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Samuel Sherman Votes to Declare War on Pequot Indians

Portrait of a Pequot warrior by Z.S. Liang.

Researching my family history in England would have been impossible without the internet, the wealth of records kept in the Parish churches, and the detailed English court proceedings that were carefully preserved.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my Sherman ancestors in England were not just a bunch of sheep shepherds. Many were wealthy cloth merchants and lawyers who did quite well for themselves; some with a family coat of arms. In three centuries of Sherman history in England, I didn’t see one account of any Sherman ancestor shearing sheep for a living. The Shermans bought and processed rough wool into fine cloth and sold it, but they let others do the shearing.

Let me hit the pause button here. I think I may have just now maligned shepherds and sheep. Maybe I’ve seen too many manger scenes with shepherds wearing gunny sacks tied with rope belts. I may have lost sight of the fact that shepherds were the ones who first heralded the Messiah’s birth. Then there’s Jesus himself, in the picture on the wall behind me, holding a shepherd’s hook and a small lamb in the other. Then there’s the other sheep in the background and that other shepherd in the picture looking apologetic and lost. No, looking closer, I see that’s not a shepherd. It’s my wretched guilt ridden reflection in the glass covering the picture.

After Samuel Sherman arrives in New England in 1634, there are a lot of epic things going on in his life. I know that at Samuel’s first home in Wethersfield Connecticut, village members on their way to a meadow they were preparing for planting were ambushed by Pequot Indians. Six men and three women were killed, and two young girls taken captive. These were all close neighbors and church members Samuel must have known well. I don’t know where Samuel or the other Shermans were when this ambush occurred. They may have been actively engaged in fighting off the Indians, or they may have been too far away in the village. I had a strange recurring dream in my youth where I was hiding my sisters and mother in tall, chest-high prairie grass from a band of marauding Indians. Was I channeling the fears or actions of my tenth great grandfather Samuel?

Map of the different Indian tribes in Connecticut.

The Indian attack on Wethersfield was one of many Indian attacks on Puritan settlements. In the 1630’s, Connecticut was in turmoil. The Pequots were extremely aggressive and feared by the neighboring New England tribes. Many of the Pequot battles with tribes like the Narangansett and Monhegan were over dominance in the fur trade. The area had been hard hit by a series of plague epidemics between 1616 and 1619, brought in by European traders and fishermen before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. With no immunity, it was extremely lethal and, in some cases, it eradicated entire Indian communities. The Pequot tribe took advantage of this, and brutally filled the power vacuum. Efforts to control the fur trade by the English and the competing tribes resulted in a series of escalating incidents and attacks that increased tensions on all sides.

After the Pequot attack, Samuel Sherman left Wethersfield with some of the family members, but it appears that an Edward Sherman and possibly Samuel’s brother, John Sherman, remained in Wethersfield. I found Wethersfield records in 1639 that show where Edward Sherman owned 144 acres and John Sherman owned 240 acres. This was lush fertile land next to the Connecticut River, and I suspect the two Sherman men were reluctant to leave it despite the Indian attacks. The pastor of the 34 Puritan families in Wethersfield was awarded 1200 acres. I would say he basically rewarded himself, since the pastor of each Puritan village was not only the head of the church, but controlled all aspects of the village life through the General Court. There was no separation of church and state matters.

Soon after the attack in Wethersfield, Samuel and some of the family members moved to a larger Puritan village in Stratford, Connecticut. Samuel may have been thinking that Stratford would be more secure, but Pequot Indians were a constant threat to the English settlers in that area also. I know that at the young age of 19, Samuel was one of the men in Stratford on the committee that declared war on the Pequot Indians. Men of fighting age were recruited from the various coastal settlements, and Samuel may have been one of the men under the command of John Mason. They proceeded to attack a large two-acre fortified Pequot village up the coast from Stratford. When they attacked and entered the fort, they were met with 175 warriors who inflicted heavy casualties on the English. The outcome was in doubt until John Mason yelled “We must burn them!” The soldiers then set fire to the village, and left over 400 men, women, and children dead in less than an hour, many of them burned to death. The Pequot warriors continued to battle the English from behind what remained of the palisade but the soldiers surrounded the fort and shot any Indian attempting to escape.

Before I give a brief account of the incident that officially started the war with the Pequots, I should say that almost everything I’ve read, and the little I’ve learned in school, is from the viewpoint of English immigrants like my ancestors, who believed they were instruments of God chosen to populate this new world with their vision of Zion, and to subjugate and indoctrinate the heathen Indians.

I ran across this analysis by one early immigrant (hopefully unrelated), of the plague that devastated the Indian population. “There hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague that has resulted in the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory, so as there is not left……any that do claim or challenge any kind of interest therein.”

This may have been an extreme view, but it serves to show the underlying thought that the Puritan immigrants were not only destined to conquer this new world, but guided by God to inhabit it. I’m just making note of the fact that the Indian side of the story is tragic and may not have been fairly represented in the history books.

The incident that follows is the final spark that ignited all out war on the Pequots. Merchant John Gallop, sailing in a 20-ton bark (a small sailing ship) accompanied by one other man and two boys, came across a pinnance—a small boat used as a tender for larger trade vessels. They recognized this boat as belonging to trader John Oldham, a member of their congregation. Upon closer observation, they spied 14 Indians on the boat’s deck, and a small canoe, manned by Indians and loaded with goods, hurrying away from the pinnance. Since the boat had set sail and was about two miles from the shore, Gallop and his crew suspected that the Indians had murdered John Oldham. Despite being heavily outnumbered, John Gallop and his small crew, armed with only two muskets, two pistols, and nothing but duck shot, bore up and rammed the pinnance. The Indians, armed with guns, pikes, and swords, were alarmed; six of them jumped overboard and were drowned. Oldham backed off, then rammed the smaller pinnance again, boring through its side and lodging the two vessels together. Several more Indians jumped overboard and a few went below deck. Those below deck were captured and bound, but one unlucky Indian, perhaps because they were short of rope to bind him, was thrown into the water and drowned. The body of Mr. Oldham was found covered with a sail, his head cleft to the brains by a war hatchet. Gallop tried to fasten and haul the smaller ship in, but a storm came up and Mr. Oldham’s vessel was lost. The murder of the trader John Oldham was the final straw that led to the extermination of the Pequot tribe.

Battle at Fairfield Swamp.

The destruction of this large Pequot village near Mystic River (near present-day Groton, CT) prompted the tribe to abandon their smaller villages and seek refuge with the Mohawk tribe. John Mason, along with 160 men and 40 Mohegan scouts, caught up with the fleeing refugees in a swamp near present-day Fairfield, Connecticut. Several hundred surrendered, mostly women and children. Some were kept as household servants, but many were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies to be sold as slaves. Nearly 80 warriors, with their leader, Sassacus, slipped away and continued west. They had hoped to gain refuge among the Mohawk Indians in present-day New York, but instead, the Mohawks murdered Sassacus, and sent his head and hands to the English in Hartford, Connecticut. This was a much-shortened account of the end of the Pequot war. The few Pequots that went to live with the Narangansetts or Mohegans were granted asylum.

Some historians have doubts on the authenticity of traditional accounts of history that valorize Puritans at the expense of the Indian population. It’s important to think about what the centuries old Indian population must have thought about the English taking over their lands.

A few years later, Samuel Sherman was one of the men appointed to guard the coast against incursions from the Dutch, who were still actively competing with the English settlers for the Indian fur trade and controlled the area that is now New York. Finally, I know that Samuel was an active member of the Puritan church in Stratford and a member of the General Court there. He married Sarah Mitchell in 1640, and they had eight sons and one daughter. The son who becomes my 9th great grandfather is his fifth son, John Sherman. In the next three generations of Shermans in my ancestral line, there are two Samuels, and an Elkaneh Sherman. There is little known about them, except the dates of their births and deaths, their wives names, and the primary location where they resided. Maybe some Sherman down the line from me will be more adept at filling in the details of their lives.

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