The Pequot lived along the lower reaches of what became the Thames and Mystic Rivers in southeastern Connecticut. They inhabited two fortified towns and an unknown number of small settlements along the coast and on small islands lying close to shore, with trade and kinship connections to Long Island.
The tribe developed as close relations of the Mohegan. A legend about the tribe’s origins, probably incorrect, has the Pequot “invading” New England from the west, and the Mohegan, under Uncas, seceding from them in the mid-1630s. The close kinship connections between these two tribes, who together had about 16,000 people in 1600, not only blurred their differences but also helped the Pequot challenge the Narragansett for access to the fur trade with the Dutch in the 1620s. Unfortunately, those connections and the upheaval created by the trade also lay the groundwork for the intertribal politics that, after the ambitious Uncas became the Mohegan sachem, resulted in the 1637 war that nearly wiped out the Pequot.
The Pequot War of 1637 was the first significant conflict between native peoples and European colonists in New England. This period engraving depicts a Pequot fort in Connecticut surrounded by colonial musketeers and an outer ring of Mohegan allies. (New York Public Library, New York) The 1633 smallpox epidemic decimated coastal native peoples, including the Pequot, but left the rival Narragansett relatively undisturbed. The Pequot tried to strike at the resulting Dutch-Narragansett trade axis but only angered both groups, resulting in a Dutch raid in 1634 that killed their chief sachem. In desperation, Sassacus, the new Pequot sachem, approached Boston for help and offered the town a trading post along the Connecticut River in exchange for arranging a truce with the Narragansetts. The Bay Colony agreed to arrange the truce, but instead of the trading post, the colonists asked for and received tribute from and title to the whole Connecticut Valley. They also demanded custody of those suspected of killing John Stone, an English sea captain, and his crew.
This imposed agreement became a step along the road to the Pequot War, as English settlements quickly sprouted and the Pequot began to feel besieged within their territory. Tribal leaders found their situation increasingly tenuous as they tried to meet the continued English demands to turn over Stone’s murderers, compete with the Narragansett, and maintain the allegiance of outlying villages. Sassacus began to lose power as some of his sachems, such as Wequash, began to strike out on their own or even join with Uncas’s Mohegans, who were increasingly allied with the colonists. In early 1636, the English built Fort Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River, signaling that they intended to become a permanent power in the area. That summer, the Pequot were blamed when trader John Oldham was found murdered on his ship; in August, Massachusetts dispatched an expedition under John Endecott to obtain revenge for Oldham. Negotiations went nowhere, and the English raids accomplished little but drive the tribe into war, as the Pequot began raiding settlements and killing isolated colonists. Sassacus also sought to establish an alliance with the Narragansett against the English, but he failed, as that tribe instead formed an uneasy alliance with Massachusetts.
The Pequot continued to hit English outposts and, in February 1637, tried to cut off Fort Saybrook. As winter turned to spring, Pequot raids intensified. On April 23, they attacked Wethersfield and killed nine colonists. This led Connecticut and Massachusetts to mobilize, raise an army, and seek the assistance of Plymouth, the Mohegan, and the Narragansett. On May 26, this force attacked and destroyed the Pequot fort on the Mystic River, using surprise, fire, and ruthless slaughter to kill about 650 inhabitants, mostly women and children, since Sassacus and his main body of warriors were at the other Pequot fort at Weinshauks.
The English tactics and massacre of the Pequot horrified their native allies. Many Narragansetts left, leaving the Puritan-Native American force vulnerable. But the Pequot, who were shocked by their defeat and blamed Sassacus, were unable to agree on a single course of action. Some fled to Long Island or Block Island, and others sought refuge with the Narragansett, who competed with the Mohegan to “adopt” the greatest number of Pequot and increase their power in the region.
The largest group, with about 300 men led by Sassacus, headed west to join the Mohawk but were closely followed by Mohegan bands and a fresh colonial force. On July 14, another major battle, at a swamp west of modern New Haven, resulted in the capture of 180 Pequots and the killing of many more. Sassacus escaped with his brother and other Pequot sachems and finally reached Mohawk country. There, he and his party were set upon and slaughtered by those he had hoped would provide refuge.