Native History: It’s Memorial Day—In 1637, the Pequot Massacre Happened
This Date in Native History: On May 26, 1637, a Puritan force fortified by Native allies massacred a Pequot fort in Connecticut, killing as many as 500 men, women and children and burning the village to the ground.
The pre-dawn attack on Mystic Fort marked the first time the Pequot were defeated, said Kevin McBride, an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut and director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.
The massacre also marked a turning point in the Pequot War, a three-year war over the tribe’s traditional land—about 250 square miles in southeastern Connecticut—and the first major conflict between colonists and American Indians in New England.
“For the first eight months of the Pequot War, the Pequot never lost a battle to the English,” McBride said. “Tactically, the Pequot were superior, even without firearms. The English could not figure them out. Up until the Mystic Massacre, the Pequot had won every engagement.”
Southeastern Connecticut once was home to about 8,000 Pequot people residing in 15 to 20 villages. In response to the arrival of the Dutch in 1611, the Pequot tribe built a confederacy of dozens of tribes to control the fur trade and strengthen its political and economic power.
Until the English arrived in the 1630s, the Dutch and the Pequot controlled the region’s fur trade. With the addition of English traders and settlers, the power balance shifted. The Pequot War broke out when tribes under Pequot subjugation allied with the English.
Complicating matters were the Pequot murders of several English traders and colonists, McBride said. The English demanded that the murderers be turned over, and when the Pequot refused, the war began.
McBride called the Pequot a “complex society” and the Pequot War one of the most controversial and significant events in Colonial history. The attack at Mystic Fort, which was the first of three massacres that occurred during the war, changed the way Native forces looked at warfare.
The massacre, led by English Captain John Mason, was the first documented use of “total war” against American Indians, meaning the English force slaughtered all Pequot they came in contact with, making no distinction between armed warriors or helpless women and children.
“By any standards, it was a massacre,” McBride said. “The English did intend to kill everyone there, but they did not do it to steal land or to control trade. They did it out of fear that the Pequot and their Native allies would perpetuate a region-wide attack on the English.”
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