While the lives of Native women in colonial New England were generally not well documented, occasionally enough of a story can be recovered from the shadows of the archives to provide some insight into the roles of Native women in their respective communities. Such is the case with Oskoosooduck, an Eastern Pequot woman, mother, daughter, wife, and tribal leader.
Oskoosooduck (bef. 1671-July 12, 1752), also known as Pashkhanash, Mary Ninigret, Mary Momoho, or Mary Sowas, was the daughter of Eastern Pequot sachem, Momoho. Growing up at Quakataug in present day Stonington, Connecticut near the village of Old Mystic, she spent her childhood marked by a number of illnesses, the most severe of which in 1672 left her, as well as her siblings, and mother near death. Yet she regained her health, and as a young woman became the fifth wife of Narragansett sachem Ninigret II, by whom she had two sons, Charles and George. As the spouse of the sachem, Oskoosooduck was involved in the Narragansetts’ political affairs, appearing as a signatory on a March 1709 deed along with her husband and his counselors.
The royal marriage ended in violence one evening in 1717 as Ninigret, Oskoosooduck, and others fell asleep in front of a fire. When he awoke, the sachem felt that his wife was laying a bit too closely to another man, and suspected her of infidelity. Accordingly, he slashed her cheek with a knife three times and cast her out, sending her home to the Eastern Pequots marked in derision. The Eastern Pequots, enraged at the treatment of one of their own, sought retribution, although by this time, Oskoosooduck’ s father, the great sachem, Momoho, was dead, as were his sons, thus the strength of the tribe was much diminished. Nonetheless, tribal authorities considered a retaliatory military expedition against the Narragansetts, but the Eastern Pequot’s advisor, Colonel Joseph Stanton, convinced them that this was not in their best interest.
By 1723, Oskoosooduck had become active in the political affairs of her community at Lantern Hill, or as it was known at that time, Aboosamus. In signing a petition against the infringement of Eastern Pequot land rights, her name appeared prominently, second only to Momoho’ s widow. Her role as a tribal leader developed and continued through the decades, as evidenced by a number of petitions to the Connecticut General Assembly under her name into the mid-18th century, a time when there were renewed efforts by neighboring non-Natives to encroach on the rights of the tribe. By now she had resumed use of the surname Momoho and the name Oskoosooduck dropped from the historical record. At some point following her return to the Eastern Pequot reservation, Mary Momoho married again, this time to fellow Eastern Pequot Samuel Sowas and became known as Mary Sowas.
The efforts of Mary and other tribal leaders to stem colonial encroachment eventually succeeded. In 1751, the General Assembly passed legislation to protect the community’s interests, which initiated a period of relative stability on the reservation. The tribe began to realize incomes from the leasing of their land, and the number of reservation households more than doubled in the ensuing five years.
Unfortunately, her marriage to Sam Sowas, like her first marriage to Ninigret II, ended violently. In mid-July 1752 a jury of inquest was called to examine the aged bodies of Mary Sowas and her husband Samuel Sowas, both thought to have been about ninety years old. It was determined that in a rage Sam had murdered his wife and then committed suicide by hanging himself on a nearby tree. Sam and Mary Sowas’ son recounted the events of that fateful morning to the Reverend Joseph Fish, the Eastern Pequot’s minister,providing chilling details. Their bodies were buried the next day, the funeral well attended. Among the mourners were Ben Uncas, sachem of the Mohegans, and Tom Ninigret, young sachem of the Narragansetts and grandson to the deceased woman. Thus ended the long and exceptionally well-documented life of an Eastern Pequot woman and tribal leader.
For more information on Oskoosooduck within the New England Indian Papers Series, see Petition of Mary Momoho and Samson Sokiant; Connecticut General Assembly Resolve regarding Mary Momoho’s Complaint; Stiles’ Notes on Narragansett Customs; Letter from Joseph Fish to the Commissioners of Indian Affairs; Summons to Examine the Bodies of Samuel and Mary Sowas; Inquest over the Bodies of Samuel and Mary Sowas.