Old Saybrook Historical Society Wins Prestigious History Award, Publishes New Book
The Old Saybrook Historical Society will receive one of the country’s most prestigious awards for state and local history projects: a 2020 Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).
The award is being presented for the society’s project “The Siege and Battles of Saybrook Fort During the Pequot War.” The project, managed by Tedd Levy, encompassed archaeological work by researchers at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, which resulted in establishing the approximate location of the original fort likely built in 1636 by Lieutenant Lion Gardiner and his company.
The project has also uncovered numerous artifacts and created a walking tour brochure, interpretive markers, display panels, and school curriculum, as well as offering three public presentations.
The multi-year project was funded by a National Park Service Battlefield Protection Program, which the historical society received in 2017.
With the help of a Connecticut Humanities grant, an exhibition opened in the summer of 2019 at the General William Hart House titled The Struggle for Survival: Saybrook Fort and the Pequot War 1636–’37.
The AASLH usually presents awards at its annual meeting, which this year was planned for Las Vegas in September. The conference hasn’t officially been canceled, but if it doesn’t go forward, the organization will determine how to present the awards in the fall.
The historical society has newly published a 90-page book titled On the Edge of Uncertainty: The Siege and Battles of Saybrook Fort during the Pequot War, 1636–1637, written by James T. Powers, a historian-archaeologist and former educator hired for the project as a research consultant.
The book draws from the work of the Mashantucket Pequot excavation team, led by Kevin McBride and David Naumec, as well as primary and secondary sources, said Powers.
“I relied quite a bit on original documents,” he said. “A number of the participants on the English side wrote a history of what happened.”
These were Gardiner; Captain John Underhill; the governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop, Sr.; and Captain John Mason, who commanded the Connecticut troops.
“I coupled that with information that the [Mashantucket Pequot Museum] uncovered and recent writing about the Pequot War,” Powers said, saying he brought together all these sources for the first time.
“It was fun to put it together, not to be overwhelming for people, but to inform them about what did in fact happen” in Old Saybrook, he said.
The war between the English and the Pequot is considered America’s first and set the stage for hundreds of years of U.S. policy directly affecting the country’s treatment of Native Americans.
Violence was “percolating for quite a while” before war broke out, Powers explained. “There was a lot of animosity and suspicion and misapprehension between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Pequot over three or four years.
Actual fighting broke out when the English attacked indigenous people who lived on Block Island, whom the English blamed for killing an English trader, he said. “And then it sort of snowballed from there when the English attacked the Pequot [in their main villages] along the Thames River.”
Mistaken identities—the Pequot believed the Dutch and English to be the same people—meant that what the Pequot believed to be a revenge killing against the Dutch resulted in the English having an even larger grievance against them. When the English demanded that the Pequot hand over those who killed an English ship captain and were refused, they burned Pequot villages.
This resulted in the Pequot siege of the original Saybrook fort.
“The English still had the ability to come and go by boat,” explained Powers, “but every time [they] left the fort to go out on the grounds, they were subject to ambush...[I]n February 1637, Lion Gardiner was wounded and 6 out of the 10 men who were with him were killed. It was very dangerous for the English to try to venture out.”
The war itself took place over nearly two years, according to Powers.
“The English in the end took revenge on the Pequot,” he said. “They attacked the Pequot fort at Mystic,” surrounded it, and set it on fire. “They slaughtered the inhabitants—anywhere from 400 to 800 people.
“It was genocide,” said Powers.
One of the most striking realizations he’s had from his research of the book is “the level of animus and bias of the [English] toward the Pequot,” he said. “They were just set on destroying them and they did everything they could to do that...And at the same time, the Pequot never had a comprehension as to how the English thought of them,” he continued.
The Pequot, he said, always thought they would work out a compromise.
“The English never gave them that opportunity,” Powers said. “A lot of it was theological, based on their inability” to view the Pequot people as truly human. “They demonized them as devil worshippers and [believed] that they had to be destroyed.
“It’s frightening the way they went about it, in a very cold-blooded, righteous manner,” he said. “It set the legacy for the next 300 years, unfortunately.” The book, whose initial printing was funded by Saybrook Point Resort & Marina, is available via the Old Saybrook Historical Society website saybrookhistory.org for $15 or $10 for society members.