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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

WHITE GUILT PART 2: Apologizing to the Pequot

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

To Nicholas Peck, who in his laconic and inscrutable manner first suggested I embark on this particular undertaking.

[written Oct. 1999, here with minor edits]

As my family is all too aware, I have amused myself at times over the past three years by urging the Underhill Society [a genealogical society established in 1892 to which I and other “Family Tree” buffs in the family belong] to recognize my heretical opinions about our esteemed ancestor, Captain John Underhill [1608-1674.] The society has printed neither my essays nor my letters, although they did take my suggestion that the annual meeting this year be held in Mystic, Ct., site of the Pequot War. The scene that ensued there this past weekend could have been better described by PG Wodehouse or maybe Robert Altman, but I’ll give my own extremely biased account as follows.

Scene: The Mystic Hilton. As I entered the crowded conference room where 90+ Underhills were breakfasting, I had to wonder, what kind of person would want to attend an event like this? Someone like me, apparently, because here I was! A brief meeting was conducted in which officers were reelected without opposition, benign dictatorship being the order of the day.

We embarked on a bus tour of nearby historic villages. Talking with some of my fellow passengers, I found that I wasn’t alone in looking forward eagerly to our next stop on the tour, the new “state- of- the- art” Pequot Museum, owned by the tribe and lavishly funded by casino income. A distant cousin of mine [most of the males were named either George, Robert, William, or John- can’t remember which this one was] said he had been to the Museum already and was very curious to see how the Underhill Society would handle the whole Pequot connection. I hinted that I had a hidden agenda; in fact I was carrying with me a statement of apology to the Pequot, and intended to present it if given the slightest opportunity.

Then the bus pulled up to a tiny brick building in Old Mystic village. The sign above the door read “Indian Research Center.” It began to dawn on me that this was ANOTHER Indian museum, not the new multimillion dollar one but a pre-existing local Historical society. A guide informed us that this was the private collection of a Mrs. Butler. We entered a tiny, obviously impoverished museum, staffed by volunteers and with some southwestern pottery in cases. Here we were treated to a stultifying lecture on the Woodland Indians and Mrs. Butler, and told that a person of Pequot ancestry would be speaking to us next. I snuck ahead of the group and into the next room, where a 30-something man with coppery skin and a mixed African-Native American look was waiting. Going into Valley Girl mode, I approached him and babbled the following: “Hi there! Do you know who this group is? [sotto voce] We’re the Underhills. We, like, WIPED you guys OUT about 300 years ago….I just wanted to say, I’m REALLY SORRY!” Big smile. He was amused. “Oh, don’t worry about it!”, he said in soothing tones. “You know… things HAPPEN.” Enter the rest of the group. “We have you surrounded,” somebody quipped. “We come in peace!” I hastily counterquipped. The Pequot guy then gave a talk on how he had been able to trace his own ancestry. No mention of the Pequot War, except to say that he was a military man himself and understood that in a battle, orders had to be carried out. No one pointed out to him that our ancestor had been giving the orders, not receiving them. At the end of his talk, I asked if I could say something. “Since YOU’RE here, and WE’RE here, and even though my son tells me it’s sappy and my father thinks I’m going to annoy someone by doing this, I’d like to read a statement I’ve prepared on the Pequot Wars…”

I was immediately cut short by the museum director, who hastily shushed me, saying this would NOT be appropriate and that our bus was waiting for us. I blurted something to the effect that I’d like to issue a personal and heartfelt apology for any past misunderstandings. As we were being hustled out of there I turned back to our Indian [sic] host with a shrug, a smile, and a parting “Whatever!’

Back on the bus, I felt like my cover was blown. Now they had me pegged as a loose cannon. My seatmate was sympathetic “What did she think you were going to say? That you were taking hostages or something?” But Underhill Society president George T. Underhill was looking distinctly peeved.

I didn’t care. I was on a mission, and my next step [as we all adjourned to lunch on our own] was to get to the NEW Pequot museum. There I was able to score about 50 copies of the “Pequot Times”, a free paper the museum prints. It just so happened that I had written a letter to the editor regarding the Pequot War, and it was printed in the current issue. The contrast between the two museums was extreme. The Indian-owned library was spacious and opulent, with cherry wood furniture and a whole shelf of rare biographies of Captain Underhill. The little, older museum, where our program stated we would “view Captain Underhill’s papers”, had only a brief mention of him in a brochure that had been printed in the 40’s. I felt that some of the Underhills, who had traveled from California, Texas, Kentucky, Wisconsin, etc. might regret not seeing the new museum, and planned to encourage them all to do so.

Armed with my stack of papers I rejoined my party for a tour of an authentic whaling vessel at Mystic Seaport. The harbor and boats were lovely in the evening light. Then we went to dinner and stuffed ourselves with seafood; I began to hand out the “Pequot Times” to interested parties, directing them to my letter on page two. I also accosted George T. and apologized for “speaking out of turn” at the historical society. He replied that I had certainly been out of order and he had said so in the letter he wrote to me when I first proposed the idea, and that it was crazy to apologize for something that happed 300 years ago. “I agree, it IS pretty farfetched,” I said innocently. That broke the ice and his eyes started to twinkle. I repeated my apology, told him how much I was enjoying the day, and he seemed quite mollified.

Charlie Clemmons, the filmmaker who was to be the featured speaker, arrived and I greeted him warmly, having met with him earlier this year to discuss his documentary about, guess what, the Pequot War. My knowing Charlie may have further aroused the suspicions of the Society brass, but I hadn’t seen his film and didn’t know what to expect from it or how ”Pro-Indian” it might be, although I was quite happy to give the impression that we might be in cahoots. A big screen TV was set up so that we could view a seven minute trailer of the film. Charlie and his partner spoke, quoting from Underhill’s writings and saying that they had interviewed many scholars, etc. We all settled back to watch.

As it turned out, the film clip was a skillfully done condemnation of the war as a bloody and lamentable debacle, quoting “the experts’, some contemporary Indians [sic],and with an actor portraying Captain John and reading the more remorseful passages from his account. When it ended a stunned silence fell. Then the littlest, oldest Underhill, the one who walked with two canes, began to rail. “What did you think you were going to accomplish making this film? Why not make a film about how the Indians were always fighting each other? Make a film about Pearl Harbor!” The outcry continued, with Clemmons fielding the comments and attempting to keep it rational, while my contemporaries exchanged raised eyebrows. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing! Well, actually, we could. Older Underhills were outraged. But younger ones were speaking up too [not I- butter wouldn’t have melted in my mouth just then], saying things like “The fact that Captain John seems to have felt some remorse for what he did helps me to deal with the story,” and “Don’t you find it interesting that many of his descendants became Quakers?”

Finally George T. adjourned the evening. I was busy handing out my newspapers to everyone who would take one from me. When another elder statesman, N. Robert Underhill, introduced himself to me and I returned the favor, he said “I know who you are! You’re the troublemaker!” I attempted to pour on the old oil, and soon he was telling me all about their trip to England and introducing me to others of the old guard, saying “Here’s our lone dissenter! And she’s not a bad kid! She’s a liberal with a small ‘L’!” On this note of intergenerational reconciliation, the evening drew to a close.

Text of my letter to the Editor, “Pequot Times”

Dear Editor,

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Pequot Museum for the first time. I was very moved by the tragic history of the Pequot War as it is portrayed in the museum. This history had a personal significance for me because I am a direct descendant of John Underhill, one of the principal perpetrators of the burning of the Pequot Stockade in 1637.

In October , a group of genealogy buffs called the “Underhill Society”, of which I am a member, will be holding its annual meeting in Mystic and visiting the Pequot Museum and Research Center to learn more about their family history.

As a personal gesture of remembrance, I have decided to make a contribution to an organization I thought uniquely appropriate, the nonprofit group SOA Watch. This group is working to shut down the so-called “School of the Americas’, or SOA, a U.S. Army training school that trains military personnel from Latin America and Mexico in counter-insurgency and commando operations. In effect, this school trains modern day soldiers to oppress Third World Indigenous peoples, continuing the exact same tactics that were used against the Pequot 375 years ago.

Visiting the museum reminded me of the importance of doing all we can do to work for peace. In the words of a song by Holly Near, “No more genocide in my name.”

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