Where are the Children? Erasure of Pequot Families by Failing to Use our Babies' Names

“One way of minimizing our humanity is to not allow us to be full human beings and also love and have relationships.” -Tessa Thompson, 2020

A western worldview has shaped the way in which social scientists define family. To them, there are clearly defined models of family, be it nuclear, extended, or some variation in between. In non-Native communities, categorizing family into neatly defined boxes is appropriate. In fact, some anthropologists would argue that it is a fundamental way of operationalizing developed social systems (Cox & Paley, 1997). Pequots have operated as intricate kinship networks since time immemorial. These networks do not adhere to Eurocentric government and legal systems that were developed after the concept of Pequot families. Pequot families pre-date western influence and Connecticut definitions of marriage, parents, and responsibilities over children. Traditional Pequot families include intergenerational bonds, especially those between Elders and children. Tribal Elders are the closest we will ever be to our ancestors and children serve as reminders of future success. One would argue, then, that Pequots’ understanding of family relationships is a more advanced form of Eurocentric definitions. Regardless of which system Pequots and non-Natives followed in the 19th century, it was clear that systematic erasure of Pequot children in state records was a mechanism to justify the disregard for future Pequot prosperity in the forms of denying human rights, perpetuating racism, and illegal land sales. Without land, the Western Pequots at Mashantucket would be incapable of exercising their sovereignty and maintain a connection with sacred sites. Choosing not to name children, to act as if they did not exist or warrant naming, was a conscious act to eliminate Pequots. The overseer reports were one of many weapons of paper genocide despite the claim that overseers were there to protect tribal members and their land. 

Overseer reports detailing Western Pequots at Mashantucket never mentioned children by their given names. In fact, children were only minimally acknowledged in three instances 1) Expenses for medicine and clothing 2) towns that were seeking reimbursement from the tribal fund for wards of the state or 3) their tiny coffins needed to be built after their spirits passed on from the physical world. In a review of 67 overseer documents across 17 years (1813-1833), Pequot children were mentioned eight times. Of the 8 references to Pequot minors, 4 were about living children and 4 were coffin expenses for youngsters. In essence, a generation of time had passed in this sample of documents and not one baby was acknowledged as a full human. They were only the afterthought linked to inanimate objects such as coffins for Hannah Miller’s boy in 1822 or for Benjamin George’s boy. The readers are expected to assume Pequots magically appear, apparently full-grown with names and personalities but no childhoods. Since we know this is not how real life works, it is an insult to the reader’s intelligence to think overseers visiting the reservation and interacting with adult Pequots had never built relationships with the children, or at the very least knew their names. 

Imagine for one moment that you are telling a story about a family celebration or a moment of mourning at a funeral ceremony or sharing a funny memory. Can you tell a story about a graduation without mentioning the children in your family? How about “Dad jokes” that you secretly look forward to at family dinners without acknowledging the teller of jokes is uniquely positioned to share the corniness because, well, he has, in fact, a father to children? These life experiences all center around familial relationships including children. These children have names. Their names represent the history of their birth or family’s religion. Their names are in honor of a past relative. Their names describe distinct characteristics when they were born. Their names are spoken to catch their attention. Their nicknames are earned from intimate experiences. Their name, in its entirety, is sometimes even used to convey that the adult speaker means business. 

And what about the unfortunate but realistic times when women experience miscarriages or parents mourn the death of their child? It is unfathomable in Pequot culture (and, arguably, in most of America) to pay condolences to grieving parents without speaking the child’s name. This was not the case in the overseer reports or other government documents. Coffins for children were consistently recorded in relation to the parent’s need to use the tribal fund but failed to recognize the actual death of a named human. 

The tendency not to acknowledge Pequot children carried over into birth registrations when non-Native town clerks deemed newborns unworthy of basic human rights. In 1857, a teenage Pequot mother, Phebe Ann Fagins, had a baby girl with Dwight Bromley. They were both 15 years old. In the official town registration of births, Phebe and Dwight’s baby girl was referred to as “a child illegitimate” in the name column. The teenagers raised the baby for 1 year and 1 month until she died on the following Valentine’s Day. Here again, the baby was not referred to by name. Only the mother’s name was listed; the town officials did not acknowledge the illegitimate child’s known father.  

Examples like Phebe and Dwight’s baby girl were the norm; it was acceptable to view Pequots as less than equal. Ten years before Phebe and Dwight were born, journalists published articles with scathing descriptions of Pequot children. In the summer of 1832, an article about Mohegans was published in The Religious Intelligencer. The juxtaposition of the more Christian and formally educated Mohegan students to the Pequot children was remarkable. It is worth noting that colorism was another underlying factor in how White locals viewed the two sets of children. “There is one subject that may here be introduced, which is by no means irrelevant to the present occasion. It refers to the children of two small reservations of Pequots Indians, in Stonington and Groton, who now wander about unbefriended and uninstructed, preparing for wretchedness here, and misery hereafter”. On the other hand, the author described “little [Mohegan] red boy and girl intelligently perus[ing] the sacred volume, and with retentive memories…”

When children are not named, they fade out of the full picture of a community. Other local families with less anti-Pequot sentiment knew Pequots for the community that valued kinship and children. Mrs. Alla Lynne Perkins Allyn (b.1892) was the wife of Mr. John Lyman Allyn, Jr. The Mystic & Noank Library (Mystic, CT) holds records of her diary entries that recount stories between her family and Pequot families for generations. Mrs. Allyn talked about her grandmother, Muddie, who was always around Pequots. Muddie would have been a contemporary of Hannah Miller (1792-1866), the Pequot mother who lost her son in 1822. Allyn shared her grandmother’s experiences. “Injun Town” in Ledyard had quite a few Pequots left around 1831. Allyn explained that “in the spring the Tribe started for the shores of Mystic to stay there through the summer to fish, go for clams and quahogs, and make and sell blankets.”  Muddie would make a large helping of pudding and “the little ‘papoose’ would sit on the ground and eat every bit of it.” Papoose is a word used to reference Native children during the period. She went on to explain that “Muddie never said whether they fed the grown-ups or not but loved seeing the little ones eat. The Indians were very friendly, polite, and never stole or did any wrong.” 

Mrs. Allyn went on to share stories about my third-generation great grandmother, Sarah Sebastian Williams. Grandma Sarah was an Eastern Pequot and the wife of Western Pequot Ephraim Williams. Grandma Sarah’s in-law were Lucretia Fagins and Jabez Niles by way of Ephraim Williams’ Western Pequot mother, Jane Ann Niles. Allyn described times when Sarah did housework for a white family in Mystic. “She was also a natural nurse, especially at childbirth. When Lennis Clift was born they had her [Sarah] for the nurse and she was wonderful. She was half Indian [daughter of Tamer Brushell and Manuel Sebastian] and knew all their customs. When Lennis had colic, she took an enamel cup of cold water with tongs lifted a red-hot coal from the stove and dropped [it in] the water, then with a spoon fed it to the baby. It worked too! Maybe warm water plain would have worked but that’s what the Pequot Indians did.” Pequots loved their children; they valued and nurtured the future generations of their nation. Sarah learned midwifery to ensure that babies were born safely. Allyn concluded with stories about intergenerational love between Elders and Pequot children. “Manuel [Sebastian] loved children and liked to make them laugh,” Allyn recalled about the bond between Grandma Sarah’s father and her children. 

Children’s deaths were more frequent during the 19th century than today; there were fewer medical interventions to combat birth or infant abnormalities. Pequot parents had to prepare themselves for the inevitable that not all their children would survive into adulthood. This was so common that federal census schedules in the 1800s included columns to capture how many children a woman bore and a separate column to designate how many of those children were still living. Child death was more common than today’s society is comfortable with considering. The familiarity of child death did not lessen the emotional and social impact on the Pequot community. Death is a moment that marks Pequots crossing over into the spirit world. It is sacred. Mourning ceremonies and burials are significant. In a 19th century editorial printed about White robbers violating Pequot graves, the author shared that Pequots “have the highest regard for the burial place of their race, and for years have been tormented by relic hunters.” The news piece reinforces two beliefs that Pequots have known to be true for centuries. The first is that we valued our descendants by honoring their burials with sacred items; these items were so invaluable that thieves were willing to desecrate resting spirits to steal them. The other was that if we went to great lengths to protect our burial sites, we unequivocally named our children before burying them in the coffins that state overseers only mentioned as an expense. Those children were our babies. They were part of our family. Failing to acknowledge part of the family opened the door to justify future disrespect to the Pequot communities. 

-- Michele Scott

Cox, M. J., & Paley, B. (1997). Families as systems. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 243–267;  “Robbing Indian Graves. Outrages upon Connecticut’s Remaining Pequot Tribes”, The Grand Forks Daily Herald, April 20, 1893, Issue 147, Page 5, in Grand Forks, North Dakota