Against conquest: Land, culture, and power in the eighteenth-century histories of the Native peoples of Connecticut

Date of Completion

January 2001


Anthropology, Cultural




Studies of Native-Euroamerican relations in colonial New England have tended to emphasize the military conflicts of the seventeenth century, casting them as the definitive events of conquest. Focusing on the land struggles of reservation communities in Connecticut throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, a period of intensified colonial land hunger, this study is concerned with understanding how Native women and men continued as agents in, and interpretors of, their own histories beyond the period of military conquest. Despite the provisions of the colony's 1680 reservation law—which stated that reservation lands were to be preserved in perpetuity—reservations in eighteenth-century Connecticut were perpetually threatened by colonial encroachment; thus reservation boundaries became important battlegrounds, engaging reservation communities, encroachers, and government officials in contests over Native land rights, the legitimacy of colonial claims to land, and the future of reservation populations. ^ Building from the contributions of the anthropology of colonialism, this study examines the forms of domination that structured the lives of reservation communities in the eighteenth century, and investigates the relationship between resistance and cultural production in the context of Mohegans' and Mashantucket Pequots' legal disputes with colonists over rights to reservation land. A critical analysis of the colonial records indicates that these disputes were also cultural struggles, entailing debates over history and emergent colonial notions about the cultural “illegitimacy” of reservation populations. Colonial discourse on Indianness, particularly narrations of “Pequot conquest,” played a powerful role in legislative responses to Natives' complaints against encroachment, and were deployed to deny Natives' land rights and obscure Natives' articulations of their own histories. But colonial tactics of control did not go unanswered by Native people, whose acts of resistance revealed that they were possessed of a political, and historical, consciousness which was rooted in enduring cultural ties to their homelands, and to each other. Thus while investigating the limits imposed upon reservation communities by colonial law and “Indian policy,” this study illuminates the indigenous knowledges, and local histories, that posed an important challenge to ongoing processes of conquest. ^