in America. In the 1970s, more than 300 years after the Pequot War, tribal members began moving back to the area to restore their land base and community.

In the early 80s, the tribe was granted federal recognition and shortly afterward it launched the first phase of Foxwoods Resort Casino, the second-largest casino in the country.

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