Published on November 30, 2012 by Amy
Pequot people are a tribe of Native Americans who, in the 17th century, inhabited much of what is now Connecticut. They were of the Algonquian language family. The Pequot War and Mystic massacre reduced the Pequot’s sociopolitical influence in southern New England. Today the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut are a federally recognized tribe, and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation are a state recognized tribe in Connecticut.
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Etymology of “Pequot”
Pequot is an Algonquian word, the meaning of which is in dispute among language specialists. Considerable scholarship pertaining to the Pequot claims that the name came from Pequttôog, meaning, “the destroyers,” or “the men of the swamp”. This relies on speculations of an early twentieth century authority on Algonquian languages. However, Frank Speck, a leading early 20th century specialist of Pequot-Mohegan, had doubts. He believed that another term meaning “the shallowness of a body of water” seemed much more plausible, given their territory along the coast of Long Island Sound.
Historians have debated whether the Pequot migrated about 1500 from the upper Hudson River Valley toward what is now central and eastern Connecticut. The theory of Pequot migration to the Connecticut River Valley can be traced to Rev. William Hubbard who, in 1677, claimed that the Pequot, rather than originating in the region, had invaded it sometime before the establishment of Plymouth Colony. In the aftermath of King Philip’s War, Hubbard sought in his Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England, to explain the ferocity with which New England’s Native peoples responded to the English. Hubbard described the Pequot as “foreigners” to the region, though not invaders from another shore, but “from the interior of the continent” who “by force seized upon one of the goodliest places near the sea, and became a Terror to all their Neighbors.”
Much of the archaeological, linguistic, and documentary evidence now available clearly demonstrates that the Pequot were not invaders to the Connecticut River Valley but were indigenous for thousands of years. By the time of the founding of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, the Pequot had already attained a position of political, military, and economic dominance in what is now central and eastern Connecticut. Occupying the coastal area between the Niantic tribe of the Niantic River of present-day Connecticut and the Wecapaug River, and the Narragansett in what is now western Rhode Island, the Pequot numbered some 16,000 persons in the most densely inhabited portion of southern New England.
The smallpox epidemic of 1616-19, which killed roughly 90% of the Native inhabitants of the eastern coast of present-day New England, failed to reach the Pequot, Niantic and Narragansett. In 1633, the Dutch established a trading post at present day Hartford, called the House of Good Hope. Because of a perceived violation of an agreement, the Dutch seized the principal Pequot sachem Tatobem. After the Pequot paid the Dutch a large ransom, they returned Tatobem’s murdered body. His successor was Sassacus.
In 1633, an epidemic devastated all of the region’s Native population. Historians estimate that the Pequot suffered the loss of 80% of their population. At the outbreak of the Pequot War, Pequot survivors may have numbered only about 3,000.
The Pequot War
In 1637, long-standing tensions between the Puritan English of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay colonies and the Pequot escalated into open warfare. There was much confusion on both sides and when the tribe killed an Englishman thinking he was Dutch, war was soon upon them. The Mohegan and the Narragansett sided with the English. Perhaps 1,500 Pequot were killed in battles or hunted down. Others were captured and distributed as slaves or household servants. A few escaped to be absorbed by the Mohawk or the Niantic on Long Island. Eventually, some would try to return to their traditional lands, while family groups of “friendly” Pequots stayed. Of those enslaved, most were awarded to the allied tribes, but many were also sold as slaves in Bermuda. The Mohegan in particular treated their Pequot hostages so severely that colonial officials of Connecticut Colony eventually removed them. Two reservations were established by 1683. While both of their land bases were exceedingly reduced by what would eventually became the state of Connecticut, they continue to exist to the present.
By the 1910 census, the Pequot population was enumerated at a low of 66. In terms of population, the Pequot reached their nadir several decades later.
Pequot numbers grew appreciably—the Mashantucket Pequot especially—during the 1970s and 1980s when tribal chairman Richard A. Hayward persuaded Pequot to return to their tribal homeland. He worked for Federal recognition and sound economic development.
In 1976, with the assistance of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the Indian Rights Association, the Pequot filed suit against neighboring landowners to recover land which had been illegally sold by the State of Connecticut in 1856. After seven years, the Pequot and landowners reached a settlement. The former landowners agreed that the 1856 sale was illegal and joined the Pequot in seeking the Connecticut state government’s support for resolution.
The Connecticut Legislature responded by unanimously passing legislation to petition the federal government to grant tribal recognition to the Mashantucket Pequot. The “Mashantucket Pequot Indian Land Claims Settlement Act” was enacted by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan on Oct. 18, 1983. This settlement granted the Mashantucket Pequot federal recognition, enabling them to repurchase the land covered in the Settlement Act and place it in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for reservation use.
The Mashantucket Pequot Nation land base totals 1,250 acres (5.1 km2). As the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation reached settlement on land claims, it also engaged in several entrepreneurial enterprises to become economically viable. These included selling fire wood, harvesting maple syrup, and growing garden vegetables. The Mashantucket Pequot also raised swine, and opened a hydroponic greenhouse. They also purchased and operated a restaurant, and established a sand and gravel business.
In 1986, they opened a bingo operation, followed in 1992 by the establishment of the first phase of Foxwoods Resort Casino. Revenues from the casino have enabled development and construction of a cultural museum. The ceremonial groundbreaking for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center took place on October 20, 1993. This date marked the 10th anniversary of federal recognition of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation.
The new facility, opened on August 11, 1998, is located on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation, where many members of the nation continue to live. It is one of the oldest, continuously occupied Indian reservations in North America.