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A Look at John Underhill's Recount of the Attack on Pequot Fort and its Justification of Violence Against the Native Americans

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History is a testament to the unjust and unequal distribution of power among cultural groups. What we have seen play out in the history of our country is the justification for violence against, and the oppression of, numerous cultural presences in the white man’s way. We have seen entire collectives of people be subjected to constant and inhumane treatment in order to instill this ever present white dominant social order. The story of the Native American is perhaps the greatest tragedy demonstrative of this concept. American literature, in its effort to tell the story, does so in a self serving and contextually distorted manner. Particularly exemplary of all the justifications for the ideologies that would run parallel in the persecution of Native Americans is John Underhill’s recounting of the attack on Pequot Fort, in which 400 Native American men, women and children were burned alive. What is evident in his retelling is the justification for violence against the Native founded in religious beliefs, the justification for future discriminatory political policies and the gross pride in killing, oppressing and relocation of the Native American people.

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Upon reading Underhill’s recounting of the attack on Pequot Fort we gain insight on this aforementioned justification for the atrocities and injustices performed upon the Native American. One such justification is seen across multiple historical displays of violence against the Native people of America. What we see is the recurring use of divine justification or the argument that God himself is approving of the use of violence in the seizing of people, land and resources. In his effort to describe a well coordinated assault Underhill comments, “we could not but admire the Providence of God in it, that the soldiers so inexpert in their use of arms, should give such a complete volley, as though the finger of god had touched both match and flint” (Underhill 76-77). Focusing on “Providence of God” we can draw that these men felt not only morally absolved from what they were doing but felt even justified in their actions. The belief here is that God is actively playing a role in the attack by gifting these inexperienced men with newly found firing capacities. By commenting in such a way Underhill is saying that not only does God approve of this massacre but it is his will. To further develop this position we can see parallels in his comments regarding the massacring of women and children. In response to the moral conflict that was firing upon and burning women and children Underhill responds with:

But I would refer you to David’s War, when a people is grown to such a height of blood, and sin against God and man, and all confederates in the action, there he hath no respect to persons, but harrows them, and saws them, and puts them to the sword, and the most terriblest death that maybe: Sometimes the scripture declareth women and children must parish with their parents; sometimes the case alters: but we will not dispute it now. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings. (Underhill 78)

Once again Underhill justifies his slaughter of the Pequot with divine approval. This explanation for his actions establishes that he believes the Pequot to be beneath himself and his people. He does not feel guilty for murdering women and children because David did so in biblical scripture. To quote directly from the source of biblical interpretation, ” the execution of a Divine judgment upon the heathen and their gods. Of this David deemed himself an appointed agent, fulfilling a Divine commission” (BibleHub). Underhill is arguing his attack on Pequot fort is the same as David’s War, a God given task. In his belief that the Native Pequot were heathenistic false idol worshippers, Underhill and the opposing militia justify the slaughter of what they deem savages.

This concept of Native inferiority due to cultural differences is used extensively in the justification for the violence unleashed upon them and the several instances of oppressive action taken against them. Of this, history is definitely a testament to. Underhill expresses this ideology in the manner in which he speaks about the Natives throughout his retelling. In one instance he refers to the Indians guiding his men through the Pequot land as “our Indians” and says this about them, “It is not the nature of Englishmen to deal like heathens, to requite evil for evil” (Underhill 79). Embedded in his comments we can gather how he, and by extension, white colonizers felt towards Native Americans. In referring to ownership over the Natives we see the dehumanizing of Natives to that of property with no basic human or civil rights- a common theme that would run parallel with American history from that point forward. History saw the use of this ideology in the form of Manifest Destiny- The religious belief that the United States was destined by God to expand toward the west. Manifest destiny uses both divine justification and the Native inferiority concept in its robbery of Native American land. In the process of westward expansion millions of Natives were to be displaced and thousands were to die from these forced relocations. Atrocities like the Pequot Fort attack, Trail of Tears and discriminative legislature like Native American Removal acts were fueled by these same concepts seen in Underhill’s writing. With regards to the massive forced relocation efforts initiated by westward travelers, Shane Larson states:

This horrific massacre was driven by a belief that Indians were sub-human beings, not worthy of life. The belief in Manifest Destiny, that white men were destined to own the continent, and that the Indians were to stand aside and watch as their lands were taken away, and their people brutally killed, was the root cause of these atrocities. (California Indian Education.Org)

Clearly what Larson is arguing is also representative of beliefs demonstrated by Underhill in his military entry. Underhill clearly demonstrates the entitlement of land in his arguments stemming from Godly approval for massacre and the belief of Native inferiority in the way he indicates ownership of them in his speech. In essence, by referring to them in this derogatory fashion he is indirectly displaying the ideology that they are so void of christian morality that they do not have the right to land, civil rights or basic human tolerance of their way of life.

Broadly held ideologies such is this were to shape the history of oppression and violence against Native Americans in the centuries to come after colonization. Underhill’s massacre at Pequot Fort was not an anomaly in American history but a precursor to what was to become the end of Native American people. In an effort to contextualize this I will bring forth a few examples. Prior to colonization efforts landing on eastern shores there were an estimated ten million Native Americans inhabiting what is now known as the United States; these numbers would fall all the way down to 300,000 in the 20th century. That is over 90% of the population gone due to colonial violence, disease, and forced relocation as colonization pushed them further west (EndGenocide.Org). Even after the physical violence had ceased, persecution, oppression and discrimination did not. Having been uprooted from their land, Native Americans were to face political persecution in the years following this massive population decline. Discriminative and underhanded legislature like the Dawes Allotment Act would plague the Native American condition. The United States government sought to further separate the Native American community by giving free land, as if they had any right over that land to begin with, to Native Americans that separated themselves from the tribe. In reality this was an effort to destroy the Native American culture by forcibly assimilating them into the favored American culture. Further evidence of this attempt can be found in the progressive era when education reformers forcibly took Native American young boys away from their families and forced them into boarding schools where their language, culture and traditions were to be stripped from them in order to more easily assimilate them into American society (Lesiak). Explanation for this seemingly relentless persecution can be found embedded in Underhill’s text. As discussed we can see divine justification as an answer to why these atrocities were brought onto the Native American. White colonialists believed the Natives to be morally inferior and labeled them as less than human which made their genocide and political exclusion even easier to pursue.

What we also see in Underhill’s writing is the shameless pride in the violence taken against the Pequot people. Setting aside the aforementioned sense of righteous endowment to which he perceived his action having, there is also a sense of sick accomplishment in the way he writes about the attack on Pequot Fort. Leading with, “many were burnt in the fort, both men, women and children…that there were four hundred souls in this fort and not above five of them escaped out of our hands” (Underhill 78). The manner in which this is stated suggests a morbid sense of accomplishment. By saying “and not above” indicates a pride in such efficiency of slaughter. Due to the previous reasons discussed, like Native inferiority and divine justification, Underhill expresses pride in the carrying out of normally immoral acts. After the fort is burned and bodies riddle the ground Underhill writes,”How remarkable this Providence of God…and much rejoiced at our victories and greatly admired the manner in which Englishmen fought” (Underhill 80). Here we not only see white celebration of Native American death but even the suggestion that Natives themselves even admired the brutal war techniques used by white colonialists. Perhaps even more disturbing, is the indication that in colonist eyes Native lives matter so little that their deaths are celebrated. This small comment lends insight into dark beliefs held by white colonists in the 17th century. It speaks volumes about the intolerance and violence perpetuated by the embedded ideologies in white colonial America.

Clearly we can see that John Underhill’s retelling of what happened at Pequot Fort is much more than a simple debriefing. It is a snapshot of common held ideologies during that time period that were to answer for the physical and cultural extermination of the Native American. Embedded within the text we find evidence of a divine justification used to absolved colonialists of genocide, cultural destruction and oppression of the Native American people. Even more alarming is the evidence suggesting pride in doing so.

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