John Mason’s Controversial Statue

Maj. John MASON (1600 – 1672) was the commanding officer in the Pequot War.

John Mason Portrait

At the time, he was a victorious hero who later became  Deputy Governor of Connecticut and founded Norwich, Connecticut.  Now, he is viewed by some as a war criminal due to his responsible for the Mystic Massacre.  He was Alex’s 10th great grandfather, one of 2,048 in this generation of the Miner line.

A statue of Major John Mason is on the Palisado Green in  Windsor, Connecticut . The John Mason statue was originally placed at the intersection of Pequot Avenue and Clift Street in Mystic, Connecticut, near what was thought to be one of the original Pequot forts.

Major John Mason Statue now in Windsor, CT

The statue remained there for 103 years. After studying the sensitivity and appropriateness of the statue’s location near the historic massacre of Pequot people, a commission chartered by Groton, Connecticut voted to have it relocated. The State in 1993 relocated the statue to its current setting.

The work of the committee is an interesting piece of history in its own right, raising issues of history, our national identity, fairness and revisionism.   Even before his committee got to the issue at hand, Lon Thompson knew the members were in trouble.

At the outset, early in 1993, the job had not seemed too difficult. They were to take six months to recommend to the town what to do with a statue. The monument was hardly central to this tourist village at the east end of Long Island Sound. Most residents could not give you directions to it.

But quickly it became apparent that the volunteers on the committee were involved in much more than a decision about a statue. They had been pitched into a debate about what happened on a June morning 357 years ago-one of the most hotly contested events in Colonial history and one that some scholars argue is at the root of relationships between European colonizers and Native Americans.

Almost from the start, the angry unfinished business of the 17th century seeped into the committee’s meetings. Furious members soon gave up taking minutes because no one could agree on what had been said at the previous session. The audience grew increasingly hostile, jeering expert witnesses.

An invited speaker once threatened a committee member. Thompson remembers thinking: “Reality check. Hello.” Thompson was called a dictator and compared to Hitler. The statue was likened to erecting a monument to Heinrich Himmler at Auschwitz.

It was a curious turnaround for Capt. John Mason. A century earlier, Mason’s place in history seemed unassailable when the leading men of Mystic lifted his towering bronze likeness, frozen forever grasping at his sword, onto a 23-ton granite block.

A plaque on the stone declares that near the spot, Mason “overthrew the Pequot Indians and preserved the settlements from destruction.” He was a figure of reverence; mythlike. He was a defender of the colony and an instrument of God.

But history ebbs and flows. The very events Mason is credited with setting in motion have lately been kinder to the vanquished than the victor. Decades of development have relegated the statue to an out- of-the-way part of town. Its huge pedestal now sits in the middle of Pequot Avenue. Locally, Mason’s legacy is a means of slowing traffic.

Pequot fortunes, meanwhile, recently moved in a reverse direction. Two decades of historical revisionism cast the Puritan war with the Pequots in terms more sympathetic to the tribe. Coincidentally, a century after the statue went up, the tribe Mason had been credited with burning from the Earth broke ground for a gambling casino that has become the most profitable in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1992, well into this shifting historical context, there was a prayer service at the foot of Mason’s statue. It remembered not Mason’s victory, but those who suffered and died at the hands of the European invaders. Wolf Jackson, a Pequot, then circulated petitions calling for the statue’s removal. In October 1992, the Groton Town Council-the western half of Mystic is part of Groton-appointed the committee.

Thompson became chairman by virtue of his strong lack of opinion on the subject; he lives in the neat subdivision that has grown around Mason’s statue and is a beneficiary of its effect on traffic.

The committee’s work stretched past its deadline. For most of 11 months, Thompson was more referee than chairman. The committee split roughly between people who hated the statue and people who liked it; people who thought Mason was all bad and those who thought he wasn’t. Illustrative of the group’s divisions was the decision against keeping meaningful minutes.

“The reason we did that,” Thompson said, “was that the early meetings, the first few months, were almost 911 contentious. So rather than devolve into spending three hours each week trying to get every word of the minutes from last week approved, we kind of somehow came to the decision to just not say anything.”

One night, Moonface Bear, a leader of Connecticut’s Golden Hill Paugussett tribe, addressed the committee.

“I thought I was going to get hit with a chair,” Thompson said. “That was a very heated meeting. And I think the minutes say, `We had Native American speakers here.’ That kind of thing.”

In such an atmosphere, how were nine people in modern-day Connecticut — including a descendant of the Pequots and a descendant of Mason-supposed to discern the motives of an English colonist? How were they to decide what the erectors of the statue had in mind? How would they agree on whether history’s wrongs can be righted?

It was as if the battle for the colony had to be fought again.

Preludes to war

Whatever the motives of Mason and the Pequots, history suggests a clash between cultures was inevitable.

By the 1620s, a flourishing commerce existed between Europe, where beaver coats were the rage, and North America, where trappers and traders filled the void left by overhunting in the Russian forests.

Already there were territorial scrapes between the Pequots, the dominant tribe, and their neighbors, including the Narragansetts. The earliest European incursions into the Connecticut River Valley only exacerbated them.

The Dutch sailed up the Connecticut River as far as modern Hartford to trade with the Pequots. The English from Massachusetts Bay sent a band of settlers to Hartford and established relations with lesser tribes who hoped to gain a degree of protection from the Pequots.

The English also established a trading post of their own at Windsor, where the Farmington River joins the Connecticut. Their plan was to intercept furs bound from the interior for the Dutch.

Tension grew.

The Pequots killed some Indians-probably Narragansetts-who were attempting to trade with the Dutch. The Dutch reacted by kidnapping and killing a Pequot sachem. The Narragansett response was to consider war against the Pequots. And the Pequots retaliated with an attack on the Dutch post, the House of Hope.

But it took the apparently unrelated murder of John Stone, an English trader, to really begin the destabilizing slide toward general war. It is curious that Stone contributed so to hostilities, because if there was anything the Pequots and English agreed upon, it was that Stone needed killing.

He was a West Indian trader-cum- pirate who landed in Massachusetts Bay after trying to hijack a Plymouth ship. The citizens of Plymouth howled for his head, but Stone had friends in high places. For some reason, the Colonial magistrates smoothed things over, at least until Stone next surfaced, in bed with another man’s wife. Stone is said to have used “braving and threatening speeches” to bully his way out of the jam, but he was banished on pain of death.

On his way to Virginia, Stone kidnapped some Indians at the Connecticut River for ransom, but he was caught off guard and killed, probably by Western Niantics, allies of the Pequots.

About the same time, the Pequot sachem Sassacus traveled to Massachusetts, hoping to stop the violence with diplomacy.

The English insisted that the Pequots produce Stone’s killers. But before anything could be done, another Englishman, John Oldham, was killed, this time on Block Island. The English, who also were hearing rumors that the Pequots were secretly plotting war against the colonists, held them responsible for Oldham’s death, even though Block Island was Narragansett territory.

On Aug. 25, 1636, Massachusetts Bay launched a punitive expedition under the charge of John Endecottto avenge the murders of Oldham and Stone.

Endecott attacked Block Island, but probably killed only one man. He burned some wigwams and crops and headed for Connecticut. At Pequot Harbor, site of modern New London, he demanded Stone’skillers.

Again, there was no real violence. Endecott chased some Pequots into the woods, where they hid, laughing at the sight of the Englishmen, armored and sweating under the hot sun. Endecott burned some more corn and wigwams. Then he returned to Boston.

Endecott was apparently enough to dissuade Sassacus of whatever peaceful intentions he may have held.

Fed up, he ordered his warriors on a series of raids. On April 23, 1637, 200 warriors attacked Wethersfield as the colonists left their homes to tend their fields and cattle.

Nine settlers, including a woman and a child, were killed. The war party took two 15-year-old girls hostage and retreated down the Connecticut River in dugout canoes. As the Indians passed the English fort at Old Saybrook, they hoisted the settlers’ bloody clothes in mimicry of sails on English boats.

The Wethersfield attack increased colonists’ fear that the Pequots were planning general war. The raid brought the total of English dead from the hostilities to 30 — 5 percent of the English population of Connecticut.

The English became convinced that their very survival was at stake. They decided to strike first. In the spring of 1637, the General Court at Hartford declared war on the Pequots, the first such declaration north of Mexico.

Heated views of history

It is a relatively new school of historical thought that asks whether the colonization of America was inherently evil-the same thinking that created a backlash of protest during the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World.

Such revision of history is what drove the movement for a new look at Mason’s statue. The town council asked the committee for advice on “possible solutions to resolve the conflict that now exists over the statue, its language and symbolism.”

Vine Deloria Jr., a Native American activist and author, wrote to the committee that conservative historians perpetuate many of society’s problems by refusing to “revise” interpretations of events, such as the battle between Mason and the Pequots.

“The real problem today is the irresponsibility of the ruling class of white man and the propensity of people to reclassify such massacres as `battle’-to use euphemisms to cover a multitude of sins,” he wrote.

To some committee members, such as David Silk, some Colonial histories were little more than propaganda.

“The history, first of all, was written by white men,” Silk said. “Some of the stuff was just terrible. Some of it written in the ’50s was just vile. Almost making heroes out of anyone who killed redskins.”

Silk was one of two committee members from the Southeastern Connecticut Coalition for Peace and Justice, a group that formed by holding protest vigils during the Persian Gulf war and that was drawn to Wolf Jackson’s crusade.

Silk brought to the table robust ideas about what to do with John Mason’s statue.

“I’d like to see the thing destroyed,” he said. “But, well, that’s down the road someplace.”

Silk viewed opposition to the statue as an obligation of cultural solidarity.

“The newspaper constantly refers to the Pequots’ objecting to the statue,” Silk said. “Sometimes it even seems like it’s a white-against-a-Native- American type of issue. Not only is it not true, but it’s harmful.

“It’s like, `If it wasn’t my ancestors who were slaughtered, then it doesn’t matter.’ It’s a way of denial. And I think it’s part of the denial that we have about Native Americans. `They once were, they no longer are.

Yeah, we treated them bad, but that was way back then.’ ”

Patron historian to all those who would remove the statue from its present site is Francis Jennings, author of “The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest.”

His 1975 book broke with traditional thinking and formulated a view of Colonial New England that casts Native Americans as victims. Its provocative arguments invigorated Colonial history.

In his writings on Mason and the Pequots, Jennings argues that their battle was the first of a continuing series of duplicitous attacks against Native Americans by Europeans who coveted their land.

Such thinking at times evoked passionate responses from the committee and members of its equally disputatious audience. Thompson struggled to maintain order, and after a time, his most frequent discussion with his wife became why he put up with it.

“I can’t even remember some of the things I was, on some nights during those meetings,” Thompson said. “I was used to being Hitler all the time. Every time I would cut somebody off and try to get things moving again, I was a dictator.”

At the fourth meeting, it was a member of the audience who informed the committee that the statue on Pequot Avenue is about as appropriate as a monument at Auschwitz to Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

The following week, Melinda Plourde- Cole, the other representative of the Southeastern Connecticut Coalition, wondered aloud whether “the statue’s energy” was “racism.” At the sixth meeting, Wolf Jackson compared Mason to Josef Stalin.

For a brief time, the state Department of Environmental Protection had a member on the committee, since the state owns the statue. He excused himself early one night, whispering to a friend, “I’m late. I hope I don’t get scalped.”

He did not whisper quietly enough. The committee-which not incidentally argued over who invented scalping, Indians or Europeans-voted that it would be his last meeting.

But the meeting almost everyone on the committee seems to remember was the night Moonface Bear came to speak, shortly before the Paugussett leader became a fixture in the news because of his armed standoff with the state over the sale of tax- free cigarettes.

“After the Moonface Bear incident, I made sure I found out how to get help in there, quickly,” Thompson said.

“What happened was, we were in a very small room that night and he had a lot of people with him. Some of these guys are pretty damn big. And they dress sort of to intimidate.”

Some on the committee and in the audience clapped and nodded in approval at Moonface Bear’s plea for Native American rights. “He just got spun up and encouraged enough at one point where it was like, `We’re going to get our rights. And we’ll fight. And we’ll kill people if we have to.’ And he got up and got very close to the table and said: `I’ll bring in as many people as we need.’ ”

A deadly inferno

In 1637, rightly or wrongly, the attack was planned and the Connecticut General Court chose Mason to lead it.

He was a 37-year-old militia captain who had arrived in the colony three years earlier, a leader among the families from Dorchester, Mass., who settled Windsor.

His march against the Pequots did not begin well.

There is some disagreement about the exact size of Mason’s force when he left Hartford. He probably had 90 Englishmen, from Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield, and 70 Mohegans, led by the sachem Uncas, who had split from the Pequots.

They sailed to the English fort at Old Saybrook, commanded by Lt. Lion Gardiner. Gardiner knew a little about the Pequots; his outpost had been besieged for months following Endecott’s retaliatory raid at New London.

Gardiner pronounced Mason’s mission foolhardy-he was not outfitted for the attack, lacked the requisite military training and was depending for support upon Uncas, who was unreliable.

Uncas acted immediately to dispel doubts about his reliability. He killed four Pequots who happened to be in the vicinity. But the expedition was put on hold for five or six days. Eventually, the Englishmen decided to replace Mason’s 20 frailest men with 20 of Gardiner’s lustiest.

Again, there are inconsistencies about what followed-principally in numbers of troops-but the broad outline of events leading to the battle is agreed upon.

Mason had been ordered to make a frontal attack on a principal Pequot village. But after hours of prayer, he adopted a plan provided by the Narragansetts-attack from the rear.

From Old Saybrook, he sailed down Long Island Sound. When he passed Groton Long Point, Pequots lined the shore, waving and taunting; challenging the English to stop and fight.

But Mason continued to Rhode Island, apparently causing the Pequots to believe the English had given up and were returning to Massachusetts, petrified and defeated.

Still farther east, beyond the land of the Pequots, Mason touched shore in Narragansett territory. Again, he could have hoped for a more encouraging greeting. The Narragansett sachem Miantonomo was about as impressed as Gardiner. Mason’s force, Miantonomo said, was too paltry.

Nonetheless, after some talk, Miantonomo gave Mason his blessing, as well as his permission to march westward-across Narragansett territory. He also assigned agroup of Narragansetts and Niantics to join Mason’s force, bringing the number of the combined force to 500 by some accounts.

Mason and his army struck out through the woods, and it seemed as if all the dire warnings were proving true. First, a portion of his Indian allies had a change of heart and needed a rousing speech from Uncas to keep them from going home. Then, after camping for the night, the Englishmen overslept. Mason had hoped for a dawn attack.

When they finally roused themselves, the Englishmen found they were lost.

At last, Mason’s Indian scouts found a path that led to some cornfields, a sure sign of settlement. Mason found a 2-acre Pequot compound of homes, spread along lanes. It was surrounded by a 10- to 12-foot palisade of posts. There were entrances at the southwest and northeast sides.

Mason’s luck seemed to turn. The village was quiet, the inhabitants apparently sleeping late after a celebration of the spring fish runs.

Still undetected, Mason divided his force. He planned to attack from the northeast. His second in command, Capt. John Underhill, would enter from the southwest. As Mason approached, a dog barked. A sleepy Pequot emerged from his wigwam, and walked smack into the approaching English.

“Owanux, Owanux!” the Pequot cried. “Englishmen, Englishmen!” But Mason’s surprise was complete. His force was within the compound before the village was aroused. Mason charged into a wigwam full of sleeping inhabitants. He was nearly shot by an arrow, but one of his men slashed the warrior’s bowstring before he could fire.

The attack was only minutes old when Mason made a decision that raised one of the most enduring and hotly debated questions in New England history.

The Pequots were awake and trying to mount a defense. There was a great confusion of white men and red men running about. Mason, most historians believe, may have wanted to gain the upper hand before another Pequot village 5 miles away, where the sachem Sassacus was believed encamped with a large contingent of warriors, could send in reinforcements.

Mason had dashed along the village’s main lane and was at the compound’s northeast perimeter. There was a breeze freshening from the northeast. He ducked into a wigwam and grabbed an ember. He touched it to the wigwam’s bark mat covering. It was dry and ignited in a moment, and the breeze carried the flames south over the entire village.

In minutes, it was a deadly inferno.

The English and their allies bolted outside the palisade, and Mason ordered the English to form a ring around the village. Behind them, the Narragansett and Niantic allies formed a second, concentric circle.

The English were ordered to kill Pequots fleeing the flames, and the Indians were ordered to kill any the English missed.

Years later, Underhill wrote that the Pequots, who were absolutely without hope and being cut down by the score, fought valiantly:

“Many were burnt in the fort, both men, women and children. Others forced out, and came in troops to the Indians, twenty and thirty at a time, which our soldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword. Down fell men, women and children; those that scaped us, fell into the hands of the Indians that were in the rear of us.

“Most courageously these Pequots behaved themselves . . . many courageous fellows were unwilling to come out and fought most desperately through the pallisadoes . . . and so perished valiantly. Mercy did they deserve for the valor, could we have had opportunity to bestow it.”

It was a slaughter.

Before the flames died, Mason and his forces fled west. Sassacus, at the adjacent Pequot village, had been alerted and was in hot pursuit. Mason ran to the Thames River, where the English ships were waiting by prearrangement.

Accounts of the battle suggest 400 Pequot men, women and children — virtually the village’s entire population-were massacred. Mason probably lost two English killed and 20 wounded. Some accounts say as many as half his Native American allies died.

And it was only the first blow in what became a campaign by the English to exterminate the Pequots. Expeditions were commissioned in Massachusetts and Connecticut to finish the tribe off.

The war ended in scattered skirmishes; warriors were killed and women and children were dispersed among settlers and their Native American allies. Some were sold into slavery.

Near the end of 1637, the few remaining Pequot sachems pleaded for an end to the war, offering their freedom for the close of hostilities. A peace convention was arranged. The Treaty of Hartford was signed on Sept. 21, 1638, and, under its terms, the Pequots ceased to exist.

Before the war, there were probably 3,000 Pequots. Possibly half the tribe,principally combatants, were killed.

The treaty forbade the surviving Pequots from calling themselves Pequots.

They were not permitted to live in their tribal lands. The Pequot River was renamed the Thames River. Pequot Village was renamed New London. The word Pequot was not to be spoken.

Sassacus fled north, seeking refuge among the Mohawks. They killed him and made a gift of his head to the English in Hartford.

The monument question

By and large, the John Mason Statue Advisory Committee did not begin its work amid a general public hand-wringing over the rightness or wrongness of John Mason’s attack on the Pequots.

“Truly, I went in with an open mind on it,” said J. Neil Spillane, who was appointed to the committee as a representative of the Mystic River Historical Society.

“I did know that most of the Mystic residents really were strongly in favor of keeping the monument in Mystic. They didn’t see that there was all that much of a problem. To say the least, I suspect they felt it was a tempest in a teapot.”

But as the committee delved into its subject, it confronted the war’s central question, and it plagued the members just as it has historians in general. It is the question of what motivated Mason and his superiors in the Colonial administration.

On the one hand, it can be argued they were despicably venal; that they launched a premeditated, genocidal attack to exterminate the Pequots and steal their lands. On the other, there is the argument that Mason and the colonists acted from desperation; the settlers were afraid of being run out of Connecticut, and Mason fired the village in a frantic attempt to cover a retreat from a superior force.

The committee searched for answers. “We collected a stupefying amount of information,” Thompson said.

What it found were more questions. Did Mason attack an encampment of women and children? Or had the village been reinforced the night before by a contingent of warriors?

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the facts and I really shouldn’t even use the word facts,” Kevin McBride, a University of Connecticut archaeologist who works with the Pequots, told the committee. “It is all interpretation.”

The bottom line is that the Pequots were nearly eliminated. Whatever cultural contributions an intact tribe might have made to modern Connecticut were lost, replaced by the legacy of the English.

Confronted by the indisputable fact, the committee wondered what, if anything, it could or should do. Nothing, some argued. There is no way to impute motive to events nearly four centuries old, they reasoned. What has happened cannot be changed.

“It’s just terribly unhistorical and unprofessional to say what happened in the past didn’t happen or shouldn’t have happened,” said Christopher Collier, the state historian of Connecticut.

Collier declined an invitation to address the committee, but shared some of his thoughts in an interview.

“Whether it should have happened or not, it did happen. We’re stuck with it.

“The statue of Mason stands in the long tradition of what we broadly call American history. . . . There’s no question but that there were terrible injustices perpetrated on the Indians. I don’t think anybody questions that. But the event occurred and as a result of that event, large numbers of English people were made safe.

“And a large area of territory was opened up to settlement by these English people, whose descendants have made the United States what it is. Their descendants wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So the fact of this victory is terribly significant to Americans generally and to Connecticut people in particular. And it seems to me something that’s very worthy of notice.

“Just think about it,” Collier said. “What would have happened had the Pequots won?”

Events before the committee were terribly gruesome: massacre, immolation, torture. Emotions were bared. Passions were aroused. Some people were frightened.

More than a year after he addressed the committee, for example, William N.

Peterson, curator of the Mystic Seaport Museum, possibly the world’s foremost 19th-century maritime collection, remains so rattled by having received a hostile reception that he refused to discuss it or his views.

“They savaged Peterson,” Thompson said. “In writing and at the meeting.”

Peterson is a local history buff who lives in Stonington. He now politely refers any questions about the issue to a transcription of his remarks before the committee.

He told the group that if anyone today were to propose erecting a monument to Mason at the site, that person would quite properly be shown the door.

But, he said, the question before the committee-what to do with a statue erected a century ago-is not so easily answered.

He argued that events take place in the context of their times. By that standard, the battle was not calculated genocide, but “rather the unhappy consequence of bitter warfare,” Peterson said.

And the statue was not erected as an offense. The Pequots were honestly-but mistakenly-regarded as a vanished race in the 19th century. Herman Melville, in “Moby Dick,” called them “as extinct as the ancient Medes.” In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the Pequots, Narragansetts and Mohegans “now live only in men’s memories.”

In any event, Peterson said, anyone alive today can only guess what was in the minds of Mason and the makers of his monument. And to remove a monument erected by long-dead people to someone dead even longer smacks of book burning.

“To be offended by something that was created by a past generation and base the argument for that offense by applying the values and beliefs of a later generation is, in my view, historical madness,” Peterson said. “Moreover, to take irrevocable action in response to those ancient events and attitudes is, again, in my opinion, to take a very narrow view of our collective culture.

“Carried to its logical extreme the Colosseum in Rome should be plowed under and the Alhambra in Granada dynamited to atoms. They, after all, to some, are symbols of a terrible intolerance.”

`Bloody footprints’

In 1889, 250 years after the great battle-or, if you prefer, massacre- New England was obsessed with success rather than survival. The Civil War was over and the nation was intact. America had celebrated the Centennial. Manifest Destiny was no longer abstract ambition. There was a sense that the country was destined to claim a place of greatness among nations.

It was America’s historic monument movement. Communities all over the Northeast were looking for famous sons to cast in statuary. New London honored John Winthrop. Norwich honored Uncas.

Mystic chose John Mason.

He was still regarded as a key figure in New England’s history. After the defeat of the Pequots, Mason had been made a major general and given control of the Connecticut militia. He was rewarded with hundreds of acres of land in southeastern Connecticut, including Mason’s Island, at the mouth of the Mystic River, and much of what is now Norwich.

Later in life, he was repeatedly elected deputy governor of the colony, and held the position until his health failed. He died at 72 in Norwich, the town he founded.

The Mystictown fathers and county historical society decided the scene of the great battle was the spot for their monument. They undertook a survey for the precise location. Old photographs show the land then was cleared and probably tilled; plows regularly turned up artifacts and bits of charcoal consistent with the burned palisade of long ago.

J.G.C. Hamilton, one of a community of stone carvers and sculptors from Westerly, R.I., was chosen to create the likeness. He captured a stern Mason, 9 feet tall in high- crowned Puritan hat.

Mason stands, according to modern archaeologists, just about where Underhill massed his forces for their rush through the village’s southwestern gate.

The day of the dedication, a crowd of dignitaries arrived in New London by train and met in Mystic. Among those present were Gov. Phineas C. Lounsbury, his foot guard, four companies of the 3rd Regiment of the National Guard and the regiment’s machine-gun platoon.

There were three bands. When the members of the state legislature arrived, 27 carriages were required to haul them up the slope from the river.

There was a light fog. After prayer, poetry and music came the high point of the day. A man identified in the official account of the proceedings as Isaac H. Bromley of Boston launched the principal oration.

Bromley required 42 pages just to touch lightly on the strength of Mason’s character. In his view, Mason was on a heavenly mission. He marched into darkness carrying the future of truth and goodness.

“Before him,” Bromley rumbled, “were the wilderness and a wily and courageous foe numbering more than ten times his force; and around him a large gathering of red men, whose deceitfulness was too well known to admit of trust in their assertions; behind him, a settlement in the wilderness, over whose scattered homes the shadow of sudden and cruel death lay dark and gloomy.”

At Page 44, as if pausing to inhale, Bromley made an abrupt digression. He acknowledged that, even at the height of the 19th-century American spasm of hero worship, there were some who might argue that Mason’s victory was too bloody. These, he needed only paragraphs to dismiss.

“It is well to remember, too,” Bromley said, “that from the beginning of history, all progress has been in the wake of war, and every forward step in our boasted Christian civilization has been in its bloody footprints.”

Bromley urged his audience to look beyond the hilltop, over the tilled fields to the north, beneath the fog at the busy village below, and south, toward the fisheries and sea lanes of the Atlantic.

“Does your justification still lag, my peace-preaching brother?” he asked. “Lift up your eyes to the scene spread out before you; upon these grassy hillsides sloping to the river and sea, upon field and meadow waving with ripening harvests, upon farm and cottage, the rewards of toil and thrift, upon towns and villages teeming with life and humming with industry, upon yonder waters white with a commerce that keeps the world’s remotest shores in constant touch.”

Even the dullards in Bromley’s audience could not miss his point.

“All this had not been, had John Mason been less prompt or less resolute,” he said.

“And we are here, too, amid these peaceful scenes whose peace was bought at such a price, to remember, first of all, that homely axiom of common life that `to have an omelet there must be breaking of eggs.’ ”

Sweet irony

After months of anguish, the committee experienced a moment of truth.

Many miles away and months earlier, Stephen Katz, a historian at Cornell University, had reached independently the same position about the statue.

He had been studying the Pequot War as part of a three-volume history he was writing of the Holocaust. He concluded that Mason was not genocidal, and he believes that historical events must be viewed, in part, within their own context.

“But this is not just a question of what happened and a debate among historians,” he said during an interview, after the committee had completed its work.

“This is a debate about the public space in Mystic. And that’s a different matter. That involves not the people who lived in Mystic 300 years ago only, but the people who live there today. And what they’re willing to sanction and prefer to be remembered or not remember.”

So the committee simply stopped trying to figure out what happened on the hill above the Mystic River in 1637.

“We decided, there is no way to decide,” Thompson said. “Nobody knows what John Mason was thinking. Nobody knows if he went in with the intent to have a massacre, if it turned into a massacre, if there were women and children there, if there weren’t, if there were warriors there or there weren’t.”

Instead, the question became one of sensitivity. “The defining moment of the entire debate was sort of, `It’s sensitive to Native Americans, therefore, that’s enough,’ ” Thompson said.

“The key is that plaque. That `Heroic Deed of John Mason’ inflames most anybody who is sensitive toward Native American affairs. At the very, very least, what you have is an insufficient amount of information on the monument today to tell you what the hell happened.”

Spillane, a representative of the historical society, agreed. If only one person is offended, he said, that is one too many. “After many months,” he said, “I think we got consensus because we felt there was only one issue. Everything else was scenery.”

The town’s instructions to the John Mason Statue Advisory Committee were to recommend whether the statue should be removed, and, if so, to where.

After 11 months, the committee got half the job done and quit.

For Spillane, the determining fact was that the statue was erected on a burial ground. “If I were a Texan and somebody wanted to put Santa Ana on the Alamo, I’d be up in arms, too,” he said.

“So with that as background, I actually made the motion to relocate it. And it turned out to be a unanimous vote.”

On the subject of a new home for the statue, the committee considered more than a dozen locations. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was unable to agree on one.

So the committee disbanded, leaving some wounds.

In Thompson’s opinion, the Southeastern Connecticut Coalition for Peace and Justice succeeded only at raising political correctness to an art form.

“Let’s face it,” Thompson said. “That’s what brought them to the table because that’s what they’re all about. Look at any of their stuff. It’s trite.”

Silk, a coalition representative, was slightly more charitable.

“There was strong debate,” Silk said. “I don’t think it was personal. But in the beginning, and still, I have a lot of respect for all the members of the committee. Well, most of them.” The man who began the drive to remove the statue, the Pequot Wolf Jackson, is pleased with how it ended.

“I’ll always inside believe that statues of this sort have no business being displayed anywhere,” Jackson said. “But I can understand also that if we have to take another 50 or 100 years to let the statue teach a lesson, then maybe someone else will stand up there and say now that this thing has taught us all about history, let’s get rid of it.

“I’m satisfied that the people who lost their lives, the women and children, can now rest in peace. They won’t have this statue looming over their spirits.”

The statue’s fate is still in question; it still slows traffic on Pequot Avenue.

The Groton Town Council has adopted and expanded upon the committee’s recommendation; in one of history’s sweetest ironies, the council resolved in late April to move the statue to a museum the Pequots have built on their rich reservation. But the final decision still lies with the state Department of Environmental Protection. “What we really accomplished-sort of a one-page thing-bears not a whit to what really happened,”Thompson said.

“It was a long, tedious, but educational and enlightening journey to come up with kind of a one-liner that says — `Yeah. Move it.’ ”

CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: Correction published May 28, 1994

  • Moonface Bear, leader of the Golden Hill Paugussetts, told the John Mason Statue Advisory Committee last year that the statue in Mystic should be removed because it is a “gross misrepresentation” of what happened between Indians and English colonists. He said that if the committee did not vote to remove the statue, he would take further measures. However, he did not say he would “kill people,” as one committee member paraphrased his remarks. His remarks were reported incorrectly in a Page 1 story Thursday.


History Revisited: An Old War, A New Battle Edmund Mahony The Hartford Courant, Thursday, May 26, 1994

Allyn, James H. Major John Mason’s Great Island (Roy N. Bohlander, Mystic; 1976)

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and The Cant of Conquest (W.W. Norton & Company, New York; 1975) Katz, Steven T. “The Pequot War Reconsidered.” New England Quarterly, June 1991.

Kimball, Crol W. The Groton Story (Groton Public Library; 1991)

Mason, Louis B. The Life and Times of Major John Mason 1600-1672 (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London; 1935)

Mason, John . A Brief History of the Pequot War (Readex Microprint Corp; 1966)

McNeill, William H. Mythistory and Other Essays (University of Chicago Press;1986)

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4 Responses to John Mason’s Controversial Statue

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