Editorial: History is what really happened

In 2021, President Joe Biden proclaimed the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day, to be celebrated on the same day as Columbus Day, which has been a federal holiday since 1937.

After decades of controversy around a day that honors the explorer, this proclamation expanded the history to look at the impact of Columbus’ voyages on the Indigenous people who lived in the so-called “New World.”

“Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on tribal nations and Indigenous communities,” the president said at the time. “It is a measure of our greatness as a nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes in our past, that we face them honestly, we bring them to light and we do all we can to address them.”

Those words — “we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes in our past” — bring us to the historical marker on Main Road in front of Southold Free Library. The plaque, erected in 1960 by a committee of a local civic associations, marks the site where Capt. John Underhill lived in the 1650s. It describes him as “the renowned military leader and Indian fighter in New England, New Netherlands, and on Long Island.”

The historical record — primary sources written in real time by the participants themselves, not someone’s opinion centuries later — say Underhill was second in command of an English army that attacked a Pequot fort in Mystic, Conn., in May 1637. The English set the fort ablaze, killing as many as 700 men, women and children, according to accounts.

Impressed by his lethal skills, authorities in New Netherlands summoned Underhill, and hundreds more Natives living in the area around Manhattan and western Long Island were killed under his command. 

The words on this sign may have made some sense in 1960, in terms of how history was studied at the time. Perhaps it is fair to say no one back then really knew what happened at Mystic in 1637. But they make no sense today. We know the truth now.

We recently spoke with two historians who have spent their careers studying Native and colonial history: John Strong, who taught for years at Southampton College and has published extensively on Native history on the East End, and Kevin McBride, a longtime professor at the University of Connecticut, who did some of the first archeology on the Mystic hill where the Pequot fort once stood.

Underhill “was engaged in a lot of fighting against Native peoples,” Mr. McBride said, in Connecticut and in New York, then called New Netherlands. “He wrote about what he did, so that’s how we can know. The plan at Mystic was to surround the fort and fire muskets into the wigwams.”

That plan went awry, and a part of the fort was torched, which quickly engulfed the entire structure. Mr. McBride says accounts estimate the death toll at anywhere from 250 to 700.

Mr. Strong’s research shows a clear connection between the Pequot massacre and the beginning of English settlement on the North and South forks in 1640. He sums it up this way: Settlement could not have taken place here unless the Pequots were removed as a powerful tribe that dominated the other Native groups across both forks. 

“Once the threat of the Pequots was gone, within a very short period of time settlers could expand from Connecticut,” Mr. Strong said. “That’s when you see the movement to Southampton in 1640.”

Studying all aspects of our country’s history, being fully open about its uglier chapters, makes us all better informed. We can’t mold history into what we want it to be. The better we know the past, the better we are today.