Over a year ago, I reported that we expected the John Mason statue, currently on Palisado Green, to move to Windsor Historical Society. It is now clear that this will not happen. You deserve to understand why.
First, a little background. In 1889, the State of Connecticut erected the John Mason statue near the site of the 1637 Mystic Massacre to celebrate the nascent colony’s victory over the Pequot people 152 years earlier. The statue’s original plaque proclaimed its purpose was “to commemorate the heroic achievement of Major John Mason and his comrades, who near this spot in 1637, overthrew the Pequot Indians and preserved the settlements from destruction.” Even those who seek to preserve John Mason’s legacy acknowledge that the State’s aim in erecting the statue and placing it at that site was not an act of great cultural sensitivity. Just the opposite.
The history of the statue, like history itself, is complex and nuanced. For example, in the 1990s, as some Indigenous voices called for the removal of the statue from the sacred resting place of hundreds of Pequot people, other Indigenous leaders argued that removing the statue would not change the brutal past and might allow people to forget the horrific events that occurred at that site altogether. Ultimately, the State agreed to remove the statue, and Windsor’s leadership gladly accepted it. Then-WHS director Bob Silliman was instrumental in successfully petitioning the State to select Windsor as its next home due to Mason’s role in the town’s founding. The statue was rededicated at Palisado Green on June 26, 1996, with a reception at Windsor Historical Society following the ceremony.
Once moved, however, the statue remained controversial, and protestors painted its hands (blood) red shortly after its installation on Palisado Green. Vandalism has occurred periodically over its 25 years in Windsor, most recently in the days of social justice protest following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 (see photo above). In recognition of the statue’s powerful symbolism, the Windsor Town Council voted in September 2020 to ask the State to remove it and place it at Windsor Historical Society. The Society had offered to accept the statue for preservation and educational purposes, and many agreed that a museum was a more appropriate place for this statue. Once again, the State agreed to relocate the statue, and we began to address the details in earnest.
Over the course of the summer and fall of 2020, we developed detailed plans for relocating the statue to the Society’s central courtyard, complete with security cameras, re-landscaping, and interpretive panels. We secured grant funding to support interpretive planning that would have involved noted historians and representatives of both Pequot tribal nations. The Town had allocated funds to fulfill its share of the relocation costs and the State had offered to cover moving costs.
But then…nothing happened.
A year later, much has changed and much has not. The statue remains on Palisado Green, and the State is now exploring other options for relocation of the statue. There are two primary reasons.
First, and from the outset, while agreeing to accept the statue, the Society’s Board of Directors has been concerned about the potential for ongoing vandalism and possible spillover damage to Society property. Months of negotiations with State representatives failed to yield a mutually satisfactory agreement that would address the Society’s concerns and meet the State’s requirements.
Second, as the Society adopted its Inclusion Action Plan and Strategic Plan last winter and welcomed new board members in May, it became increasingly clear that placing this statue on WHS grounds was not consistent with our stated goal of centering “our history and culture on the lives of racially and ethnically diverse members of our community.” So, when the State presented its final and best offer, which did not fully meet our expressed concerns nor support our strategic vision, we said “no, thank you.” The statue’s future now lies in the hands of the Town of Windsor and State of Connecticut once again, and its final disposition has not been determined as of this writing.
This outcome brings deeply mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, we had offered to accept the statue in good faith as it is our role to preserve artifacts of Windsor’s history and our goal to be supportive partners of our town leadership. Further, our invitation to historians and Indigenous people generated excitement about developing a truly inclusive interpretation of a difficult and complex historical figure and events. We felt strongly that if anyone could do this well, it was Windsor Historical Society.
On the other hand, John Mason’s story is still told in our excellent permanent exhibition at the museum, and it comes as great relief to many (on staff and board especially) that we will no longer have to contend with the months of uncertainty and (likely) additional months of fixation on the John Mason statue.
In the end, following our very successful centennial celebration, we have many priorities and plans for bringing Windsor history to life in ways that do not involve a two-ton piece of cast bronze, and we will now rededicate ourselves to these important and exciting prospects.
I hope the path to this outcome is clear and, while some may not agree with it, that you will join us as we continue to find ways to make Windsor’s story one that includes all of its people.
Why is John Mason so Controversial?
Two John Mason statues, in Windsor and at the State Capitol in Hartford, have been subject of protest and demands for their removal. These statues have great symbolic importance because of John Mason’s actions in Connecticut’s early years. This symbolism differs based on how one views these actions and affect peoples’ feelings about whether a prominently displayed statue in a public space is the appropriate way to acknowledge his role in our history.
Major John Mason (1600-1672) was one of the early founders of Windsor who, in 1637, owned a plot of land just across the street from the current WHS museum. He was also a military veteran of the 30 Years War before arriving in North America. During his 40+ years in Connecticut, he helped found three towns (Windsor, Norwich, and Old Saybrook), became chief military officer for the colony (Sergeant Major General), chief negotiator, served several terms as Deputy Governor, and served two years as Acting Governor of the colony.
As the English expanded their colonial settlements from Massachusetts to Connecticut in the early 1630s, relations with the Indigenous peoples became strained and at times violent. The Pequots viewed English expansion into the Connecticut River Valley as an unwelcome threat to their dominance and trade relations, while other groups such as the Mohegans and River Indians saw the English with their modern weapons as potential allies against the more powerful Pequots. Following a Pequot raid on Wethersfield that killed nine people in April 1637, the General Court called upon Mason to lead a group of Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford militia, supported by Mohegan and Narragansett warriors, to take up offensive war against the Pequots.
Mason’s conduct of the attack – now known as the Mystic Massacre – resulted in the death of an estimated 400-700 Pequot men, women, and children who were either burned to death within their village or killed as they attempted to flee. Mason also led the subsequent military operation to capture or kill the remaining Pequot people as they fled west to escape the English. Mason’s efforts, supported by Indigenous enemies of the Pequot, were largely successful, and with the exception of those who were able to flee and mix with other Indigenous groups, the remainder were killed, taken as hostages or sold into slavery. These actions, led by Mason, were seen by some at the time, especially some Native allies, as excessive. In more recent times, they have been characterized as “genocide” (conforming to the United Nation’s definition, adopted by the U.S. in 1988, which includes specific acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”).
Like many public figures and early American leaders, John Mason’s legacy has been viewed in contrasting ways. Some celebrate Mason as a strong military leader of the early Connecticut colony who went on to serve in other colony-wide leadership roles to ensure its safety and continued growth. Others see him as representative of the brutal English colonial invasion of North America that led to the murder and forced relocation of thousands of Indigenous people and the illegal seizure of their land. Regardless of one’s perspective, many agree that Mason’s actions in what has now become known as the Pequot War provided a clear precedent for the countless colonial and national military actions against Indigenous people over the 250 years that followed.
Want to learn more? Read the following, some of which are available in our bookstore:
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014)
- History of the Pequot War: The Contemporary Accounts of Mason, Underhill, Vincent and Gardener. Charles Orr, editor (1897)
- The Pequot War. Alfred Cave (1996)
- The Pequot War. Edward Lodi (2017)
By Doug Shipman, executive director, 2021