JOHN MASON

John Mason, c.1600-1672, was an American colonial military commander, born in England. He was an army officer before emigrating (c.1630) to Massachusetts and then (1635) to Windsor, Conn. When the Pequot threatened to wipe out the new colonies on the Connecticut River, he and John Underhill led an expedition (1637) against them with the aid of other Native Americans under Uncas and Miantonomo and virtually destroyed the tribe. After this campaign--generally called the Pequot War--Major Mason was a distinguished political leader in Connecticut until his death.


In 1637 there were in the colonies two brave soldiers who had served in the Netherlands. These were Captains John Mason and John Underhill. The former had taken an active part in military and civil affairs in Massachusetts, and was now in Connecticut. The latter was an eccentric character, and might have been mistaken at one time for a friar and at another for a buffoon. He had been brought to Massachusetts by Governor Winthrop to teach the young colonists military tactics, which it was evident they would need. Under him the authorities of that colony and Plymouth placed two hundred men to aid the Connecticut people in their war.

It was not safe for the settlers in the valley to wait for their allies on the sea-coast. They placed ninety men under Mason, who rendezvoused at Hartford. With twenty of them, the captain hastened to reinforce the garrison at Saybrook. There he found Underhill, who had just arrived with an equal with these and seventy warriors of the Mohegans under Uncas, he marched down to the fort. Uncas was of the royal blood of the Pequods, and had been a petty chief under Sassacus, but was now in open rebellion against his prince, and a fugitive. He gladly joined the English against his enemy, and Captain Mason as gladly accepted his services. As the war was begun by the Connecticut people, Captain Mason was regarded and obeyed as the commander-in-chief of the expedition.

It was determined in council to go into the Narraganset country and march upon the rear of the Pequods, where they would least expect an attack. In three pinnaces the expedition sailed eastward. As they passed the Pequod country, those savages concluded that the English had abandoned the Connecticut Valley in despair. It was a fatal mistake and the relaxation
which that belief caused ruined them. They had no spies out beyond the Mystic River; and when the expedition landed near Narraganset Bay, Sassacus was rejoicing in a sense of absolute security from harm. So he continued to rejoice while the white people, joined by two hundred Narragansets and as many Niantics - more than five hundred warriors in all, pale and dusky - were marching swiftly and stealthily toward the citadel of his power.

That chief stronghold of Sassacus was on a hill a few miles northward from both New London and Stonington, near the waters of the Mystic River. It was a fort built of palisades, the trunks of trees set firmly in the ground close together, and rising above it ten or twelve feet, with sharpened points. Within this enclosure, which was of circular form, were seventy wigwams covered with matting and thatch and at two points were sallyports or gates of weaker construction, through which Mason and Underhill were destined to force an entrance. When the invaders reached the foot of the hill on which this fort stood, quite undiscovered, and arranged their camp, the sentinels could hear the sounds of noisy revelry among the savages in the fortress, which ceased not before midnight. Then all was still, and the invaders slumbered soundly. At two hours before the dawn on a warm June morning, they were aroused from sleep and arranged in marching order so as to break into the fort at opposite points and take it by surprise. The Indian allies had grown weak in heart, all but the followers of Uncas. They regarded Sassacus as a sort of god, and supposed he was in the fort. So they lagged behind, but formed a cordon in the woods around the fortress to arrest any fugitives who might escape.

Mystic Battle

In the bright moonlight the little army crept stealthily up the wooded slope, and were on the point of rushing to the attack when the barking of a dog aroused a sentinel and he gave the alarm to the sound sleepers within. Before they were fairly awake, Mason and Underhill burst in the sallyports. The terrified Pequods rushed out of the wigwams, but were driven back by swords and musket-balls, when the tinder-like coverings of the huts were set on fire. Within an hour about seven hundred men, women and children perished in the flames, and by the weapons of the English. The strong, the beautiful, and the innocent were doomed to a common fate with the blood-thirsty and cruel. The door of mercy was shut. Not a dusky human being among the Pequods was allowed to live. When all was over, the pious Captain Mason, who had narrowly escaped death by the arrow of a young warrior, exultingly exclaimed God is over us He laughs his enemies to scorn, making them as a fiery oven. Thus does the Lord judge among the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies. And the equally if not more pious Dr. Mather afterward wrote: "It was supposed that no less than 500 or 600 Pequod souls were brought down to hell that day." Happily a better Christian spirit now prevails.

Sassacus was not in the doomed fort, but was at another near Groton, on the Thames, to which point Mason had ordered his vessels to come. As the English were making their wearisome way to the river, three hundred warriors came from the presence of Sassacus to attack them. The savages were soon dispersed. Most of the victors then sailed for the Connecticut, making the air vocal with sacred song. The remainder, with friendly Indians, marched through the wilderness to Hartford to protect the settlements in that vicinity. There warriors and clergymen, Christians and pagans, women and children, gathered in a happy reunion after great peril.

Sassacus sate sullenly and stately in his embowered dwelling, when the remnant of his warriors, who escaped from the citadel, came to tell him of the great disaster. They charged the whole of the misfortunes of the day to his haughtiness and misconduct. Tearing their hair, stamping violently, and with fierce gestures, they threatened to destroy him, and doubtless they would have executed the menace had not the blast of a trumpet startled them. From the head-waters of the Mystic came almost two hundred armed settlers from Massachusetts and Plymouth to seal the doom of the Pequods. The question, Shall we fight or flee? was soon answered at the court of Sassacus, for there was little time for deliberation. After a strong and hot debate, it was determined to flee. They set fire to their wigwams and the fort, and with their women and children hurried across the Thames and fled swiftly westward, with the intention of seeking refuge with the Mohawks beyond the Hudson.

The English hotly pursued the Pequods, with despairing Sassacus at their head. As the chase was kept up across the beautiful country bordering on Long Island Sound, a track of desolation was left behind, for wigwams and corn-fields were destroyed, and helpless men, women and children were put to the sword. At last the fugitives took refuge in Sasco Swamp, near Fairfield, where they all surrendered to the English excepting the sachem and a few followers, who escaped to the Mohawks. A blow had been struck which gave peace to New England forty years. A nation had been destroyed in a day. But few of the once-powerful Pequods survived the national disaster. The last representative of the pure blood of that race was, probably, Eunice Mauwee, who died at Kent, in Connecticut, about the year 860, at the age of one hundred years. The proud Sassacus, haughty and insolent in his exile, fell by the hands of an assassin among the people who had opened their arms to receive him; and his scalp was sent to the English, whom he hated and despised. He was the last of his royal line in power excepting Uncas, who now returned to the land of his fathers and became a powerful sachem, renowned in war and peace. He remained a firm friend of the English, and was buried among the graves of his kindred near the falls of the Yantic, in the City of Norwich,
where a granite monument, erected by the descendants of his white friends, marks the place of his sepulchre.

- - - L. B. Mason (1935)

"The greatness and the violence of the fire... the shrieks and yells of men
and women and children....It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same."

- - - Clergyman Cotton Mather, describing the destruction of Pequot


As early as the the 1630's during the Pequot War in New England, temporary detachments were drawn from the militia companies for field operations against the Indians. Volunteers or drafted quotas formed the detachments. This expedient practice minimized economic dislocation and concentrated field leadership in the hands of the most experienced officers. But even the detachments were seen as disrupting continuity life too much, and eventually they were employed primarily as garrisons. A different type of force emerged in the 1670's. Hired volunteers ranged the frontiers, patrolling between outposts and giving early warning of any Indian attack. Other volunteers combined with friendly Indians for offensive operations deep in the wilderness where European tactics were ineffective. The memoirs of the most successful leader of these mixed forces, Benjamin Church, were published by his son Thomas in 1716 and represent the first American military manual.

1637 Bibliography

1637 Links