A Tour of the Land of the O’Neill, the Pequot, Mohegans and Nuclear Submarines

My interest in native American issues has grown over the past few years, fueled in part by Nathaniel Philbrick’s account of the King Philip Indian War in The Mayflower, and because of my close proximity to Mashpee and the efforts/strife of the local Wampanoag tribe to achieve tribal recognition and restore their language.

Until this past weekend I’d never visited the southeastern corner of Connecticut, home to the Mohegan and Pequot tribes and their better known casinos — Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. Both have been in operation for more than a decade and are excellent examples of sovereign indigenous rights and, to some poetic extent, ironic revenge for past atrocities by the English settlers and their descendants.  Fleecing the locals and using the cash to better themselves and buy back their ancestral lands seems fitting once you put into context the events of May 26, 1637.

My interest in the Pequot followed a visit to the site of the Great Swamp Fight in Kingstown, Rhode Island during the winter of 2009. Philbrick brought this neglected piece of American history to light in the Mayflower, telling the grim story of the battle when an army of colonists massacred hundreds of Narragansett Indians in their hidden swamp redoubt one cold December evening.  My post on that visit is one of the most visited and commented on this blog.

The Great Swamp Fight of December, 1675, while interesting because of its senseless violence (it drew the peaceful Narragansett tribe into the bloody three-year war between the whites and the Wampanoags), was not the first nor the worst of the colonial era massacres.  Forty years before and only 20 miles to the west, near what is known today as the village of Mystic,Connecticut an English force (which included Mohegan and Narragansett warriors) led by Captain John Mason attacked and massacred an encampment of Pequot Indians inside of their fort on the western shores of the Mystic River. I’ve rowed on that river at the annual Mystic Coast Weeks regatta hosted out of the Mystic Seaport Museum of American maritime history, unaware of the atrocity that took place only a half a mile away. That 400 to 700 women, children and old men died there has been a source of macabre curiosity and is definitely not something on the typical Mystic tourist’s agenda between the aquarium and its beluga whale and ye olde quaintness of the Seaport (which is an excellent maritime museum and experience).


One recent January weekend, with the prospect of nothing to do but sit on the couch and watch football,  my son and I woke early and drove the 125 miles from Cape Cod to New London ostensibly to visit the submarine museum in Groton where the first nuclear submarine Nautilus is moored. We talked about zombie issues during the drive, remarking about the relative attractiveness of various structures as being zombie-proof or not, and listened to internet radio kludged through his iPod and an FM radio adapter. Our first stop was in downtown New London, home of my favorite playwright, Eugene O’Neill, for a healthy organic brunch at a crunchy little café off of State Street recommended by Yelp.

My son, unimpressed with my dietetic eccentricities, extracted a promise that the day would end with a hamburger from the nearby Five Guys in Mystic.

We recrossed the Thames River and found the United States Navy’s submarine base off of Route 12 in Groton. This was familiar ground to me as I had spent one grueling May in the 1970s rowing on the Thames with the Yale heavyweight crew preparing for the annual Harvard-Yale race, the oldest collegiate competition in the country. My father sent me a new Laser sailboat as a birthday present, having it delivered to the crew house at Gales Ferry. One day I decided to try the Laser out by myself and tacked it downriver towards the Route 95 bridge. It was very breezy day and I capsized in front of the submarine base’s sub pens. As I drifted perilously close to the warning line marked by a string of orange buoys I tried to right the boat and get going again as a group of alarmed shore patrolmen jogged down the dock, white rifles in hand yelling that I was invading off limits territory. A friend who attended Connecticut College on the other side of the Thames told me once about getting arrested for bird watching in the woods with a set of binoculars. A car pulled up, some Navy personnel hopped out, and he was questioned.

New London and Groton were definitely high on the Soviet missile target list during the cold war. The fact that General Dynamics, the shipyard that builds the massive nuclear submarines, is sitting right on New London Harbor and that New London is also home to the Coast Guard Academy makes it a very attractive target.  There’s something strangely functional and sad about a military base. I felt it on the Presidio in San Francisco during the recent holidays, and again last weekend in Groton as we drove past the gates of the sub base, the rows of enlisted personnel barracks, the retired Polaris missile standing sentry.

The museum was fantastic, a relatively new museum that I’d never seen before. We toured the exhibits, marveled at the display of American military technology and heroism, and eventually boarded the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered “vehicle.” My claustrophobia immediately kicked in, making me realize I would make a neurotic submariner.

We took a left out of the museum and continued north on Route 12 along the Thames to Gales Ferry, home of the Yale crew camp. I felt very old and blue and nostalgic and boola-boola standing on the old croquet pitch looking down at the boathouse (trivia: the saying “paint the town red” was uttered by a traitorous mayor of New London who exhorted the Harvard crew to paint his city Crimson if they beat Yale)

Junior was impatient, honked the horn, so we hit the road and continued north in search of the mystical Mohegan Sun, casino of the Mohegan tribe in Uncasville. I’m a moron when it comes to gambling, so I have no affinity for casinos (and am profoundly happy not to be in Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show this week) and the alleged glamour associated with them.  We used the GPS to find the way, and suddenly astride the Thames, was the most out of place building I’ve ever seen — a shining metallic rectangle looming above the brown sere winter woods.

Good for the Indians, I thought. Getting back at the civilization that boned them and using the proceeds to better themselves and buy back their ancestral lands. The Mohegans and Pequots had been screwed, utterly so, and their history is fascinating, particularly in the 20th century as they struggled to preserve their language (banned by the state of Connecticut at one point) and culture. But they did, and by the 1990s had achieved Federal recognition, investors, and eventually prosperity.

We didn’t stop to visit, just drove through the valet area and back to the highway and eventually the creepiest place I’ve seen in years, the campus of the abandoned state mental hospital in Ledyard and Norwich. This place was amazing. You can get a great sense of it at the website, Forbidden-Places, a catalog of abandoned factories, hospitals and power plants hosted out of Belgium. I’d film a horror movie here in an instant. Make that a zombie movie.

We drove silently through the edge of Norwich, past the tired millworker housing and shuttered mills, Asian groceries and check cashing stores. The place was sleepy and stagnant and so evocative of the death of the industrial revolution in countless other New England mill towns. It made me think of my friends the Lotuffs, and their efforts to revive the American manufacturing tradition with their high-end leather working company, Lotuff Leather (whose briefcase I lust for). What will restore manufacturing to America? A drive through Fall River or Pawtucket or Norwich is like going to a drive-in wake.

We gazed upon the Pequot casino, Foxwoods, just as garish and out of place as the Mohegan version, and taking a back road, happened upon the actual reservation where the surviving Pequots live in a gated community with very nice houses in the middle of the glacial moraine crossed by rows of colonial stonewalls snaking through the Connecticut woods. Given that the Mohegans under their sachem, Uncas, participated in the Mystic Pequot massacre, I wonder how cut-throat competitive the two casinos are today.

The Five Guys burger ended the adventure — me eating mine like a caveman out from in between the paleo-forbidden bun, Junior inhaling his along with a massive greasy paper bag of fries. All was well with the worlds, the Pequots and Mohegans were making bank, our Navy is keeping us safe, but nowhere in Greater New London can one find a Eugene O’Neill play.