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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

August 1, 2018: 17th Century Histories: The Massacre at Mystic

[On July 30th, 1676 Nathaniel Bacon issued his “Declaration in the Name of the People,” kicking off Bacon’s Rebellion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that rebellion and other 17th century histories, leading up to a special weekend post on some of Virginia’s historic sites!]
On three texts that help us remember one of post-contact America’s earliest dark histories.
The central military action of the Pequot War (1636-37), the first large-scale conflict between the English and Native American communities in colonial New England, was the 1637 massacre of the Pequot village of Mystic (in modern-day Connecticut). A number of Puritan figures and historians wrote about the attack (including William Bradford in Of Plimoth Plantation), but perhaps the most telling such document was composed by military leader Captain John Underhill. In his account Underhill notes that mostly women, children, and the elderly were killed in the massacre (which was timed purposefully for a moment when the village’s warriors were on a raiding mission), and justifies that fact by writing, “sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. … We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.” Violence and brutality are inevitable in war, but directing them at non-combatants comprises another level of brutality—and using religion to rationalize such actions another level still (if a far-too common one).
Accompanying Underhill’s account of the massacre was a famous woodcutting that has become a central image through which the massacre is remembered (when it is remembered at all). The woodcutting certainly captures just how surrounded the village was, a detail that looks far different if we sympathize with the villagers more than Underhill himself was able to. But it also captures another and even more complex historical detail: the second circle of attackers are Native Americans, an attempt to include in the image the hundreds of Mohegan, Narragansett, and Niantic warriors who took part in the massacre as allies to the English and/or enemies to the Pequots. That Native American participation does not excuse the English in the slightest, neither for their overall impetus for the attack nor for their particular actions during it. But it does remind us of the quantity and variety of Native American tribes within even a relatively close geographic area, and of the individual and at times conflicting situations and needs facing each tribe (at any historical point, but doubly so in the post-contact era of course). That’s part of the story of Mystic as well, and one that the woodcutting accurately highlights.
While texts such as Underhill’s account and the woodcutting can thus reveal (if sometimes unintentionally) multiple layers to the massacre at Mystic, they nonetheless originated from and are ultimately driven by an English perspective on the battle. Also originating from the perspective of an Anglo American author, but working hard and well to create a Pequot perspective, is the pivotal Chapter IV in Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s historical novel Hope Leslie (1827). As I highlighted at length in this early blog post, Sedgwick’s Magawisca—a composite fictional character who is the daughter of an actual historical figure, the Pequot chief Sassacus—offers in her long monologue (to her young English friend and potential love interest Everell Fletcher) about the Mystic massacre what Sedgwick’s narrator calls “a very different picture” of the battle. As with any historical fiction, and certainly any that seeks to cross cultural boundaries, Sedgwick’s chapter and novel are complex and open to critique as well as celebration (and everything in between). Yet I believe that Sedgwick succeeds on a number of levels in this chapter, perhaps especially in her portrayal of the profoundly human effects of the massacre and how those effects echoed and extended well beyond 1637. Such effects must be part of our collective memories of Mystic, and Sedgwick’s text helps us begin to engage them more fully.
Next 17th century history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other early American histories you’d highlight?

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