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Teacher Guide

The Pequot War

This guide contains the following sections. You may move directly to each section by clicking on the section's name, or scroll down through the guide from beginning to end. If you have not done so already, please read the General Introduction for the Teacher which discusses the philosophy behind these teaching units.
Unit Overview

Historical Background






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This site was created by Mark Williams, a history teacher at The Loomis Chaffee School, Windsor, Connecticut, under a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council. Some of the materials published here were originally created by Mark Williams as Connecticut Case Studies, under a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, and printed by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. John F. Sutherland of Manchester Community College, Ronald P. Dufour of Rhode Island College, Thomas P. Weinland of the University of Connecticut, Tracey Wilson of Conard High School, Robert K. Andrian of The Loomis Chaffee School, and State Historian Christopher Collier served as consultants. The Connecticut Humanities Council is the State Committee of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The viewpoints or recommendations expressed in the materials on this site of are not necessarily those of the Council or the Endowment. Teachers are encouraged to print and make copies of these materials for their students.

Unit Overview


A set of primary sources by eyewitnesses and other contemporary figures on the Pequot War of 1637, with a brief background introduction. Students use documents to create a narrative of the war or to analyze its causes. Alternately, students debate whether or not the statue of John Mason should be left alone, moved to another site, or demolished. Documents reveal multiple causes of the war, contradict each other to some extent, and raise questions about 17th-century European expansion.

State Standards Addressed

St.1: see national standards on historical thinking below
St.2: Local and state hist./US and World: see national standards for particular eras below
St.3: causes of conflict, migration, cultural interaction and change
St.4: initiate questions and hypotheses, decision making

National Standards Addressed (from the National Standards for History: Basic Edition)

Historical thinking: 1. Chronological, 2. comprehension, 3. analysis and interpretation, 4. research, 5. issues-analysis

U.S. History: Era 1: St. 1A patterns of change in indigenous societies; 1D differences and similarities; 2A exploration and international rivalries, interactions with indigenous peoples

World History: Era 6: St. 1 transoceanic linking; 4 interrelations in the Atlantic world; 6 global trends


Activity Types

Document analysis
Narrative writing
Analytical Writing
Raising Questions/Issues
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Historical Background

This unit of Connecticut Case Studies consists of a collection of materials on the so-called "Pequot War" of 1637. Teachers of both world and American history survey courses could use these materials early in the course when discussing colonization and settlement of the Atlantic coast by English people in the early 17th Century, or when discussing cultural differences and interaction between native Americans and Europeans. In the process they will be able to work some Connecticut history into their survey. To be sure, the interaction which took place between European immigrants and native Americans, both along the Atlantic coast, in general, and in Connecticut, in particular, was complicated and varied. To use a war as a case study of that interaction is dangerous, on the one hand, because it suggests that violent conflict was the typical way in which these two groups related with each other. On the other hand, this war offers a wide range of insight that few single events can duplicate. One could also argue that the myth of friendly relations and images of Indians and Pilgrims sitting down together at Thanksgiving feasts may need tempering. Actually, the case of the Pequot War goes well beyond providing an opposing impression of the early contact period.

In fact, this episode in American history contains nearly every conceivable element of the complex patterns that emerged regarding early European-Indian contact, and illustrates, as well, aspects of other developments, such as the changing ecology of New England, the role of religion in the early settlements, and the nature of English mercantilism. In looking at a good selection of primary sources, one can see how historians could differ over the basic causes of Indian-white conflict: Was it a matter of natives losing control of the land upon which their culture was based? Was religion at the root of the hostility? Was it all an onslaught of misunderstanding? Did the English come essentially as conquerors? Did the natives unwittingly destroy themselves by competing for English help in pursuing their own conflicts? There is evidence to support all of these arguments, as well as illustration of the role that fear itself, of both the known and the unknown, played in the course of events. In a general sense, students can understand, in greater depth, processes of cultural interaction, the beginnings of the Connecticut Colony, and underlying attitudes and values of the different groups that inhabited New England in the 17th Century. Students are placed in the role of the historian, and are asked to make their own conclusions by studying primary sources, some in their actual typeface.

By searching through these documents for the story of the Pequot War, and for its causes and implications, students will be able to get a good picture of life in the first days of settlement in America. The differences between natives and Europeans, particularly in terms of contradictory attitudes about land and land ownership (native Americans generally did not understand the white concept that bounded land could be considered private property with exclusive rights), will become clear. Also, students should be able to discern the vast religious differences between the two groups. Other factors, such as economic interests and political conflicts, also become apparent as students look carefully at the later documents. Hence the Pequot War becomes a good laboratory for consideration of the many factors involved in European-native American relationships. While students should be cautioned against generalizing too much from one episode, there is much that can be learned about early America and European expansion from an in-depth study of this event.

The Pequot War unit can also be useful early in the year because students who use it fully can begin to understand the nature of history as a discipline. Developing hypotheses, testing them with primary source material, and, finally, stating conclusions, makes history into something more than just studying a textbook (which isn't really what the discipline of history is all about anyway). This selection of materials is sequentially organized so that students will see a need to revise their hypotheses as they proceed through the documents. In the end there is no guarantee that a certain conclusion will emerge, but doubtless each student will have a different theory from the one he began with. This process of revising one's theories with additional evidence is at the heart of historical inquiry, and, thus, the unit makes a good introduction to method as well as content.

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While each teacher will want to define his or her own purposes in using these materials, depending on the context in which they are used and the overall goals of the course, the following are some possibilities for which these materials are particularly well suited:

1)To understand that, although trade and cooperation did occur in the early days of the Connecticut Colony, conflict between whites and natives quickly became violent and led to the near extermination of the Pequot people.

2)To understand that cultural differences, misunderstandings about land ownership, misunderstandings about intentions and loyalties, racist attitudes among whites, exploitation of land and people for political ends, and desire for empire and profit were all factors at the root of this conflict, and probably others in the colonial period.

3)To become aware of the important roles played in 17th Century America by disease, the English and Dutch trading systems, Puritanism, adaptation of settlers to a new environment (and their adaptation of it to their ways), and the process of beginning a new society and government.

4)To introduce students to the discipline of history by having them play the role of the historian and work with primary sources.

5)To have students consider the implications of the events of 1637. Was the war avoidable? What have we inherited from this episode? Were the Pequots treated unjustly? Was this typical interaction between Europeans and natives?

6)To introduce Connecticut students to the rich past that exists in their own backyard.

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The student handouts and rubrics for these assessments are described on the assessment page. You may go directly to this unit's assessment by clicking here.

1. Using primary sources, students construct a narrative of the Pequot War for a textbook publisher.

2. Students are advisers to the state historical commission, which is deciding what to do with the statue of John Mason. The advisers are asked to prepare an analysis of the causes of the Pequot War using primary sources.

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This unit uses mostly primary source documents, grouped together in the following sequence. You may go to particular documents directly by clicking on their names.

An Introduction for the Student: This explains what is in the unit, and what the student is to attempt to do with it. There is also some historical background on the settlement of New England, and a map showing where various settlements and tribes were located.

I. Differing Views of the Outcome: Four different perspectives on the Pequot War, ranging from seeing Captain John Mason as a hero to seeing the Pequots as tragic victims of exploitation and greed.

II. The Native Americans

Roger Williams Describes the Narragansetts
An Indian Remembers
A Seneca Chief Speaks of Land and Religion
Tecumseh and the Native View of Property

III. John Mason's Narrative: Mason commanded the Connecticut forces that fought the Pequots near Mystic in 1637. This is his account of the causes of the war (copied from the original published version), and of the battle itself.

IV. Other Eyewitness Accounts

Captain John Underhill (commander of the Massachusetts Bay forces).
P. Vincent (a contemporary narrator)
Lion Gardener (supervisor of Saybrook Fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River)

V. The Indian Allies

Chart: Uncas's Family Ties (Uncas was allied with the English in the War)
The Treaty of Hartford (after the War)
A Commissioners' Report (on Uncas's claim to lands in Connecticut)
Letter from the Plymouth Trading House
Roger Williams Soothes the Narragansetts
Governor Winthrop's Journal
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With so much material, teachers may want to be selective in its use. Scholars who have studied the Pequot War would insist that this package contains the absolute minimum necessary for a good understanding based on primary sources. However, the time constraints of a high school survey course often require compromise with scholarship.

The obvious starting point is to have the students read the Introduction and the section on Differing Perspectives. Some of the historical background may be repetitive for them, depending on how much textbook background they have already (it is not really necessary for them to have a lot of background going in to this unit). Once they have read these two items, and have a good sense of the geography and some of the names and dates involved, they can then begin to develop hypotheses and questions about what happened between the Pequots and the Connecticut settlers in the 1630's.

At this point, they could march through the documents one section at a time, assessing what each section means in terms of their original hypotheses. The sequence of documents tends to provide a structure of its own, requiring regular revision of the hypotheses, and so it is not really necessary for teachers to develop specific questions along the way. An alternative and less time-consuming tactic might be to divide the remaining four sections up, having a group of students be responsible for studying one (or having each person within a small group responsible for studying one section), and summarizing the documents for the other people. Working in "teams" may be another concept that cuts down on time and drudgery. At first glance the documents, particularly Mason's narrative, may seem somewhat formidable. Indeed the strange syntax and the funny ƒ's will cause a good deal of consternation, but high school students should be able to work with most of the sources. They could be encouraged to treat the whole exercise as a great detective game, which requires even some translating of obscure old texts. Keep pointing out that they are the historians, and these are the clues about a world long past.

As the students go through the material, the teacher should get them to consider how each document adds a new dimension to the understanding of the conflict. For example, Mason's narrative, when viewed in light of native American lifeways and attitudes, might suggest to some that the English were hopelessly self-righteous and determined to have their way with the new land they were capturing from the natives. Gardener's account, which is hardly sympathetic toward the Puritans, seems to support that view, although one can see in his and Underhill's how misunderstandings multiplied as time passed and made things worse than they might have been. Roger Williams' two pieces are intriguing. Williams seems at once sympathetic and condescending toward the natives. He likes their simple communal world, but would clearly reform their work ethic (the men just hunt and fish!) and their religious doctrine. His comments on wampum raise a whole new dimension to the conflict - were the Europeans, in conquering the Pequots, simply taking control of the resources needed to get more furs? (for more on this see Cronon's Changes in the Land and the work of archaeologist Lynn Ceci referred to in Cronon's book). Finally, section V, together with Vincent's relation of the help received from Uncas, raises altogether new possibilities for thought, as we consider the politics and rivalries that were going on among the Indians themselves (Metcalf (1974) analyzes this in depth). Behind it all lurks the role of simple human fear in a new and dangerous situation.

In the end, the story is a sad one in which human beings were unable to avoid a disaster for one group, or a disaster for the other's heritage as well. Some time spent considering the injustices involved and the parallels in our own world is probably worthwhile.

If a teacher needed to be very selective, the most important documents are probably in sections I, II and III. The material in section V is the most difficult, and, in fact, may be too sophisticated to be of any use to some students. Lion Gardener's account has the most literary merit, - even though his grammar and syntax are atrocious, he conveys the most feeling.

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Axtell, James. The Invasion Within: The Contest for Culture in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford, 1985. Already this book is a classic discussion of cultural conflict on the East coast.

Cave, Alfred A. The Pequot War. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. The most recent monograph on the war, Cave's analysis offers an economic interpretation.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. For students with an ecological bent, or simply for a fresh perspective on native lifeways and native-white interaction, this is superb.

The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes. Edited by James Axtell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. For in-depth study of the lifeways of eastern natives. There's not a great deal on New England natives, but a lot of what's there can be generalized.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America. Chapel Hill: U. of N.C. Press, 1975. Jennings looks unsympathetically at European motives. This is a classic, readable narrative.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640. Totowa, 1980. Kupperman discusses relationships all over North America.

Karr, Ronald Dale. "'Why Should You Be So Furious?': The Violence of the Pequot War." Journal of American History (December, 1998). The most recent commentary on the war, which puts the war's violence in the context of contemporary European military practices. Contains a good narrative of the conflict, but fails to mention Uncas at all. Still, sections of this could be used as a model, and his footnotes are excellent.

Metcalf, P. Richard. "Who Should Rule at Home? Native American Politics and Indian-White Relations." Journal of American History, 61 (1974), pp. 651-665. A revisionist study of three conflicts, among them the Pequot War, suggesting that internal native politics played a greater role than one would think.

Nash, Gary. Red, White and Black. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1982. A good look at racial attitudes and cultural differences.

Touch the Earth. Edited by T. C. McLuhan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971. Excellent collection of native speeches from the 18th Century to the present, illuminating basic attitudes shared by natives across the continent. Also has exceptional photographs dating to the 19th Century.

Vaughan, Alden T. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965. Vaughan is considered an apologist for the Puritans, although he is probably the first scholar to treat the Indians as human beings, rather than helpless victims or animalistic savages.

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