This Date in Native History: A treaty signed on September 1, 1640 changed everything for tribes that had always controlled the area called Connecticut or in Algonquin, The River With Tides.
Maybe some white settlers landed on Plymouth Rock looking for religious freedom, but those who located in Connecticut had other ideas. When those wealthy, well-educated, ambitious men came seeking land and power in Massachusetts, they saw the coastline already taken, and they tried to trick neighboring whites out of land, just as they did the local tribes. So they moved down the coast to Connecticut.
In the early 1600s, Connecticut was still a pristine land with a coastline populated only by local tribes who moved from place to place as the times required. The Pequots and Mohegans were related tribes from New York and came to the shores of Connecticut about 100 years before the first landing of white Europeans.
In very early 1637, things had not yet soured among whites and tribes. Sovereignty was respected, and land was purchased with items such as kettles and guns, wampum, or woven goods like blankets and stockings. Trade between the Dutch, British and tribes benefitted all involved. However, the bountiful relationships seemed to inspire greed on all sides. As the Pequots became the most aggressive traders in the area, a young Mohegan named Uncas began to vie for power through land.
John Mason, a Massachusetts Bay colonist who later became deputy governor, befriended Uncas, chief of the Mohegans, who had left the band of Mohegans with 70 others. Indians and white traders alike were becoming threatened by the powerful Pequots, who were pushing other tribes out and raising the values of their trades.
Mason requested Uncas’ help in ridding the area of the Pequots, and Uncas agreed to lead Mason and his men the back way around the Pequot’s massive fort. The Narragansett’s leader and sachem Miantonomo opened their land for the surprise attack. Before dawn, Mason’s troop of 90 settlers and Uncas and his Mohegan warriors launched their attack upon the sleeping Pequots, and caught the fort by surprise.
The History of the Indians in Connecticut by John William De Forest states that on May 1, 1637, Uncas, Mason, and former Pequots declared “that there shall be an offensive war agt the Pequoitt.” De Forest recounts the first massacre of Native peoples:
“We must burn them,” he (Mason) shouted.
“The fire kindled in an instant; the northeast wind swept out from cabin to cabin; the whole fort was rapidly involved in a furious conflagration…The shrieks of women and children, the yells and howlings of men, rose from the conflagration…despair seized on the wretched inhabitants…the greater part perished amid the flames of their blazed dwellings…and so quickly did the fire do its work, that in little more than an hour this fright-ful death-agony of a community was over.
“Great and doleful was the bloody sight…to see so many souls gasping on the ground, so thick in some places you could hardly pass along.
“It was asked: ‘Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion?’ And it was answered: ‘Thus did the Lord judge among the heathens.’ ‘It was the Lord’s doings,’ it was said, ‘and it was marvelous to our eyes.’
Later, the author of the 1851 book dedicates almost two full pages to the inhumanity of the atrocity. In the end, as many as 700 men, women, and children were burned in the fire, while about 300 escaped about 70 miles southwest to Fairfield, where interpreter Thomas Stanton negotiated their surrender. Those who came out of the swamp were given to the Mohegans, Narragansetts, and a smaller tribe, the Niantics.
In another book, The Pequot War by Alfred Cave, the survivors in Fairfield were said to be mostly women and children, while the warriors chose to fight it out from the swamp. They were all killed.
Uncas, perhaps in awe of the horrific actions of the settlers, promised to always defend the whites, even at the expense of other Indians. His support of the actions against the Pequots put him in good favor with the colonists, who began to grant him rights and privileges not afforded to the Narragansetts and other local tribes. Uncas’s marriage to the daughter of a Hammonasett chief solidified his position of power and expanded his territory considerably, which increased the already growing rivalry between tribes for power.
As time went on, Uncas became a Christian and proved his loyalty to Mason who became a cherished friend. Uncas’s power among the whites provided protection and attracted members of other tribes, including Pequots, to join Uncas’s band of Mohegans. His ability to manage the politics of both Natives and whites solidified his power throughout his life, even through a series when he lost everything and then regained it.
Much to the chagrin of the neighboring tribes, on September 1, 1640, Uncas signed a treaty conveying Mohegan lands to Connecticut under Major John Mason. The treaty stated it was to be held in protection and trust, and that Mohegans could continue to farm it. The land was transferred to the colonial government in 1660. Over time and after Uncas’s death, the descendants of both Mason and Uncas claimed ownership of the land. After a century of court cases, the Mohegans won 80 acres back, which is today the site of the Mohegan Sun Casino.