The Pequots are an indigenous people in southern “New England” that historically lived without a state and made many decisions by a consensus process. In the 1639 Pequot War, English settlers killed at least two-thirds of Pequots. Today in “Connecticut” there are two Pequot tribes, the federally-recognized Mashantucket Pequots and state-recognized Paucatuck Pequots.
In traditional Pequot society, positions of power rested on their village's' consensual support. Sachems, for example, would feel a need to frequently give gifts and perform favors in order to maintain support from constituents. “Power and authority relationships are reciprocal agreements,” explains the anthropologist William Starna.
The sachem, usually a man but on occasion a woman, was a hereditary position of day-to-day community leadership. The sachem had a council that participated in major decisions such as war and peace. Members of this council were called pnieses. The powwow, or shaman, held influence on spiritual matters.
Decision-making between these officials, all of whom needed support from the village, followed a consensus process, as Starna outlines:
Decision making and the operation of government was based on consensus. Each sachem received counsel from other high-status individuals, including the pnieses and pow-wows. In addition, influential or other well-regarded warriors had input into the political process, along with members of the community, such as elders and other respected persons, who formed councils or caucuses. At all of those levels, reciprocity drove the process. The outcome was a village-oriented, autonomous, consensual government.
Pequots lived in small villages of ten to twenty households. Dwellings included the wigwam and the longhouse. The villages were sedentary but changed location by season. Pequots practiced a combination of horticulture, hunting, gathering, and fishing. They would grow crops such as corn, beans, squash, and artichoke, hunt game such as deer, bear and raccoon, and gather fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. Women performed most of the planting, cultivating, harvesting, and gathering, while men performed most of the hunting and grew the tobacco.
While Indians of southern “New England” altered the environment considerably, their alterations may have actually improved biodiversity. Indians would burn down parts of forests to create fields for farming, and they would reuse these fields for eight to ten years. While European settlers of the region planted monoculture farms, Indians planted densely-entangled corn, bean and squash, which preserved the soil moisture, discouraged weeds, yielded more food than the settlers' farms did. The region's Indians also set fires to large areas of forest in order to clear underbrush. This burning tended to destroy plant diseases and pest, and it created large areas resembling the boundary between forests and grasslands, ideal habitat for the elk, deer, beaver, porcupine, turkey, quail and these animals' predators: the wolf, fox, eagle, hawk, and lynx. “Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species,” summarizes the historian William Cronon in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.
1637-8 Pequot War
In 1634, Dutch traders captured Tatobem, a Pequot sachem and killed him even though Pequots paid the traders the requested ransom money. In retaliation, Pequots attacked a Dutch trading post in what is now “Hartford”. Soon afterwards, the Virginian trader John Stone kidnapped and killed some Native Americans, and the natives responded by killing Stone. The Pequots promised to hand over the killers, who probably belonged to the Western Niantics, a tribe that paid tribute to the Pequots. Then, in August 1636, Eastern Niantics and Narragansetts sentenced to death the English trader John Oldham. The Narragansetts likely believed that Oldham had deliberately infected them with smallpox.
The English decided to retaliate against the Pequots even though the Pequots were not responsible for the deaths of Stone or Oldham. In fact, Captain John Mason later admitted that there was intent to destroy the Pequot people: “We had formerly concluded to destroy them by the Sword and save the Plunder.” That month, an English expedition led by John Endicott sacked Pequot villages and the English, meanwhile, formed an alliance with Naragansetts, Mohegans and some dissident Pequots. In April 1637, Pequots attacked English settlers in “Wethersfield,” killing nine settlers including three women, and taking two girls prisoner. The English used this attack as an excuse to launch a war to exterminate the Pequots.
On 26 May 1637, English soldiers led by Captains John Mason and John Underhill, along with Indian allies, attacked a Pequot village in “Mystic” while most of the Pequot men were away. The English and allies surrounded the village, burned down the wigwams, and shot those who fled. Captain Underhill later wrote about the massacre:
Many were burnt in the fort, both men, women, and children. Others forced out...which our soldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword. Down fell men, women, and children... Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. Sometimes the case alters; but we will not dispute it now. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.
By Captain Mason's count, the attack killed six or seven hundred Pequots. Only two English settlers died. During the massacre, Naragansett warriors yelled the English to stop the dishonorable killing. Mason described the carnage and, like Underhill, rationalized it as a just, Christian religious war:
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. . . . [And] God was above them, who laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven: Thus were the Stout Hearted spoiled, having slept their last Sleep, and none of their Men could find their Hands: Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling the Place with dead Bodies!
The English then hunted down surviving Pequots into “into near-extermination. Other villages were found and burned. Small groups of warriors were intercepted and killed. Pockets of starving women and children were located, captured, and sold into slavery. If they were fortunate. Others were bound hand and foot and thrown into the ocean just beyond the harbor. And still more were buried where they were found, such as one group of three hundred or so who tried to escape through a swampland”. The war concluded in 1638 with the Treaty of Hartford, in which Pequot sachems ceded Pequot sovereignty.
At least two-thirds of the Pequot population died during the war. Captain Mason's account makes clear that the war was an act of premeditated genocide: “We had formerly concluded to destroy them by the Sword and save the plunder.”
- William A. Starna, “Pequots in the Early Seventeenth Century” in ed. Laurence M. Hauptman and James D. Wherry, The Pequots in Southern New England: The Fall and Rise of an American Indian Nation (Norman and London: University of Oakland Press, 1990), 42.
- Starna, “Pequots in the Early Seventeenth Century,” 41-43.
- Starna, “Pequots in the Early Seventeenth Century”, 43.
- Starna, “Pequots in the Early Seventeenth Century,” 34-37.
- William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 44-48.
- Starna, “Pequots in the Early Seventeenth Century,” 43.
- Charles Brilvitch, A History of Connecticut's Golden Hill Paugusset Tribe (Charleston: The History Press, 2007), 14.
- Laurence M. Hauptman, “The Pequot War and Its Legacy” in The Pequots in Southern New England, 71-73.
- Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976), 189-189.
- . Hauptman, “The Pequot War and Its Legacy” 71-73.
- Jennings, The Invasion of America, 207-208. Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), 152.
- Jennings, The Invasion of America, 221.
- . Hauptman, “The Pequot War and Its Legacy” 71-73.
- Hauptman, “The Pequot War and Its Legacy,” 75-76.
- David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 113-114.
- Stannard, American Holocaust, 114.
- Hauptman, “The Pequot War and Its Legacies”.
- Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, 171-3.