A commission responsible for the restoration and preservation of the state Capitol was asked Thursday to return a verdict: Is John Mason, a founder of the Connecticut Colony, guilty of a 17th Century war crime and unworthy of contemporary honor?
A marble statue of Mason stands in a niche high above the north steps of the Capitol, clutching a sword and gazing over Bushnell Park. To its right, a stone carving depicts the attack he led against a fortified Pequot village in 1637.
Historians say 400 Pequots were massacred, including 175 women and children, many burned to death when the village was set afire. English soldiers and Mohegan and Narragansett allies fired on those who fled the flames, eradication the goal.
“Under today’s standards, John Mason would be charged with war crimes and prosecuted accordingly,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots. “I ask you: Is this a man who we should celebrate in this great state of Connecticut?”
Over two hours, historians, an anthropologist, members of the Mohegan, Eastern Pequot and Mashantucket Tribes and one descendant of Mason took turns talking about racism and erasure, the complexities and horrors of the Pequot War, and the opportunities and necessity of finding meaning in history. Some appeared by Zoom, others in person at the Legislative Office Building. Butler’s message came in a recorded video.
The state historian, Walter Woodward, recommended Mason remain in his niche, his presence an opportunity to teach visitors and remind the leaders who work in the Capitol about a bloody history that resonates through the centuries.
“As state historian, I believe history and the future are both best served by embracing the complex realities of Connecticut’s past, rather than by simplifying or erasing them,” Woodward said. “That past is filled with injustice, pain, inequity and violence. Our present moment has become a time of reckoning with these painful realities.”
Native Americans should take their place in some of the eight empty niches on the Capitol, and interpretive signage can inform tourists and other visitors about the conflict accompanying the arrival of Europeans, first the Dutch traders and trappers and later the English colonists, Woodward said.
“I believe we need a solution that preserves rather than erases the stark lessons of the Pequot War, lessons both from the war itself and from the people who memorialize that war in statuary three centuries later,” Woodward said. “As the state historian, my charge is to help foster such conversation among all of Connecticut’s citizens.”
At issue is not just the history of 1637 but the animus towards Native Americans when the Capitol opened in 1879 and when the statue of Mason was dedicated in 1908. The Indian wars of the West still were fresh, largely ending with the massacre of Lakota warriors at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Mitchell Ray, chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, noted that another statue of Mason was erected in 1889 on the Mystic village site in Groton. At the time, he said, the battles with Indians in the West defined American culture.
“They paint a picture of the American psyche. ‘Americans need to tame the land and get rid of the Indian.’ When we talk about a cultural anthropological climate, we can view all of us that are gathered here today as a shift in the atmosphere from the 1800s to make a positive, long-lasting change,” Mitchell said.
The Pequots were the dominant tribe when Europeans arrived, subjugating other tribes who would join the English in the Pequot War.
Marcus Mason Maronn, a descendant of Mason, furiously defended his ancestor and criticized the Indians who define him by one act and ignore that the massacre came during a war against a fearsome foe.
“They refuse to recognize that this statue on the Capitol represents John Mason for his entire career as a dedicated public servant and as the preeminent founder of the Connecticut Colony, that this symbol is sacred for many people, and is simply not a symbol of genocide that they obsess about,” Maronn said.
He did not come to the commission to make amends or be diplomatic to the Pequots in the audience.
“They can’t handle the truth,” he said. “Again, they were the aggressive and dominant tribe who tortured, killed and subjugated their own race of people even before the Europeans came here,” he said. “They were the ones who intended to annihilate all the colonists to maintain their hegemony. Pity for them that the situation got flipped around. And as some people would say, they got what they deserved, and still remain sore losers.”
Manisha Sinha, a University of Connecticut professor of 19th century U.S. history, said she is a veteran of debates about the fate of statues memorializing Confederate leaders as well as founding fathers who owned slaves.
“I have advocated for the taking down of statues that commemorate Confederate leaders and generals, who I see as traitors to the American republic, fighting for the worst cause in American history, as General Grant put it, in the cause of human bondage,” Sinha said. “On the other hand, I have opposed the taking down of statues of some of our founding fathers, revolutionary figures who did not defend slavery as a positive good.”
Sinha said history can be complex, and great men of history can be flawed.
“The Mason massacre is not a complex story,” she said. “It was a sheer massacre of non-combatants and of women, children and elders. We cannot excuse this by pointing to internecine warfare among Native Americans.”
Mason’s statue is not necessary to teach history, she said.
“I think it is high time that you think of removing John Mason’s statue,” Sinha said. “It cannot be contextualized. We do not remember history by statues, especially not in the monumental 19th century forms. We actually end up commemorating people, making them heroic.”
The State Capitol Preservation and Restoration Commission is scheduled to next meet on Dec. 14, when a vote is expected on whether to fill a niche at the Capitol with a new statue or empty one.