In the summer of 2012 I had the opportunity to participate in a five week summer seminar for scholars on American Maritime History, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at the Mystic Seaport Museum. In the mornings and evenings I often paddled my kayak along the Mystic River. Rising from the west bank of the river, just across from Mystic Seaport is Pequot Hill, the site where an English force led by John Mason surrounded the Pequot fort atop the hill, set it on fire, and shot anyone who tried to escape. Six to seven hundred Pequots died that day—some warriors, but mostly women, children,
and old men. When the surviving Pequot surrendered more than a year later, most were enslaved to English-allied tribes or sent to Bermuda. In an attempt to erase the Pequot from memory, the English declared that the word “Pequot” should never be uttered again.
But the Pequot’s story is not just a story of massacre and extermination. It is a story of a determined people who survived an invasion of their lands through both resistance and adaptation. The small nucleus of independent Pequot who survived the Pequot War eventually secured rights to about 3000 acres of land in their ancestral homelands north of Mystic. Some of that land today is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, who have since built a remarkable museum retelling the Pequot story. During my summer at Mystic, I was able to get to know Jason Mancini, Senior Researcher at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, who is working on a fascinating project mapping the journeys of Indian Mariners.
Among the things I learned from Jason (and at the fine Pequot agriculture exhibit in the museum) was that the Pequot were very early adopters of old world apple and peach orchards. In my article, “Apples on the Border: Orchards and the Contest for the Great Lakes,” and also in my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, I argued that orchards were a critical part of the European mixed husbandry regime which was in essence a three-legged stool: annual crops (grains), perennial crops (orchard fruit) and domesticated livestock. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Pequots and most other peoples occupying eastern North America practiced a mixed subsistence regime, combining annual crops with hunting and gathering to sustain themselves.
The European mixed-husbandry regime established new rules of property on the
landscape, and privileged the idea of fixity (staying in one place and claiming near-absolute rights to a fixed piece of land) over mobility (seasonal movement to the best sources of food, understanding property as specific land-use rights). In other words, the arrival of the European mixed husbandry regime in the Americas was a classic instance of what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony—when a dominant culture establishes the rules of the game, which all other subordinate peoples must follow. The English mixed-husbandry regime would ultimately establish both a cultural and environmental hegemony over New England; to survive, the Pequot were required to fight for their rights within these new rules. Jason Mancini recently sent me transcripts of some documents on Pequot orchards which appear to support my view of the important role orchards played in arguments between Native and European peoples about property rights. I need to do additional research to help me contextualize them, but I am offering readers a taste today, and welcome feedback.
The documents are dated between the 1720s and 1760s, and chronicle the persistent efforts of Pequot Indians to protect their lands against English encroachment. A document from 1721 was an appeal by “the Pequot Indians Living at Mashuntuxitt (in Groaton)” made by a Pequot leader using the name of the long deceased but revered Pequot leader Robin Cassacinamon. By the 1720s, the Pequot confronted illegal intrusions onto their land by a rapidly growing English population, most of whom were unwilling to recognize the Pequot’s legal or moral claims to the land. The appeal chronicled the efforts of Pequot to adopt the European mixed-husbandry regime, and asserted the Mashantucket Pequots’ rights to the land they occupied by both historic claim (“where our Predicessors anciently dwelt”) and by the English doctrine of improvement, which was a central principle of the mixed husbandry regime. For the English, those who did not “improve” the land by adapting it for mixed husbandry forfeited the right to it. The Pequot petitioners noted that they had “improved” the land by planting both corn and orchards, and “our orchards are of great worth & Value to us. by Reason our Grandfathers & fathers Planted them & the Apples are a great relief to us.” Despite these efforts, it appeared that by 1721 Englishmen from Groton were eager to claim some of this land improved by the Pequot, dividing it in lots and fencing it. The Pequot protested that the English once “Called us brethren: & Esteemed us to be Rational Creatures: but behold now they make us as Goats by moving us from place to place, to Clear rough land: & make it profitable for ‘em.”
Additional records Jason sent along suggest that the conflict between acquisitive Groton English and the Mashantucket Pequot continued for decades, with the Groton men cutting wood and allowing their hogs and cattle to forage freely on lands claimed by the Pequot. In fact, it appears that the Groton English were soon using their livestock as “creatures of empire,” allowing their hogs and cattle to invade and destroy Pequot orchards. The English response to Pequot complaints about the destruction wrought by their wandering livestock was to argue that the Pequot needed to build better fences. English law at this time did not require farmers to fence in livestock. Instead, those growing crops were expected to fence them in; owners of marauding livestock were not liable for the damage they did to other people’s crops and orchards.
I am eager to do more research on Pequot orchards and their role in the Pequots’ efforts to defend their rights to their lands. I hope to write additional blog posts on the subject over the course of the summer.