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 other colonies, as well as with their indigenous neighbors, were strained from the start. Moreover, in 1635, when a handful of English families established the village of Wethersfield along the Connecticut River, the region’s indigenous bands were themselves reeling from decades of internecine warfare.
Most of the tribes along the Connecticut River Valley, including the Wangunk, Podunk, and Suckiaug, had recently become involuntary tributaries to the aggressive Pequot tribe. The Pequots dominated most of what is now modern-day Connecticut. The Wangunks saw the incoming English as potentially powerful allies against the Pequots, and offered them land on the condition that the Wangunk could settle next to them. The English agreed, but once the incoming settlers had established their village, they expelled the Wangunk to an area near present day Middletown.
Angry at such duplicitous treatment, the Wangunk formed an alliance with their former enemy the Pequots, and today in 1637, a combined force of 200 Pequot and Wangunk warriors launched a surprise attack on the English settlers while they were working in the fields engaged in the critically important spring planting. Nine settlers, six men and three women, were killed. Two daughters of one of the town’s most important men were taken captive. In addition, 20 cattle were also killed, a sure sign the Indians intended to undermine the new village’s already tenuous food security. The captive girls were ransomed by Dutch traders and returned to their parents, but not before they were taken down the Connecticut River in canoes and conspicuously “paraded” as a taunt before the English-occupied fort at Saybrook.
Recently unearthed archeological evidence in Wethersfield shows that the English built wooden palisades to protect part, if not all, of the settlement 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 marked a point of no return in European and Native American relations. Eight days after the attack, the Connecticut government 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 16 long months of brutal combat and atrocities, as English settlers battled the Pequots and their allied tribes for control of the region.
The fuse to the powder keg that became the bloody Pequot War was lit, today in Connecticut history.
Primary Image Credit: Jared Butler Standish,”Attack on Wethersfield”
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