Mystic massacre

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Engraving depicting the attack on the Pequot fort, published in 1638

The Mystic massacre took place on May 26, 1637 during the Pequot War, when English settlers under Captain John Mason and Narragansett and Mohegan allies set fire to a fortified Pequot village near the Mystic River. They shot any people who tried to escape the wooden palisade fortress and killed the entire village in retaliation for previous Pequot attacks.[1] The only Pequot survivors were warriors who had been with their sachem Sassacus in a raiding party outside the village.


The Pequots were the dominant Indian tribe in the southeastern portion of Connecticut Colony, and had long competed with the neighboring Mohegan and Narragansett tribes.[2]:167 When the English and Dutch arrived, they established trade policies, trading such things as wampum for European goods.

The Pequots eventually allied with the Dutch, while the Mohegans and others allied with the English. European population growth led to greater expansion, leading to eventual conflict with Indian populations. A series of infectious diseases drastically reduced the overall Indian population, such as smallpox to which the Indians had no immunity—although the Pequot and Narragansett tribes were not heavily affected.[2]:174

A trader named John Oldham was murdered and his trading ship looted by Pequots,[2]:177 and retaliation raids ensued by settlers and their Indian allies; the Pequots responded in kind, erupting into the Pequot War. According to Katherine Grandjean, the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 damaged the corn and other crop harvests of that year, making food supplies scarce and creating competition for winter food supplies. This in turn increased the tensions between the Pequots and Colonists who were ill-prepared to face periods of famine.[3]


The Connecticut towns raised a militia commanded by Captain John Mason consisting of 90 men, plus 70 Mohegans under sachems Uncas and Wequash. Twenty more men under Captain John Underhill joined him from Fort Saybrook. Pequot sachem Sassacus, meanwhile, gathered a few hundred warriors and set out to make another raid on Hartford, Connecticut.

At the same time, Captain Mason recruited more than 200 Narragansett and Niantic warriors to join his force. On the night of May 26, 1637, the Colonial and Indian forces arrived outside the Pequot village near the Mystic River. The palisade surrounding the village had only two exits. The Colonial forces attempted a surprise attack but met stiff Pequot resistance. Mason gave the order to set the village on fire and block off the two exits, trapping the Pequots inside. Those who tried climbing over the palisade were shot; anyone who succeeded in getting over was killed by the Narragansett fighters.[2]:190–93

Account by John Underhill[edit]

John Underhill described the scene and his participation: "Captaine Mason entring into a Wigwam, brought out a fire-brand, after hee had wounded many in the house, then he set fire on the West-side where he entred, my selfe set fire on the South end with a traine of Powder, the fires of both meeting in the center of the Fort blazed most terribly, and burnt all in the space of halfe an houre; many couragious fellowes were unwilling to come out, and fought most desperately through the Palisadoes, so as they were scorched and burnt with the very flame, and were deprived of their armes, in regard the fire burnt their very bowstrings, and so perished valiantly: mercy they did deserve for their valour, could we have had opportunitie to have bestowed it; many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children, others forced out, and came in troopes to the Indians, twentie, and thirtie at a time, which our souldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword; downe fell men, women, and children, those that scaped us, fell into the hands of the Indians, that were in the reere of us; it is reported by themselves, that there were about foure hundred soules in this Fort, and not above five of them escaped out of our hands."[4]

As genocide[edit]

Stephen Katz and Michael Freeman argued in The New England Quarterly during the emergence of the modern Pequot tribe in the 1990s as to whether or not the incident constituted genocide, with Katz arguing that it did not and Freeman arguing that it did. The book Genocide and International Justice by Rebecca Joyce Frey lists the incident as genocide,[5] as does the book An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion on the Banks of the Cape, by Steven M. Wise. Wise notes that Captain John Underhill justified the killing of the elderly, women, children, and the infirm by stating that "sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents... We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings."[6]


Estimates of dead Pequots range from 400 to 700, including women, children, and elderly, as some of the warriors were out on a raiding party. Narragansetts were shocked and returned home in disgust.[7] The massacre effectively broke the Pequots, who fled and were hunted down. Sassacus and many of his followers were surrounded in a swamp near a Mattabesic village called Sasqua. In the following battle known as the "Fairfield Swamp Fight", Sassacus and about 80 others managed to escape. Nearly 180 warriors were killed, wounded, or captured. Sassacus was eventually killed by the Mohawks, who sent his scalp to the English as a symbol of friendship.[2]:196

The Pequot numbers were so diminished that they ceased to be a tribe in most senses. The treaty mandated that the remaining Pequots were to be absorbed into the Mohegan and Narragansett tribes, nor were they allowed to refer to themselves as Pequots.[2]:196 In the later 20th century, alleged Pequot descendants revived the tribe, achieving federal recognition and settlement of some land claims.[citation needed]

The massacre was featured in the History Channel series 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Society of Colonial Wars: 1637 – The Pequot War.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Vowell, Sarah (2008). The Wordy Shipmates. Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1-59448-999-0. 
  3. ^ Grandjean, Katherine A. (2011). New World Tempests: Environment, Scarcity, and the Coming of the Pequot War. The William and Mary Quarterly 68(1):75-100.
  4. ^ The Manshantucket (western) Pequot Tribal Nation, accessed April 21, 2014
  5. ^ Genocide and International Justice by Rebecca Joyce Frey. p.338
  6. ^ An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion on the Banks of the Cape By Steven M. Wise, p.33
  7. ^ William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), p. 29; and John Underhill, Newes from America; or, A New and Experimentall Discoverie of New England: Containing, a True Relation of their War-like Proceedings these two yeares last past, with a figure of the Indian fort, or Palizado (London: I. D[awson] for Peter Cole, 1638), p. 84.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cave, Alfred A. "Who Killed John Stone? A Note on the Origins of the Pequot War", The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol.49, No.3 (Jul. 1992), pp. 509–521

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°21′46″N 71°58′41″W / 41.3627°N 71.9780°W / 41.3627; -71.9780