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Battlefield archaeology sheds new light on the Pequot War

GROTON — Kevin McBride is an anthropological detective of sorts, and more than 375 years after the fact, he is hot on the trail, gathering evidence of one of the most important days in early American history: May 26, 1637.

The day is that of the Mystic Massacre, the first war on the continent between English settlers and Native Americans.

It is also known as the Pequot Massacre. An estimated 400 people died and the Pequot tribe’s Mystick Fort was burned to the ground. According to McBride, the English barely survived the conflict and could have been defeated had they not burned the fort, a fact lost over time.

That’s the story in a nutshell, the version that is familiar to many people. The war, however, lasted more than two years and not only pitted the English against the Pequots, but the region’s tribes against each other.

McBride, research director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, has studied the war since 2007 under the museum’s Battlefields of the Pequot War project. His goal is to examine the war and its battles in great detail, educate the public and preserve battlefield sites. During a recent lecture at the Town Hall Annex, McBride reviewed his findings and their significance.

“To date, most of our work has been focused on the Battle of Mystick Fort, which includes two components. The first is the attack on the fort itself on Pequot Hill. The other part of that battle is what we call the ‘English withdrawal,’” he said.

After the battle, the English began a 6-mile march to the Thames River. A good portion of that land, he said, is owned by the town of Groton.

McBride explained the history of excavating the area and said it consisted of two distinct regions. One, north of Pequot Hill, is Porter’s Rocks, the encampment where the English stayed after their 35-mile trek from Narragansett. The next morning they arose at 1 a.m. and were at the fort by 4 a.m. The encampment has both English and Indian components, noteworthy because there was evidence of the native weapons used in the battle. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before,” he said.

A second area is the core area of the battle, subdivided as the English Approach, Mystick Fort and the Rest Area. “We not only identified where the fort was, we identified the action in the fort, but also around the fort,” he said.

The Rest Area is at the south tip of the hill, where the English regrouped and waited for their ships to arrive at the Thames River. While there they also repelled three Pequot attacks.

Now, the project is examining the corridor the English took in flight, a broad swath in which the researchers have discovered gun parts, musket balls and personal items of the period.

“It’s been a surprise,” McBride said. “We thought we might find an object or two, but so far we’ve recovered over 200 items. In fact, we found so much that we ran out of money.”

Thanks to an American Battlefield Protection Program grant from the National Park Service, the work will continue beginning in the spring. (The Mashantuck Pequot Tribe received its first battlefield grant in 2007.)

“So far, we know the actual route the English took by the objects they left behind,” he said.

The findings have made it possible to combine the narrative of the battles written in the 1600s with the evidence left behind to form a timeline of events and how they tie together. In this case, McBride said, the account written by Capt. John Mason, leader of the Connecticut Colony, is verified by the physical evidence on multiple occasions.

“In his account, on the flight to the river he wrote they came upon a small camp of Pequots after the bottom of the hill and burned it down to the ground. We found it,” he said.

This type of battlefield archaeology has existed for at least 30 years and was made popular in the 1980s because of the successful examination of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand, in Montana.

Similar work has been done at many Civil War locations but McBride said this is the first 17th-century project.

“It is the largest battle of the Pequot war. It also tells us a large amount of Native American society, their weapons, their military tactics and ideology,” he said.

The English force’s flight path makes sense even today, avoiding heavy undergrowth and swampy areas. Unfortunately, the trail is veering toward Interstate 95, so the researchers are hoping their finds this year start leading back to the south.

McBride has said he will make arrangements to have some of the items on display at the Groton Public Library. He told the Groton Town Council that the project area would be submitted for consideration on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the objectives of the American Battlefield Protection Program.

Whether the land is public or private, McBride said, inclusion of property in the application is voluntary and the register does not prevent property owners from doing anything with their property. “We don’t want any burden on the landowner,” McBride said.

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