Cold Case – Mystic Archaeological Team Reveals Ancient Connecticut Mystery
By Chris Pagliuco
The idiom, “history is written by the winners,” is only too true in the case of the Pequot War – July 1636 – September 21, 1638. For nearly four hundred years its history has rarely, if ever, been written by the pen of the trained historian. Instead, accounts of the war, if written at all, have portrayed stereotypes, myth, and political agenda as facts. Using innovative techniques and resources, a special team of researchers is breaking new ground, literally and figuratively, in their quest to document the factual archaeological history of the Pequot War (1636-1637). For better or worse, it is considered the single most defining event in the creation of Connecticut.
I arranged to meet Dave Naumec, an archaeologist at the Mashantucket Pequot Center, at the site of this most recent project. We agreed to rendezvous with his team on the side of a road in southeastern Connecticut. Clad in dirty pants, knee pads, and a metal detection wand hanging at his side, Dave fit the image of the stereotypical archaeologist in the field. Together we bushwhacked our way through a quarter mile of dense woodland. Before my eyes the landscape blossomed with orange and blue flags, scattered intermittently as far as the eye could see. Dave explained that each flag marked where a bullet or other relevant artifact had been found. I was standing in the middle of a six mile long battlefield. At one point in time three hundred English soldiers were fleeing across this expanse for the safety of the coast as hundreds of Pequot warriors closed in to avenge the destruction of their Mystic Fort earlier in the day. At that moment I was struck by the question – was I treading on hallowed ground that has been forgotten by history, or just through the backwoods behind some guy’s house?
The Pequot War took place in the nascent years of Connecticut Colony in a time when the outcome of such conflicts was far from guaranteed. It is so ancient that many of its most basic details have been lost to, or obscured by, history. In popular memory for instance, the war has been viewed as a conflict between the English and Pequot tribe. In reality, as many as ten tribes participated in the battle which could quite accurately be described as an inter-tribal war with English participation. The most memorable battle of the war has been referred to as the “Pequot Massacre,” the name ascribed to the English burning of the Pequot Fort in Mystic, which resulted in the death of nearly 400 Pequot tribes people, including many women and children. Yet the word “Massacre” is loaded with false implications about the intentions of the perpetrators going in, the resistance offered by the victims, and more. It is indisputable however, that the war came to be interpreted as an important legacy war, in that it helped to define the treatment of Native Peoples across the nation for centuries thereafter.
The research team is funded by a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program. The power and impact of the war has transcended the centuries making for a particularly rewarding journey for Kevin McBride, who leads the group. “This project has grown close to my heart because it is not just archaeology. We have really been able to bring people together in a meaningful way through our work.”
McBride speaks with a certain pride when referring to his crew of specialists who have developed a unique working relationship specially suited for this enigmatic work. While McBride leads the team, he is quick to point out that he wouldn’t be anywhere if he were working on his own as many archaeologists in the field typically do. “In work of this type, no one is an expert. Because it is impossible for us to fully understand the seventeenth century mind, we have to hypothesize solutions to every question and nothing can be ruled out. Many times our team’s initial ten or even twenty answers prove incorrect,” McBride explains.
Under those conditions, group cohesion is essential. Ego is important in the sense that group members need to hold strongly to their ideas but not be oversensitive when challenged. A mantra that the research team has developed is “we can’t be right, we have to get it right,” meaning they each need to put aside their egos to uncover a truthful historical narrative supported by archaeological and documentary evidence. McBride pegs this dynamic as the single most important aspect to their work.“If we have any success in this undertaking, it is because of the interplay between our team members.” Naumec adds that the diversity of backgrounds among the researchers has been key to avoiding “group think” which can really inhibit progress within academic circles.
It is often the archaeological evidence that serves to definitively untangle the web of myth and fact that has been etched into public memory over the course of four centuries. To maximize time and resources, the team has employed some unorthodox techniques. Most notably the team has embraced the help of the Yankee Territory Coinshooters, a Connecticut-based metal detecting club. Traditionally, academics and detectorists have viewed each other with skepticism to say the least, but a mutual respect has developed. The research team affectionately refers to the detectorists as ‘the ninjas’ for their uncanny instincts at interpreting the landscape and their adept use of the surprisingly complex and finicky technology. Naumec explains that when they try to identify a button or buckle from the battlefield, he often seeks out members of the Society of Seventeenth Century Reenactors who are most familiar with the details of these items.
Naumec himself has even privately dabbled in experimental archaeology to assist the study. Using a makeshift ballistics range, Naumec and his friends used seventeenth century weapons to test the effects on bullets of hitting various targets (logs, rocks, etc.). Now when the team finds disfigured bullets in the field, they can make deductions about what the bullet hit by comparing it to those bullets used in the experiment. All these efforts yield details that help fill in the puzzle, piece by piece.
After seven years of work, the team is approaching the end of documenting the events that transpired during the terrible twelve hour battle that took place on May 26, 1637. Their work honorably serves many important ends. It memorializes land where people of several cultures died. It objectively corrects the injustices of a tainted historical record. Through signage, outreach events, and educational opportunities, the researchers are raising local public awareness about a nationally significant war that took place literally in our backyards. Their forthcoming official publications will make a profound and long overdue contribution to the history of Connecticut’s native groups, Connecticut state history, U.S. History, and the field of archaeology.
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