When I was editor of the Pequot Times in Connecticut, we had a visit from a Maori woman descended from Peter George. It was fascinating to meet her!
This story map is about Peter George, an American Indian whaleman, citizen of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, and part of a whaling and seafaring dynasty that emerged from the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in second half of the eighteenth century.
Peter was born in 1805, in the midst of social, political, and religious upheaval, and knew at an early age that there was little opportunity for the Pequots who remained on the tiny reservation in southeastern Connecticut. ,Like his father, uncle, and old brother, Peter went to New London and found work as a mariner. Peter’s seafaring career began by the time he was twenty-one years old and continued until he was nearly fifty. He was on eight known whaling voyages, bringing him to whaling grounds of the Falkland Islands, sometimes refered to as the ”Brazil Banks,” the south Atlantic, or “East Cape” of New Zealand, and the Pacific Ocean.
Peter George, Mashantucket Pequot Whaler
Peter George, Son of Peter and Polly
1805; Mashantucket, CT
In 1805, Polly Apes George, the wife of Peter George, gave birth to their second son, Peter. At the time of young Peter’s birth, several Pequot families had just finished their move to Brothertown, New York as part of a religious migration. Peter’s father (also Peter) and uncle, Benjamin George, who were considered among the “Cheifs and Councellors” of the Pequot Tribe, remained at Mashantucket with their families. Providing for their families was challenging as reservation lands continued to shrink. There were opportunities off the reservation and most Pequot men, including elder Peter and Benjamin, went to New London to find work as mariners.
“As Long as Wood Grows and the Water Runs”
1819; Old State House, Hartford, CT
After several Pequot leaders removed to Brothertown, the State of Connecticut appointed overseers began to manage the affairs of the tribe, as Indian people were widely viewed by whites as unable to do so. Though in practice earlier, the system was formalized in 1821. These men were required to manage the rent of tribal land, the accounting of provisons and other necessities allocated to tribal members, and to maintain a list of tribal member names. Problems with the white overseers at Mashantucket led to a string of petitions by members of the Pequot Tribe to remove corrupt and opportunistic men as their “guardians” and replace them with more honorable people.
1826; New London, CT – Courthouse
While his brother Peleg was away (possibly at sea), Peter was accused of an adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife, Lucretia. The complaint was brought by a member of one of the families renting Pequot land. A warrant was issued and Peter was arrested and brought before the local justice of the peace. Several in the Pequot communicty served as witnesses in the case and Peter was eventually found “Not Guilty in manner and Form as is alleged.” It is unclear what precipitated this false accusation, but many of the overseers and neighbors of the Pequot engaged in retaliatory activities following Pequot complaints to the General Assembly. In one instance, an outgoing overseer provided a list of people in the tribe and all members of the Goerge family were excluded.
The Port of New London
1827; New London, CT Waterfrong
New London’s whaling fleet grew rapidly during the 1820’s and signing on board of a whaler meant good pay for a successful voyage. Peter was already considered a “seaman” by the time he departed for his first known whaling voyage in October 1827 aboard the ship Friends. He was about 5’7 1/2″ tall and identified by various customs officals as “dark,” “yellow,” and “Indian.” Working on a whaler was physically demanding. In port, preparation involved loading ballast and stocking the ship with supplies for the hunt as well as the food and water necessary for long periods of time at sea. At sea, men climbed rigging to raise and lower sails, maintaining and repairing sails, ropes, and deck areas. Although there is no record of Peter’s official position, we know from records that his brother was a cooper. Might Peter have also held this position?
The image above shows a scrimshawed sperm whale tooth, carved with image of the ship Friends. Script below sea reads: “Friends of New London Chaseing Whales.”
Work and Marriage
1832; “North Groton” / Ledyard
On May 2, 1832, Peter George married Lucy Fagins, an Eastern Pequot from North Stonington. On that same day he boarded the ship Palladium of New London, bound for the East Cape (New Zealand). This situation was a typical one for whaling wives and families as fathers, husbands, brothers and sons often left home for months and even years.
1831-1833; Off the Coast of New Zealand
Although we do not know exactly what Peter’s position was on the ship Palladium, we do know that whaling was dangerous and dirty work. Peter most likely joined the rest of the crew in small whaleboats like the model pictured. The crew would chase the whale and use a harpoon and killing lance to capture and eventually kill it. The whale would then be towed back to the ship, where it was “cut in” and “tried out.” The oil rentered from the whale was an importnant source of lighting in the 19th Century.
Whaling Off the Coast of New Zealand
1832-1833; Off the Coast of New Zealand
This was Peter’s second voyage on the Palladium as it returned to the East Cape whaling grounds off the coast of New Zealand. Peter left New London this time with a familiar face, that of his cousin Solomon Apes. Only a few vessels had noted this particular destination prior to the Palladium visits. This time period coincided with increased European and American interaction with and settlement amongst the Maori tribes of New Zealand. By 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document) had been crafted, which quickly resulted in escalating tension over land rights.
The year before the treaty was signed, Elisha Apes (Solomon’s brother), a crew member of the New London whaler Ann Maria, mutinied off the coast of New Zealand over the captain’s abuse of the ship’s boy. Eventually, an agreement was made and Apes put ashore at Port Otago. Soon after, he married a local Ngai Tahu woman and they had many children. Apes and his children were active in Maori land claims and some were well known sheep shearers and shore whalers. Most of Apes’ decendants remain in New Zealand to this day.
Apes never left New Zealand, but did his whaling relatives ever visit?
At Home on Mashantucket
1833-1834; Off Shewville Road, Mashantucket, CT
Peter remained at Mashantucket for nearly two and a half years and was noted in a December 1833 tribal census — “age 28, part white.” During his stay, he planned to build a house, but for unknown reasons, he sold the timber intended for that purpose. Eventually, in early 1834, the tribal overseer commissioned a house to be built for Peter in the northwestern part of the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation.
Return to the Sea on the Ship Neptune
1834; South Atlantic Ocean
In June 1834, Peter returned to sea – fittingly – aboard the ship Neptune of New London on a whaling voyage to the South Atlantic. Peter’s cousin, Elisha Apes, as well as Isaac Hazard (a Narragansett Indian) and Thomas Smith (a Mohegan Indian) were also aboard the nearly two-year voyage. Soon after his departure, a daughter, Lucy Ann George was born.
Incidents On A Whaling Voyage
1839-1842; Galapagos Islands
By age 34, Peter was a seasoned whaleman having been on at least five whaling voyages. For eight years, he would only be on the land between voyages for a total of thirteen months. It is clear that the sea had become home. During this time, in October 1839, he joined the crew of the bark ship North America of New London along with George Cotrell (also Mashantucket Pequot), and John Uncas (a Mohegan). Headed to the Pacific Ocean, the voyage would last for two and a half years.
On this voyage was a young Yale graduate, Francis Allyn Olmsted – a passenger and observer- on his way to a warmer Pacific climate to relieve a chronic illness. Olmstead kept a journal on board that he later published in 1841 as “Incidents on a Whaling Voyage.”
Peter and his crewmates would have seen or participated in nearly everything that Olmsted recorded and illustrated, including the sea chanties Ho, Ho, and Up She Rises and Nancy Fanana. (To hear these songs, look for the two chanties on side bar, under Related Resources.)
Falkland Islands and New Goods from a Deserter
1848-1852; Falkland Islands
On November 3, 1848, Peter George was among the crew of the ship Hudson with his nephew, Amos W. George, and Peter Babcock (Mashantucket Pequot), as it departed Mystic. Marine journals report that the Hudson was bound for the Falkland Islands on a whaling voyage. Though no crew list or logbook has been located for this voyage, other documents inform us of events that took place on board the vessel.
A little more than a year into the voyage, one of the crewmembers deserted the vessel, leaving behind all of his belongings. Subsequently, an auction of his possessions was conducted and a list created as “An Account of Articles Sold At Auction Belonging to J.M. Oat – Found After his Disertion, December 30th 1849.” The items purchased by Peter George were one duck frock and a dictionary; by Amos George, one pair duck pants, one pair of boots, one flint, and a lot of books and tracts; by Peter Babcock, one vest, one pair of duck pants, one flannel shirt, twenty four heads of tobacco and one bottle.
The Giants of Patagonia
1849-1852; Puerto San Julian, Argentina
Later in the voyage, while at “Port Santa Cruz” (now Puerto San Julian, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina) with its “tender,” schooner Washington, the ship Hudson welcomed aboard for nearly a month, Benjamin F. Bourne. Bourne, who was a mate aboard the New Bedford schooner John Allyne earlier in 1849, had just escaped 97 days of captivity with the Indians of Patagonia. The accounts he shared with the crew of the Hudson soon made it into wider newspaper circulation around the Atlantic. His account was such a sensation that in 1853, he published a book about his experiences called The Giants of Patagonia.
This was Peter’s last confirmed voyage. He may have been on part of another voyage on the ship Kensington out of New Bedford, and his absence between May 1853 and January 1855, might suggest such a scenario. He was also on town expense in Groton for unknown reasons, so he may have taken ill after his return on the Hudson.
Pequot Land Sale
1856; Mashantucket, CT
In 1855, the Connecticut General Assembly appointed a committee to investigate the condition of the “Pequot Indians of Ledyard.” They reported that there were but thirteen tribal members, living in five houses dispersed across some 900 acres: mostly females – “some quite aged” while others “had chosen Negroes for companions.”
The committee reported that “it is not presumption to suppose, judging from the past, that they will soon become extinct” and recommended that some 700 acres of Mashantucket be surveyed, subdivided, and sold at public auction, with the proceeds going into a fund for tribal support. The remaining 179 acres would be designated as a “reservation for the use and benefit of Indians.” The General Assembly passed an act in June 1855, authorizing the land sale. Pequots, including “Capt. Peter George,” twice submitted a petition to the General Assembly protesting Connecticut’s illegal sale of tribal land.
Suing the Overseer for Tribal Membership
1857; Courthouse, New London, CT
After the Pequot Land Sale, some tribal families were denied rights as citizens of Mashantucket and prevented from accessing tribal resources. Outraged, tribal members sued the overseer in April 1857 for the acknowledgement of their rights. Peter George, his sister Sally George Babcock, and her children were among the plantiffs. Following testimony in which they provided a genealogical history of their family, the New London Superior Court resolved the suit in their favor.
This was significant, as access to tribal resources mattered more than ever. Now in his 50s, Peter was aging, and after many years at sea, he had returned to the land. Living on the land and no longer earning a seaman’s lay must have been somewhat foreign to Peter. He was now cohabitating with another Pequot, Caroline Wheeler, and after the court case, began to recieve the benefits of tribal resources including access to cash for necessities, meat, potatoes, and dairy products in the winter, and seed corn, beans, and guano for fertilizer in the spring for planting. Clothing, supplies and shoes were also provided.
1861; Tribal Cemetery, Mashantucket, CT
At the outbreak of the Civil War in early 1861, many Pequots were still whaling in the Pacific Ocean. At home, Peter was sick. On Febrary 6th, a doctor went to the reservation “for attendance and medicine for Peter George.” In late May, the tribal overseer visited him. By August 4th, Peter died. He was 56 years old. Caroline’s daughter, Jane Wheeler, went “to Norwich after Coffin for Peter and notifying friends” of his death. Though no marked stone identifies his burial location, Peter was likely interred at the tribal burying ground known as “Peter’s Hill Cemetery.”
1913; Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
In 1913, Yale Peabody Museum anthropologist, George Grant MacCurdy, visited the Pequots at Mashantucket. While there, he purchased from Jane Wheeler a whalebone handled knife. Who made this knife? Did Jane inherit the knife from her mother and Peter? Did it come from another Pequot whaleman? What other objects did Pequot whalemen like Peter leave behind?
Perhaps the whalebone handled knife went along with stories like this:
“My grandmother [Elizabeth George Plouffe] would tell us stories about how Pequots at one time were whalers, and this was even during the time the reservation was there and they used to come down here to Mystic and they used to go aboard the old whaling ships, like the Charles W. Morgan . . . and they would go out to sea. Sometimes they would be gone for three, six months and sometimes a year at a time. And then the Pequots would come back and they would (in the area after they’d finished their whaling voyage and then come back to the reservation), they would go back to the house, because it was the center of activity. And in those days they called the old house “the beehive.” And they would come back with their stories, and my grandmother said she could remember some of these stories from the time when she was a child, that her mother [Martha Hoxie] used to tell her because her mother was a child at that time. Martha Hoxie used to tell my grandmother how that when she was a kid when the men would come back from the whaling voyages and sometimes, well, oftentimes they’d bring back their bottles with ’em, and they would sit around jawing about their experiences, they’d get a little tipsy. And they’d get started getting a little loud and my great-grandmother, Martha Hoxie, would get a little nervous because she was a kid at the time, about their being loud and whatnot and she would run underneath her mother’s [Jane Wheeler] hoop skirt and hide. That was her place of refuge.” – Richard A. “Skip” Hayward, 1995
Historical Background: The Treaty of Waitangi (Māori: Tiriti o Waitangi) is a treaty first signed on 6 February 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and various Māori chiefs from the North Island of New Zealand. It resulted in the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand by Lieutenant Governor William Hobson in May 1840.
Interactive reproduction of the 1840 Waikato-Manukau copy of the Treaty of Waitangi
Those who explained the treaty to Māori generally stressed the advantages of bringing British settlers under the control of the Crown, which some chiefs had been asking for since 1831. They played down the impact of the British acquisition of sovereignty and its likely consequences for Māori. Missionary assurances that the treaty would be of benefit to Māori probably helped to overcome the caution of many chiefs. Some chiefs, especially in Northland, saw the treaty as a sacred bond or covenant directly between themselves and Queen Victoria. Many who signed were devout Christians who made no distinction between the Crown and the teachings of Christianity. Many Māori had clear expectations of how they would benefit. A sharing of authority would enhance chiefly mana. The country would be protected from acquisition by other foreign powers. A kawana (governor) would control Europeans, especially those buying land, who were causing trouble in some areas. The treaty would bring settlement, and with it both more markets for essential Māori services and desired trade goods.
Some chiefs realised that change was inevitable. The clock could not be turned back; the treaty was a way into the future.