For the English colonists who settled along the banks of the Connecticut River in the 1630s, life in the “New World” was anything but easy. In addition to the challenges to food security caused by the unrelentingly harsh winters of the so-called Little Ice Age, the colonists’ relations with their indigenous neighbors became increasingly strained. By 1635, when a handful of English families established the town of Wethersfield along the Connecticut River, the tribes who lived nearby were reeling from decades of internecine warfare.
Most of the tribes along the Connecticut River Valley, including the Wangunk, Podunk, and Suckiaug, had recently become tributaries to the aggressive Pequot tribe, who dominated most of what is now modern-day Connecticut. The Wangunks, who welcomed the English as potentially powerful allies against the Pequots, offered them the land on which they settled on the promise that the Wangunk could settle next to them. The English, however, once they had settled in, expelled the Wangunk to an area near present day Middletown.
Angry at such duplicitous treatment, the Wangunk formed an alliance with the Pequots, and on this day in 1637, as many as 200 warriors launched a surprise attack on the English settlers while they were working in the fields conducting the desperately important spring planting. Nine settlers, six men and three women, were killed. Two daughters of one of the town’s most important settlers were taken captive. In addition, 20 cattle were killed, a sure sign that the Indians sought to undermine the new village’s food security. The captive girls were soon rescued by Dutch traders for a ransom and returned to their parents in Wethersfield, but not before they were taken down the Connecticut River in canoes and conspicuously “paraded” in front of the English-occupied Saybrook Fort.
Recently-unearthed archeological evidence in Wethersfield shows that the English built wooden palisades to protect part, if not all, of the settlement there at some point during the 1630s. Whether this was built prior to or in response to the April 23rd attack is not yet known, though the site promises to be one of the most revealing in all New England about the Anglo-Indian conflicts of the colonial period.
The raid on Wethersfield served as a point of no return for European and Native American relations. Eight days after the attack, the colonial government of Connecticut officially declared war on the Pequots and ordered the towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield to raise a contingent of 90 soldiers to support the war effort. The Pequot War would plunge all of southern New England into sixteen long months of brutal combat and atrocities, as English settlers battled the Pequots and their allied tribes for ultimate control of the region.
The fuse to the powder keg that became the long and bloody Pequot War was lit, today in Connecticut history.
Tom Soboleski, “‘Connecticut’s Jamestown’? An Incident in Wethersfield Nearly 400 Years Ago May Rewrite Early American History,” Connecticut Magazine
Kevin McBride and Laurie Pasteryak Lamarre, “Exploring and Uncovering the Pequot War,” Connecticut Explored