How did early colonial America interact with the Indigenous peoples of North America? The early colonization of America caused fatal and turbulent interactions with Indigenous people. Some settlements could maintain shaky alliances with Indigenous nations, albeit violence was frequently used by colonists to gain acquisition of land. The Pequot War was a brutal war fought between 1636-1637 between Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Pequot people over land acquisition. The war decimated the Pequot nation and established how colonists would treat other Indigenous nations. Let's explore the causes and events of the Pequot War!
The term "Indian" will be used in this article only regarding the Indian Termination Policy or other historical organizations. While some indigenous people identify with this term, this is not so for every person. The way that Native Americans chose to identify is a personal choice unique to each individual.
Pequot War Definition
The Pequot War was the first sustained confrontation in the colonies, fought between the Puritan colonists of the New England colonies and the Pequot nation from 1636-1637.
An Indigenous nation that resided in southern New England.
The war ignited over religious, economic, and emotional ideologies and the belief that the Pequots were stifling colony expansion. Expansion was a main goal of the colony, and the colonists saw the Pequots as a direct threat to that goal. The Pequots had also made enemies of nearby Indigenous nations and as a result, the Narragansett and Mohegan nations joined the Puritan colonists to quell the power of the Pequots.
Pequot War Causes
The Pequot War had several contributing causes, but was mainly caused by the need to control trade. Such other causes included: population differences, competition for natural resources, and assumptions of colonists.
Population differences between Indigenous nations and English colonists varied greatly throughout English colonization. Thousands of English arrived between 1630 and 1633, severely outnumbering the Indigenous peoples and bringing European diseases.
Destruction of the Pequots in 1637. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).
The Indigenous population suffered greatly from these diseases, including the great plague of 1616-1619. The Pequots specifically were hit with a smallpox epidemic in 1633, where large numbers of Indigenous people died. The vast population difference and decimation from disease set the stage for an unequally matched war.
Competition for Natural Resources
The increase in population initiated competition over natural resources between the Indigenous peoples and the colonists. Colonial expansion was a principal goal for all colonists entering America. Each colony wanted as much land for themselves as possible. However, as the colonists encroached on Indigenous land, settlers had difficulty in compromising.
February 22, 1637 by Charles Reinhard, 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).
Many Puritan leaders believed that the Pequots did not own the land and stated they had no right. Instead, the leaders believed that the colonists had a right to the land because of their royal charter, which gave them the right to establish and operate a settlement. Historian Alfred A. Cave commented on the opinion of the Puritans, stating:
The Puritans, however, refused to recognize the legitimacy of Indian claims to hunting grounds or uncultivated land adjacent to beaches, lakes, and streams.1
Assumptions from English Colonists
Early English colonial sentiment and rationalization regarding the Indigenous peoples was bleak. Puritans, like other colonists, were dependent upon Indigenous peoples for survival. As they arrived at the colonies, Puritans established preconceived notions about the Indigenous population. Most Puritans believed that all Indigenous peoples were savage and were Satan worshipers based on their culture and behavior.
Governor Endicott landing on Block Island at the start of the Pequot War. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).
Indigenous culture confirmed the Puritan's self-imposed moral and religious superiority, and gave them the grounds to take land and use violence in acquiring land for the colonies. Ultimately, Indigenous peoples were perceived as the physical manifestation of evil in man. In the religious narrative of the Puritans, the Indigenous made a great foe against God and his people.
Indigenous Peoples' Alliances with Puritans
Other Indigenous nations viewed early Puritan settlements as potential alliances against the Pequot. The Pequot had dominated other nations of the Massachusetts Bay Area, and in the Algonquin language they were known as "destroyers of men."2
Wampum Trade and passing of a wampum belt 1897. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).
The Pequot successfully controlled other nations and the wampum and fur trade. The Pequot maintained control through marriage, warfare, and diplomacy. In response, the Narragansett and Mohegan nations allied themselves with the New England colonists to overtake the Pequot.
Tiny beads made by some Indigenous peoples of North America. These beads were strung together and worn or used as money.
The Puritans had many reasons for going to war; economic, religious, and emotional gain was at hand if the Pequots did not exist. The Pequots were seen as a direct threat to the Puritans' mission in preserving Christian values.
Pequot War Summary
The following is a timeline of events before and after the Pequot War.
|1630s||Pequots attempted to rid their territory of Dutch colonists|
|January 1634||Captain John Stone and several of the crew were killed by the Pequots for unknown reasons|
|October 1634||Pequots sent first embassy to Massachusetts Bay Colony with gifts|
|November 1634||Massachusetts Bay - Pequot Treaty was reached, but the treaty was not kept by the Pequot|
|July 1636||Captain John Oldham was killed by indigenous people on Block Island|
|August 1636||John Endicott began his expedition on Block Island, burning indigenous areas, and traveling down to Pequot Territory (this was in retaliation for Captain Oldham) - This event marked the start of the Pequot War|
|September 1636 - April 1637||Pequot attacked and besieged Saybrook fort for 8 months.|
|Spring 1637||Plymouth and Connecticut joined together to fight the Pequot|
|May 1637||Mystic Massacre began - English make camp outside of Mystic the night before, the English set fire to Pequot dwellings, and men, women, and children are killed in the blaze|
|June 1637||Battle of the Northeast - Pequots fight other Indigenous nation of Narragansett.|
|July 1637||The last major battle of the Pequot War, the Fairfield Swamp Fight, was fought between the English and the Pequot.|
|1638||Treaty of Hartford was reached - Pequot survivors were given as slaves to English allies of the war. Pequots could no longer live in their own territory.|
The assumptions of the Puritans were confirmed when the Pequots attacked and killed Captain John Stone, Captain Walter Norton, and their crew in 1634. Details of the killings are muddled, but the Pequot killed the captains and the entire crew. The Pequots argued their actions to be justified because of an earlier act from settlers. However, the English disagreed and demanded that the offenders be given to the colonists.
Both sides entered attempted peace negotiations, reaching completion in fall 1634. However, the shaky peace agreement did nothing to ease the building tensions between the two groups. Then in 1636, the Pequots struck again, killing Captain John Oldham, an English fur-trader. The already burning tensions and the English deaths disintegrated any chance of peace between the two groups.
Pequot War Map
Before the arrival of English colonists, the Pequots had a substantial population of about 8,000 people that encompassed roughly 250 square miles.
Map of Indigenous land in Colonial America. Source: Nikater, CC-BY-SA-3.0 Wikimedia Commons
One of the most significant and brutal events of the Pequot War was the Mystic Massacre. A military force of armed English Puritans marched to a Pequot settlement known as the Mystic community and set it on fire on 26 May 1637.
An illustration of the Mystic Massacre Battle by John Underhil in 1638. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).
Over 500 Pequots died in what became known as the Mystic Massacre. Encircling the community, the colonists made sure no Pequot escaped the blaze by surrounding them with a firing squad and men with swords. Pequots who were not killed or burned alive were sold and became enslaved people in the Caribbean.
A military campaign where Connecticut soldiers and their Indigenous allies attacked and burned the Pequot settlement of Mystic.
The War continued for a few months after, including the last major battle of the Fairfield Swamp Fight in July 1637. The Pequot were eventually defeated, and other surrounding nations surrendered to English authority. The Pequot nation was dissolved, and its remaining members were forced to join other Indigenous nations under the 1638 Hartford Treaty.
Analyze the following narrative written in 1670 by Major John Mason and think about historical context, the author's purpose, audience, and point of view. Read the excerpt and think about the importance and context of the following line: “And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits…” How does this line represent the attitude of the colonists towards the Pequot?
The Captain told them that We should never kill them after that manner: The Captain also said, We must burn them, and immediately stepping into the Wigwam where he had been before, brought out a Firebrand, and putting it into the Matts with which they were covered, set the Wigwams on Fire…. the Indians ran as men most dreadfully amazed. And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and run into the very flames, where many of them perished.3
Pequot War Significance
The Pequot War was the first sustained war between Indigenous peoples and colonists from 1636 to 1637. The eradication of the Pequot nation was beneficial for both Puritan colonists and rival Indigenous nations. Claiming victory over the Pequot would launch the Mohegan to incredible influence over other Indigenous nations. However, the Mohegan saw their power diminish, and history repeated itself when King Philip's War erupted in 1675.
The Pequot War caused the Connecticut River to open, and Puritans could continue colonization. This expansion led to other Indigenous nations losing land and influence. Ultimately, the Pequot War was just the start of what would ultimately be the end of Indigenous power in the colonies.
Pequot War - Key Takeaways
The Pequot War was fought between 1636-1637 and was started in August 1636 when John Endicott began his expedition on Block Island, burning Pequot territories. It was the first sustained war between colonists and an Indigenous nation.
The war was ignited by religious, economic, and emotional ideologies and the belief that the Pequots were stifling colonial expansion. The Narragansett and Mohegan nations joined the Puritan colonists to quell the power of the Pequot nation, who dominated the territory and the wampum/fur trade.
The most well-known battle of the war was the Mystic Massacre due to its brutality in 1637.
Treaty of Hartford was reached in 1638- Pequot survivors were given as slaves to English allies of the war. Pequots could no longer live in their own territory.
The war opened up the Connecticut River Valley for further English expansion and the Mohegan nation was catapulted to influence and power in the region.
- Alfred A. Cave, The Pequot War, (1996), pp 35.
- Ibid. pp 7.
- John Mason, 'A Brief History of the Pequot War', (1736), pp 4-11, 15-18.