Uncas, Miantonomo, and Historical Memory


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Uncas, Miantonomo,  and Historical Memory

by Robert A. Geake

The name of Uncas in the Narragansett language holds the meanings of “circler” and “fox”, and certainly a more appropriate name could not have been given to the crafty and cunning Mohegan Sachem.

Within the histories written in the centuries following his extraordinary life, the person behind the posturing of haughty warrior, self-promoter, manipulator of English concerns, and protector of his people; has remained as elusive as ever.

As with other Native American Sachems of Southern New England who came of age and responsibility during the early Colonial period, Uncas would witness the lives of his people become changed forever with the influx of Europeans and all that came with them. Practical goods seem to have held the most interest for these Native Americans. The New England Algonkians quickly adapted kettles, pots and pans to their everyday existence, as well as exchanging their skins and fur pelts for English style clothing.

Historian Michael Leroy Oberg writes that

“the technology and trade goods that the Europeans carried with them suggested to Indians that the newcomers were a powerful people, perhaps even otherworldly or magical.” The increase in trade also increased the distribution of wampum as an important commodity, and sudden competition among neighboring tribes.

“Strange it was, ”William Bradford of Plymouth would note  “to see the great alteration it made in a few years among the Indians themselves…it makes the Indians of these parts rich and powerful and also proud thereby…”

Uncas’ Father, the Sachem Owaneco, worked early with European traders to ensure a share of the growing trade for the Mohegan. A Dutch map from 1614 shows the tribes engaged with trade along the Thames River, including the “Mahican”. “Maximanes”, “Morhegans”, “Pequats”, and “Wamanoos”. Within a decade of this map being produced, the fur trade in the region was exporting and estimated 10,000 beaver skins each year.

With the advent of this economy and the resultant pressure upon tribes, relations became strained among the tribes of Southern New England. The Pequots and the Narragansett had it seemed, an inherited animosity toward each other. A tentative peace with the Wampanoag was also broken by Massasoit-Oussamequin’s alliance with the English settlement in Plymouth. This was the world into which Uncas grew as a young man.

Coming of age in the village of Monotesuck, near the banks of the Thames, he became conversant in the languages of the English and Dutch. Uncas was to claim lineage from the Pequot, Mohegan, and Narragansett Tribes. Although these claims have been challenged, such allegiances were long a part of his family history. Owaneco arranged a marriage for his son with the daughter of the Pequot sachem Tatobem, in order to secure an alliance between the tribes. The daughter named Momoho, was first promised to an older brother, but when he died before the marriage could take place, she was promised to Uncas.

When his Father died shortly after this marriage, Uncas inherited the role of Sachem but had to submit Mohegan authority to Tatobem, an episode that like Massasoit-Oussamequin with the Narragansett; was held in bitter distaste by these younger Sachems.

In the summer of 1633, a Dutch trader named Jacob Van Curler set up a trading post on the Connecticut River on land purchased from Tatobem. This had previously been a place where “all tribes might trade freely without any fear or danger”, yet the Dutchman set up two cannon and fortified his post which he named “Fort Good Hope”. This act stirred anger among some of those whom had traded and skirmishes broke out between these Indians and the Pequot at the fort. In retaliation, the Dutch killed Tatobem and 33 of his followers. Upon the Sachem’s death, his son Sassacus became his successor.

While his Father-in-law had been Sachem, Uncas had not challenged Peqout authority, but after his death, he “ removed to the interior and placed himself at the head of the Mohegan clans who occupied lands east of the Connecticut river, and west of the great Pequot River now known as the Thames. While Sassacus traded with the Dutch, Uncas developed alliances with the English.”[1]

      Uncas believed he held legitimate claim to the title of Sachem of the Pequot nation. To this end, he challenged Sassacus’ authority time and again. Historian William L. Stone would write that “Uncas raised the standard of revolt; but his power and influence, not being great at first, his rebellion was crushed, and he was ignominiously expelled his country by the haughty victor.” The defeated Uncas fled to Narragansett country in exile with his followers. Roger Williams wrote to John Winthrop  “This man is but a little Sachim, and hath not abou 40 or 50 Mohiganeucks…”.

Oberg writes that “The life of an exile among the Narragansetts suited Uncas poorly. He always returned to his homelands and ritually humiliated himself before Sassacus.”[2] The Mohegan were further weakened by the ravages of small pox in 1633/34 which killed many of Uncas’s followers, who were by this time, banished to the small village and fort his Father had established at Shantok.

The historian suggests that the Sachems tolerance of Uncas subordination may have been because he lacked the support among the Pequots to punish him severely, but there may have been other motives as well.  The Narragansett Sachem Miantonomo, told Williams that “Okace and his men had a hand in the death of all the English and fought against the Rivers mouth (at Qunnihticut) , and that when the Narragansett had allied with the Dutch against the Pequots, the Mohegans had “joined against us.”

Miantonomo claimed that Uncas had sheltered Pequot women and children while their men fought Captain Endicott’s English raiders, and confided that in one incident, the Mohegan Sachem had brought gifts to Canonicus and himself, “yet at the same time killed 2 of his women treacherously.”[3]

These early incidents, as recorded by Williams seem to be at the root of the Narragansett Sachem’s distrust and genuine dislike of the Mohegan that would culminate in their confrontation on the Great Plains.

Uncas’s relationship with the English was complex and based upon the political realities as the Mohegan saw them. Oberg explains that “With the Pequots under attack by the Narragansett  and the Dutch, and ensnared in an increasingly tangled web of controversy with the English, Uncas saw alliance with the newcomers as a means to increase both his own power and that of the Mohegans.”[4]

                                       Statue of John Mason from Connecticut History website

The English Captain John Mason, a veteran of British war with the Netherlands, and a man as  haughty and larger than life as Uncas, arrived in 1635 to build a settlement at what is now Dorchester. Mason had landed in New England five years before. In that time he had gained some military stature, having captured a pirate off the Massachusetts coast in 1632, and helping to redesign fortifications at Boston harbor.

The Mohegan sachem soon “fell into an intimate acquaintance”  with the Englishman that was to last for thirty five years. Uncas also met John Brewster, son of the Plymouth founder, who had long meandered upriver to trade with the Indians and seek out prospects for the Colony. In June of 1636, Brewster sent a Native American interpreter to Shantok to interview Uncas concerning “the proceedings of the Pequots, as also there present abode”.

Brewster’s courier returned with startling news. Uncas had informed him that Sassacus and a confederation of other Sachems were actively plotting against the English.

A plan to destroy Plymouth’s trading ship had only been foiled when the ship had fled the advancing canoes “under sayle with a fayre wind”. The Sachem had also told the courier that Sassacus with his brother and others, had been responsible for the death of the Englishman Stone, two years before, and that since then, the Pequots had heard rumors that the English would “shortly come against them”, and predicted that “out of desperate madnesse”, the Pequots would “shortly…sett both upon Indians, and English, jointly.”[5]

The news that Uncas sent to Brewster had the desired effect. Brewster believed the Mohegan to be “faithful to the English” and quickly passed the dire warning along to John Winthrop Jr. who had settled Saybrook. While the message generated talk up and down the river, it was not until the news reached Boston, that a definitive response was formed, and a summons was immediately dispatched to Sassacus. When the Pequot delegation arrived, they found themselves confronted by Winthrop, and the issue of justice for the murder of Stone, was raised again. Winslow told them that

“if they shall not give…satisfaction…or shall be found guilty of any of the sayd murders, and will not deliver the actours in them”, the Bay Colony had no choice but to determine itself “free from any league or peace with them, and shall revenge the blood of our countrimen as occasion shall serve”.

In the months that followed, Uncas took every opportunity to urge war upon the Pequot nation. As Native American tribes grew disenchanted with the European idea of settlement, so these tensions erupted in sporadic episodes of violence. The murders of John Stone, and the John Oldham, Brewster’s brother in law, were examples of these.

While the Pequot had been widely implicated in Stone’s death two years earlier, they were not the perpetrators of this crime. According to John Winthrop’s account,

“all the sachems of the Narragansett, except Canonicus and Miantunnomoh, were the contrivers of Mr. Oldham’s death”

This act was apparently committed to avenge Oldham’s trading with the Pequot. The Narragansett took responsibility for the crime, with Miantonomo reportedly ordering the execution of Anduah, the Block Island sachem for his role in planning the murder.

Oberg writes that by the time of that summer of 1636, tensions were such that

“Oldham’s death showed how quickly disputes between Indians could involve Englishmen, and his death complicated an already tense situation along the southern New England frontier.”[6]

Despite Miantonomo’s measure of justice, and a substantial amount of wampum sent to Governor John Winthrop, in August, the Massachusetts Bay Authority sent a force of one hundred soldiers under Captain John Endicott to “put to death the men of Block Island”. The Native American woman and children were to be spared harm, but collected and ferried from their homes.

When the Massachusetts force landed on the Island, they found the inhabitants had fled and satisfied themselves with burning the wigwams, killing the few dogs left wandering the encampment, and ruining the storage of corn the Islanders had prepared for winter. The militia next moved on to Saybrook where they were confronted by Lyon Gardner, the commander of the settlement’s fort, who made it clear that Endicott’s men were not welcome to come and stir up trouble then “take wing and flee away.”

                                           Early map from Connecticut History website

Undaunted, the men sailed East along the coast and soon found themselves taunted by the Pequots from shore. Negotiations were brief and to Endicott, unsatisfactory. On these breaking down, the English “gave fire to as many “ as they could, but the Pequots escaped, and they once again destroyed the wigwams and storages of corn.

As Commander Gardner had intoned, the surrounding settlements were not please with the actions of the Bay Colony. Neither Saybrook, or Connecticut, or Plymouth authorities wished to become embroiled in a war with Native American nations. Indeed, the Pequots took advantage of Endicott’s invasion too attempt to enlist the Narragansett, but Miantonomo’s message to John Winthrop, delivered in Boston that his people “had always loved the English and desired firm peace”, was a clear rebuke to the tribe’s old adversary. The caution the colonies showed soon proved to be warranted, as the Pequots retaliated with a siege of Saybrook that was to last into the new year.

Throughout this long “siege” and the subsequent attack on Wethersfield, Uncas urged the Colonial authorities to act against the Pequot nation. During the long winter, the Connecticut authorities had wavered, much to the Sachem’s displeasure. He had effectively isolated the Pequot nation from other Native American nations in the region. Even Miantonomo had presented a plan of attack on the Pequots to pass along to the Bay authorities, and a Massachusetts sachem named Cutshamakin had sailed along the coast with Endicott, and taken a Pequot scalp in the fight at the harbor. The Mohegan sachem vented his frustration on the minister Thomas Hooker who wrote with trepidation to John Winthrop that

“How the Pequoyts have made an inrode by a suddayne surprisall upon some of our bretheren at Watertowne, slaying weomen and children who were sent out carelessly without watch and guard, this bearer will tell you: Though we feel nether the tyme nor our strength fitt for such service, yet the Indians here our friends were so importunate with us to make warr presently that unless we had attempted some thing we had delivered our persons unto contrmpt of base feare and cowardice, and caused them to turne enemyes against us: Agaynst our mynds, being constrained by necessity, we have sent out a company, taking some Indian guides with us…”[7]

But after the attack on Wethersfield, Uncas was not the only one urging war. Another letter to Winthrop from John Higginson of Salem implored the Governor to put all other matters aside:

“In all these respects and many more I desire it may be considered whither the serious and speedie prosecution of this warre be not the greatest business New England hath.”

He warned Winthrop that

“Let not Boston Roxburie etc. thinke warre is far enough from them, for this seems to be an universal deluge creeping and encroaching on all the English in the land: The Multitudes of our enemies daily encrease, by the falling of Mohigoners,  Nepmets, (who live not many miles from the bay) Niantucuts at Narrohiganset and their malice is not to be questioned, their cruelty divers of ours have felt.”

Higginson reminded the Masachusetts Governor that

“…the eyes of all the Indians in the countrey are upon the English, to see what they will doe…”[8]

In this way, writes Oberg,

“Uncas pulled the English into his battle with Sassacus. He demanded that they act against his enemy. or face the consequence: a larger and more dangerous Indian opponent that did not fear the Puritans”.[9]

When the English did act, it was Captain Mason, the Mohegan sachem’s friend who devised the plan they would undertake. Advised by Uncas and Underhill, who contributed nineteen men to the force of ninety that Mason had mustered, the militia sailed from Saybrook with seventy Mohegans on May 19th,  past the entrance of the Thames River to Narragansett Bay, where they set anchor. Bad weather prevented their landing at Miantonomo’s village for several days, and when they did meet with the sachem, he was noncommittal about joining an assault, warning that the Pequot had “very great Captains and Men skilful in War”, but permitted the Englishman to lead his force through Narragansett Country toward the Pequot encampment.

On May 24th however, a number of Narragansett men came to Mason and joined his force. The warriors professed to the English Captain “how galliantly they would demean themselves, and how many men they would kill,”

Once they were at the Pawcatuck River, some Narragansett refused to cross into Pequot territory. Those who stayed, continued the march through the “extreme heat” with little provisions to aussage their exhaustion. Uncas and Endicott parleyed with Mason and determined to attack a closer Pequot settlement near Mystic where there were far more women and children than the warriors at Weinshauks.

Uncas had told Mason that he could not trust the Narragansett warriors to stand and fight, telling the Captain “they will all leave you…but as for myself,…I will never leave you”. The Mohegan led the militia through the darkness to the sleeping encampment. Mason handed out yellow headbands to the Mohegan warriors so the English could identify them in battle. He had none for the remaining  Narragansett who fell to the rear as the English surrounded the palisade fort.

                                                 Early print of the battle at Mistik

In the ensuing assault, Mason and Underhill set fire to the wigwams, fearing that Pequot reinforcements would arrive before they finished the battle. In the process they slaughtered many of the women and children who became entrapped in the flaming fortress. The Narragansett called out to Underhill as the attack continued, crying that it was too much, that too many were being killed. Those who escaped the fire were

“slaine with the sword, some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatche, and very few escaped. While Mason and the Mohegans rejoiced at their swift victory, the Narragansett returned to Miantonomo, some of them wounded by the English who mistook them for Pequots in the melee, and told the sachem of the brutality of the English way of war.

Native warfare had long held a tradition of limited engagement for a specific purpose – to avenge a death or wrong committed by one tribe against another. The avenging action was swift and inflicted minor casualties. Women and children were spared from the conflict, villages left unrazed. For these reasons, Underhill and others thought that

“Indian warfare hardly deserved the name of fighting”.

Uncas had led the English to the scene of battle, and now he led them through the wilderness back to the safety of their boats, his warriors skirmishing with bands of re-grouped Pequots who shadowed them to the harbor. Once the wounded were placed on boats, the Mohegan led Mason another twenty miles through the Niantic country to Saybrook.

After the massacre at Mistick, the Pequots became, in Roger Williams words, “a prey to all Indians.”  The Montauks from Long Island agreed to aid Lyon Gardner in gathering any fugitives in exchange for trade in Saybrook, and Sequassen, a sachem from the Connecticut River valley sent his warriors almost daily to Hartford and Windsor to “bring in [Pequot] heads to the English.”

Nearly a month after the assault, the Massachusetts Bay Authorities sent another force to Saybrook, where it met with Uncas and a sizeable body of Mohegans. They chased the remaining bands of Pequots westward, killing those who fell behind, or who were found digging for clams in hunger along the shore. The eighty or so remaining warriors made a stand in a swamp outside of Quinninpiac. A first attack by the English was beaten back.

Commander Israel Stoughton ordered the swamp to be surrounded, and sent in a Native American messenger with an offer to spare those Pequots that surrendered. As night fell, women and children emerged from the thickets, leaving their men to fight one last battle.

Through the night, gunfire was exchanged. At dawn, a handful of Pequot warriors attempted to escape and were beaten back, then the English marched headlong into the swamp firing their muskets “loaded with Ten or Twelve Pistol bullets at a time, within a few yards of them” The resultant slaughter left the dead warriors “in heaps“ among the victorious English and Mohegan allies.

The effective annihilation of the Pequot nation propelled Uncas to a prestige among both English and Native American leaders that he may have desired, but whose extent he could never have anticipated. In the aftermath of the war, the Connecticut authorities sent a small force to align with Uncas  “to maynteine our right that God by Conquest hath given to us”[10] . The Massachusetts Bay Colony took the view that the settlers at Saybrook had “rushed them selves into a warr with the heathen”, and would have lost everything

“had not we [the Massachusetts Authority] reskued them at so many hundred charges” .

The Colonies and Native Americans were also divided on what to do with the remaining Pequots who had been captured, the women and children who had been gathered or surrendered at Quinnipiac.

The Narragansett had expressed to John Winthrop through Roger Williams that the Governor should look “toward mercy and to give them their lives”, that they “be used kindly, have houses and goods and fields given them.”  Uncas told Richard Davenport that he wished “to make women of all the Pecotts, except the sachems and captains and murtherers”[11] He pledged to kill anyone found who had fought the English or his own people. Many of these remaining Pequots  were adopted into newly formed Mohegan

communities. As Oberg writes:

“Uncas created a powerful chiefdom that included the surviving Pequots and their former tributaries, Indian villagers in southern and eastern Connecticut, in the Connecticut River Valley, and on Long Island.”

In the year that followed the war, the Mohegan sachem would cement his claims to tributaries and lands by marrying a widow of the sachem Tatobem,  and at least six other prominent women among the people now subject to his authority.  In a show of his new power, Uncas even offered the Pequot women who were captives of John Winthrop Sr. protection if they would escape the Bay Colony and come to Shantock.

Winthrop would eventually exert his authority upon the Mohegan, and Uncas would learn to compromise with English authority, but he maintained Mohegan interests throughout, and displayed a cunningness whose reputation would only add to the myth of the man, in the later remembrances, and biographies of his life.

One of the most prominent stories that has survived into present time concerns the battle at the Great Plains between Uncas and Miantonomo that resulted in the latter’s capture and death. As might be expected, Mohegan lore, and Narragansett oral history differ in the events leading up to the battle and after. The English versions of events differ also, and in curious and unusual ways. These provide us an opportunity to examine the life of an historical story, and how it is perceived in memory by succeeding generations of both historians, and the public.

Events leading up to this confrontation are indisputable. Though the Mohegan and Narragansett had signed a treaty at the behest of Massachusetts Authorities to keep peaceful relations, disagreements concerning prisoners and land use rights continued to simmer. It may be remembered that the Narragansett had plead for those innocent captives of the Pequot nation to be treated fairly. The fate of those who did not assimilate into Mohegan or other tribes was decidedly unfair. William L. Stone noted that of those who surrendered at the swamp near Quinnipiac, “the female prisoners and children were divided among the soldiers, and numbers of them were sent to the West Indies and sold as slaves.[12]

Tensions between the English and Narragansett over the treatment of the surviving Pequots, exacerbated other disputes as well. The Narragansett felt that they were denied use of land promised to them by Colonial authorities after the war, and in addition, were forced to pay tribute for the Pequots they had taken as slaves into the tribe. Until the Mohegans attack on Sequassen’s village, Roger Williams had tempered the Sachems impatience, with missives to Winthrop and assurances that the English would seriously weigh their concerns.

John Winthrop’s account of the confrontation on the Great Plains comes from his

Journal, in which he wrote on August 6, 1643:

“We received news of a great defeat given the Narragansetts by Onkas…”

Winthrop recounts the attack by Uncas upon Sequasson that “slew divers of his men,and burnt his wigwams” that provoked the Narragansett, and how in answer,

“Miantunnomoh, being his kinsman, took offence against Onkus, and went with near 1000 men and set upon Onkas before he could provide for defence…But it pleased God to give Onkus the victory, after he had killed about 30 Narragansett and wounded many more, and among these two of Canonicus’ sons and a brother of Miantunnomoh”

Winthrop also mentions in the Journal  that  Miantonomo fled, wearing a coat of mail, and that

“he was easily overtaken, which two of his captains perceiving, they laid hold on him and carried him to Uncas, hoping thereby to procure their own pardon.” These two Narragansett who had betrayed their Sachem were immediately slain by Uncas, and Miantonomo was taken prisoner. Winthrop then recounts the imprisonment of the Narragansett sachem,

“they kept him under guard, but used him very courteously” and a troublesome letter from Samuel Gorton, demanding the release of his friend and threatening English intervention, the response by Uncas to take the matter to Hartford, and then Boston where the Commissioners of the United Colonies found themselves in a quagmire:

“that it would not be safe to set him at liberty, neither had we sufficient ground for us to put him to death. In this difficulty we called in five of the most judicious elders (it being the time of the general assembly of elders,) and proposing the case to them, they all agreed that he ought to be put to death” (Winthrop’s Journal Vol. II p134-136)

Another early mention of the conflict by William Bradford, demonstrates the extent to which the loyalty and words of Uncas were regarded by the English after the Peqout uprising:

“The Narragansetts, after the subduing of the Pequots, thought to have ruled over all the Indians about them. But the English, especially those of Connecticut, holding correspondency and friendship with Uncas…were engaged to support him in his just liberties and were contented that such of the surviving Pequots as had submitted to him should remain with him and quietly under his protection. This did much increase his power and augment his greatness, which the Narragansetts could not endure to see.”[13]

Bradford repeats some of the falsities that Uncas was spreading between the Bay Colony and Connecticut at the time, mainly that Miantonomo was behind a plot to assassinate the Mohegan, through various means: poisoning, or “to knock him on the head in his house or secretly shoot him…”

Uncas had complained to Connecticut Authorities that his entourage of canoes had come under arrow fire more than once in his travels. He had taken an arrow in the arm at Shantok, in an attempted assassination; and the Pequot suspected had fled to the Narragansett and received protection.

The Plymouth Governor wrote in his secondhand account that

“none of these taking effect, he [Miantonomo] made open war upon him [Uncas] (though it was against the covenants both between the English and them, as also between themselves and a plain breech of the same}. He came suddenly upon him with 900 or 1000 men, never denouncing any war before. The other’s power at the present was not above half so many, but it pleased God to give Uncas the victory and he slew many of his men and wounded many more, but the chief of all was, he took Miantonomo prisoner.”[14]

William Bradford’s account was written, like many memoirs of those days, years after the described events took place. Still, this is one of the earliest written accounts of this event which would grow in historical memory . Bradford’s telling is also tempered by his careful noting of the proceedings of perceived justice that followed the sachem’s capture:

“The Commissioners weighed the cause and passages as they were clearly represented and sufficiently evidenced betwixt Uncas and Miantonomo, and the things being duly considered, the Commissioners apparently saw that Uncas could not be safe while Miantonomo lived…Wheras they thought he [Uncas] might justly put such a false and bloodthirsty enemy to death; but in his own jurisdiction, not in the English plantations.”

Indeed, in his summation, Bradford seems unaware of the marriages made by Uncas that contributed greatly to his esteem through land holdings in the eyes  (especially), of the Connecticut authorities. He is also unaware of the prodigious correspondence of Roger Williams during this period, promoting the peaceful intentions of his friend, the Narragansett sachem, and of his reluctance to draw the English into what Miantonomo saw as an “Indian affaire”.

“…if I mistake not I observe in Miantunnomu some sparkes of true Friendshipp. could it be deeply imprinted into him that the English never intended to despoile him of the Countrey I probably conjecture his friendship would appeare in attending of us with 500 men (in case) nagainst any forreigne Enemie.”[15]

Williams also told the Bay Colony Governor that ”concerning Miantunnumu I have not heard as yet of ant unfaithfulness toward us…”

Despite Uncas’ rise in power, the Narragansett exhibited assured self-confidence  in the greatness of the Narragansett nation compared to Uncas’ Mohegan confederacy. Miantonomo told Williams that Uncas and his followers were

“but … a twig….while we are as a great tree.”

If Williams’ letters made any impact on John Winthrop, he did not share this with Bradford, indeed, he had written to the Plymouth leader that

“we conceive that you looke at the pequents, and all other Indeans as a commonnenimie…”

Bradford also makes no mention of the provocative attacks by Uncas and the English on encampments along the Pawcatuck River in the summer of 1639 that were filled with Pequot refugees who had long been tributaries of the Niantic sachem, Ninigret. This attack, stirred the embers of the long simmering hatred for the Mohegan once again, and enflamed the Niantic and Narragansett, along with other tribes who were becoming wary of Uncas’ influence on the English.

Roger Williams wrote to Winthrop during these unsettling times:

“ I have dealt with Caunounicus and Miantunnomu to desert the Nayantaquits in this business. They answer they would if they had shed the bloud of the English, but as they are bretheren so they never hurt the English…Instead they say that the English partialitie to all the Pequots at Monhiggan is so great and the Consequences so grevious upon the abuse of the English love, that all their arguments returne back (which they use to the Nayantaquit Sachems) as arrows from a stone wall…”[16]

In these early accounts and letters, only John Winthrop Sr., seems,with these epistles from Williams, to have acknowledged the haughtiness of Uncas in a continued pattern of harassing and provoking the Narragansett which ultimately led to the conflict.

The first “full” account of the battle on Great Plains would come in the pages of the Rev. Benjamin Trumbull’s History of Connecticut (1797). Rev. Trumbull penned many sermons and lectures, and by 1767, he had also completed a manuscript entitled A Compendium of the Indian Wars in New England, more particularly, the Colony of Connecticut have been Concerned and Active in.”

While this work remains in his papers, it was never published, and his efforts went into the larger work, which was enhanced by correspondence with many of the State’s local historians. In his account, Benjamin Trumbull uses all sources known to him and weaves them into the fabric of his narrative; creating an interesting tableau of the accumulated historical record to date.

                                    topographical map of Norwich and the “Sachem’s Plain”

Trumbull repeats Bradford’s assertion that Miantonomo marched upon Uncas without provocation, or informing the English. The Mohegan spies sent word back to Uncas at Shantok, that Narragansetts had entered Mohegan territory, and he set out to meet the Narragansett sachem.

This account presents for the first time, mention of a strategy of Uncas’ making: to offer a friendly parley with Miantonomo, and challenge him to fight man to man, and settle their long dispute. While most historians have framed the outrage of the Narragansett sachem to the power that the English enabled the Mohegan to gather, Uncas knew more than anyone that Miantonomo valued the pride of his people more than his own. He would not leave warriors to stand and deprive them of the pride they garnered from battle with such an enemy.

That certainty gave Uncas the element of surprise, for his ruse worked, and the Narragansett sachem came to meet him, and as expected, refused the Mohegan’s offer:

“…upon which Uncas falling instantly to the ground his men discharged a shower of arrows upon the Narragansetts, and without a moment’s interval, rushed upon them in the most furious manner, with a hideous yell, put them to flight.”

The Mohegan warriors chased the Narragansett “like a doe by the huntsman”, and

“-among others Miantonom was exceedingly pressed. Some of the most forward of Uncas’ bravest men, who were most light of foot, coming up with him, twitched him back, impeding his flight, and passed him, that Uncas might take him Uncas was a stout man, and rushing forward, like a lion greedy of his prey, seized him by his shoulder.”

In this account, the battle on the Great Plains was hardly a battle, but an embarrassing rout of the Narragansett.  In the matter of Miantonomo’s death, Trumball details the captured sachem being taken to Shantok, and then to Hartford to await the word of the Commission of the United Colonies, where

“The whole affair of Uncas and Miantonimoh was laid before the Commissioners, and the facts already related, were, in their opinion, fully proved…” Those facts, of course were Uncas’ long standing allegations that could hardly be proven, given the Mohegan’s many adversaries. The Commission declared that the Mohegan sachem “could not be safe, while Miantonomoh lived, …his life would be continually in danger”, and that Uncas  “might justly put such a false and blood-thirsty enemy to death.”

Uncas received his prisoner, and “marched with him to the spot where he had been taken. At the instant they arrived on the ground, one of Uncas’ men, who marched behind Miantonomoh, split his head with a hatchet, killing him with a single stroke”.

The murder of Miantonomo. From Cassell’s History of the United States.

The Reverend concludes this episode with a grisly and spectacular scene certain to send a chill into the reader:

“Uncas cut out a large piece of his shoulder which he devoured in savage triumph! He said  “it was the sweetest meat he ever ate; it made his heart strong!”[17]

This description of the battle is reprinted nearly verbatim by Henry Trumball in his ambitious History of the Discovery of America… (1814), as well as in a later edition of 1832, and then again in the 1846 edition of Trumbull’s History of the Indian Wars.  But the publisher adds a curious addition to the tale, that as the Narragansett  fled,

“many of them to escape…plunged into a river from rocks of near sixty feet in height”.

Henry Trumball was a Providence printer and publisher. Like many ambitious publishers, he borrowed heavily from others books and accounts to publish his own works, even if some accounts were embellished for dramatic effect, or as some suspect, created by the publisher himself. A modern assessment of Trumbull tells us that

“Trumbull’s many works touched every part of the scale from wartime adventure to shipwrecks and castaway cannibalism, never content with the everyday”[18]

Aside from his popular Indian Wars, Trumball penned and published The Life of Israel Potter, and Robert the Hermit among other titles, and gained a reputation as a “talented and thorough going rogue”.

In this instance, it is likely that Trumball had simply added another bit of local lore, which, as we shall see, continues to survive in present day historical memory.

This story of the battle at Great Plains was then rewritten, in a more delicate tone by Miss Frances M. Caulkins in her History of Norwich, and she references the source of the tale, for the first time, as being from a letter written by the Rev. Richard Hyde of Norwich to the Rev. Trumbull in October of 1769.

The Reverend Hyde was well known for his discourse among the Mohegans, and it is clear that he was by then, one hundred and twenty six years after the event, passing along what had become a legend in the tribe’s oral history.[19] Similar accounts of battles related through oral history were recorded by Frank Speck at the turn of the twentieth century, and by William Simmons among the Narragansett late in that century.

Hyde was sixty two when he wrote the Mohegan account to Trumbull, and he gave no indication of when he had heard the tale, only that it was “communicated to me from some of the ancient Fathers of this town, who were Contemporaries of Uncas…”

The letter itself was printed in Daniel Coit Gilman’s A Historical Discourse (1859) along with a letter from Miss Caulkin, concerning the long dispute over the location of “Sachem Plains” and Miantonomo’s burial there.

The story comes to its most detailed and elaborate telling in the pages of John S. De Forest’s  History of the Indians of Connecticut (1851) . The account in these pages provides greater detail to the aftermath of Miantonono’s capture, including the giving of wampum to Uncas, which the Narragansett had long claimed was ransom for their sachem’s life.

“It would appear…that a truce was opened between the tribes, which continued as long as the fate of Miantonomo remained in suspense. The Narragansetts sent their sachem several packages of wampum during his captivity, which he gave away, some to Uncas, some to Uncas’ wife, and some to his principal councilors. He made these presents…partly by way of thanks for his courteous treatment, and partly to persuade Uncas to put him into the hands of the English and refer his fate to their decision.”[20]

The historian further asserts that when Miantonomo was brought to Hartford, he  “begged earnestly that he might be kept there in the custody of the English magistrates. He doubtless expected that the English would preserve his life…”

More recently, the historians Neal Salisbury and Michael Leroy Oberg have speculated that the Narragansett sachem attempted  to broker a deal with the Mohegan. Miantonomo told Uncas of the recent Musee mischief against the Dutch, and hinted that it was but a part of a larger uprising. Uncas and the Mohegans could join the insurgency, and to cement the alliance,

“Miantonomo would marry one of Uncas’ daughters…Meanwhile, Miantonomo’s younger brother, Pessicus, would marry the daughter of the powerful Pakonoket sachem Massasoit. If consummated, the alliance would have brought together Indians from the Hudson River eastward to the Massachusetts Bay in a powerful union against the English and the Dutch.”

A first hand account written by John Haynes to John Winthrop however, places the issue of ransom, and the courage of the Narragansett sachem in a different light:

“That the express, that Onkas should take wampham of the Narragansetts for Myantonimo’s ransom (which I have understood also from Mr. Eaton,) I cannot but concur with you, if it really appears so, equity and justice call for no less; but this I must needs say, that this very thing was cast abroad by some Indians of the Narragansett party…both myself and Captain Mason strictly examined Onkus concerning the matter, acquainting him with what we had heard. He utterly denied, that he had taken any wampham or any other thing upon any such terms. He confessed, indeed, he had wampham and other things given him and his brother freely; and he as freely promised to bring him to the English…and this I also know…that the same day that Myantonimo was delivered into our hands and imprisoned…Onkas desired him to speak before us all; and this Myantonimo did utter and confess that the Mohegan sachems had dealt nobly with him in sparing his life, when they took him, and performing their promise in bringing him to the English, (a thing the like he never heard of, that so great a sachem should be so dealt with) although he himself pressed it upon them, again and again, (as they all could witness) to slay him…”[21]

Clearly Miantonomo had expected to die within the tenants of “Indian Justice”, as he and Uncas understood those inherent laws. There is no mention of him begging for his life, only a grudging answer that the Mohegans had treated him well during this humiliation.

William Cullen Bryant would write that being taken prisoner

“no doubt overwhelmed him, for he begged his enemies repeatedly to take his life, taunting them, perhaps, after the Indian fashion, with his own deeds of prowess in the past…”[22]

It is also improbable, given this testimony from Hartford and the apparent demeanor of Miantonomo at these proceedings that any such union was discussed, or that either Sachem, given their history, would have been open to such a proposal. Indeed, the sources used that mention a speculative “deal” discussed, clearly express what the English feared might happen, should Miantonomo be allowed to live.

Uncas apparently had no regrets of taking “gifts” from the Narragansett during their sachem’s imprisonment, as in his mind, he had not expressed any promises in return. He likely expected the Hartford authorities to wash their hands of the matter. In fact, he had made an agreement with authorities in 1638 to seek “advice from the English” should he capture the sachemand place him on trial for “sundry treacherous attempts on his life.”

Surely compliance with that treaty made it easier for the Massachusetts Authorities to place Miantonomo back in Mohegan hands.

Salisbury indicates in the final pages of his work, that the English, more than Uncas, had reason to see that the :”great sachem” was executed, and thus made sure that

“…several Englishmen would accompany the party to see that the execution was actually carried out. No Indian, not even Uncas, could be trusted alone with the remarkable leader who was urging Indians tp bury their present differences in order to recover the autonomy, unity,  and abundance of the pre-European past.”

          Miantonomo’s grave, Norwich, Conn. Photo by author.

John Winthrop was to write after the death of Miantonomo that Uncas had “slew an enemy, but not the enmity against him”

Indeed, as Oberg observes in his biography,

“Uncas’ close alliance with Connecticut and the Commissioners of the United Colonies allowed him to survive the Narragansett raids of 1644 and 1645” when the tribe’s effort to exact revenge was at its most fervent.

The enmity, over this affair,  would also flow from the pens of later historians of the Colonial period.

Daniel Gookin, the missionary who had written admiring words about the Narragansett, claimed that Uncas was “ a wicked, willful man, a drunkard and otherwise very vitious.”

De Forest, who had provided the most extent account of the battle and its aftermath, echoed the missionary’s missive, and more:

“His nature was selfish, jealous, and tyrannical; his ambition was grasping, and unrelieved by a single trait of magnanimity.”

But the Mohegan sachem also had his defenders. The lore of Uncas as “the great Indian benefactor” became strongest in the 19th century, beginning with the dedication of the Uncas Memorial, and with less fanfare, a modest monument to Miantonomo, that was placed upon the remains of a once great heap of stones.

In the address given at the Memorial’s dedication, William L. Stone praised Uncas as

“brave and fearless, the white man’s friend.” Indeed, the Sachem had sold the land on

which Norwich was raised in 1659 and two hundred some odd years later, the town’s pre-eminent historian, acknowledged that despite his faults, Uncas was to be admired for his “persevering activity in securing the independence of his tribe.”

This tale from history, of the mythical struggle between Uncas and Miantonomo faded in historical  texts as the narrative expanded and later events acquired more prominence in the evolving American story.

James Truslow Adams in his three volume History of New England (1927), makes scarce mention of the battle, except that it was sanctioned by Massachusetts Authorities, and that “Miantonomo was taken prisoner through treachery”. [23]

Adams infers that the animosity of the Puritan judges in determining the sachem’s fate, may have been driven more by Miantonomo’s friendships with Samuel Gorton and Roger Williams, than his rivalry with Uncas, though these ”most judicious elders” had found the Narragansett to be “of a turbulent and proud spirit”.

The historian also decries the English failure to enact real justice according to their own written treaties.

“There had been no pretence of trial, and neither the accused nor any witnesses had been summoned. Nor did the English execute the sentence which duty was entrusted to Uncas”, and leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the assassination.

“Aside from the injustice of the course pursued, it is difficult to think of one more certain to turn the “proud and turbulent” spirits of the slain man’s thousand followers permanently against the English settlers.”[24]

In the years after Miantonomo’s death, these feelings simmered and occasionally flared with the stirrings of one dispute or another. On the verge of Metacom’s War, with the English desperate to dissuade  Narragansett involvement, the issue of punishment of Uncas, now an elderly man, for his role in the death of Miantonomo, was still being raised as a pretence to any negotiation with the English.

During this conflict, which the Narragansett had been dragged into by the English declaration of war upon them, the death of their great sachem reverberated once more, with the capture and death of Nannuntennew, the son of Miantonomo, more commonly called Canonchet, in April of 1676. A contemporary account, included by Samuel Drake in his Old Indian Chronicles (1867) tells us that the younger Sachem’s “Carriage was strangely proud and lofty after he was taken.” The English brought their prisoner to New London where he was interrogated as to

“…why he did foment that War, which would certainly be the Destruction of him and all the Heathen Indians in the Country &c.? He would make no other Reply…but this;- That he was born a Prince, and if Princes came to speak with him he would answer, but none present being such, he thought himself obliged in Honor to hold his Tongue, and not hold Discourse with such persons, below his Birth and Quality.”[25]

Like his Father, Canonchet desired that he be put to death rather than confined, and in a further recall of his Father’s demise, requested that the act “might be done by young Unkus, (Oneco) that aided us; acknowledging him his fellow Prince…”

Canonchet promised the English captains that he had 2,000 men who would avenge his death. They placed the Narragansett under heavy guard and marched him to Stonington where most of the English soldiers, as well as the Mohegans, the Pequots, and the Niantics who had led Denison’s force out of New London, expressed growing their growing unease with holding such a valued prisoner for any length of time. There were fears also, that the English authorities, perhaps not wishing to commit the same desecration of justice again, might release Canonchet, and thus his vengeance upon the neighboring tribes friendly to the English.

Before any trial could be conducted, the sachem was murdered by his Native American enemies, no doubt releasing some drawn out vengeance upon the Narragansett; desecrating his body, and bringing the head triumphantly to Hartford.

Uncas would, in the end, outlive all his enemies. Thus by longevity alone, and his familiarity with the English Colonial governments, would a kind of mythical status already be given the sachem. His name would be immortalized by the popular author James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans, though the “noble savage” the novelist portrayed had little of the characteristics his name sake thrived in holding.

In the recent historical texts, one writer has acknowledged, “Uncas is viewed widely as a self –serving collaborator,” citing Francis Jennings and John Sainsbury among others who have continued the thread of enmity toward Uncas in their own narratives. In his essay Uncas and Political Contact, Eric S. Johnson makes the point that

“To the Mohegans, Uncas is a hero. Their view is best understood in the light of Native political organization. Uncas, like all sachems, was a servant of his people. He cooperated with the English for the most part on his own terms, in the interests of the Mohegan community, and with its consent and support. With Uncas’ guidance, the Mohegan went from a small, subordinate community to a dominant regional power within a span of twenty years.”[26]

Unsurprisingly, Oberg in his biography takes a similarly pragmatic view of the Native American leader:

“Uncas constructed the Mohegans out of the wreckage spawned by epidemic disease and warfare against the Pequots, He assembled a powerful Native American chiefdom that remained a significant power in southern New England for much of the seventeenth century. He lived a long life as Mohegan Sachem, dying a peaceful death without converting to Christianity and abandoning his people’s customary beliefs. “ Though he shared the landscape of New England with powerful figures such as the Winthrops, and Bradford, among others, “He played as large a role in the history of this part of Anglo-America, a region shaped by its English settlers and Indian natives, as any other individual.”[27]

That the Mohegan community remains, and is thriving today due to lucrative casino profits and land holdings, may largely be responsible for keeping the story of Uncas alive in written and oral history.

But let us return to this mythical battle, and its present place in historical memory.

The site of Miantonomo’s grave on a small, rocky hillside is a desolate place, even today, surrounded by aging ranch houses. and a block away from a busy route. The remains of sachem plain are a bare field stretching out from the hillside to housing on one side and a stretch of brambles before the Yantic River.

The Yantic is a fast moving tributary, known for its rapids and quick water passages. In local lore, as first reported by Henry Trumball, it was across this river that the Narragansetts tried to escape the battle. Therein however, lies the uncertainty of the tale and the location of the Great Plains.

Local myth has placed the site of “Indian Leap” and those “rocks near sixty feat in height” as that of Yantic Falls, some two miles upriver from the hillside bearing Miantonomo’s grave, historically, the place where he was captured, and then returned to be put to death.

                                   “Indian Leap” at Yantic Falls. Photo by CLK Hatcher

With modern websites the story is repeated of the great battle and the sachem’s capture. On the town of Bolton Historical Society webpage, we find the following account of the scene on the Great Plains:

“It required a large open field east of what is now Norwich, where Uncas would let the great Narragansett sachem proudly array his overwhelming army of warriors. As it happens, it was also a place where the Mohegan bow and arrow would be effective on a very large scale. Miantinomo typically attacked with upward of 700 warriors. While Uncas sometimes maintained as many as 500 warriors, they were primarily defensive and spread thinly through Moheganeak. Uncas usually led between 100 and 200 elite warriors into battle. The Mohegan warriors were the best and brightest warriors from all the other nations because Uncas welcomed all nations, offered the greatest freedom, and upheld the Native American traditions and virtues.

The Mohegans were greatly outnumbered by the Narragansett but Uncas had a plan. Uncas would ask Miantonomo to fight him single handed in mortal combat in the open field. He told his warriors that when Miantonomo refused to fight him, Uncas would drop to the ground and that would be the signal for the Mohegan warriors to fire all their arrows at the Narragansett warriors.When Uncas fell to the ground as though he were dead, the Narragansett were startled and confused. Volleys of arrows struck the Narragansett but carefully missed the area where Uncas and Miantinomo were. The plan worked and most of the Narragansett warriors were finished off within a minute.

Then the Mohegans attacked in hand-to-hand combat. Miantonomo ran for his life but was run down by the Mohegan warrior Tantaquidgeon and brought back to Uncas. Then the mighty Mohegan sachem Uncas, with a great number of his bravest warriors and wisest and most trusted advisors (sagamores), brought Miantonomo through Bolton to the colonial commissioners in the Hartford colony.”[28]

                                Sign at “Indian Leap” retelling local lore. Photo by CLK Hatcher

Another website from an area historian, brings the lore of “Indian Leap” into the twenty first century:

“Rather than surrender, Miantonomo leapt across the gorge and managed to land on the other side, injuring his leg in the process. Others of his tribe attempted to leap the chasm but were unsuccessful and plunged to their death onto the rocks in the abyss below while others simply surrendered and became prisoners of the Mohegans.

When the pursuing Uncas arrived at the top of the gorge and saw his enemy hobbling away on the other side, he took a running start, flew over the rapids, and landed safely on the other side. It was an astounding leap that gave the area above the falls its future name and allowed Uncas to catch up to the injured Miantonomo who was then easily overcome and taken as prisoner.”[29]

Thus we see how local lore, over time and with propogation, becomes historical memory.

Joseph Campbell once famously said that “myth is a public dream”. and this has been borne out by the evolution of the story of the battle on the Great Plains. We will never know the actual acts and course of events that occurred on that day. We know only the outcome, and the effect it was to have on the later history.

Critics may argue that with the onset of modern websites and social media, it becomes easier to perpetuate public myths, but the truth is that local lore is woven into the fabric of American communities, and remains a strong thread among those libraries, societies, and individual citizens keeping historical interest alive whether in print, online, or in public commemorations. Local legend and lore contribute to the dialogue, and the ongoing debate over historical events. It is, as it has always been, how we define ourselves, as a community, a state, and a country.

Perhaps as historians, the best we may do is to include the lore in our narratives so as to explain how events may become embellished to embolden the acts of a person, or a people, especially those within the community itself.

May-June 2011


[1] History of Norwich, Connecticut: From its possesion by the Indians to the year 1866, by Frances Manwaring Caulkins

[2] Oberg, Michael Leroy “Uncas, First of the Mohegans”. p. 48

[3]  from letter written September 3, 1837 Winthrop Papers Vol 3. p. 496

[4] Oberg,M.L. “Uncas…” p. 50

[5] These details come from the letters written by Brewster to Winthrop Jr. on June 18, 1636.

[6] Oberg “Uncas…” p. 53

[7] Letter of Thomas Hooker to John Winthrop, May 1637. Winthrop Papers Vol 3, p. 407-408

[8] Letter of John Higginson to John Winthrop, May 1637. Winthrop Papers Vol. 3 pp 405-406

[9] Oberg, M.L. “Uncas…” p.57

[10] letter from Thomas Hooker to John Winthrop

[11] letter from Richard Davenport to John Winthrop, quoted in Oberg, p. 72

[12] A prelude to the Narragansett’s fate after King Philip’s War, this began a long Colonial tradition of dealing with unwanted, and unruly Native Americans.

[13] Bradford, William “Of Plymouth Plantation” p. 330

[14] Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantations” p. 330-331

[15] Letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop May 15, 1637

[16] letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop May 21, 1640. Winthrop Papers, Vol. IV p. 269

[17] Trumbull, Benjamin “History of Connecticut” (1898 ed.) p114

[18] Checko and Kulcsar, “The Historical Guide to Gone Over, and The Brimfield Papers”

[19] See Simmons, William for a similar legend from the time of the Narragansett vengeance on the Mohegan in Spirit of the New England Tribes p. 96. VII

[20] DeForest, John S. “History of the Indians of Conn.” p. 192

[21] leyyer from John Haynes to John Winthrop November 17, 1643. Winthrop Papers Vol. IV pp 506- 507.

[22] from Scibners Popular History of the United States (1896)

[23] Adams, J.T. “The Founding of New England” p. 239

[24] Ibid. p. 241

[25] Drake, Samuel “Old Indian Chronicles” from A New and Farther Narrative of the State of New England (1676)

[26] Johnson, Eric S. from Uncas and Political Contact in Northeastern Indian Lives 1632-1816, Grumet, ed. p. 45

[27] Oberg, M.L. “Uncas, First of the Mohegans” p. 216

[28]  Debold, Hans from the Bolton Historical Society

[29] The Legend of Chief Uncas and Indian Leap. from Are We There Yet

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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2 Responses to Uncas, Miantonomo, and Historical Memory

  1. Nancy Oar says:

    thoroughly enjoyed this post. It is unusually unbiased, which is not the case with many ‘objective’
    experts. I would like to know if any colonists participated in these actions. My ancestor is listed as ‘bearing arms’ in 1643, and this seems to be the only instance of military action, but it indicates primarily indians. Is there any indication of colonial involvement in any confrontations at this time?

    Thank You

    Nancy Oar

    • rag57 says:

      Hi Nancy, My best answer is that your ancestor likely served in a local militia, a common effort by citizens in nearly every village to protect themswlves from possible Indian attack. You do not indicate where he was from, but certainly most villages throughout New England during this period would have had a militia formed for local drilling and any needed military action.

      There were numerous “skirmishes” with Native Americans as treaty’s were reneged. and more lands were taken, legally or not. This was also a period when many Native Americans and Colonists used the legal system to settle small disputes. militia were also called upon to “bear arms” at these hearings when they were held to discourage trouble between claimant and defendant in the courthouse or tavern where the hearings were held.

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