On July 20, many American celebrated the anniversary of the first moon landing in 1969. Those of us who live in Southern New England, however, may recognize that the same day of the year marks a darker anniversary – July 20, 1636 – the day that Mad Jack was dismembered off the shore of Block Island.
“Mad Jack” was John Oldham, a colonist, trader, and reprobate, who had been kicked out of Plymouth Colony, in part for pulling a knife on Miles Standish, and who engaged in a notorious career of lawless profiteering along coastal New England. The precise details of who killed Mad Jack and why remain a mystery, but his murder became a flashpoint that ignited the Pequot War, the two-year clash between the colonists and the Pequots.
In the same way that the Apollo astronauts brought something new to the surface of the moon in 1969, the Pequot War brought something new to coastal New England: an Old-World-style practice of war as genocidal conquest. Many of the Englishmen who fought in the Pequot War were veterans of Europe’s bloody 30 Years War, and they unleashed their skills in advanced butchery on the Pequot.
The Pequot War culminated in the Mystic Massacre, in which at least 400 Pequot men, women, and children were burned alive in a fortified village while colonial soldiers waited outside with swords and guns to kill anyone who tried to escape the inferno. This atrocity, combined with a sustained campaign to wipe out the Pequot, ultimately resulted in the tribe being declared “extinct” by the colonial authorities.
Captain John Mason, who led the colonial troops at Mystic, wrote the most famous report of the Mystic Massacre. “But GOD was above them,” he wrote, “who laughed his enemies and the enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven: Thus were the Stout-Hearted spoiled, having slept their last Sleep, and none of their Men could find their Hands: Thus did the LORD judge among the Heathen, filling the place with dead bodies!”
The town of Windsor has recently agreed to remove a statue of John Mason from the town’s Palisado Green, a belated recognition that perpetrators of genocidal atrocities do not merit cast-iron monuments to commemorate them. Although it is undoubtedly true that Mason’s legacy is “complex and nuanced,” as Christine Ermenc has written in defense of the statue, there is nothing very complex or nuanced about Mason’s own assessment of the Mystic Massacre.
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Skip Hayward reportedly expressed a concern than Mason’s statue is one of the few reminders of the Mystic Massacre, and that its removal could render the Pequot War even more obscure. Hayward’s perceptive warning, however, is more an indictment of our collective capacity for remembering the past than a defense of the statue itself. Indeed, we all agree that we should remember 9/11, but not with a triumphal statue of Osama bin Laden erected a Connecticut green. Remembering the past should be distinguished from honoring history’s mass-murderers.
So against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, as July 20 passes, let’s try to find a better way of remembering the bloody history of the land we inhabit. As we commemorate the moon landing – the sublime high-water mark of American expansionism – let’s also devote a corner of our reflections to the Pequot War and the Mystic massacre – the nightmarish trauma at the root of our national history.
Randy Laist is a professor of English at Goodwin University.
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