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Commentary :: Politics
Adventures in American Theocracy - Part 1 - The Pequot War
31 Dec 2004
Those who wonder what a theocratic foreign policy for America would look like need only consider 17th New England - and the fate of the Pequots
Adventures in American Theocracy: Part One - The Pequot War

As a California public school teacher, I have witnessed, over the past decade, a gradual evolution in the content standards that govern the teaching of social studies in our state’s middle schools. I use the term “evolution” advisedly here, for no matter how diligently I search these standards, I find in them no evidence of “intelligent design,” divine or human. There is abundant evidence of something else, however, namely an attempt by state legislators to pack these standards so tightly with historical minutia, as to necessitate the abandonment of broader historical issues, largely due to time constraints. This trend is, I suspect, not entirely accidental.

Even so, there are some cherished social movements that seem to take precedence over others. Consider, for instance, that our 8th grade American History courses commence, not with the study of pre-Columbian cultures in North America, nor even with a cursory glance into the genocidal practices of the Spanish, Dutch and English “settlers” on this continent, but rather with the advent of the so-called “Great Awakening,” a feverish attempt by early 18th Century evangelicals to revive “traditional moral values” among the population.

These evangelical preachers were on a sacred mission to arrest what they considered a disturbing trend in colonial society. Apparently, some wayward members of their flock had begun to wonder off into the dark forest of rationalism, there to be stalked by heretical wolves like Locke and Descartes. Clearly, the only hope for their salvation was a return to the steadfast and uncompromising moral leadership so admirably demonstrated by the Puritan judges who presided at the Salem Witchcraft Trials.

But is theocracy really such a bad thing? What with born-agains like Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia suggesting that our founding fathers were, you know, just kidding about all that “separation of church and state” stuff, perhaps it would be instructive to take a backward glance at those wacky godfathers of American theocracy - the Puritans.

In this regard, my own family tree can supply plentiful illustrations. I have numerous ancestors among the Puritan refugees who crossed the Atlantic in the 1630’s as part of what has been called “The Great Migration.” Unfortunately, it was anything but great for the Native Americans who ended up involuntarily donating the land on which these legions of bible-thumpers planted their God-fearing behinds. In particular, the unlucky Pequots of Connecticut were the first of the local “godless heathens” to receive the Holy Scriptures at the point of a Puritan sword. Their story may seem oddly familiar to anyone who has not been in a coma for the past three years.

As we all know, the Puritans (like the Pilgrims) came to America to exercise religious freedom, by which they meant, of course, the freedom to persecute, harangue and drive from their midst anyone who did not accept, chapter and verse, their interpretation of the scriptures. Having recently displaced the Jews as God’s “Chosen People,” the Puritans celebrated by anointing as their leader the charismatic John Winthrop. Born the fortunate son of a wealthy English father, Winthrop believed himself to be the holy conduit through which God issued instructions to his mortal subjects. In addition to this good fortune, Winthrop was blessed with a handful of devout friends like Thomas Dudley and Sir Richard Saltonstall, men who encouraged him to take advantage of this moment in history to plant in America the sacred seed of theocracy, a “Shining City on a Hill.” It was destined to become a bold venture to extend God’s hegemony over a chaotic morass of pagan idolatry which otherwise threatened to engulf and extinguish all that was good and decent in the world - a sort of “Project for a New Puritan Century.” Hard work, of course, but someone had to do it.

Shortly after sharing this vision with Winthrop, God explained to him that, owing to an earlier mix-up, the land known as Connecticut, currently crawling with Pequot Indians, was originally intended to belong to the Puritans, who had earned it by virtue of their righteousness and obedience to His Will. Winthrop and his coreligionists could see the logic in this, but they feared that if they just went out and took the land away from the Pequots by force, without provocation, it might be misinterpreted by some lily-livered Quakers as an act of naked aggression. So they made God’s work their own by gathering intelligence to prove what they already suspected, that the Pequots had been secretly storing up mass quantities of weapons with which to murder them in their beds.

Their primary source of such intelligence was derived from a Pequot splinter group known as the Mohegans. The Mohegan chief, whose name was Uncas, had been waiting to bring to fruition his fondest desire, that of toppling the regime of Chief Sassacus and replacing it with his government in exile. In furtherance of this, he ceaselessly spun ever more Byzantine tales of Pequot treachery and fed them to his English trading partner, Jonathan Brewster. The Englishman immediately relayed this “information” to the authorities in Saybrook, who credulously (or perhaps cynically) swallowed it whole. Now, if only Sassacus would oblige everyone involved by launching a dastardly sneak attack...

Eventually, the Puritans’ worst fears were granted. While sailing off Block Island one day in 1636, Capt. John Gallop spied the ship of a fellow trader named John Oldham drifting aimlessly off shore. As he drew alongside for a closer look, Gallop saw no sign of his friend, only a suspicious-looking crew of what turned out to be Narragansett warriors. Forcing his way on board and holding the suspects at bay with his musket, Capt. Gallop soon found the mutilated remains of Oldham under a bloody tarpaulin, his skull smashed and his hands and feet partially amputated.

The Indians chose that moment to leap overboard and make their getaway, and in the sudden violence that followed, one was fatally shot, one recaptured, and several more drowned trying to swim to shore. In reporting the incident to colonial authorities, Gallop misidentified the Narragansett pirates as members of a rival tribe, the Pequots. Thus unable (or unwilling) to make a distinction between two groups of Native Americans (whose mutual hatred made collaboration between them virtually impossible), the Puritans launched a pre-emptive war against a non-aggressive people they branded as terrorists (the Pequot), while allowing the actual terrorists (the Narragansett) to escape without punishment...

Eager to exact vengeance on the murderers of Capt. Oldham, God and the Puritans selected as their instrument John Endicott, a man of more rashness than judgment. With a force of ninety Englishmen, Endicott proceeded to liberate Block Island. Unable to engage or even locate the island’s inhabitants, the English did manage to trample their corn, kill a few of their dogs, and set fire to their homes. A short time later, they repeated this orgy of vandalism on the Connecticut mainland, and then retired to Boston for the winter.

In response to these acts of terrorism, the Pequots attacked Fort Saybrook and captured some prisoners of their own, marking them out for special mistreatment. One was burned alive outside the fort, while another had his hands and feet amputated as a precursor to more drastic acts of torture. The English retaliated by capturing Pequot prisoners and subjecting them to similar treatment, using European techniques that had been refined over centuries of prisoner interrogation and inquisition.

In the spring, Capt. John Mason sailed upriver to Saybrook with a force of 100 Englishmen, along with an equal number of Mohegan warriors under the command of Uncas, who intended to be there when the Pequot leadership position was vacated. The army proceeded toward the Pequot fortification known by the English as “Fort Mystic”.

The fighting began as a hand-to-hand contest, but soon Mason (who feared his men were getting the worst of it) ordered the village to be set ablaze. Thus children with their parents, women alongside their men, and old as well as young alike fell victim to the indiscriminate mayhem of fire. Over 500 of the Pequot people lost their lives in the conflagration. Of those few souls fortunate enough to escape being burned alive, some 30 or so were captured and handed over to the care of Capt. John Gallup, who promptly took them out to sea in his ship and unceremoniously tossed them overboard.

The Pequot survivors of this battle took refuge in the wetlands near present-day New Haven at a place called Fairfield Swamp. It was to be the site of their last, desperate stand against the invaders. They were pursued there in short order by Capt. Mason and the English, who proceeded to surround them and prepare their destruction. At that point, Mason’s twenty-one-year-old interpreter, Thomas Stanton made a bold suggestion. According to Capt. Mason’s own account: <http://bc.barnard.columbia.edu/~rmccaugh/earlyAC/readings/pequot/pequot.;

“Mr. Tho. Stanton a man well acquainted with Indian Language and Manners, offered his Service to go into the Swamp and treat with them: To which we were somewhat backward, by reason of some Hazard and Danger he might be exposed unto: But his importunity prevailed: Who going to them, did in a short time return to us, with near Two Hundred old Men, Women and Children; who delivered themselves, to the Mercy of the English.”

In the battle that followed, some 300 Pequot men were slain in the muddy quagmire, with a few (including their sachem, Sassacus), fleeing to Mohawk lands for protection. The Mohawk, who had recently concluded a treaty with the English, extended a strange sort of hospitality to their Pequot guests, killing them and sent their decapitated heads back to Mason as a token of friendship, for which he no doubt thanked God with many “hosannas.” As for the two hundred non-combatants who accepted Stanton’s offer of amnesty, they were forced into personal servitude by the soldiers who had butchered their sons, husbands and fathers. Unwilling to submit to such indignities, these proud servants were eventually sold by their captors into a more Draconian plantation slavery on St. David’s Island in Bermuda.

Thus, the Pequot nation was erased from the map, even as the domain of the Narragansett was significantly enhanced. As a result, when an even bloodier war erupted between the Narragansett and the English in 1675, the Narragansett were able to harness and exploit a vast reservoir of Native American resentment toward the English “occupiers” who had stripped them of the sovereignty they held so dear.

This work is in the public domain
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