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On this week's Peace of History:
In 1721, white settlers of mostly English and Scotch-Irish descent incorporated a small village in the area between Jewett City to the west and the powerful Narragansett nation to the east. Dozens of Pequot settlements had dotted the area just a few decades previously, but by 1721, they had mostly disappeared. The white colonists settled their village upon the ruins of one of these Pequot settlements, so recently evacuated by its Native builders and stewards, and named the new settlement “Voluntown,” after the volunteer colonial soldiers who fought in King Philip’s War. But what exactly happened to the Pequot, and how did the English come to settle on land so recently occupied by them? How did it come to be that the mighty Pequot nation almost completely disappeared in the years leading up to the town’s incorporation? How does King Philip’s War fit with this story? And what does any of this have to do with Thanksgiving?
The story of the Pequot genocide does not begin here. In fact, by the time of Voluntown’s incorporation, the Pequot nation had already been declared extinct by the colonial government for 83 years. Some may be familiar with the story of the Pequot War, the first major violent conflict between Native Americans and English colonists in New England: from 1636-1638, the English and their allies, the Mohegan nation and the Narragansett nation, waged war against the Pequot nation. After two years of terrible violence and struggle, the English, Mohegans, and Narragansetts had pushed the Pequots to a fortified village in Mystic, CT. It was there that English soldiers torched the fort, killing all but 14 of the estimated 400-700 people within the palisade walls. To end the war, the English with the Mohegans and Narragansetts wrote the Treaty of Hartford (1638), which, among other things, declared what would become of the over 200 Pequot survivors: about half would be taken by the Mohegan nation, and the other half by the Narragansett nation. The rest would be taken by the English to be enslaved, either domestically or to be sold in the West Indies. Moreover, according to the treaty, all Native Americans were forbidden from ever calling themselves Pequot again.
The unprecedented destructruction and brutality of the English colonists, however, shocked their Mohegan and Narragansett allies. The Mohegans largely remained faithful allies to the English colonists, but the Narragansetts and many other Native peoples of the area became ever more wary. The Christian missionaries were converting their people and threatening their cultural traditions. The colonial governments became more confident and demanding as they sought to exert control over the Native governments. And every year, the numbers of these English continued to swell -- and with their numbers, the demand for more land.
Meanwhile, to the north, the Wampanoag nation had been dealing with English settlers of their own. In 1620, the Wampanoag leader Ousamequin (a.k.a. Sassasoit) had sent Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto) and Epenow to teach the Mayflower Pilgrims to plant corn and survive the winter. He had also made a mutual defense treaty with the same Pilgrims the very same year, and he had honored that treaty one autumn day in the next year. Having heard repeated gunfire and, thus, expecting trouble, ninety Wampanoag soldiers warily approached Plymouth Colony only to find the strange newcomers not in conflict but in high spirits: carousing, feasting, and discharging their weapons for sport. After the tension and mutual distrust dissipated, the two peoples spent the next three days together in peace. Although the story of how the holiday came to be invented is much more complicated, many would call this the first “Thanksgiving.”
By the time Ousamequin’s son, Pumetacom, had become the new Wampanoag leader, however, the situation had changed dramatically. Pumetacom (a.k.a. Metacomet), called the Christian name “Philip” for his father’s famous good relations with the Mayflower Pilgrims, recognized the threat posed by the English colonists to Native life. War broke out over a small controversial issue, as they often do, involving the murder of a Christianized Wampanoag man and the execution of his alleged Wampanoag murderers by the colonial government. The Narragansett, former allies of the English but who had by 1675 declared official neutrality, were accused by the English of harboring Wampanoag soldiers, and suffered preemptive attacks by their former allies as a result.
When the English brought war to the Narragansett nation, they brought their signature brutality to the Pequot survivors living in eastern Connecticut under Narragansett protection as well. Doubling the tragedy was that among the Mohegans, still allies of the English, were the “western” Pequot people who had been absorbed into the Mohegans decades earlier. For three years, King Philip’s War consumed most of New England, destroying 17 English towns, damaging 52 other English towns, destroying untold numbers of Native settlements, and claiming the lives of thousands, including as much as 40% of all Native people of the area. There is some evidence to suggest that around the main house at the Voluntown Peace Trust may have been the site of a small Pequot village, and local stories point to other parts of the VPT property, especially the area around Ahimsa Lodge, as one of the temporary sanctuaries used by Pequot women and children fleeing for their lives after the English had slaughtered the men of the community.
To learn more about the Wampanoag nation, Ousamequin and the Pilgrims, Pumetacom and King Philip’s War, and more, please visit the excellent and free exhibit ‘“Our” Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History’ at the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville, Tuesday-Friday, 10am-4pm until December 20: https://www.plymouth400inc.org/our-story-exhibit-wampanoag-history/
To learn more about the Pequot nation, the Mystic Massacre, and genocide studies, please visit the fantastic and massive Mashuntucket Pequot Museum in Ledyard, the largest indigenous-owned museum in the world: http://www.pequotmuseum.org/default.aspx
For more reading on how Thanksgiving came to be, please check out this wonderful article from The New Yorker, “The Invention of Thanksgiving”: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/the-invention-of-thanksgiving?link_id=0&can_id=e2de4dab1836e83e680ee6e6cf168667&source=email-taking-on-the-myth-of-thanksgiving&email_referrer=email_668868&email_subject=taking-on-the-myth-of-thanksgiving&fbclid=IwAR2AIxVafv7Wo4ylUWL26JWeihNJz8bVVJk9KcmO-CDvIrkDadlZhIjssnk
Next week: we will return to the 1960s to look at another result of the Polaris Action, one that traveled halfway across the world -- on foot.