May 26, 1637 – a militia force from Massachusetts Bay Colony, with the aid of Mohegan and Narragansett allies, slaughtered 600 Pequot Indians at Mystic, Connecticut.
Following the successful establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, thousands of English Puritans soon came sailing across the Atlantic to join the rapidly growing colony. Colonists quickly began spreading out westward into modern day Rhode Island and Connecticut, acquiring Indian land and developing trade relationships with local tribes. Soon, the colony had established itself as a dominant player in local native politics, both as a military force and as a valuable trading partner. Inevitably, conflict over land and control of that trade (particularly the fur trade) led to bloodshed.
The Puritan colonists who settled in modern day Connecticut lived on land once controlled by the Pequot tribe. Like many New England tribes, the Pequot had been decimated by smallpox epidemics and initially welcomed the English settlers as new trading partners. By 1636 there were several English settlements in the Connecticut River Valley, and a brisk trade of English goods for furs had been established with the Pequot.
This relationship was threatened on several fronts, however. On the one hand, both the Dutch and the Plymouth colony had also staked claims to the Connecticut River Valley, and neither were happy that rival colonists from Massachusetts Bay were also there. More critical, however, was the internal political situation of the Pequot. There had recently been a bitter power struggle for control of the tribe which Uncas lost to his rival, Sassacus, who became Sachem (chief). As a result, Uncas and his supporters had split off and formed a rival tribe, the Mohegan. Bitter over his defeat, Uncas looked for a way to bring down his former rival.
Uncas’ opportunity came when he was able to convince Massachusetts Bay authorities that the Pequot, working with the Dutch, meant to attack their Connecticut settlements. Although this claim was probably untrue, the Massachusetts leaders were all too willing to believe it, as it provided a convenient excuse to take control of Connecticut ahead of the Dutch and Plymouth Colony and acquire most of the Pequot land as a war prize. For Uncas, it would mean establishing himself as leader of what was of the Pequot and taking control over the fur trade.
All that remained was an excuse to start the war. That came on July 20, 1636, when an English trader was killed near a Pequot settlement. Although it was clear that the Pequot were not involved, Massachusetts Bay authorities blamed them anyway and declared war on the Pequot. Colonial militia, along with Mohegan and their Narragansett allies, attacked Pequot settlements, killing whomever they found, stealing crops, and burning the villages to the ground. The Pequot fought back, raiding English settlements in Connecticut, killing men, women and children, and taking livestock. An all-out war had developed.
The war spilled over into the following year. Finally, in May of 1637, the colonists set out to strike a major blow against the Pequot. On May 26, with a force of about 400 fighting men, including Mohegan and Narragansett warriors, the English attacked a large Pequot village near modern day Mystic, Connecticut. As luck would have it, most of Mystic’s Pequot warriors were away conducting a raid on the English. Consequently, Mystic’s inhabitants — old men, women and children — were poorly defended.
Rather than risk losing any men in a fair fight, the colonists instead set fire to the village to simply burn the inhabitants alive. They encircled the settlement so that any Indians who managed to escape the flames were hacked to death with swords. Of the 600 to 700 Pequot at Mystic that day, only seven were taken prisoner, while another few managed to escape into the woods. The massacre disgusted the Mohegan and Narragansett warriors, who had expected to take the Pequot women and children as slaves. One Narragansett chief complained that the English style of war was, “too furious and slays too many people.”
While some Puritans back in England also criticized the slaughter as overkill, the colonial military leader, Captain John Underhill, used the Bible as justification. “Sometimes the Scripture declareth [that] women and children must perish with their parents,” he wrote. “We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.” John Mason, a Massachusetts Bay Puritan leader, wrote that “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had . . . given them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.” To the New England Puritans, the massacre was an act of God.
The carnage at Mystic broke the Pequot. In the months that followed many more were killed in continued attacks by the English and their Indian allies. When Sassacus escaped to New York, he was killed by Mohawk Indians, who then sent his scalp to the Massachusetts Bay colony as an offer of friendship. By September, 1638, the Pequot were finished.
The few survivors were forced to sign a treaty which gave the colonists all of the Pequot lands. The Pequot tribe was officially declared extinct, and it became a crime to even speak the name “Pequot”. Most Pequot Indians who had survived the war were distributed as slaves to the Mohegan and Narragansett. Those who managed to evade death or slavery were later sent to live on small reservations in Connecticut. Uncas and his Mohegans remained English allies until his death in the 1680’s.