THE PEQUOT WAR

Indians in New England lacked a paramount chief like Powhatan in Virginia. Coastal Indian tribes, their numbers severely reduced by disease, initially sought to forge alliances with the newcomers to enhance their own position against inland rivals. But as the white population expanded and new towns proliferated, conflict with the region’s Indians became unavoidable. The turning point came in 1637 when a fur trader was killed by Pequots— a powerful tribe who controlled southern New England’s fur trade and exacted tribute from other Indians. A force of Connecticut and Massachusetts soldiers, augmented by Narragansett allies, surrounded the main Pequot fortified village at Mystic and set it ablaze, killing those who tried to escape. Over 500 men, women, and children lost their lives in the massacre. By the end of the war a few months later, most of the Pequot had been exterminated or sold into Caribbean slavery. The treaty that restored peace decreed that their name be wiped from the historical record.

An engraving from John Underhill’s News from America, published in London in 1638, shows the destruction of the Pequot village on the Mystic River in 1637. The colonial forces, firing guns, are aided by Indian allies with bows and arrows.

The destruction of one of the region’s most powerful Indian groups not only opened the Connecticut River valley to rapid white settlement but also persuaded other Indians that the newcomers possessed a power that could not be resisted. The colonists’ ferocity shocked their Indian allies, who considered European military practices barbaric. A few Puritans agreed. “It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire,” the Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of the raid on Mystic. But to most Puritans, including Bradford, the defeat of a “barbarous nation” by “the sword of the Lord” offered further proof that they were on a sacred mission and that Indians were unworthy of sharing New England with the visible saints of the church.

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