Fourteen months ago, we told the story of the 1992-1995 grassroots campaign that successfully removed the statue of John Mason who led the massacre of the Pequot village in Mystic in 1637 from its original location on the site of the massacre. When we told that story, the country was grappling with the legacy of public statues that celebrate historical violence against people of color in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. In the time since then, there have been further developments with the fate of John Mason’s statue. In Windsor, where the statue was relocated in 1996, the town council decided in January 2021 to move the statue from its prominent position on Palisado Green to an accessible site at the nearby Windsor Historical Society, where new plaques would provide more complete context for students and other members of the public. And in Hartford, in June of this year, the legislature included provisions in the state’s 2021-2022 budget to remove their own John Mason statue from the state Capitol building’s facade. However, in part due to some public resistance to the removal and in part due to the unexpectedly high cost of the project, the plans to remove the statue from the Capitol have been put on hold. Some of the opposition have argued that to remove the statue is to lose an important part of Connecticut history, and that “The historic preservation of history cannot be changed just because someone doesn’t like the moment.” But that is patently false. History is not a collection of immutable facts, but an ever-developing process of understanding the past. Moreover, as our story below shows, the movement to remove problematic statues is not new or simply part of our current “moment,” but has been a long process with roots as far back as the 1970s. And as this movement continues to develop and find success, previously buried parts of our state’s history will be revealed, new understandings of our state’s peoples will form, and we will all be better for it.
(Originally posted on September 10, 2020: https://www.facebook.com/groups/voluntownpeacetrust/posts/10158463469292978/)
After decades of Native and allied activists raising the consciousness and educating the public about the myths and truths about early European colonization of the Americas, starting in June of this year, Christopher Columbus statues started to topple all across the United States. Less than three decades ago, such a trend would have been unimaginable. In fact, during the 1992 “celebrations” of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first transatlantic voyage, activists in eastern Connecticut focused their efforts not on the removal Columbus statues, but on another target: Captain John Mason, “Conqueror of the Pequots.” The colonial leader’s 9-foot tall, 2-ton heroic bronze statue stood for more than a century in Mystic, CT over the place where he led the massacre of 400-700 Pequot people of all ages and genders, mostly noncombatants. In the end, the Pequot leadership was assassinated; the Pequot name was forbidden; and the roughly 200 survivors were hunted down and either taken in by their former Native rivals, the Mohegans and the Narragansetts, or else enslaved by the English and sold to far away places. In simplified terms, the Pequot survivors who were taken by the Mohegans to the west became the Mashantucket Pequots, and the ones taken by the Narragansetts to the east became the Eastern and Eastern Paucatuck Pequots.
(To learn the story of the massacre itself, please visit the websites for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center as well as the Battlefields of the Pequot War project.)
The efforts to remove or relocate the John Mason statue that began in 1992 was not the first such attempt. Years earlier, starting in the 1970s and continuing into the mid 1980s, Raymond Geer of the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots led an attempt to remove the Mason statue, but did not gain much traction at the time. The Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation was only granted federal recognition in 1983, very narrowly having almost lost the entirety of their reservation land to the State of Connecticut a few years earlier. The Eastern Pequots and Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, two separate groups, unified and became recognized by the Department of Interior in 2002 -- only to have that recognition revoked in 2005 due to fears of a new possible casino on reservation land.
In the 1970s-80s, indigenous groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the United American Indians of New England began publicly challenging the racist assumptions inherent to Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, but the full effects of those consciousness-raising campaigns would not be felt for years. In this period, the Pequot population that lived on reservation land was growing but still quite tiny. Geer had few allies to turn to when he made his attempts against the Mason statue, and this first attempt failed.
But by the 1990s, changes in the broader culture were apparent. The recently federally-recognized Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation completed phase 1 of the planned Foxwoods Resort Casino in 1992. Columbus Day “celebrations” were held across the country for the 500th anniversary just as more Americans than ever before started to realize the problems with honoring a figure like Columbus. And in that same year, Wolf Jackson of the Eastern Pequots asked the Southeastern Connecticut Coalition for Peace and Justice (SCCPJ), which had initially formed to oppose the First Gulf War, to help renew the campaign to remove the Mason statue. This time, the effort was built on alliances. The SCCPJ itself was composed of diverse groups including the Catholic Diocese of Norwich, Veterans for Peace, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Wolf Jackson and the SCCPJ circulated a petition that summer about removing the statue, which collected over 900 names agreeing that the statue is “an inappropriate commemoration of a massacre of over 700 men, women, and children and represents a distortion of history which is extremely offensive to many citizens, particularly Native Americans.”
At first, none of the councils of the three Pequot tribal nations would officially endorse the move, despite the common opinion of Pequots that the statue was offensive. Complicating matters was the bitter rivalry between the Pequot tribes, especially between the darker-skinned Eastern Pequots and the lighter-skinned Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, that made forming a united front very difficult. But after two years of building alliances and healing old wounds, cultivating community support and exploring many possible options for compromise, the demand to remove the statue spread to more people and became impossible to ignore. The petition was presented to the Town of Groton, where there were allies on the Town Council. Despite the growing demand to remove the statue, a descendant of John Mason spoke in favor of keeping the statue on the massacre site.
By then, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, suddenly a big player in Connecticut politics, had ended their initial silence and proposed not just the removal of the statue, but its relocation to the in-development Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The Mashantucket Pequots even offered to pay for the statue’s removal, relocation, and storage while the museum was being built. The Town of Groton ultimately voted to follow the Mashantucket Pequot proposal, but the lawful owner of the statue, the State of Connecticut, instead moved it to Windsor, Connecticut, one of the towns John Mason founded. In May 1995, supporters of the campaign gathered at the statue’s location to witness its removal. The ceremony was one of Native unity and community power. Present were Pequots from all three tribal nations; Mohegans and Narragansetts descended from the old Pequot enemies; and members of SCCPJ and the neighborhood community. Rick Gaumer, SCCPJ member and a former resident of the Voluntown Peace Trust in the late 1970s, was in attendance at the ceremony. After working for the removal of the statue, he discovered that he was a descendant of Nicolas Olmstead, a soldier who followed John Mason’s command to burn the village. Rick spoke at the ceremony, describing how the burning of villages in Vietnam had made him a pacifist, bringing him to this place. A year later, the town of Windsor celebrated the “return” of their hometown founder. It was a solution that Wolf Jackson said he “could live with.”
Now, the old question of what to do with the problematic statue is haunting Windsor. The statue has been a target of vandalism since it was moved to Windsor, and the most recent act of vandalism occurred within the last few months. On September 7 of this week, the Windsor Town Council voted 5-4 to take it down from its prominent position at the Palisado Green and move it to the Windsor Historical Society -- a decision difficult to imagine without the momentum of the many recent successes taking down Columbus statues right behind it.
When Raymond Geer made his attempt to remove the John Mason statue in the 1970s and 80s, perhaps his society was not quite ready to hear him out. But within a decade or so, things in eastern Connecticut began to change. The 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas heightened the attention and scrutiny paid to colonial history, and raised consciousness of the European invasion that led to the genocides of indigenous peoples. The successes of the Mashantucket Pequots and other Native groups along with the 500th Columbus anniversary created a unique cultural moment in eastern Connecticut in the early 1990s -- a moment that Wolf Jackson and the SCCPJ used effectively to complete their campaign. The 400th anniversaries of the founding of Jamestown (1619) and the landing of the Mayflower (1620) have similarly focused some people’s attention on the violent realities of White supremacy and capitalism, bringing coalitions of people together who are now removing statues and dispelling historical myths. Like Wolf Jackson and the SCCPJ, our present challenge is to use our own cultural moment -- and together create a more just society.
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“1637 - The Pequot War.” The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut. https://www.colonialwarsct.org/1637.htm
Gaumer, Rick. “Reminder of the violence that founded a nation.” The Day. July 20, 2020. https://www.theday.com/article/20200720/OP03/200729992
Goode, Steven. “State will move John Mason statue and take it to historical society; monument honored colonial leader of attack on Pequots.” Hartford Courant. September 9, 2020. https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/city-officials-discuss-removal-of-controversial-statue-in-windsor/2301219/
“The History of the Pequot War.” Battlefields of the Pequot War. http://pequotwar.org/about/
Libby, Sam. “For one Pequot, statue’s removal is vision come true.” Hartford Courant. May 11, 1995. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1995-05-11-9505110513-story.html
Libby, Sam. “THE VIEW FROM: MYSTIC; An 1889 Statue Leads to Second Thoughts About a Battle in 1637.” The New York Times. November 29, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/29/nyregion/the-view-from-mystic-an-1889-statue-leads-to-second-thoughts-about.html
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Shanahan, Marie K. “John Mason Statue has a Homecoming.” Hartford Courant. June 1996. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1992-10-04-0000111690-story.html
“Town Officials Discuss Removal of Controversial Statue in Windsor.” NBC Connecticut. July 12, 2020. https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/city-officials-discuss-removal-of-controversial-statue-in-windsor/2301219/
Underhill, John. “Newes from America; Or, A New and Experimentall Discoverie of New England; Containing, A Trve Relation of Their War-like Proceedings These Two Yeares Last Past, with a Figure of the Indian Fort, or Palizado” (1638). Electronic Texts in American Studies. 37. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/37
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Stuart, Christine. “John Mason Statue at Capitol Gets Temporary Reprieve.” MSN CT. 1 October 2021 [Accessed 3 November 2021]. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/john-mason-statue-at-capitol-gets-temporary-reprieve/ar-AAP3mrn
Goode, Steven. “Council vote to fund John Mason statue move reopens disagreement.” Hartford Courant. 20 January 2021 [Accessed 3 November 2021]. https://www.courant.com/community/windsor/hc-news-windsor-john-mason-statue-update-20210120-ylwwscrq7ra43nag7c2pynyufi-story.html
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