In December of 2016, Windsor Town Council voted to exclude Mason’s statue from a list of monuments and burial places being assessed for restoration and there was discussion about whether the statue should remain on the Palisado Green because of its controversial nature. At this point, Windsor Historical Society stepped in to provide some historical context for John Mason and the statue. Subsequent research by Town Manager Peter Souza revealed that the statue is owned by the State of Connecticut, and that Windsor is in year 20 of a 50 year lease of the statue from the state. The statue will remain on Palisado Green for now. The following article is excerpted from the history provided to the Town Council and the public in December.
John Mason statue up close. Photo by Sue Tait Porcaro.
The John Mason statue located on Windsor’s historic Palisado Green has been controversial from its very beginning. Unveiled in 1889, it was sited in Groton on the ruins of what had once been a fortified village occupied by the Pequot, the dominant Native group in what is now Connecticut.
In 1631, Native sachems in the Connecticut River Valley journeyed to Massachusetts Bay to offer land to the English in exchange for trade and protection from the Pequot who later disputed their right to offer such a trade. There was little interest from the English until the Dutch established a fort in Hartford during the summer of 1633, giving them potential control of all fur trade upriver. In late September, men from the Plymouth Colony established their own fort north of the Dutch outpost, where the Farmington and Connecticut Rivers meet in what is now Windsor. The balance of power amongst Dutch, Pequot, Mohegan, and Narragansett groups began to shift as English settlement proceeded.
Within a few short years, misunderstandings escalated between the English, Dutch, and Native Americans. The inability of these groups to distinguish between one another also fueled conflict. Dutch traders killed a Pequot sachem, and the Pequot took revenge against an English trader and his crew. After the Manisses of Block Island killed another English trader and crew, English burned Pequot wigwams and crops and one of their guides killed a Pequot. By April of 1637, when Pequots killed six men and three women and captured two girls in Wethersfield, Connecticut was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live for Natives and English alike. It was estimated that thirty settlers had lost their lives at Pequot hands. Likewise, many Native Americans lost their homes and lives at English and Dutch hands. On May 1, 1637, representatives of the River Towns — what is now Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield — held a court, declared war against the Pequot, and commissioned one of Windsor’s founders, Captain John Mason, who had extensive military experience in the Thirty Years’ War. Mason’s assignment was to lead a force of 90 largely untrained men (or, as his colleague Captain Underhill was to term them, “young souldiers that never had beene in Warre”) against the Pequot.
Joined by sixty Mohegan allies, nineteen Massachusetts Bay men under the command of Captain John Underhill, and eventually 200 reluctant Narragansett, Mason’s untried force of tradesmen and farmers attacked and burned the fortified Pequot village at Mystic, which at the time was hosting a force of 150 men from the second Pequot stronghold Weinshauks (now Groton), possibly massing for a pre-emptive strike against the English. The pre-dawn attack of May 26, 1637, now known as the Pequot Massacre was fast, confusing, bloody. The English encountered fierce opposition, despite a surprise attack. Within minutes, twenty men (fifty percent of the English forces inside the fort) were wounded. Mason, seeing his men in danger of losing the battle, grabbed a firebrand and set one of the wigwams aflame. Winds spread the fire, and eventually, the English retreated to circle the palisade with the rest of their forces. Pequot who emerged from the burning fort were killed by the English and their allies. Less than ten Pequot escaped. Over 400 men, women, and children were killed. It was brutal. It was war.
The remaining Pequot fled west towards Manhattan and after a two-week hiatus, Mason was again ordered to engage with them. He caught up with them near Fairfield, driving them into a swamp. Then, Mason states in his History of the Pequot War, “We being loth to destroy Women and Children, …Mr. Tho. Stanton a Man well acquainted with Indian Language and Manners, offered his Service to go into the swamp and treat with them…did in a short time return to us, with near Two Hundred old Men, Women, and Children” given to their Native allies or sold as slaves.
The next year was a bad year for crops, and starvation loomed in the valley. John Mason was called to trade with Pocumtuck Natives in the Deerfield area for corn. The success of his mission established him as a skilled negotiator. He went on to found Old Saybrook and continued to negotiate for lands, arbitrate quarrels, and write treaties. He founded Norwich. He served as Magistrate and Chief Military Officer of the Connecticut Colony. He was elected Deputy Governor of Connecticut serving for ten years from 1660 to 1669 when he declined to be elected again due to illness, dying in 1672. In 1661 and 1662, Mason served as Acting Governor of the Connecticut Colony while Governor John Winthrop Jr. was in England, negotiating for Connecticut’s Charter of 1662, an astonishingly liberal document which legalized almost every act previously taken in the Connecticut Colony.
The statue now standing on Windsor’s Palisado Green was originally designed for the site of the old Pequot fort in Groton, the ruins of which could apparently still be seen in 1889, when the statue was installed. Some felt that the monument should be a “combined representation of the Indian and white races”, (A History of the Statue… compiled by Thomas S. Collier, 1889). However, the winning entry in the competition was the statue we see today, sculpted by James G. C. Hamilton of Westerly Rhode Island, and cast at the Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, one of the leading producers of public statuary in the country at the time.
Over a century later, in 1992, a group petitioned to have the statue removed from what they saw as sacred ground. A committee was appointed to study the matter. They wanted the statue to go to a publicly-accessible site, near to an educational facility where the statue could be interpreted, and to a host municipality that would be a willing recipient of the statue despite its controversy. Windsor stepped forward to house the statue on its historic Palisado Green, close to Windsor Historical Society and Mason’s original 1630s home lot. It was installed here in 1996.
Plaque added in 1996. Photo by Sue Tait Porcaro.
Mason’s legacy is complex and nuanced. Was he a religious zealot? A butcher? A skilled negotiator? An able military leader who brought decades of peace to Connecticut? A recorder of history who informs much of what we know about the Pequots and the Pequot War? The statue as an expression of its time and Mason the man as an expression of his time are important touch points for learning about history in all of its complexity. Dr. Kevin McBride, Director of Research at the Pequot Museum remembers that when the statue was removed from Mystic in the 1990s, the tribal chairman Skip Hayward was against removal. “If you take it down,” he said, “no one will remember what happened here.”
Captain John Mason and his statue provide a doorway into discussion of issues that continue to be important to this day. On Windsor’s Palisado Green, a place of and about history, Windsor Historical Society continues to help groups of all ages, from schoolchildren to seniors, learn about settlement, displacement, and community building in our town.
By Christine Ermenc, Director. March, 2017. Top photograph of the John Mason statue on the Palisado Green by Len Hellerman.