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A Sunday War Rememberance

After spending a week at Yale Divinity School, I wandered on Sunday up the Connecticut coast to Mystic Seaport: a stellar place to spend the day, a step back into a former era of building great sailing vessels of wood and canvas and iron, with remarkable craftsmanship and patience, and with a spirit longing for both adventure and profits.

There’s an overlook on the Interstate coming into Mystic, with a fine view of the Mystic River and the harbor that empties out into the Long Island Sound. There’s a historical marker there, recounting a war little remembered in American culture: the Pequot Indian War. The marker indicates that that war began in the hills off to the right of where I stood. Little could one know from the marker the slaughter that occurred on that hillside, today covered with woods and quiet and the peace that rightfully befits a beautiful Sunday morning on the New England seacoast.

But in the early 1600’s newly arrived Englishmen came to those shores full of Christian confidence, confident in their own righteousness, confident of the wickedness of their enemy, and confident in the God-blessed efficacy of their weapons. All this makes for a deadly brew, and indeed it yielded a grisly massacre at “Fort Mistick,” a story little known and seldom told.

When the Puritans arrived from England, they soon found themselves in competition for land with the original inhabitants of the land.  They had, in a short time, tales to tell that justified in their minds, the vengeful Pequot war:  A dozen or so Indians had killed an apparently contentious white man named John Oldham.  Oldham was found with his head cut open all the way to his brains, and his legs almost cut off.  A man named John Gallop came upon the scene of the murder, and in response killed a dozen or so Indians.[1]  He took one Indian captive, and bound him with ropes; another was taken and bound similarly.  But Gallop had heard tales of Indians’ capabilities to untie themselves when kept together in captivity. Rather than take that risk, Gallop took one of the captives, still bound, and threw him into the sea. 


But the death of some dozen or so in retribution for the one was apparently not vengeance enough.  Thus, Captain John Underhill declared that “the blood of the innocent called for vengeance.”  Underhill set out from Boston in August of 1636 under the leadership of Captain John Endicott to deliver such vengeance.  Landing at Block Island, Endicott and his men hunted for two days, for Indians to either capture or kill.  According to the surviving eyewitness account, they did not kill all the men on the Island only because “the Indians being retired into swamps, so as we could not find them.  We burnt and spoiled both houses and corn in great abundance;  but they kept themselves in obscurity.”  Thus on day one of their foray, the Englishmen busied themselves “burning and spoiling the island,” continuing such destruction the second day.  Historian Richard Drinnon continues, “in all they burned the wigwams of two villages, threw Indian mats on and burned ‘great heaps of pleasant corn shelled,’ ‘destroyed some of their dogs instead of men,’ and staved in canoes.”[2]  Endicott continued on his way from Block Island to confront the Pequots the next day.  When they offered to parley unarmed, Captain Endicott preferred to “bid them battle.”  The Pequots would not engage the battle, so Endicott spent that day, again, “burning and spoiling the country.”  Sailing that night to Narragansett Bay, the Indians again would not engage the battle, so the English “burnt and spoiled what we could light on.”[3]

When Captain John Mason subsequently took up the War against the Pequots, he believed his work mandated by God:  “the Lord was as it were pleased to say unto us, The Land of Canaan will I give unto thee though but few and Strangers in it.”  Similarly, the Reverend Thomas Hooker had prophesied that the Pequots should be so defeated “that they should be Bread for us.”[4]  So Mason and his fellow soldiers launched a surprise attack against the Pequot's fort on June 5, 1637, before dawn.  The men, women, and children still slept, and the soldiers began to burn the fort.  Drinnon recounts:  “the stench of frying flesh, the flames, and the heat drove the English outside the walls.”  John Underhill, fighting along with Mason, recounted that many of the Pequots “were burnt in the fort, both men, women, and children.  Others [who were] forced out . . .  our soldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword.  Down fell men, women, and children.”[5]  So the war against the Pequots quickly moved from burning corn and wigwams, to the burning of four hundred men, women and children in the space of one hour.

Mason and Underhill rejoiced, convinced that their merciless triumph was the work of God, indeed that God “had fitted the hearts of men for the service.”  Underhill was later asked by some, “why should you be so furious?”  He referred them to the scriptures:  “When a people is grown to such a height of blood, and sin against God and man, and all the confederates in the action, there he hath no respect to persons, but harrows them, and saws them, and puts them to the sword, and the most terriblest death that may be.”  In other words, Underhill summarized:  “We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”[6]

A few weeks later, Captain Israel Stoughton arrived with more militiamen, and captured a hundred Pequot refugees, who were hiding in a swamp.  According to one Puritan observer some twenty of those captured were taken by John Gallop to “feed the fishes with them.” They threw the still-bound captives into the sea.  Stoughton hunted down other Pequot families whom he knew would be travelling slowly because of their children.  Drinnon recounts that “three hundred of the quarry were literally run to ground.  Many of those killed were tramped into the mud or buried in swamp mire.”[7]

Reflecting upon the Pequot War, Captain John Mason concluded:  “Thus was God pleased to smite our enemies, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance.”[8]  Mason received fame and fortune, appointed major general of the Connecticut militia.  In ceremonial fashion, Reverend Hooker gave Mason a staff “like an ancient Prophet addressing himself to the Military Officer,” reported an observer.  The staff was given to Mason as “the Principal Ensign of Martial Power, to lead the Armies and Fight the Battles of the Lord and of his People,” reported Thomas Prince.[9]  


                  It was a sad and ironic tale to remember on a Sunday, which in Christian orthodoxy remembers a resurrected Lord who won his battles otherwise.


Portions of this post are an excerpt from Lee C. Camp, Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam, and Themselves available here on Amazon.



[1] Here my story telling follows Richard Drinnon, Facing West:  The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building (Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 35ff.

[2] John Underhill, Newes from America . . .  Containing a True Relation of Their War-like Proceedings These Two Years Last Past (London: 1638), cited in Drinnon, 36.

[3] Underhill, cited in Drinnon, 36ff.  Drinnon goes on to incisively note:  “of course, rulers eager to make war can made do with almost any first victim, so long as his death will infect everyone with the feeling of being threatened and provide basis for belief that 'the enemy,' broadly defined, is responsible.  If this minimal foundation be laid, every other reason for his death may be ignored or suppressed, as Elias Canetti observed, save one, the victim's 'membership of the group to which one belongs oneself'” (p. 38).  Drinnon notes that the apparently innocent beginning to the war was, in fact even less innocent than it appears:  surely the death of a dozen Indians killed by Gallop could satisfy the thirst for vengeance for Oldham's death?  Apparently not.—How civilized, we might note, was Moses' limiting injunction of an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth compared to Ancient Near Eastern thirst for blood, or (some of) the early Puritans thirst for blood. 

[4] Cited in Drinnon, 42.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 43.  The point here is not that the native Americans never indulged their blood lust.  It seems a rather all-too-common human practice, to give way to the lust for violence.  Rather, the point is that the stories told placed the blood-lust all on the side of the “enemie.”  In fact, in the case of the Pequots, Drinnon's account is telling on this point:  it appears that the “systematic ferocity of the Europeans” far outweighed that of their opponents.  In fact, the Narragansett, allied with the Englishmen against the Pequots, came to Underhill after the battle and “cried Mach it, mach it; that is, It is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slays too many men” (ibid., citing Underhill).  In Underhill's professional estimation as an English soldier, the Indians fought “more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies” (ibid.).  In other words:  in this case, the ferocious and systematic war-making of the Christian Europeans far outweighed the “hobby” of Indian war-making.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Ibid., 46.

[9] Ibid., 47.




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