July 19, 2001

History of the Pequot Indians


At the time of first sustained contact with the Indians of southern New England—that is, the early 1600s—the Pequots controlled a sizable portion of what is now eastern Connecticut. Beginning near New London, their territory extended northward along the ridge that separates the Thames and Connecticut Rivers to the headwaters of the Thames.

From that point their territory ran to the present-day border between Rhode Island and Connecticut, and from there south to Long Island Sound, including the eastern part of Long Island. The total area encompassed some two thousand square miles.

Within that area the Pequots occupied a number of small villages, each generally containing not more than twenty houses. In addition, there were smaller clusters of houses and occasional single residences separated from the villages. Throughout the year families moved to different locales to exploit a variety of resources.

The first documented encounter between the New England region’s native people and Europeans occurred in 1524 when Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into Narragansett Bay. Unfortunately, Verrazano did not identify the people with whom he met. It was not until 1614, when the Dutch captain Adrian Block sailed into the same area, that mention was first made of the “Pequatoos,” and it was not until the 1630s that active, regular contact was established between the Pequots and the Dutch. Trade with the English began around 1630.

That contact proved disastrous for the Pequots. By 1637 they had become embroiled in a war with the English that resulted in the destruction of their main village and the death of more than four hundred of their members. However, it was not simply the attacks by the English that defeated the tribe; equally important were the effects of disease in the early part of the 1630s that reduced tribal numbers from an estimated four thousand to nearly half that number.

Following the Pequot War, the English sought to eliminate the surviving tribal members by selling some into slavery and attaching the remainder to the neighboring Mohegans, Narragansetts, and Niantics. The effort did not succeed, however, and within twenty years two distinct groups emerged: one, under the leadership of Cassacinamon, eventually became today’s Mashantucket (Western) Pequots; the other, under Harmon Garrett, was called the Paucatuck (Eastern) Pequots. The subsequent history of the Pequots is the history of these two tribes.

By 1700, both tribes had managed to secure reservations within their former territory. In 1651, the Mashantucket Pequots were granted five hundred acres at Noank (New London). Because the land at Noank was so unproductive, the tribe petitioned for additional land elsewhere, which was granted in 1666. This land was located on the northwest side of Long Pond, where the present-day town of Ledyard, Connecticut, stands.

In 1683, the Paucatuck Pequots were granted a reservation in the present-day town of North Stonington, along the eastern shore of Long Pond. The Paucatuck Pequots were quick to take up residency on their reservation, unlike the Mashantucket tribe, which continued to occupy its land at Noank. It was not until 1720 that the tribe completed its removal to its new lands, which were proximate to but separate from those of the Paucatuck Pequot tribe.

Throughout the eighteenth century and for much of the nineteenth, the two tribes were known by the names of the communities in which their reservations were located. The larger of the tribes (Mashantucket) was called the Groton tribe and the smaller (Paucatuck) the Stonington tribe.

The two tribes have faced similar challenges over the last three hundred years. During the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, local residents successfully applied pressure to reduce the tribal holdings, so that by 1860 each tribe had less than 250 acres left from the several thousand they owned in 1700.

Their populations similarly declined, in part because of the scattering of tribal members as a result of the loss of land and livelihoods, and in part because of an exodus in the 1770s to New York State as part of the Brothertown movement, led by Samson Occom, a Mohegan minister.

By 1860, the two tribes had been reduced to fewer than fifty members each, a majority of those being women and children who made a meager living from subsistence farming, supplemented by domestic work and the sale of wild berries and homemade splint baskets. Many of the men were engaged either as farmhands or as sailors on the whaling ships that sailed from Groton and New London.

Tribal government devolved to the women. In one of the many ironies connected with these tribes, as a result of the illegal sale of their lands, the two tribes had small bank accounts, which the state-appointed overseers used to pay the expenses of the tribe. These expenses included providing for the support of indigent members as well as paying the salaries and expenses of the overseers. These funds remained active until the 1970s, when the tribes withdrew them from state control.

Little changed for the two tribes during the first half of the twentieth century, except that the numbers residing on the reservation declined steadily. By 1900, there were fewer than twenty members living at Mashantucket and about the same number at Paucatuck. By 1930, these numbers had been halved. But both tribes continued to function and control their land and resources, and both tribes had active leaders.

In the case of the Paucatuck Pequots, the most prominent leaders early in the century were Ephraim Williams and, later, Atwood Williams. At Mashantucket, the leaders were two women, half sisters: Elizabeth George Plouffe and Martha Langevin Ellal. They led the tribe until their deaths in the 1970s.

The 1970s saw a major divergence in the histories of the tribes. After the deaths of the two women, the Mashantucket Pequots reorganized under the leadership of Richard Hayward, the grandson of Mrs. Plouffe, and initiated steps to recover the lands illegally lost in the previous century and to gain federal recognition. 

After a lengthy struggle, including an initial veto of their recognition by President Ronald Reagan, the Mashantucket Pequots prevailed and were recognized in 1983, and their land claims were settled.

With the nine hundred thousand dollars it received from the land settlement, the tribe embarked on an ambitious program of economic development, land acquisition, and repatriation of its members. By 1994 tribal membership had increased to three hundred. The result of federal recognition has been a tribal renaissance.

By contrast, the Paucatuck Pequots, although they have embarked on a similar road, have been unable to achieve federal recognition or the settlement of their land claims, largely because of a factional dispute. Through the 1980s two groups emerged on the reservation, each representing a major family, and these parties have been unable to reconcile their differences. It is impossible to get a membership count to which both sides will agree. The result has been a stalemate.

Connecticut Indian Tribes
About Raven SiJohn

Leave a Reply