Uncas Helps Tontonimo

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, August 2008)

By working with the colonists, the Mohegan "sachem" ( (chieftain) Uncas became a friend and advisor valued for his wisdom and peacekeeping abilities. This gave him sovereignty and power to manage many Indian affairs. Bolton is honored to have such a wise and compassionate leader in our heritage.

The Mohawk from New York were gradually relinquishing peacekeeping in Connecticut to Uncas. (Earlier, the Mohawk enemies of the Pequot had sent the head of Pequot sachem Sassacus, Uncas's brother-in-law, as a gift to the Hartford Court.)

The Nowashe tribe occupied the area that is now part of Glastonbury. They were neighbors of the Podunk, who occupied what is now East Hartford and Manchester as far as Bolton Notch. The Nowashe refused to pay a small token to the tiny party of Mohawk who came from the Hudson Valley and entered the Connecticut Valley every two years to collect tribute for keeping tribal peace. The Nowashe said they were not fat from the corn grown by women in the fields nor were they foolish like their neighbors. They said they were strong hunters and built their fort on high ground. Their enemies would be weakened climbing over obstacles before they could reach their fort and fight. They said they no longer needed or wanted the Mohawk or the Mohegan as peacekeepers in Connecticut. A year passed and the surrounding tribes began to wonder if they, too, should refuse to pay tribute to the Mohawk for enforcing the tribal peace.

The Mohawk made a sudden, unannounced trip to the Connecticut Valley and borrowed many canoes from the river tribes. The main force waited upstream on the west side of the river and ate and prepared for war while a small advance guard walked inland and then south before crossing the river that night in canoes and landing near where Podunk (also called Nowaas) and Nowashe lands met at the Connecticut River. The small Mohawk advance guard was seen that night destroying a teepee and crops near the Nowashe fort and leaving on the same trail leading back up the other side of the Connecticut River.

The Nowashe knew they could crush the small force of Mohawk warriors so they dispatched many of their best warriors to track and kill them. But the trail ended far north at the river and the Nowashe trackers could see that a large Mohawk force had camped there the previous night. Meanwhile, the Mohawk had canoed downriver to the Nowashe camp and smoke could be seen rising where the Nowashe fort was overrun and burned to the ground. The Nowashe warriors who had tracked the Mohawk ran all the way back to their fort. The fastest arrived first and the slowest came much later to be slaughtered by the Mohawk.

The Mohawk destroyed the Nowashe tribe except for a few who were not found. The Podunk and the Mohegan adopted the few survivors. Some shocked survivors told all who would listen of the horrible deeds and ferocity of the Mohawk and put fear in the hearts of all the tribes along the river.

Not long after that attack Uncas and Tontonimo, the Podunk sachem, shared a difficult problem. A Podunk warrior named Weassapano murdered a Mohegan "sagamore" (sagamores were very wise warriors who were often sub-chiefs and councilors to the sachem). The murderer became instantly popular for the deed and was now undermining the authority of Tontonimo. Tontonimo had to refuse to surrender the murderer to save face and to pass the problem on to higher authorities. The dispute was submitted to Governor Webster, and Tontonimo agreed to surrender the murderer. But Weassapano had so many warrior friends that Tontonimo still could not surrender him. The renegades defying Uncas and the English and were quite proud of themselves, just like the Nowashe had been. The English decided they would not trouble themselves further with the quarrel and gave Uncas to understand that he and Tontonimo could solve the problem however they pleased. Uncas realized that Weassapano was becoming a leader of renegades who threatened Tontonimo's leadership and the tribal peace. Somehow he had to strengthen Tontonimo and discredit the murderer Weassapano.

Uncas assembled a war party to take Weassapano prisoner, but he had no intention of going to battle. Uncas would not have a single warrior die to capture a murderer. His Mohegan war party marched through Bolton Notch and met the renegades near the Hockanum River. Uncas showed his disappointment that so many Podunk warriors were ignoring the Indian ways and showing so little respect for the sagamores. He put the burden of the consequences directly on the renegades and recognized only Tontonimo as the Podunk leader, instructing the renegades to take a message back to Tontonimo. If Tontonimo continued to shelter the murderer, then Uncas would send for the Mohawk to destroy Tontonimo and the entire Podunk tribe.

There is a Mohegan saying, "It is easy to be brave from a distance." The Podunk renegades suddenly had lost that distance. The Nowashe survivors were still trembling and telling stories of the horror of the Mohawk attack. Weassapano now lost popularity with everyone. Tontonimo went along with Uncas's strategy and reinforced the concerns of the Podunks, telling everyone who would listen that Weassapano and the renegades had put every Nowaas and Nowashe survivor's life in jeopardy.

A few weeks later Uncas shrewdly sent a warrior with Mohawk weapons to the Podunk lands, where he set fire to a wigwam near the fort and escaped across the river, leaving behind some Mohawk artifacts. In the morning, when the Podunk came out of their fort to examine the ruins, they found the Mohawk weapons. Believing that Uncas had succeeded in fulfilling his threat, and blinded with terror, the Podunk now pleaded with Tontonimo to surrender Weassapano and to ask for peace.

After sufficient begging for forgiveness, peace was granted by Uncas, and from that time until the King Philip War, the Podunk remained a good tribal neighbor.