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For the early settlers of Southern Connecticut, the Pequot War of 1637 had great consequences. In what was the first serious armed conflict between indigenous people and settlers in New England, the powerful Pequot tribe that occupied and controlled the Connecticut Valley was "blotted out from under heaven", in the words of one Puritan. By the time the Davenport and Whitfield congregations settled New Haven and Guilford, there was no threat of Indian resistance. Success of the planters, like all of the settlers of The Great Migration, depended on the cooperation or acquiesence of the Indians. The events leading up to the war are recounted here.

In 1632, the Dutch expanded their fur trade from the Hudson Valley into Connecticut Valley by establishing a fort, the House of Hope*, near the site of present-day Hartford on the Connecticut River. The Dutch East India Company's agent, Jacob Van Cutler, purchased the land from the Pequots who, along with their tributaries, the Western Niantics, controlled the territory. (See map directly below)

Southern New England 1636

Shortly after the Dutch land purchase, in what historian Francis Jennings called a "deed game", a group of businessmen from Plymouth Colony produced a deed of their own. They claimed prior rights to a location on the river just above the House of Hope, purchased from a former sachem of the Pequots who had been expelled by the tribe. Now the English were in a position to intercept furs from the interior before they reached the Dutch. Thus, the Puritans who mixed piety with business, could claim their foothold in "Quinnihticutt".

The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies had no royal charter for that land, but they were in discreet competition for it and the revenues it could generate. Also, the steady waves of newcomers needed good farmland. In 1636, three Puritan congregations from the Massachusetts Bay Colony settled Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford.

Before the Dutch could retaliate by taking control of the land at the mouth of the Connecticut River, the Saybrook Company, a Puritan business venture awarded with the Warwick Patent commenced the building of a fort. John Winthrop, Jr., son of the Bay Colony's governor, was appointed governor. For the purpose of the Guilford Settlement, it is significant that George Fenwick was one of the stockholders of the Saybrook Company. His future magnanimity toward the Whitfield congregation -- he gave Henry Whitfield the rights to the land for Guilford -- may very well have been mixed with the interests of the Saybrook Company.

The Pequots viewed the Connecticut River and adjacent lands as their dominions. The Western Niantics, who were comprised of other tribes including the Menukatunks, were Pequot tributaries. Despite their agreement with the Dutch which included a promise not to interfere with trade on the river, in 1634 either Western Niantics or Pequots murdered a trading party of Narragansetts on their way to House of Hope. The Dutch were outraged. They cut off trade with the Pequots and held the Pequot sachem, Tatobem, for ransom. The Narragansetts prepared for war.

In the years to follow, hostilities between the settlers, Narragansetts, Pequots and smaller tribes were qick to escalate into the first Indian War -- the first war between natives and Europeans on the continent. Further provocations triggered more retaliations until the terrible climax in 1637 when nearly 300 Pequot men, women and children were burned out of their village, hunted down, and massacred. Much has been written about this shameful period of history, attributing dark motives in turn to each of the combatants, but the scarcity of records prevents a definitive assessment of these remote events. Analysis of the Pequot War is beyond the scope of this site. However, a chronology of the events leading up to the destruction of this Pequot Tribe deserves retelling:

In 1634 the the Pequots initiated peace negotiations with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They wanted the English to re-establish trade and arbitrate a peace settlement with the Narragansetts. The Bay Colony responded with demands for exhorbinant tribute (1000 fathoms of wampum) and the surrender of the killers, something the Pequots were not prepared to do.

In the same year, John Stone was murdered by the Pequots on the Connecticut River. It may be that he was thought to be a Dutchman, and one of the murderers of Tatobem. Stone was known to the Bay Colony authorities as a privateer and rogue and may have provoked the Indians who claim to have acted in self-defense, but he soon became another statistic in the Colony's list of Pequot "crimes."

The 1636, John Oldham, a respected trader and friend of the Narragansetts, was murdered in his boat off Block Island. The murderers were Block Islanders, tributaries to the Narragansetts, however, they escaped capture and were given safe haven by the Pequots.

A punitive expedition, led by John Endicott, enraged the Pequots. They retaliated by raiding the unsuspecting settlement of Wethersfield on 23 April 1637. Thirty settlers were killed and two girls were kidnapped. They tortured many of their victims, as was the custom of some Eastern tribes, and reinforced their reputation for cruel savagery.

On 26 May 1637, captains John Underhill and John Mason led another retaliatory expedition through Narragansett territory and struck the Pequot settlement in Mystic. Mason's order to his soldiers and Narragansett allies was "Let us burn them." The settlement, comprised mostly of women and cildren, was desimated. An estimated thirty or forty Pequots escaped. The ones who were captured were sold into slavery in Boston, meeting there fates in the plantations of the Bermuda. In the following weeks, the warriors were hunted down and killed.

The war officially ended on September 1638 when the few survivors of the Pequot tribe were foced to sign the Treaty of Hartfod, also called the Tripartite Treaty, declaring the Pequot nation to be dissolved.

In terms of the history of Guilford and our ancestors, the Pequot War was significant because the defeat of the Pequots eliminated the possibility of strong armed resistance to the settlements of New Haven and Guilford, which were settled in 1638 and 1639, respectively. The local tribes, decimated by disease as well as by warfare, were either in no position to resist encroachments on their land or they were willing to acquiesce and accept protection from their new masters, the congregation of Henry Whitfield. In any event, the Connecticut Valley was not to see significant "Indian troubles" for forty years until the outbreak of King Phillip's War.

Southern New England 1639

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Footnote:

*I have seen the "House of Hope" identified as "Good Hope" and "Hope" in other published accounts of the period. I don't know which is the correct translation.

Sources:

  • Oliver Perry Chitwood, A History of Colonial America, 3rd ed., (New York, 1961, Harper & Row)
  • Clayton E. Cramer, Narragansett Stalking Horse, The English Role in the Pequot War, (monograph, 1993)
  • Laurence M. Haptman and James D. Wherry, eds. The Pequots in Southern New England, (1993, Univ. of Oklahoma Press)
  • Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America, (New York, 1975, W.W.Norton & Company, Inc.)


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