Initial Notes on Sassacus – Who He Was, Why He Matters
There were others: fearless, violent. But there were more others: peaceful, patient. However, there was only one who pitched his wigwam at both outposts and that was Sassacus. It made him a heroic leader, a powerful sachem.
History’s scribes suggest Sassacus was motivated by bloodlust and a distinct hatred of the British settlers and the contesting tribes. He is portrayed as a butcher, a patriarch of a band of vicious heathens. Like your typical scapegoat, he was sensationally demonized, a black-haired savage rising head and feathers above his fellow cutthroats, inspiring tribal usurpations, brutalizing beaver traders, missionaries, British envoys and brigands for no other reason than this kind of mundane, serial butchery remains sui generis to the indigenous cultures of the Old Land.
A small registry of sane voices object to such incendiary language- a suggestion by Richard Mather almost 400 years ago that the Pequots were the accursed seeds of Canaan, being a typical call for genocide- but the perspective at the time was clear: a holy war in the costume of a holy pogrom was necessary to cleanse the New England coast of the singular blight blocking British upward mobility, British trade and traffic, and that blight was Sassacus and the Pequots, an old Algonquin phrase meaning The Destroyers.
Sassacus befriended the Dutch when necessary and worked with the British, being a position of last resort. It was one thing to instigate tribal warfare or to shear away Pequot lands and to put a strangle hold on fur trade, but it was quite another thing to put a whomp on the wampum that was the Pequot source of power. That there was a lot of cutting going on in those days went beyond irritation. Those steel drills applied by the British in small manufacturing plants cut quickly through the white whelk and purpled quahog shells and cut the value of wampum to an unacceptable level. Yet another Smallpox epidemic, smack in the middle of his command, cut the population of the Pequots in half, and deals cut prior and during Sassacus’s reign were ignored or broken.
He tried making one last deal. In October 1634, sensing trouble from the Narragansetts and the Dutch, he sent an emissary to his British competitors to talk about relinquishing land, attaching 400 fathoms of wampum for good measure. But today’s defeat was yesterday’s betrayal. How much free will can he exert when the enemy is closing in from all sides?
This writer believes a conspiracy was at play in the large woodland playgrounds of Southern New England. Sassacus was the sole impediment to the British final solution and the British found a way to execute their plans by planning to execute all that they found. It was no surprise that religion championed their Public Relations pitch and acreage crowned their connivance.
The great cook off, May 26, 1637, needed a commemoration. The torching of 500 Pequots, mostly the infirm, women, and children, required a candle to set the festivities in motion. Governor Winthrop’s journal crystallized the event, the Pequot layer cake, the centerpiece of a major American holiday. Forget the damned turkey, put away the silver, hide Rockwell under a rock, put the candle into position, one candle, plus one shiny, decorative epistle of human transgression, a clear missive of what we were all about to become: ….was ordered to bee kept a day of publicke thanksgiving to God for his great m’cies in subdewing the Pecoits…. The man couldn’t stop; he couldn’t help himself. The word M’cies- Oh, the sanctimony of all that we hold dear- was out of the bag: A day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots, and for the success of the assembly….
Free enterprise was not free; somebody always pays for it against their will. Winthrop wanted Southern New England for his own playground, including Fishers Island. It was Sassacus’s role in history to pay for this white outreach with his life, his subjects to pay with their lives and their freedom and, yes, even their name. To imagine your name, what you are, where you came from: verbal contraband.
There were so many other firsts it’s hard to find a place to begin. Identity theft as we’ve begun to identify with it begins here; slavery as we fondly have come to understand it in America begins here; Regional genocide has a place at this table as well. Thanksgiving as we have come to treasure it in all its rotgut begins here; Mass penury- i.e., homelessness, the home grown variety, begins here; Indian reservations, as we have come to savor it, begins here.
It all boils down to Sassacus, his courage and size, his unique way of holding 26 tribes together, if ever so briefly. My fascination with Sassacus is a small token of depreciation compared to the overwhelming homage, brutal in its full flower, garnered from the likes of Governor Winthrop right down to Uncas.
Historical documents clearly identify Sassacus as one of the bad guys (a malignant, furious Piquot) and later, more erudite scholars, clearly point to him as one of the good guys (a renowned warrior and a noble and high-spirited man.) But history aught not make assignations in such a topical manner. It’s an insult to the caliber of the subject. We’re not determining placement in a tribal popularity contest. Most likely to succeed: Sassacus; most likely to be tallest: Sassacus; most likely to scare the crap out of peers and pawns alike: Sassacus; most likely to kick British butt: Sassacus; most likely to be beheaded: Sassacus. History’s askew. Let’s look at it from a more piquant summit. Like Camus says about Sisyphus: One must imagine Sassacus happy.
Alone in his element, the primeval forest, the large-horned buck, the branching rivers, the eternal sea. I see him traversing the Mohawk trails looking for sympathy, support. But I find it hard to imagine Sassacus in semi-supplication, asking for help from higher beings of a lower order or lower beings from a higher order. I prefer, and I have no reason to doubt, that he took his fleeing band to safe retreats. Why he would end up begging for refuge with the Mohawks makes little logistical sense.
Given the great rivalries that existed and his knowledge of tribal customs and dangerous liaisons, I suspect he might have disappeared into a more invisible world, a world later conjectured by Cotton Mather to be rooted in Doemons and Witchcrafts, though more likely he could have just traipsed off into the thick forest and far, far away from history itself. He would have been hunted down had he done that. He knew he wasn’t coming through this maelstrom alive.
Under cover of a great fog, he and few ragtag stragglers escaped, but could they escape from history, elude time? He knew about the ordinance of fate and welcomed its approach. But it had to be on his own terms. The Mohawks. How easy it becomes for history to roll out the simple, logical fact that he was beheaded as soon as he arrived. Why didn’t he escape to Fishers Island? He visited the Island frequently. The best shells for making wampum came from the northern shores of eastern Long Island. The Pequots were given annual tribute of thousands of fathoms of wampum by vanquished tribes to defray the cost of trade with the Dutch. Some texts insist that Sassacus tried to find refuge with the Metoacs of Northern Long Island after the carnage, but the subservient Metoacs (the Montauks being the largest affiliate tribe) were so ingrained with resentment, they offered no quarter.
In this writer’s estimation, I think Fishers Island would have been a perfect refuge. Through the fog of war, the actual fog, I see Sassacus hauling his canoes onto Fishers bleached sand. I see his campaigners scoring bloody indentations on the beachhead trekking towards higher ground. I see them in counsel along the peak on Mount Prospect, planning their next move. Sassacus is smiling; he knows this is the end. The Owanux have won, and this is the end.
Through the deep mist of a spring evening, he hears the thrum of waves crashing along the shoreline of Isabella below. He holds, loose in his hands, the wampum he at one time hoped would secure escape, but escape to Sassacus is now an ephemeron. There is life and death and after, there is the great world of imagination, the one true release where escape is possible.
Long after, he follows me along the beach. I walk further up the slope and then turn to face him. I see him; it’s him. Majestic. Calm. Tall, so very tall. The invitation is clear, the possibilities of historic verity free from corporeal conditions. The sheaths of wampum draped in his upturned hands. I accept the offering. Are we so very different? I ask.
He remains silent, solemn. The articles of faith lay shimmering in his dark and upturned hands.