Editor’s note: This story appears in the winter issue of Aspire magazine.
The saying goes that history is written by the victors. So when it comes to studying battles and conflicts, how do historians come up with an accurate account of what happened?
This topic was explored recently at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, which hosted the 10th Biennial Fields of Conflict Conference. Ninety scholarly papers were accepted from 17 countries, and speakers at the four-day conference discussed everything from the burial of dead militiamen during the American Revolution to the effect of political conflict on monuments in Yemen.
A variety of methods have proven helpful to historians and archaeologists exploring battlefield topics. These include GIS mapping, 3D technology, and even live fire experiments using contemporary firearms.
In many cases, researchers found that traditional historical narratives downplayed or outright omitted critical factors. Doug George-Kanentiio, a member of the Mohawk Nation, described such omissions as “history ignored, history repressed.”
George-Kanentiio discussed the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and their role in the American Revolution. He said the Royal Proclamation of 1763, in which King George III forbade colonists from expanding into native lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, helped increase tensions between the colonies and the Crown which eventually erupted into war. The native peoples, in turn, were more likely to rely on the British to enforce the proclamation and ally with them during the Revolution.
George-Kanentiio’s presentation focused on the little-known Battle of Oriskany in New York and its more lasting effects. This engagement, which took place on Aug. 6, 1777, started with an ambush on American militiamen who were attempting to relieve a siege of nearby Fort Stanwix. Mohawk and Seneca warriors comprised the majority of the forces fighting for the British.
The Americans suffered heavy losses in the battle, with some 550 men killed. But the battle also marked the start of the fracturing of the Six Nations. There were divisions among tribes, and between individuals; while most sided with the British, several warriors—primarily from the Oneida tribe—fought for the Americans.
“These, in many cases, are our former neighbors,” said George-Kanentiio. “In some cases, our brothers. It’s like a civil war.”
In addition, those fighting for the British came to feel abandoned or used after the battle. The British relied heavily on the Mohawk and Seneca during the fight, and most of the 60 deaths on the British side were native warriors.
Although light compared to the American casualties, the losses still represented a significant portion of the relatively small population of Iroquois. Their reluctance to assist the British in future battles contributed to the American victory at Saratoga, which in turn inspired the French to join the war and help guarantee American independence.
Other presentations looked at the withdrawal of English troops after the destruction of Mistick Fort in southeastern Connecticut during the Pequot War. The massacre occurred on May 26, 1637, when Connecticut militiamen under Colonel John Mason and their Mohegan and Narragansett allies burned the fort, killing hundreds of Pequots. While this incident is well-known, some of the fiercest fighting of the war actually took place just after the massacre.
Mason and his troops began a 6.5-mile withdrawal to the harbor on the Thames River. Over the course of 10 hours, the group was repeatedly attacked by Pequot warriors who were infuriated upon the discovery of the slaughter at Mistick Fort.
As part of the American Battlefield Protection Program funding provided to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, researchers have surveyed all but 1.5 miles of the withdrawal corridor. Kevin McBride, Director of Research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut, said expectations were low at the start of the process since there are few contemporary accounts of the withdrawal.
“We thought we’d be lucky to find two dropped buttons,” he said.
Instead, a total of 1,059 artifacts were discovered. These included musket balls, pieces of armor, and personal items dropped along the way. The distribution of artifacts points to at least eight distinct skirmishes during the withdrawal. McBride described the withdrawal as “without a doubt the most intense battle of the Pequot War.”
David Naumec, Archaeology Technician at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, said the English reported only 10 unwounded men at the end of the withdrawal – a 70 percent casualty rate. However, they also boasted of killing more Pequots than they had at Mistick Fort. At one site alone, nearly 90 musket balls were found.
“This was some really hot fighting,” said Naumec.
Naumec said these discoveries challenge the historical narrative of “skulking” Pequot warriors, since they show that the Pequots were willing to directly engage their foes in large-scale combat. McBride says there are also indications that Mason returned to the area after the massacre to combat continuing Pequot resistance. A separate survey on Bluff Point uncovered native brass arrow points used by the Wangunk tribe, allies of the English.
The Fields of Conflict conference was founded in 1998 by Phil W.M. Freeman and Anthony “Tony” Pollard. It has taken place every other year since the inaugural event in Glasgow, Scotland in 2000.
This year’s conference included a keynote address by Robert D. Ballard, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and founder of the New London-based Ocean Exploration Trust. Ballard discussed his successful efforts to locate historic shipwrecks, including the Titanic, Bismarck, USS Yorktown, and PT-109.
The conference also included an excursion to Fort Griswold in Groton, the site of a bloody battle in 1781. Fort Griswold is considered one of the best surviving examples of an American Revolution fortification in the United States.