In early 1637, the Pequot openly attack English settlers in Connecticut. In response, Massachusetts settlers ask the Plymouth General Court to join them in declaring war against the Pequot. The Plymouth leadership replies by voicing its support for the war, but without the authority of the General Court. John Winthrop writes a letter to the Plymouth leadership, explaining that he awaits a “full resolution” from Plymouth. He acknowledges that the Massachusetts colony didn’t support Plymouth in its dispute with France, but argues that the current conflict with the Pequot is far more serious. He also acknowledges the Plymouth leadership’s concerns that Massachusetts has collaborated with France, and hasn’t respected the Pilgrims’ Kennebec trading rights, but insists that the Pilgrims have a Christian duty to support Massachusetts. Finally, he warns that if Massachusetts wins the war against the Pequot single-handedly, the settlers will “think ill” of Plymouth for years to come.
As Bradford portrays the event, the Pequot attack the English out of the blue, without any provocation. Other historians have disputed Bradford’s characterization of the conflict, arguing that the Pequot were incensed by the English settlers’ invasion of their land near the Connecticut River. (In previous chapters, Bradford has written about Plymouth’s disputes with the French and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but not, surprisingly, with the Native Americans, to whom the Connecticut territory belonged.) Bradford recognizes that backing out of the war will give Plymouth a credibility problem with Massachusetts—and therefore, it’s in the best long-term interests of the colony to fight.
Meanwhile, the Pequot try to make an alliance with the Narragansett against the English. However, the Narragansett remember their own quarrels with the Pequot, and resolve to join the English instead. The Plymouth courts agree to send fifty soldiers to fight the Pequot. Bradford says that he will not describe in any great detail what happened in the ensuing fight in Connecticut. However, the English, “with great courage,” burn down an enemy fort, killing some four hundred people. The Narragansett refrain from killing any Pequot Indians as they run out of the burning fort, leaving this task to the English. Later, the Plymouth and Massachusetts armies resolve to wage further war against the Pequot.
Even nearly four centuries later, Bradford’s description of the conflict with the Pequot (later termed the First Pequot War) is shocking. He describes, in the same flat, plain style he’s used throughout the book, the way that pious Christians burn down forts containing hundreds of Native Americans who, it’s fair to presume, saw themselves as protecting their rights to their own land. Plymouth and Massachusetts essentially strengthen their claims to Connecticut through force, not trade or treaty.
On May 28, 1637, Governor Winthrop sends a letter to the Plymouth colony, reporting that his soldiers have killed dozens of Indians with their swords. The Indians fire arrows at the English, but only three Englishmen are hit. The army captures many prisoners, and the male children are sent to Bermuda as slaves, while the women and female children are sent to local towns. The Pequot chief, Sassacus, is beheaded, ending the war with the Pequot tribe.
The English settlers defeat the Pequot because of their superior military technology, more than any other single factor. The English are brutal in their treatment of Native American prisoners, sending the women and children into a lifetime of slavery. (American history classes often claim that European colonists didn’t use Native Americans as slaves—but even Bradford’s account disproves this.)
Later in the year, the Pilgrims receive letters from England explaining that Sherley hasn’t distributed any money to the rest of the company. The Pilgrims agree to “discharge Mr. Sherley from his agency.”
After Mr. Sherley refuses to perform his duties adequately, the Pilgrims discharge him, reflecting Plymouth’s increasing independence and financial power.