The Pequot War: 1634-1638

Pequot War
Fighting during the Pequot War. Library of Congress

The Pequot War - Background:

The 1630s were a period of great unrest along the Connecticut River as various Native American groups battled for political power and control of trade with the English and Dutch. Central to this was an ongoing struggle between the Pequots and the Mohegans. While the former typically sided with the Dutch, who occupied the Hudson Valley, the latter tended to ally with the English in Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut.

As the Pequots worked to expand their reach, they also came into conflict with the Wampanoag and Narragansetts.

Tensions Escalate:

As the Native American tribes fought internally, the English began to expand their reach in the area and founded settlements at Wethersfield (1634), Saybrook (1635), Windsor (1637), and Hartford (1637). In doing so, they came into conflict with the Pequots and their allies. These began in 1634 when a noted smuggler and slaver, John Stone, and seven of his crew were killed by the Western Niantic for attempting to kidnap several women and in retaliation for the Dutch killing of the Pequot chief Tatobem. Though Massachusetts Bay officials demanded those responsible be turned over, the Pequot chief Sassacus refused.

Two years later, on July 20, 1836, trade John Oldham and his crew was attacked while visiting Block Island. In the skirmish, Oldham and several of his crew were killed and their ship looted by Narragansett-allied Native Americans.

Though the Narragansetts typically sided with the English, the tribe on Block Island sought to discourage the English from trading with the Pequots. Oldham's death sparked outrage throughout the English colonies. Though Narragansett elders Canonchet and Miantonomo offered reparations for Oldham's death, Governor Henry Vane of Massachusetts Bay, ordered an expedition to Block Island.

Fighting Begins:

Assembling a force of around 90 men, Captain John Endecott sailed for Block Island. Landing on August 25, Endecott found that most of the island's population had fled or gone into hiding. Burning two villages, his troops carried off crops before re-embarking. Sailing west to Fort Saybrook, he next intended to capture the killers of John Stone. Picking up guides, he moved down the coast to a Pequot village. Meeting with its leaders, he soon concluded they were stalling and ordered his men to attack. Looting the village, they found that most of the inhabitants had departed.

Sides Form:

With the beginning of hostilities, Sassacus worked to mobilize the other tribes in the region. While the Western Niantic joined him, the Narragansett and Mohegan joined the English and the Eastern Niantic remained neutral. Moving to avenge Endecott's attack, the Pequot laid siege to Fort Saybrook through the fall and winter. In April 1637, a Pequot-allied force struck Wethersfield killing nine and kidnapping two girls. The following month, leaders of the Connecticut towns met in Hartford to begin planning a campaign against the Pequot.

Fire at Mystic:

At the meeting, a force of 90 militia under Captain John Mason assembled.

This was soon augmented by 70 Mohegans led by Uncas. Moving down the river, Mason was reinforced by Captain John Underhill and 20 men at Saybrook. Clearing the Pequots from the area, the combined force sailed east and scouted Pequot Harbor's fortified village (near present-day Groton) and Missituck (Mystic). Lacking sufficient forces to attack either, they continued east to Rhode Island and met with the Narragansett leadership. Actively joining the English cause, they provided reinforcements that enlarged the force to around 400 men.

Having seen the English sail past, Sassacus wrongly concluded that they were retreating to Boston. As a result, he departed the area with the bulk of his forces to attack Hartford. Concluding the alliance with the Narragansetts, Mason's combined force moved overland to strike from the rear.

Not believing they could take Pequot Harbor, the army marched against Missituck. Arriving outside the village on May 26, Mason ordered it surrounded. Protected by a palisade, the village contained between 400 to 700 Pequots, many of them women and children.

Believing his was conducting a holy war, Mason ordered the village set on fire and anyone trying to escape over the palisade shot. By the end of the fighting only seven Pequots remained to be taken prisoner. Though Sassacus retained the bulk of his warriors, the massive loss of life at Missituck crippled Pequot morale and demonstrated the vulnerability of his villages. Defeated, he sought sanctuary for his people on Long Island but was refused. As a result, Sassacus began leading his people west along the coast in the hope that they could settle near their Dutch allies.

Final Actions:

In June 1637, Captain Israel Stoughton landed at Pequot Harbor and found the village abandoned. Moving west in pursuit, he was joined by Mason at Fort Saybrook. Aided by Uncas' Mohegans, the English force caught up to Sassacus near the Mattabesic village of Sasqua (near present-day Fairfield, CT). Negotiations ensued on July 13 and resulted in the peaceful capture of the Pequot women, children, and elderly. Having taken refuge in a swamp, Sassacus elected to fight with around 100 of his men. In the resulting Great Swamp Fight, the English and Mohegans killed around 20 though Sassacus escaped.

Aftermath of the Pequot War:

Seeking aid from the Mohawks, Sassacus and his remaining warriors were immediately killed upon arriving.

Desiring to bolster goodwill with the English, the Mohawks sent Sassacus' scalp to Hartford as an offering of peace and friendship. With the elimination of the Pequots, the English, Narragansetts, and Mohegans met at Hartford in September 1638 to distribute the captured lands and prisoners. The resulting Treaty of Hartford, signed on September 21, 1638, ended the conflict and resolved its issues.

The English victory in the Pequot War effectively removed Native American opposition to the further settlement of Connecticut. Scared by the European total war approach to military conflicts, no Native American tribes sought to challenge English expansion until the outbreak of King Philip's War in 1675. The conflict also laid the foundation for the perception of future conflicts with the Native Americans as battles between civilization/light and savagery/darkness. This historical myth, which persisted for centuries, first found its full expression in the years after the Pequot War.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "The Pequot War: 1634-1638." ThoughtCo, Feb. 24, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-pequot-war-2360775. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, February 24). The Pequot War: 1634-1638. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-pequot-war-2360775 Hickman, Kennedy. "The Pequot War: 1634-1638." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-pequot-war-2360775 (accessed November 22, 2017).