Remove statue of Mystic Massacre leader at CT Capitol, tribes urge

Photo of Ken Dixon

Although the slaughter and enslavement of Native Americans in the 1637 Mystic Massacre predates international standards of behavior during armed conflicts, Maj. John Mason is a war criminal and his statue above the State Capitol’s north entrance is a lingering symbol that should be removed, Connecticut tribal leaders say.

But state historians warn against generalities and the possible reaction of hiding Connecticut’s past, when the current moment in time could be ripe to commission statues of historic Native American leaders to join the larger-than-life marble likenesses of English settlers on the Capitol’s exterior.

In written and video testimony sent to the State Capitol Preservation & Restoration Commission in advance of Thursday’s forum on the future of the statue, Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba from the Mohegan Tribe, say the intimidating symbol of white supremacy should be relocated to a museum.

“There is no doubt Mason engaged in what we now call genocide,” Butler says in a video sent to the commission. “The question for us here in the year 2021, is whether a man who burned alive over 500 men, women and children; systematically hunted and slaughtered any remaining members of the tribe; and intended to eradicate an entire cultural identity, language and heritage deserves a place of distinction on the face of Connecticut’s State Capitol. I submit to you that he does not.”

Mason was the leader of the state militia during the Pequot War and joined the Mohegan Tribe in defeating the Eastern Pequots at the battle of Mystic. Uncas, the Mohegan’s leader, or sachem, was appalled at the carnage, particularly the slaughter of women and children, according to the tribe’s oral history.

“If the State Capitol is ‘the house of our Connecticut people,’ then all people should feel comfortable visiting the Capitol,” Malerba wrote, stressing that while the Mohegan and Narragansett tribes allied with the English settlers on the attack at Mystic village, the brutality was shocking.

“It was not our form of conflict,” Malerba wrote. “Our form of conflict was with other tribal warriors: to embarrass other tribal leaders, address territorial disputes, extend authority and increase power. Casualties were to be kept to a minimum given our small populations. Elders, women and children were not to be attacked. Our oral traditions tell us that Uncas was distraught during the attack and said, ‘It is too much, it is too much.’ However, in the eyes of the colonists, this battle was so successful as the United States settled westward lands were taken by force and similar brutality, including Mohegan lands.”

The commission, whose members include former and current state lawmakers, nonpartisan legislative staff and historians, will hold the forum of invited guests to air the issues of possible removal. The project of taking down and relocating the statue is included in the current state budget, although bids for the project have exceeded the amount projected.

But Walter Woodward, the retiring state historian, and Jason Warren, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who is a military historian, argue the Mason statue should remain, stressing that the details around the Mystic battle are complicated.

“Far from hating all Indians or planning their extirpation, Mason enlisted the support of sachem or chief Uncas and his Mohegan native group that were rivals of the Pequots,” Warren wrote to the commission. “After launching his assault on Mystic Fort, Mason’s heavily outnumbered army came under threat of annihilation. In an act of military necessity, based at least on the limited sources still available for interpretation, Mason ordered the burning of the fort that led to the deaths of many Pequot non-combatants that permanently altered the demographics of the native group.”

Warren believes Mason did not intend to kill noncombatants, but the decision to burn the fort was made under duress, in battle.

“The destruction of the fort resulted in the downfall of Pequot power, a situation that preserved Connecticut Colony, and a consequence that Connecticut citizens continue to benefit from indirectly,” Warren wrote to the commission.

The statue of Mason was hoisted into a third-floor niche overlooking the Capitol grounds and adjacent Bushnell Park in 1910 — 32 years after the building was completed. There are 26 Gothic niches, several of which are empty. The statues are of early white male leaders, except for one on the south facade depicting Gov. Ella T. Grasso, the nation’s first female governor, who died in 1981.

The north and east facades include statues of men who participated in the founding of the state and the American Revolution. The south facade includes Civil War leaders.

Born in England, Mason came to the state in 1632, and by 1635, led Connecticut’s combat against pirates, according to a Capitol guide book that calls him a “valiant commander.”

Recently, Mason’s state-owned statue in Windsor, which he founded and where he lived, was the target of criticism. It was moved from Groton in 1996 amid a similar controversy.

Other sculptures on the Capitol’s exterior depict David Humphreys, of Derby, who recruited the first Black regiment in the country, in 1781. He later created the first planned factory village in the country, Humphreysville, located along the Naugatuck River where Seymour is today.

Another sculpture, honoring David Wooster, was raised into its niche in 1917. During the American Revolution, he was wounded by British troops during the April 1777 battle of Danbury and died about a week later.

The statue of Alfred Howe Terry highlights a story on his rise to major general during the Civil War. During the nation’s westward expansion after the war, he helped confine western tribal nations onto reservations ordered a brash cavalry commander named George Custer to avoid engaging with Native Americans. After Custer’s death at the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn, Terry accepted Chief Sitting Bull’s surrender.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT