Today in 1637, a month after a combined Pequot and Wangunk attack on the small colonial settlment of Wethersfield left nine dead and crippled the town’s food security, a group of 77 English soldiers and hundreds of their Mohegan and Narragansett allies retaliated by attacking and burning a Pequot village at Mystic Fort, near the Connecticut coastline.
The raid on Wethersfield, which came at the end of a months-long siege at Saybrook during which twenty Englishmen had been wounded, killed and sometimes tortured to death – had prompted Connecticut’s colonial leaders to declare war against the Pequots on May 1 — an act they saw as critical to the survival of the fledgling English river towns. Each of the settlements (Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield) ordered virtually all of their able-bodied men to join Captain John Mason, a veteran of the 17th-century wars over religion in the Netherlands, in a retaliatory attack against the Pequots. The Connecticans also reached out to neighboring indigenous groups in conflict with the Pequots. The “River Tribes” (Mohegan, Wangunk, Podunk, Sukiaug, and Poquonock) sent 100 warriors to participate in the attack; the Naragansett and Eastern Niantics supplied 200.
In the early morning hours of May 26, a combined force of some 77 Englishmen, and 300 Native Americans allies attacked a fortified Pequot village near present-day Mystic, Connecticut. The predawn assault was intended to take the Pequots by surprise, but the English entry into the fort was challenged by defenders. They quickly turned the tables on the English, and within minutes, half of the English force inside the fort was dead or wounded. Fearing imminent defeat, English commander John Mason, who had hoped to capture large supplies of grain stored in the village abandoned that plan and instead grabbed a firebrand and started setting fire to the village’s mat-covered wigwams. Fanned by a stiff Northeast wind, the entire settlement was ablaze within minutes. The English retreated from the fort, encircled the burning village, and fired at anyone trying to escape the conflagration. Their Indian allies formed a second ring behind the English to prevent the escape of anyone who got past the English fire. Mason was now pursuing a style of attack commonly employed in the European religious wars of which he was a veteran, but unprecedented in indigenous warfare. He sought the complete annihilation of his enemies, a shock and awe tactic intended to intimidate them into permanent submission. Over 150 Pequot warriors and 300 non-combatant Pequots died in the attack.
This was a devastating blow to the Pequots, and the total-destruction strategy employed by the English alienated their native allies. They were horrified at what they perceived to be ruthless English cruelty, as Mason’s men indiscriminately slaughtered Pequot women and children as well as men and warriors. Many fled the battlefield, leaving the English, who had suffered a 50% casualty rate and were soon counterattacked by Pequots from other nearby villages, to fight their own way back to their waiting ships.
The event became known to history as the Battle of Mystic Fort or the Mystic Fort Massacre, and it stands as the most infamous example of the brutality that characterized all the hostilities of the Pequot War, an Anglo-Indian conflict which formally ended when the Treaty of Hartford was signed on September 21, 1638.
“The History of the Pequot War,” Battlefields of the Pequot War, pequotwar.org
Kevin McBride and Laurie Pasteryak Lamarre, “Exploring and Uncovering the Pequot War,” Connecticut Explored
Walter Woodward, “Two Controversial Statues Standing… At Least, For Now,” Connecticut Explored