Pequot Indians: History & Overview

Instructor: Lia Winfield
In this lesson, you'll learn how the Pequot Indians lived before the arrival of the Europeans and what happened when the European colonists settled in America.

History

What happened when the Pequot Indians met the European colonists? How did the Pequot live before the settlers arrived, and how did the presence of the colonists change the lives of the Pequot? In this lesson, you'll explore answers to these three important questions.

The Pequot Indians lived in the region that became Connecticut. They were part of the Algonquian-speaking Indians of southern New England, a culturally and linguistically similar but not united people, which included the Narragansett, Mohegan, and Wampanoag Indians. Together, the Algonquian Indians numbered over 125,000 people, but the Pequot lived in bands of several hundred people.

The Pequot lived in what is now Connecticut.
Pequot Map

The Pequot lived very differently than the English settlers who arrived during the early 17th century. One major difference was that, unlike the English who lived year-round in permanent homes, the Pequot lived in villages some of the year and then migrated to hunting and gathering grounds for the rest of the year. This mobility meant the Pequot did not have a concept of private property; they did not own land or possess many material goods. This differed significantly from the colonists who came to America largely because they wanted to own more land than they could in England. The Pequot also did not have or use money the same way as the colonists. Instead of money, the Pequot and other Algonquians prized wampum, highly coveted strings of beads made from seashells. Wampum symbolized status and spiritual power and played an important role in diplomacy between Indian groups.

The Pequot also viewed work and the division of labor differently than the English settlers. While the settlers worked tirelessly to accumulate personal property and goods, and to protect that property from each other with fences and locks, the Pequot worked enough to survive, but enjoyed more leisure time than the colonists. Moreover, while the English usually viewed the family as the unit they were responsible for feeding and housing, the Pequot thought more in terms of the whole band. Members of each band made sure everyone had sufficient food and shelter and individuals assisted those in need. Indeed, Pequot rulers, called sachems, maintained their positions through generosity. While European leaders often demonstrated and maintained power through accumulating riches, Pequot sachems won respect by giving gifts.

When it came to work, Pequot men and women had clear roles. Women cared for the children, built the wigwams (homes), prepared the food, and tended the farms. The Pequot had a very effective and efficient method of agriculture. They primarily grew corn, beans and squash, but they did not plant these in separate fields, as did the English settlers. Instead, they grew all three plants together in a mutually beneficial manner: the corn stalks provided support for the bean vines, the low-growing squash deterred weeds and kept the soil moist, and the beans added nutrients to the soil. The men were responsible for hunting, fishing, and making weapons and tools. The Pequot division of labor caused serious misunderstandings with the colonists, who saw farming as the man's domain. This difference contributed to the colonists' perception of the Indians as inferior barbarians.

The Pequot grew corn, beans, and squash together.
Pequot Farming

The Pequot had a very effective strategy for hunting: fire. The Pequot periodically and deliberately burned the forests, which achieved several desirable outcomes. First, frequent and controlled burns kept the forests relatively open, which helped the men track and kill animals. Second, fires kept the forests healthy by returning nutrients to the soil and allowing for new growth by clearing the underbrush. The Pequot agriculture and hunting strategies demonstrated how they creatively exploited their environment. The arrival of English colonists, however, would irreversibly alter the lives and traditions of all Indians, including the Pequot.

The Settlers Arrive

The colonists changed the Pequot's relationship to the other Algonquian Indians. Prior to British arrival, the Pequot competed with neighboring Indians over hunting grounds. However, warfare among the Algonquian Indians produced very few casualties and instead focused on taking captives and making the defeated pay tribute, often in the form of wampum. This differed significantly from the warfare of Europe that the colonists brought with them, which involved killing significant numbers of the enemy.

When English and Dutch traders came to America seeking furs to sell in England, they introduced new opportunities for rivalry and conflict among the Algonquian Indians. Indians sold European traders furs in exchange for either wampum or European tools. The presence of the Europeans intensified the rivalry between the Pequot and the Narragansett, who were Algonquian Indians who lived in what became Rhode Island. Because of their more strategic location along the Connecticut River, the Pequot enjoyed a competitive edge over the Narragansett in the fur trade.

Pequot War

This image appeared in 1638 and depicts the Pequot War.
Pequot War

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