• Maggie Meahl

Sachem Uncas, the Mohegan and Norwich in the Seventeenth Century

It is not right to write about the speed in which the English Puritans were settling Connecticut (and profiting from the land) without exploring the indigenous people who's lives were upended by the movement. So, I am going backward before I dive back into the early 18th century Huntington history in Norwich. This is a brief and superficial attempt at explaining the relationship between the two groups. This post will be updated as needed.


Sachem Uncas (1598-1683) was a leader of the Native American tribe, the Mohegan, that broke off from the larger Pequot Nation in the early 1600s in large part because of the stress of dealing with the unwanted English settlers.

Sachem Uncas (est.1590-1683) leader of the Mohegan Tribe as imagined by David R. Wagner.

Uncas made a conscious decision to side with the English instead of making peace with his traditional enemies: the Pequot and/or Narragansett tribes. He developed a relationship with Captain John Mason, the leader of Connecticut's military forces. In short, at face value, they provided military support to each other at critical times in the 17th century, mostly against the Pequot and Narragansett tribes.


Mason used Uncas and his men to commit genocide on an encampment of hundreds of Pequot during the summer of 1637. He credited Uncas with loyalty, friendship, and bravery in his defensive tract: "A brief history of the Pequot War: especially of the memorable taking of their fort at Mistick in Connecticut in 1637." These writings (published after his death) defended his own order to burn alive hundreds of Pequot who were in their fort sleeping on May 26, 1637.

Collar reportedly worn by Sachem Uncas. "This is the only known New England wampum to continuously remain in Native American hands since the 1600s." Source: Mohegan Tribe website https://www.mohegan.nsn.us

As a result of this early alliance in 1637, and subsequent military support during a 1645 Narragansett siege on the Mohegan at Fort Shantok, Uncas granted and/or sold land to the English as a reward. Basically, this is how Mason (and Thomas Leffingwell) came into the "nine mile square." The Connecticut authorities in Hartford justified this land acquisition because it was not "planted or improved by the tribe." They took pains to declare it totally legitimate which it appeared to the average 17th century Englishman.


Fort Shantok monument located in Uncasville near the present-day Mohegan Sun

The Saybrook Group set up their new plantation on land that had been referred to as "Mohegan" by the English (and soon would be named Norwich). It was on high ground near the juncture of the Yantic and Thames rivers. The Mohegan, including Uncas, had their fort, wigwams, and cornfields in between the newly Christened "Norwich" and New London (formerly referred to as "Pequot"). Some Mohegan also lived within the new Norwich town limits.

Decorative symbols used by the Mohegan of Connecticut.

One of the biggest obstacles to these two disparate cultures living near each other involved English livestock and Native American corn storage. Most eastern tribes stored their corn in the ground. English pigs and cows, would dig up the corn stores and rightly infuriate the NAs. Sometimes, a Native American would maim or kill a cow or pig in retaliation setting up all sorts of legal entanglements. This very scenario happened to John Gager (Lydia Gager Huntington's father) when he (and his family) were living in the outskirts of New London in the 1650s.


Conversely, a roaming English cow could easily end up in a Mohegan or Pequot deer trap.

Native American corn also called "Flint corn."

Map of Mohegan historic sites created by the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut.

A paternalistic system developed in Norwich whereby some local Mohegan, at times, became increasingly dependent on the whites because their way of life was being systematically eroded by a completely different use of the land. There were many instances when they would frequent the hearths of some residents looking for food, shelter, and warmth. These patterns would continue into the 19th century in certain towns across New England, particularly those that had ministers who were keenly interested in converting the Native Americans into Christianity.


James Fitch, the lauded young minister of Norwich took it upon himself to Christianize the Mohegan, holding meetings for them in his house in the 1670s. In fact, they prayed together during the terrible summer drought of 1676, Fitch insisted to Uncas that praying to God would result in rain--not a powwow.

A nineteenth-century romanticized image of John Eliot, the first New England minister to "Christianize" Native Americans. James Fitch, of Saybrook and Norwich, would follow in Eliot's footsteps with the Mohegan (and other displaced tribes). Christianized Native Americans would be named "praying Indians."

Meanwhile the frontier colonists were increasingly worried that the Native Americans would attack and they did--but in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Mohegan and the remaining Pequot in the area, were instrumental in aiding the English response against the Narragansett and Nipmuck tribes who were attacking colonial frontier towns in a last ditch effort to eject the unwanted English out of New England.


King Philip's War (1675-1678), in terms of population at the time, was the bloodiest war in American history. The Algonquin Indians, under the leadership of King Philip, attacked and killed not only thousands of Indians and English but hundreds of cattle and swine in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The frustrations of dealing with the English throughout the 17th century had come to a breaking point. The English fought back with more fire power and killed perhaps twice as many Native Americans.


After the horror of King Philip's War many Native American war refugees and prisoners ended up in the Norwich area according to the research done by 19th century New London county historian Frances Manwaring Caulkins. Some of the displaced refugees from other tribes became apprentices for ten years, some "permanent bondsmen," and "full-aged men" had to pay 5 shillings per head "as an acknowledgement of subjugation."


There was general confusion in Norwich as to how to deal with these displaced Native Americans from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In November 1678, just as winter was setting in, the Norwich townsmen voted to oust "all Indians from the town plot." Simon Huntington, Sr. was a townsmen in 1678. It is not clear if the law was enforced. Wigwams remained in the Norwich area into the 18th century.


An Eastern Woodland Tribe village scene. Imagined by David R. Wagner, historical artist. The Mohegan used wigwams for shelter.

That the Norwich-area remained unharmed when other towns across Rhode Island and Massachusetts were decimated during King Philip's War is one factor in its exceptional success as a key inland trading center and future major monetary contributor to the American Revolution. Sachem Uncas, and his warriors, can take credit for their contributions in keeping New London county free of Native American raids during this stressful time in American history.


I look forward to visiting the Tantaquidgeon Museum in early 2022 to gain more insight into eastern woodland tribe Native Americans, and in particular, the Mohegan.

https://www.mohegan.nsn.us/explore/heritage/tantaquidgeon-museum-90th-anniversary-celebration



Tantaquidgeon Museum, Uncasville, CT.

Sources

Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. "King Philip's Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England." The William and Mary Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1994): 601-24. Accessed via www.jstor.org.


Burton, William, and Richard Lowenthal. “The First of the Mohegans.” American Ethnologist 1, no. 4 (1974): 589–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/643370.


Caulkins, Frances Manwaring. The History of Norwich: From its possession by the Indians to the year 1866. New London: New London County Historical Society, 2009. Originally published by Caulkins in 1866.


Fitch, John T., Puritan in the Wilderness: A Biography of the Reverend James Fitch 1622-1702,


Mohegan Tribe website https://www.mohegan.nsn.us


Speck, Frank. Decorative Arts of Indian Tribes of Connecticut. Ottawa: Canadian Department of Mines, 1915. Accessed: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46578/46578-h/46578-h.htm


Wagner, David R. website: https://davidrwagner.com





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