The Pearl Harbor Analogy

WRITING - John Bloom


It's not like Pearl Harbor at all. It's like the Pequot War.

Since everyone's looking for the apt historical parallel--a vicious attack on civilians by tribal warriors, followed by swift uncompromising retribution by a modern army--we should look not to Hawaii in 1941 but to southwestern Connecticut in 1634.
To do that you can head up Connecticut Route 2, past white clapboard churches, donut shops, antique stores, and bait shops, until you reach the Disneyesque casino called Foxwoods, which happens to be the biggest and most successful casino in America.

But our object today is not the wampum of the gaming tables but the nearby Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Just three years old, it already contains the world's largest Indian library and, as Indian museums go, is fairly impressive. It takes a good six hours to see the whole thing, and the little 20-minute educational movies are shot on 35-millimeter film with professional actors, great scripts, and Hollywood production values. The dioramas are elaborate, the space itself is beautiful, and the story of the almost total extermination of the Pequots is quite moving.

The story of what happened to the Pequots in the 1630s has been debated and re-debated by historians who are still arguing about it, but the basic facts are these.

The Pequots were among dozens of Algonquian tribes who lived in modern-day Connecticut, Rhode Island and western Massachusetts. It's almost impossible to say exactly where they lived, because there were so many tribal names, warlords, sachems, shamans and shifting political alliances that villages sprang up one year and disappeared the next. (Sound familiar?)

The Dutch traders who arrived there in the 1620s couldn't tell them apart.

The English traders who arrived there in the 1630s, partly to get rid of the Dutch traders, couldn't tell them apart either. All they knew is that, if you wanted to do business, you needed to do it with the Pequots, about 16,000 strong, who had warred their way into a domination of the fur and wampum trade along the Thames and Connecticut Rivers.

The Pequots resembled the Taliban in this respect: their neighbors didn't care much for them, but there was nothing they could do about it because they held the power. To the west, the leader of the Mohegans, a guy named Uncas, kept trying to kill or depose the Pequot leader and then, when he was caught, would beg forgiveness and swear allegiance to the Pequot cause. (He did this five times.) The Podunks--yes, that was a tribe--were beaten up pretty badly by the Pequots, to the point where the Podunk leader went to Boston in 1631 to ask the British to help him fight them. (The British, not knowing who was right or wrong, did nothing.) The Narragansetts to the east had their own quarrels with the Pequots, who were mostly resented for being the biggest operation in the valley.

The Pequots' exposure to the western world was mostly through encounters with smugglers, drunkards, pirates and soldiers of fortune who made their way up the rivers. They had contempt for these people but tolerated them because it was good for business. Their very first contact with the west was typical. In 1622 a Dutch trader grabbed one of the Pequot sachems, held him in chains aboard his ship, and refused to release him unless the tribe paid a ransom in wampum beads. The terrified tribe did pay him, and he used the beads to trade for furs farther upriver, returning to New Amsterdam with a sizeable profit.

Eventually the Dutch set up a trading post on the river and made an agreement with the Pequots in 1633: we'll leave you alone so long as you let the other tribes visit the post. But Indian wars being what they were, this was impossible to enforce, and when some arch-enemies of the Pequots were making their way to the fort--history can't figure out just which tribe it was--the Pequots killed several of them.

The Dutch weren't about to let that go unpunished. So they waited until the next time the Pequot grand sachem Tatobem came to see them. He was boarding a Dutch vessel, thinking that he was going to trade, and the Dutch seized him and demanded a ransom from the Pequots. The Pequots once again paid the ransom: a bushel of wampum. And Tatobem was returned to them, with one difference this time: he was a corpse.

The Pequots then, like the Afghanis today, believe that such treachery has to be avenged by the family. So Tatobem's son Sassacus did just that. The next sailing ship that came up the river was met by Pequots who said they wanted to trade. Once aboard, Sassacus waited until the captain was drunk and sleeping, then split his skull with a hatchet. At the same time other Pequots murdered seven other men and set the ship ablaze. The Pequots considered the case closed. It was simple eye-for-an-eye revenge for a number of atrocities carried about by the Dutch. The problem was, the dead men weren't Dutch.

This was the World Trade Center attack that set off the Pequot War. For the Pequots had failed to identify who they were killing. The victims were English. In fact, the Pequots couldn't any more tell the difference between the English and the Dutch than the westerners could tell between the Mohegans and the Narragansetts. But the evil deed was done.

Captain John Stone, smuggler and privateer, was the martyr of the story. When word reached Plymouth that he had been murdered by Pequots, the English summoned a representative of the tribe and listened to the story. Some of the Puritans were disposed to let the matter drop--Stone was considered a scoundrel and a problem anyway--but the clergy said this was impossible. The Pequots were satanists, for one thing, and you can't compromise with that. They should be required to make reparations for the ship--a large payment of wampum--and turn over the men responsible for the murders.

But only two of those men were still alive. That's because the Pequots had even worse problems back in the villages. The European traders had not only brought pirates into their midst; they had brought smallpox. In the epidemic of 1633 the Pequots had an 80 per cent mortality rate, and the nation had dwindled from 16,000 to 3,000. They were in no position to fight or pay.

This apparently didn't matter to the General Tommy Jones of our story. John Endecott, a Puritan fanatic with a taste for punishment, was given three ships and told to seek vengeance for two outrages. Some Narragansetts had murdered an English trader on Block Island. The price for that would be to kill all the adult males on the island and take the women and children into slavery. And, once he was finished there, he was to continue upriver to the Pequots and demand the two surviving murderers and the reparations money. And even if they agreed to pay, he was ordered to take some women and children as hostages in order to ensure future good behavior.

Endecott and his army of 90 men botched the operation on Block Island--burning some villages but not killing many adult males at all. By the time he got to the Pequots, he was looking like a pretty sorry military commander.

The Pequots ran along the shore to greet the British. A Pequot elder went aboard Endecott's ship to find out why they had come. When the elder was told that they were there to seek justice for the murderers of Captain Stone, the elder explained that a) it had been a mistake--they couldn't tell the Dutch from the English, b) he couldn't turn over the killers without a tribal council, and c) that, in any event, the two men were not there and Sassacus was on Long Island. Nevertheless, he agreed to do what he could. He went ashore to consult with the tribe, returning several times to ask for more time.

Endecott wasn't a patient man, and he thought the elder was lying anyway. By the end of the day the British soldiers had fired on the tribe, burned the village, and set fire to the surrounding countryside.

The Pequot War was on. Sassacus was the arch villain who had to be exterminated. It wasn't a good war for the Pequots. They didn't have guns, for one thing. And when the British came in force, their orders were to wipe out this murderous tribe forever.

And they did. In every engagement, in every village, they tried to inflict the maximum number of casualties. The Pequots had only one fortified village, where Sassacus and his advisers lived. The Kandahar of our story, near the Mystic River, was the last place demolished by the British. They deliberately slaughtered everyone, including unarmed women and children, putting their homes ablaze and burning them alive. Those who escaped the flames were shot or impaled on bayonets. Prisoners were summarily executed. Surviving women and children were enslaved. Captives who turned up during the mopping-up operation were turned over to the Mohegans or the Narragansetts. Some Pequots managed to flee into the woods, where they were captured later and sold to Caribbean slave traders. They didn't stop until what they called terrorism in the Thames River valley had been extinguished forever.

The English then issued an edict that the name "Pequot" was never again to be used by any man, and that the nation had been destroyed forever.

There's one more interesting parallel, though. The grand sachem, Sassacus, the murderer who started it all--they couldn't find him among the prisoners or the dead.

Along with 40 other warriors, Sassacus had managed to escape. He fled from one tribe to the next, seeking asylum, until he reached the Hudson River valley, where he took shelter with the Mohawks. The British, of course, put a bounty on his head.

And a month later some traders showed up in Boston with "part of the skin and lock of hair of Sassacus and his brother and five other Pequot sachems."

It seems the Mohawks had decided that, in the new world after the Pequot War, it was better to be friends with the British than with Sassacus. So twenty Mohawk warriors had taken the Pequot asylum seekers by surprise, killed all of them but one, and saved their scalps as proof.

Sassacus was killed, not by the overwhelming advantage of British military might, but by the eminently practical and unsentimental leaders of what was then "just another tribe."