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How the Indians Won The Pequot War



David R. Wagner & Jack Dempsey

Copyright 2004, 2011. All rights reserved.




[October 1636] The governor of Plimoth [William Bradford] wrote to the [then-deputy-governor of Boston, John Winthrop Sr.] that we had occasioned a war, etc., by provoking the Pequots. The deputy took it ill (as there was reason), and returned answer accordingly; and made it appear, 1. That there was as much done as could be expected,  considering they fled from us, and we could not follow them in our  armor, neither had any to guide us in their country. 2. We went not to make war upon them, but to do justice, etc.  And having killed thirteen of them for four or five of ours whom they had murdered, and destroyed sixty wigwams, etc., we were not much behind with them. 

     — John Winthrop, Journal (DYW 105) 


I still remember a speech of [Reverend] Hooker at our going aboard;  That they should be bread for us. And thus when The Lord…turned the wheel upon their enemies, we were like men in a dream; then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongues with singing.... 

        —Captain John Mason, A Brief History of the Pequot War (45)


The Narragansett Indians…when they saw [the Missituc Pequots]  dancing in the flames, called them by a word in their own language signifying, 'O Brave Pequots!'; which they used familiarly among themselves in their own prayers, in songs of triumph after their victories.

—William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (FBH 2:252) 


"Have you fought enough?"

—Pequot braves outside Saybrook Fort
on the Connecticut River, Spring 1637
(qtd. in Gardener Relation 132)





1: With Friends and Plans Like These

2: Getting There Is Half (Somebody's) Fun

3: 'It Is Naught': Going In

4: 'It Is Naught': Getting Out

5: Aftermath: 'So Must We Be As One'

6: 'O Brave Pequots!'

7: Mystical Massacre

CODA: 'We Do Not Know How' by Little Owl



Dawn, May 26, 1637: Surprise and catastrophe at Mystic.

For whom?  This is a journey to the answer that no one expected.

According to accepted historical tradition, on that morning a force of English soldiers and Native American allies completed a long “undetected” march into Pequot Connecticut, and surrounded a palisaded village above the “great tidal river” at Missituc or Mystic. There, with surprise complete, they attacked and wiped out 300 to 700 Pequot men, women and children, incinerating most by trapping them inside Mystic Fort; and thus New England’s colonists broke the back of Pequot dominion on the land.

In fact, Mystic was an English fiasco. The Pequots knew their landscape and their enemy. Helped by many of those same Native allies, the Pequots evacuated Mystic Village and used it as a decoy in a strategy of their own. The Pequots lured the English colonies’ inexperienced fighting-men to Mystic Fort, fought a holding-action there while their families escaped; and then they counter-attacked with a force that drove the English into the Atlantic Ocean. If there is a victory to be claimed at Mystic, it belongs to the Pequots, Mohegans, Narragansetts, their allies and even their “traditional enemies.” And their victory changes The Pequot War. That is what the evidence—examined rather than accepted—reveals. This book is a journey you can take step by step beyond reasonable doubt.

Imagine a history of any battle and war whose author had never walked the landscape to compare written records with physical facts. Without many kinds of reference to the land—to its hills, forests and bodies of water, its main and minor routes of human travel—we could scarcely form a realistic idea of a conflict’s incidents, dynamics and actual outcomes. What did each group of combatants have to physically accomplish in order to win? What happened as each side’s units maneuvered according to plans and their enemy’s responses? What parts did the land itself play, what were its advantages and obstacles as each side’s leaders made life­-and-death decisions?

Incredibly, the land has never been asked to speak to the records of The Pequot War. That is what is missing from traditions about this fundamental American-frontier conflict, and it produces significant changes in understanding. Let this journey show you what the land reveals: layer upon layer of almost comically second­hand assumptions and beliefs that stand in wholesale defiance of physical fact, critical question and common sense. When you experience the differences between a) what participants claimed and historians ratified, and b) what was actually there and humanly possible, you reach starkly different conclusions about The Pequot War; and perhaps about many later wars conducted according to its apparently-successful methods.

This journey confronts the moment when northern-colony Englishmen first tried to impose their Old World practices of “total war”—a.k.a., “sheer wantonness”—on an American situation. Though historians have believed they were appallingly successful, it failed. The Pequots and their allies had a very adequate response that was neither wanton like their attackers’ war, nor the “flight” of a broken people. This journey necessarily, then, reveals troubling patterns in American histories—the books that guide the schools that teach Americans how to conceive and behave in the midst of “others.”

Lack of reliable intelligence and allies, lack of “local experience” through genuine bonds; inability to identify, locate or “properly” assault targets; incompetence of pursuit, inability even to stop creating more of the foe; wishful overestimates of enemies neutralized. Above all, the refusal to adapt poorly-hatched plans in the face of experience—these are patterns foreshadowed by “The Pilgrims” of Plimoth, more remarkable in records of The Pequot War, and with us still. They persist in direct proportion to the inadmissible colonizing violence that overtook Native America and still seems, short-term, to work: the many-leveled, many-formed violence that subjects people(s), takes their land, labor and wealth, and keeps them quiet about it. The Treaty of Hartford’s core stipulation was that there should be no more “Pequots.”

This war’s ways of thinking and not thinking underwrote, in time, Manifest Destiny: they produced “the lessons of Vietnam,” and persist. The continuities are real. “Settlers” and “settlements” have been crying since the colonies for sharper definitions that could and still can save lives: they by no means arrive in “empty” lands. Like “savages” and its more recent synonyms, the terms try to erase all other points of view, and to preempt the ability to imagine how one’s own behavior might be part of a problem. (Anyone who fought the colonies’ invasion of The Long Water Land was deemed a “murderer.”) But as we’ll see through the failures of that Treaty, no unilateral model of the world can hope for peace on the frontier. The book these English captains chose as their guide to America has had centuries, before and since The Pequot War, to prove otherwise.

How did this journey’s discoveries come about? We the authors are historians who work closely with Native American peoples and academic experts, and we take them and this endeavor seriously. The last thing we want to suggest is that the Pequots and other Native New Englanders did not suffer much as England’s Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies intended in 1637. Indeed, until members of the Mashantucket Pequots invited painter David Wagner in the late 1990s to create a series of works about The Pequot War, we too had accepted the “traditional facts” about the massacre at Mystic (for example, Dempsey Morton 282).

But the more Wagner looked into those events as a painter, archaeologist and historian, studying every physical, landscape and narrative detail, the less certain he became about accepted understandings. When Wagner returned to Mashantucket with his findings about a year later, his discoveries met with silence. It seemed a testament to the powers of tradition-hallowed history that the “victims” themselves—whose true sufferings only began with the War and “Treaty”—could not accept the land-based, multi-dimensional proofs of their achievements at Mystic.

Wagner continued to investigate the records and the land. He created over 100 paintings that brought all the evidences together, shared them with colleagues for critique, did more research and experiment, and built the series into a complete, coherent and uniquely common-sense idea of what actually happened on and after that May day at Mystic. By 1997 Wagner had also written out his documented argument, and finally he and Jack Dempsey worked together to produce what you have here. Mystic Fiasco shows you why no thinking person can accept the traditional story of The Pequot War, and makes it as easy as possible for you to go in every way to see for yourself. That, again, is what tradition has not done, and why these discoveries seem at first hard to believe.

We take you step by step through the same journey and “enterprise” experienced by the leading English captains, John Mason and John Underhill (the only eyewitness-chroniclers of this battle), from their gathering at Saybrook Fort on the Connecticut River to that dreadful morning at Mystic Village. Along the way, we present both accepted facts and new discoveries that emerge:

What archaeological evidence exists for a “massacre” at Mystic? What did Captains Mason and Underhill learn and not learn from the land they traversed enroute to battle? What can the actual site of Mystic, and other evidence from the physical and bodily realms, contribute to the textual records by the captains and the letters of their countrymen? Where did the Pequots come from, and can this tell us where they “went”?

What did these Englishmen know about their proclaimed enemy, about the Pequots’ location(s), social and intertribal ways, their habits of behavior and response in peace and war—and what do we know today? How do “the hard numbers” support or subvert the traditional story? What crucial problems could not be wished away as the English chose a target, brought themselves there ideally “undetected,” and tried to manage it all by reliance on a Native American guide with a mind of his own? If we grow more seasoned to 1630s New England along the way, how will those answers affect our concept of this “massacre” itself? What does Mystic’s aftermath reveal of what happened there?

We try to include everything critical readers need to evaluate these events for themselves. We hope the Annotated Chronology helps you to the sources that do exist. But we repeat that this work is not in any way an exoneration of the colonists who tried with all their power to conquer and exterminate the Pequot people. Rather, we hope this inspires a fresh look at many assumptions about Native Americans and their colonizers, for the ones that underwrite “Mystic Massacre” have served few people well these 385 years.

Buried beneath the assumptions born of educational dogma are a great deal of Native American “observativeness” and a daring, creative use of it under fire. New documented measures of Pequot, Mohegan, Narragansett, Niantic, Nipmuc, Mohawk, and other peoples’ subtlety, foresight, flexibility, cooperation, and cross- cultural understanding in such a merciless predicament. You will see more than Captains Mason and Underhill saw, more than historians after them wanted you to see: the canniness of Native courage, their openness and so their ability to learn fast; their deft strikes launched with just the right force for their honorable ends; and their many acts of no less than humor and love amid the horrendous invasion of their homelands.

We trace a journey in time and space because it was, and show you with the documents how we construct each person and episode. We tell the story in present tense because our goal is clarity that assists your critique. As we change quotations from past to present tense (for ex., say for said, bring for brought, goes for went, leaves for left), we make no change when it might distort original language any more than that. You see events unfold as they did for those who lived them: one day and instant to the next, with no less or more of a grand historical mission on their minds than you might have in trying to fight and survive a hand-to-hand war.

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony (Boston 1630), of Connecticut’s “river towns” like Hartford, and The Pilgrims of Plimoth were by no means the first English people in New England. But, very much because of their driving reasons for being here, their Christian evangelism, the English Puritans of this story were, in Mason’s phrase, still “altogether ignorant of the country” when The Pequot War broke open at Mystic. The Puritans had explicitly distinguished their colonies from their rivals’ and transatlantic predecessors’ by their refusal to learn “unChristian practices” from “the wilderness” and its Native peoples. As you’ll see, their refusals became the formula for Mystic Fiasco.

The Puritans’ first American years were preoccupied with survival. They remained generically unwilling to bend their Biblical social code to the demands of the multicultural place where they lived. This doomed them to costly mistakes, and blinded them to consequences near and far which refused, even so, to go away. Few Puritans spoke any Eastern Algonquian because few tried. When hostilities worsened, they shot long-courted Native allies who lacked “some mark to distinguish them from the Pequots” (DYW 123). None of them, from their governors to their captains and planters-turned-soldiers, knew “where their forts were.. .nor the way that led to them” (Mason 45). “We could not find them” (Underhill 54). How, then, did America lose what actually happened at Mystic from that day forward?

Listen for a clue in the words of Mohegan Sachem Uncas, the supposed “Indian traitor” in this story whose counsel and guidance enabled English victory. By the time of this pledge from Uncas (1638), the Mystic Massacre is, we’re told, a fact believed by all sides. Uncas has come to Boston and speaks to the faces of John Winthrop and others who have just done all in their power to annihilate his Pequot relatives. As Uncas speaks, Pequot warriors wanted dead or alive by the English stand unrecognized in plain sight at his sides. And with this act, hundreds more Pequot people will survive and, one day, reclaim their forbidden name:

“This heart” (laying his hand upon his breast) “is not mine but yours: I have no men: they are all yours. Command me in any difficult thing: I will do it. I will not believe any Indian’s words against the English. If any man shall kill an Englishman, I will put him to death, were he never so dear to me.” So the governor gave [Uncas] a fair red coat, and defrayed his and his men’s diet, and gave them corn to relieve them homeward, and a letter of protection to all men, etc., and he departed very joyful. (Winthrop Journal, ed. Hosmer 1: 271)

There is little doubt of Uncas’ and others’ self-serving machinations in this story. If our journey succeeds, there will be new doubt too of such a speech. In its own time, it soon made Governor Winthrop “feel a bit foolish.” It was no more sincere than it had to be: a masterpiece of Indian Blarney that helped to defend Native lives and cultures.

We hope you discover many people like this—subtle observers making the most of what their enemies want very much to hear.

Thompson, Connecticut                                          Stoneham, Massachusetts

Spring 2003

***Revised for the Internet 2011***







Mystic Fiasco

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