Anthropologists, historians, and other researchers have formed a number of theories about how long humans have lived on the American continents, and how the earliest humans arrived there. For many years the prevailing theory was that humans of Asian origin crossed over a land mass connecting them to the far northwest of the North American continent, near what is now the state of Alaska. More recent theories, prompted in part by discoveries such as Kennewick Man (the 9000 year-old remains of a man who appears to be of European, rather than Asian, descent) and by information indicating that humans may have lived on the North American continent for far longer than had been believed, have led researchers to develop newer and alternative theories about the origins of human existence in this part of the world (Schultz, 2012). What is clear is that the people that would come to be known as American Indians lived in North and South America for thousands of years before having contact with Europeans in the 16th century. This contact between American Indians and European settlers and colonists would lead to significant and numerous clashes and conflicts, many of which led to devastating outcomes for the Indians. Nowhere is an example of such conflicts, and their often painful and destructive results, more clear than in the clash of civilizations known as the Pequot War.
The events of the Pequot War in the 17th century are rooted in developments and circumstances that took place centuries earlier. As early as the 14th century Europeans –such as the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the British- were developing powerful naval capabilities and establishing trade and shipping routes between Europe and parts of Asia (Schultz). The purchasing and shipping of spices and other goods from the Orient and from India underpinned the development of this expansion of naval and maritime capacities of the Europeans, and this trade activity would grow to become a significant component of the economic systems of Europe. Further strengthening the European’s motives for interacting with other parts of the world was the desire to act as missionaries for the purpose of spreading the religion of Christianity (Schultz). Here too a clash of cultures was in evidence, as the growth and advancement of Islam in many parts of the world led to competition between Christians and Muslims to spread their respective religious and cultural traditions.
Competition among the various European countries was fierce and each sought to gain whatever advantages over the others that it could possibly find. This competition would spur the desire to find a different route from Europe to India, and finding such a route was the primary goal of one of the most famous figures in modern history, Christopher Columbus. Columbus sailed west, thinking this would bring him and the ships under his command to India from a different direction. It is well-known today that Columbus actually believed he had found India as well as islands off its coast when he had, in fact, actually found the continent of North America, as well as other land, some of which would eventually become known as the West Indies. It was also this mistaken belief that led Columbus and others to refer to the native peoples they found in the Americas as “Indians,” a label that has survived to this day in the phrase “American Indians.”
The “discovery” –from the European perspective- of the Americas was hugely significant, and would eventually give rise to the establishment of colonies and plantations in South, Central, and North America in regions that were settled by Europeans such as the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the British (Schultz). Conditions in these early colonies were often quite harsh, and many European colonists died of disease and malnutrition (Schultz). The colonists often clashed with the American Indians as well, and the challenges of colonial life spurred the need for a steady supply of cheap labor. This need for labor would serve as the impetus of what historians call the Atlantic slave trade, in which tens of thousands of native black Africans were shipped to the various colonies to work on plantations (Schultz). The crops from these plantations, such as coffee, sugar, and tobacco were then shipped back to Europe for use by the Europeans, or traded for other commodities with other nations that were a part of the European trade business.
It was not only blacks from Africa that were used as sources of labor; indentured servants from Europe as well as American Indians were also pressed into duty as servants and slaves. Over the course of several centuries the peoples of these different cultural backgrounds would often clash in a variety of ways (Schultz). Slaves would sometimes revolt against their masters; America Indians and European settlers often engaged in skirmishes and outright wars, and the colonists from the different European nations would clash with each other over the rights or the access to land and other issues. The lines between the different opposing sides in these conflicts and clashed were not always neatly drawn, and there were occasions where different factions and cultural groups combined their efforts or otherwise worked together to oppose other groups as they competed for territory and resources.
The Pequot War is an example of the circumstances in which groups from different cultural backgrounds joined forces; although the Pequot War was ostensibly fought between European colonists and the Pequot Indians, the colonists engaged in this war came from several different colonies, and there were even a number of Indian tribes who fought on the side of the colonists in the battle against the Pequot (Cave, 1996). The core disagreement that would lead to the war was over the fur trade, as various European colonies clashed with each other and with Indians native to the region (Cave). On the Indian side, the Pequot and the Mohegan tribes were also adversaries, and these tribes would eventually align themselves with different European colonists as they fought with each other.
The Pequot War was hardly the first significant battle between Indians and Europeans in North America; as colonies such as Jamestown grew in size and became more prosperous, the Indians in the region became more and more concerned about the impact of this growth on their own territories and resources (Schultz). Skirmishes and all-out battles became increasingly common as European colonies, especially those established and controlled by the British on the northeastern coast of North America, became stronger and more threatening (Mason and Prince, 1736). The Pequot War eventually exploded from a number of earlier, smaller clashes, though there was one incident in particular that helped escalate the earlier battles and conflicts into all-out war.
An English settler, John Stone, was killed by Pequot Indians several years before the actual start of the war (Wagner and Dempsey, 2004). The Pequot were a significant tribe in the region of New England, with estimates of their size at the time numbering between 3000 and 4000 members (Cave). The Pequot later claimed that they believed Stone was a Dutch colonist, and had been killed as a reprisal over conflicts between the Pequot and the Dutch regarding control of the regional fur trade (Wagner and Dempsey). It was not until several years later, when colonists from Massachusetts Bay were negotiating a treaty with the Pequot that they demanded the Indians who had murdered Stone be turned over to the British colonists. The treaty negotiations did not go well, and the Pequot refused to comply with the demands of the colonists over Stone’s murder. Making matters worse, as the negotiations were falling apart another British colonist, John Oldham, was killed (Cave).
In August of 1936 the Governor of Massachusetts, John Endicott, along with several other prominent colonists, organized an assault on the Pequot (Cave). The attack targeted the Block Island Indians, whom the colonists believed were harboring the Pequot fugitives. The homes of many Block Island Indians were destroyed in the attack, but no one was captured in connection with the deaths of Stone or Oldham (Cave). The Pequot retaliated by attacking several different British colonies, and the conflict between the Pequot and the colonists soon escalated into a war. Some members of the Mohegan and Narragansett tribes, who were already involved in conflicts with the Pequot Indians, sided with the British colonists and fought against the Pequot (Mason and Prince). The war would come to a head when the colonists attacked a Pequot Fort on the Mystic River. The surprise attack led to the deaths of hundreds of Pequot Indians, and was the turning point in the eventual victory of the British. The Pequot tribe was largely decimated by the war, and many of those that did not flee were eventually sold into slavery. The Treaty of Hartford, in 1638, saw the Narragansett and the Mohegan tribes take control of much of the Pequot’s former territories, all but destroying the Pequot tribe (Cave).
Cave, A. A. (1996). The Pequot War. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press.
Mason, J., & Prince, T. (1736). A brief history of the Pequot War: Especially of the memorable taking of their fort at Mistick in Connecticut in 1637. Boston, Mass: Printed & sold by. S. Kneeland & T. Green in Queen-Street.
Schultz, Kevin M. (2012). HIST2, Volume 1. Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook collection.
Wagner, D. R., & Dempsey, J. (2004). Mystic fiasco: How the Indians won the Pequot War. Scituate, Mass: Digital Scanning.