Quarrel between the Narragansetts and Mohegan

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A small body of the Pequots made one more futile attempt to settle in their old country; but a company was sent against them, and they were driven off; their provisions were plundered, and their wigwams destroyed.

The destruction of this powerful tribe left a large extent of country unoccupied; to no small portion of which Uncas laid claim by virtue of his relationship to Sassacus. The power and influence of this subtle and warlike chief had become, by this time, vastly extended, not only by treaty and alliance with the Europeans, but by continual addition to the number of his warriors; as many straggling Pequots, and wanderers from other tribes, were eager to join his rising fortunes.

Uncas and Miantonimo

Uncas and Miantonomoh
Uncas, chief of the Mohegan tribe, executes Miantonomoh of the Narragansett tribe after a battle in (what is now) Norwich, Connecticut, United States in 1643

Between him and Miantonimo, old feelings of jealousy, rivalry, and national antipathy were now aroused anew by various acts of petty hostility and mutual treachery. Uncas and his followers succeeded in exciting in the minds of the English a deep and abiding mistrust of the Narragansetts, which Miantonimo, upon repeated citations before the court at Plymouth, was unable wholly to remove. His wisdom, cautiousness, and sagacity, excited the admiration of all who heard him, but, with all his tact, he failed to convince the authorities of his good faith and innocent intentions.

The animosity of the two chiefs at last broke out into open hostilities. Miantonimo, accompanied, as was computed, by over nine hundred warriors, came suddenly upon Uncas, who was supported by only about half that number of effective followers. Before joining battle, the Mohegan sachem challenged his opponent to single combat, proposing that the vanquished party should, with his men, submit to the victor.

Miantonimo refusing to accede to this proposal, Uncas, according to a preconcerted signal, prostrated himself; and his warriors, discharging a flight of arrows, rushed forward with such impetuosity that, despite the disparity of numbers, they completely routed the Narragansetts, and drove them from the field.

The chief of the invaders was taken prisoner in his flight by Uncas himself, assisted by two other warriors. He had been impeded in his motions by an old corselet, a piece of defensive armor which had been presented to him by an English friend, but which proved fatal to him. Seeing that resistance was hopeless, he seated himself upon the ground, with true Indian stoicism and silence.

Uncas took his prisoner to Hartford, and requested the advice of the authorities as to what course he should pursue respecting him. They referred the question to the general court of commissioners for New England, which sat at Boston, in September, (1643). The court, unwilling to undertake the responsibility of ordering the death of the illustrious captive, submitted the matter to the decision of the clergy, then in high council at the same city. These worthies, less scrupulous than the laity, came to the conclusion that his life must pay the forfeit of his attacks upon Uncas, and his general turbulence, not to mention the fact that he had, in one instance, beaten a follower of a sachem who was allied to the English!

The unfortunate sachem was therefore redelivered into the hands of the Mohegans for execution, and two of the English were appointed to attend the proceeding, and see that he was put to death without torture. There is some discrepancy in the accounts as to the place where Miantonimo met his fate, but it appears to have been in the township of Norwich, where a pile of stones was long after pointed out as marking his grave. The manner of his death was this: Uncas, with his brother Wawequa, and a party of other Indians, accompanied by the two whites, was leading his prisoner along a path, when, at a silent signal from the chief, Wawequa buried his tomahawk in the skull of the captive from behind. It is said that Uncas cut a portion of flesh from the shoulder of his fallen enemy, and ate it, declaring that it was the “sweetest meat he ever ate; it made his heart strong.”

The Narragansetts lamented bitterly over the untimely end of their famous and beloved sachem, and complained of the treachery of Uncas, averring that large quantities of wampum had been sent as ransom to the Mohegans, and appropriated by them, regardless of the conditions attending its mission.

Pessacus, a brother of Miantonimo, continued to make troublesome inroads upon the Mohegan domains, but the English still held Uncas in favor, and warned the Narragansetts that they would support him should he require their aid.

In 1644, the complaints and mutual recriminations of the rival tribes were heard and examined by the commissioners of the colonies, who decided that Pessacus had not proved his charges, and enforced a temporary treaty. This was soon violated by the Narragansetts, who continued their depredations as heretofore; and in the ensuing spring, Pessacus, having done great damage to his opponent by predatory excursions, finally besieged him in a fort on the Thames, where he would probably have reduced him by famine, had not supplies been secretly furnished by certain of the English.

The tyranny and exactions of Uncas over the Pequots who had become subject to him, aroused their indignation; while his treachery towards his own people, and alliance with the whites, secured him the hostility of every neigh boring tribe. He was engaged in perpetual quarrels with Ninigret, a celebrated Nehantic sachem; with Sequassen, whose authority at an earlier date extended over the Tunxis tribe, at the westward of the Connecticut; and with the grieved and revengeful Narragansetts.

Whenever these interminable disputes were brought be fore the court of the New England commissioners, the decisions of that body appear to have favored the Mohegan. Assisted by the counsel of a crafty and subtle Indian, named Foxun or Poxen, who served him in the capacity of chief advocate and adviser, and whose wisdom and sagacity were widely noted, he generally managed to explain away his iniquities; at least so far as to satisfy an audience already prejudiced in his favor. When his crimes were not to be concealed, a reprimand and caution were generally the extent of his punishment.

On the other hand, when suspicions arose against the Narragansetts, the most prompt and violent proceedings were re sorted to: the payment of an immense amount of wampum was exacted; the delivery of hostages from among the principal people of the tribe was demanded; and threats of war and extermination were used to humble and humiliate them.

In September, 1655, a few of the scattered Pequots who had not joined the forces of Uncas, were allowed a resting-place by the commissioners, upon a portion of the south eastern sea-coast of Connecticut, and their existence as a separate tribe was formally acknowledged.

This little remnant of the crushed and overthrown nation had been, for some time, under the guidance of two self-constituted sachems, one commonly called Robin Cassinament, a Pequot, and the other Cushawashet, a nephew of Ninigret, known among the English as Hermon Garret.

The Mohegan Land Controversy

Tribal Territories Southern New England
Tribal Territories Southern New England

They had formed small settlements upon the tract now allotted to them, which they were allowed to retain upon payment of tribute, in wampum, to the colonies, and the adoption of a prescribed code of laws. Their governors were to be chosen by the English; and Cushawashet and Cassinament received the first appointment.

It will readily be perceived to what an extent the power and control of the colonists over the affairs of the Indians in their vicinity, had increased, even at this early period. The natives were now glad to settle down under the protection of their masters; to pay yearly tribute as amends for former hostilities; and to hire the lands of which they had been so short a time previous the undisturbed possessors.

It is pitiful to read of the coarse coats, the shovels, the hoes, the knives, and jews-harps, in exchange for which they had parted with their broad lands. Utterly improvident, and incapable of foreseeing, or hopeless of averting the ascendancy of the whites, they yielded to their exactions, and submitted to their dictation.

Sauntering indolently about the settlements, and wasting their energies by excess in the use of the novel means of excitement offered by “strong waters,” they lost much of that native pride, dignity, and self-respect which distinguished them when intercourse with foreigners first commenced. Their numbers, which appear to have been grossly exaggerated, even in their most flourishing days, were rapidly diminishing; their game was becoming scarce and the refinements and comforts of civilization, rude indeed as compared to what now exists, presented to their eyes at the white settlements, only aggravated the consciousness of their own poverty and distress.

The Tunxis and Podunk Indians, who inhabited either side of the Connecticut, in the vicinity of the English settlements; the Quinnipiacs on the sound, where New Haven now stands; the Nehantics, to the eastward of the river; and the feeble Pequot settlement, were subject to, or in effect, under the control of the colonists: Uncas was their “friend and fast ally;” and the Narragansetts, though under suspicion of various treacherous plans, were nominally at peace with the whites, and quelled by the terror of their arms.

This condition of affairs continued, with the exception of the great and final struggle between the colonists and the natives, known as Philip s war to be detailed in a succeeding article until the death of Uncas, about the year 1682. He left the title to his extensive domains involved in inextricable confusion. In consequence of deeds and grants from himself and his sons Owenoco and Attawanhood, to various individuals among the white settlers, and for various purposes, the effect of which conveyances were probably unknown to the grantors, numerous contradictory claims arose. The same tracts were made over to different persons; one grant would extend over a large portion of another; and, to crown all, Uncas, in the year 1659, had aliened his whole possessions by deed, regularly witnessed, to John Mason, of Norwich. This conveyance was evidently intended by the sachem merely to confer a general power as overseer or trustee upon a man whom he considered as friendly to his interests, and whose knowledge would prove a protection against the overreaching of pro posed purchasers. According to the Indian understanding of the transaction was the claim of Mason and his heirs, who arrogated to themselves no further interest or authority than that above specified. The Connecticut colony, by virtue of a general deed of “surrender of jurisdiction,” obtained from Mason, insisted on an unqualified property in the whole domain.

Owenoco succeeded his father as sachem of the Mohegans, and pursued a similar course to secure his lands, conveying them to the sons of Mason as trustees. His Indian improvidence and intemperance led him to disregard this arrangement, and to give deeds of various tracts included in the trust conveyance, without the knowledge or assent of the overseer. In July, of the year 1704, in order to settle the conflicting claims of the whites and Indians, and to restore to the tribe the portions illegally obtained from them, a royal commission was obtained from England, by some friends of the Mohegans, to examine and settle the disputed questions.

The colony protested against the proceeding, denying the authority of the crown to determine upon the matter, and refused to appear before the commissioners. The conduct of the case being exparte, a decision was given in favor of the Mohegans, restoring them to a vast extent of territory alleged to have been obtained from their sachems when intoxicated, or by other under-hand and illegal courses. From this decree the Connecticut colony appealed, and a new commission was granted, but with no decisive result, and the case remained unsettled for more than half a century from the time of its commencement.

Owenoco lived to an advanced age, becoming, before his death, a helpless mendicant, and subsisting, in company with his squaw, upon the hospitality of the neighboring settlers. His son Caesar was his successor as sachem.

Ben, the youngest son of Uncas, of illegitimate birth, succeeded Caesar, to the exclusion of the rightful heir, young Mamohet, a grandson of Owenoco.

Mason now renewed his claims, and, accompanied by his two sons, carried Mamohet to England, that he might present a new petition to the reigning monarch. A new commission was awarded, but both the applicants died before it was made out. “When the trial finally came on in 1738, distinguished counsel were employed on both sides, in anticipation of an arduous and protracted contest; but by a singular course of collusion and artifice, which it were too tedious to detail, the decision of 1705, on the first commission, was repealed, and the Connecticut claims supported. This was appealed from by the Masons, and good cause appearing, a new trial was decreed.

Five commissioners, men of note from New York and New Jersey, met at Norwich in the summer of 1743, and the great case brought in auditors and parties in interest from far and near. The claims, and the facts offered in support of them, were strangely intricate and complex: counsel appeared in behalf of four sets of parties, viz.: the Connecticut colony; the two claimants of the title of Sachem of the Mohegans, Ben and John, a descendant of the elder branch; and those in possession of the lands in question.

The decree was in favor of the colony, which was sustained on the concluding examination of the case in England. Two of the commissioners dissented. The Mohegans still retained a reservation of about four thou sand acres.

Their number reduced to a few hundred; distracted by the uncertain tenure of their property, and the claims of the rival sachems; mingled with the whites in contentions, the merits of which they were little capable of comprehending; with drunkenness and vice prevalent among them; the tribe was fast dwindling into insignificance. Restrictive laws, forbidding the sale of ardent spirits to the Indians, were then, as now, but of little effect.

Condition of the Pequots and Mohegans

Of the celebrated and warlike tribes of the Mohegans and Pequots, only a few miserable families now remain upon their ancient territory. These are mostly of mixed blood, and little of the former character of their race is to be seen in them except its peculiar vices. They are scantily supported by the rents of the lands still reserved and appropriated to their use. A number of the Mohegans removed to the Oneida district, in New York, some years since, but a few still remain near the former head quarters of their tribe, and individuals among them retain the names of sachems and warriors noted in the early ages of the colonies.

Much interest attaches to the efforts which have been made for the instruction and improvement of this remnant of the Mohegan nation; especially as connected with the biography of Samuel Occum, their native preacher; one of the few Indians who have been brought under the influence of civilization, and have acquired a liberal education.

In reviewing the character and history of these, as of most of the native tribes, and reflecting upon their steady and hopeless decline before the European immigrants, we cannot but feel influenced by contradictory sympathies. Their cruelties strike us with horror; their treachery and vices disgust us; but, with all this, we still may trace the tokens of a great and noble spirit. It is painful to reflect that this has more and more declined as their communion with the whites has become the more intimate. They have lost their nationality, and with it their pride and self-respect; the squalid and poverty-stricken figures hanging about the miserable huts they inhabit, convey but a faint idea of the picture that the nation presented when in a purely savage state; when the vices of foreigners had not, as yet, contaminated them, nor their superior power and knowledge disheartened them by the contrast.



MLA Source Citation:

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 29 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/quarrel-between-the-narragansetts-and-mohegan.htm - Last updated on Feb 18th, 2013


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