The statue of Captain John Mason of Windsor (c.1600-1672) at the Connecticut State Capitol may soon be coming down, to be removed to the Old State House where it can be placed in a better historical context. The furor and passion that statues of a long-dead, mostly-forgotten early settler and military commander still provoke is yet another example of how America’s unsettled and too-often unexamined history haunts its present.
Depending on who you ask, John Mason was either a hero who saved the nascent Puritan colony of Connecticut from destruction at the hands of the Pequots or a murderer who committed a horrific atrocity against Indigenous people by burning Mistick Fort with civilian men, women and children still inside. So which was it?
Believe it or not, it’s both.
The Pequot War, which lasted from 1636-1638, was fought between the powerful Pequots, who then dominated all of what is now southeastern Connecticut, and an alliance of tribes from what is now Connecticut, such as the Suckiaug, the Mohegans, the Poquonnock, the Narragansett of what would become Rhode Island, and English settlers of Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The war resulted from a number of factors, including tensions between the expansionist Pequots and other tribes, but English encroachment on trade dominated by the Pequots and the Dutch was one of the tipping points. The Pequots were responsible for the death of an English Connecticut River trader in 1634, and though they believed their actions justified, the killing sparked a cycle of retribution that eventually led to war. The Pequots besieged a fort at Saybrook and raided Wethersfield, which startled the new colonial government at Hartford into a declaration of war. They ordered Mason, with men raised from Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor, to attack the Pequots on their home ground near what is now Mystic.
This they did. Mason, in command of a force of Connecticut volunteers, warriors from allied native tribes, and a handful of Englishmen from Massachusetts, attacked the fortified Pequot settlement at Mistick Fort on May 26, 1637. The battle was short and ferocious. Mason’s men attacked the fort but suffered heavy losses. Mason, seeing that he was in danger of losing if he didn’t take drastic action, set fire to wigwams inside the fort.
What happened next is the heart of today’s controversy. From the eyewitness account of John Underhill, Mason’s second-in-command:
“…many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children, others forced out, and came in troopes to the Indians, twentie, and thirtie at a time, which our souldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword; downe fell men, women, and children, those that scaped us, fell into the hands of the Indians, that were in the reere of us; it is reported by themselves, that there were about foure hundred soules in this Fort, and not above five of them escaped out of our hands …”John Underhill
The battle was won. Mason and his forces drove the Pequots out of southeastern Connecticut and all but eliminated them as a people. Men were killed, and many women and children were sold into slavery. Their lands were divided between the victors and the colony of Connecticut survived.
It’s hard not to see this in the context of what came next: the genocide of Indigenous peoples all across North America, the breaking of countless treaties and the removal of tribes to remote reservations. The victory against the Pequots encouraged further settlement of New England, which, in turn, led to King Philip’s War and the breaking of native power in the region. The Mohegans, finding themselves increasingly ill-treated by the new state of Connecticut in 1785, tried to remind the government of the long friendship between the two people in a complaint about the erosion of their fishing and hunting rights, to no avail.
Mason may have saved Connecticut, but he did so by committing an act that we’d consider a war crime today. His actions began a long line of atrocities committed by European settlers and their descendants against this continent’s Indigenous peoples.
How do we deal with that? Do we leave statues of him up or take them down?
If we do take them down are we, as State Historian Walter Woodward says, in danger of projecting our values into the past? Is this a case of “cancel culture” run amok, as historian William Hosley claims?
Both statues of Mason, the one at the Capitol and another originally at Mystic that now stands on Palisado Green in Windsor, were products of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the paternalistic and superior view of white people toward the natives they had supplanted. A speech by Charles Dyer of Norwich at the commemoration of the statue at Mystic, as recorded in the June 27, 1889, Hartford Courant, hailed Mason as the victor over the “infant colony’s” “savage foes,” while Gov. Morgan Bulkeley called Mason “that brilliant, daring Indian fighter” whose “daring deeds have survived these centuries and become a part of the history of this state.”
I’d argue that the people of that time projected their own values, and their own vision of Connecticut, back into the past. That vision of Mason as nothing but a hero who conquered the “savages” is as fundamentally flawed as other heroic American narratives so many of us were taught as children.
What’s needed is context. The statue should come down from the pantheon of heroes atop the Capitol, not for the sake of forgetting the past, but for the sake of finally understanding it.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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