One state legislator has fought for a dozen years to remove the statue of Capt. John Mason – who led a massacre of Eastern Pequot Tribe members in Mystic in the 1600s – from the north side of the Capitol building overlooking Bushnell Park. And despite so-far-successful resistance, she isn’t giving up hope.
“It will happen, I just don’t know when,” State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, told CT Examiner this week. “I think that people on the building are people that we should honor. John Mason was a person of import, but he attempted to commit genocide and I don’t think that is something we should be honoring.”
Efforts to relocate the 8-foot-tall sculpture have been met with opposition from top legislators and the 12-member State Capitol Preservation and Restoration Commission.
The commission, the appointed advisory agency that oversees capitol grounds, must approve alterations and removals of statues or monuments from the area. If that hurdle is met, then the state Legislature’s four caucus leaders would need to approve the $79,000 expenditure required for removal.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Democrat, and Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, favor the removal of the statue. But Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, is firmly opposed.
The Capitol’s preservation commission last held public hearings and voted on the controversial measure in November and December 2021. At the December meeting, three members – including Osten who sits on the commission – voted for removal. But six members voted to keep the statue in place with certain caveats, including having a task force create an educational program about the history of that period. Three members voted to leave the Mason statue in place, pending further direction from legislative leaders.
Osten said she believes the statue will come down at some point, and that education regarding the Pequot War, which led to the death of upwards of 600 Pequots, could be used to persuade those opposed to the statue’s removal.
Osten, who favors moving the statue to the Old State House, said she took up the cause to remove the statue soon after entering the state Legislature 12 years ago.
“I’ve read a lot of history on it and it piqued my interest. This is an issue we should and need to address,” she said.
The statue of the English-born Mason has stood above the Capitol’s north steps since 1909.
Candelora said he doesn’t think legislators should be in the business of saying which statues or monuments should be removed.
“I don’t think my values should be impacting what has been historically laid down,” he told CT Examiner. “We should be learning from history, rather than trying to erase it. This issue is bigger than all of us, and attempting to erase the sins of the past does nothing to help us going into the future.”
Candelora said he’s not questioning the events of the Pequot War, calling them “horrific.”
“But, again, to try to go back in time and suggest that [Mason] was more culpable than somebody else inserts ourselves into history and really removes the historical context of what went on,” he said. “The presence of his statue speaks not in a way to honor him, but in a way to remember those events.”
Jane Montanaro, executive director of the Preservation Connecticut, said she doesn’t believe political pressure has any sway on most preservation groups, including the Capitol Preservation and Restoration Commission.
“In general, preservation committees look at the facts, the significance of the issue and the history and interpreting what that means today,” she said. “It’s about representing the past and not wanting to whitewash the facts, but to be inclusive and tell the whole story.”
Montanaro said her organization, which has written on the topic, has no position on whether or not to remove the statue.
“There is a full story that needs to be acknowledged,” she said. “I respect their [those pushing for removal, specifically Native American groups] feelings and that is why we believe there needs to be more discussion for people to eventually come to an agreement.”
Osten said she has worked with several tribes over the years who have been vocal on the topic. They include the Eastern Pequots, the Mashantucket Pequots, the Mohegan Tribe, the Golden Hill Paugussetts, and the Schaghticoke Tribe.
Rashad Young, a member of the Mashantucket Pequots and a Pequot language instructor, spoke in favor of removing the Mason statue at the 2021 public hearing.
“For me, specifically, and for the tribe, Mason was one of the two John’s, as we call them. John Mason and John Underhill attacked the Pequot fort in 1637 and killed hundreds of Pequots, mostly children and women and the elderly,” Young said. “It signifies the colonization of this area and the erasure of the indigenous people. The Pequots were almost extinct from the massacre.”
Young said that, with education, people might rethink their position on the issue.
“I am optimistic it will come down, whether this year or later,” he said. “It comes down to educating people on the actual actions of these figureheads that we have statues of. We just want an accurate history to be told. I want people to know about the real history of John Mason.”
There are currently no meetings scheduled to address the topic, but Capitol Preservation and Restoration Commission Chairperson Buddy Altobelli said the group could schedule a meeting if they get a request “from the Committee on Legislative Management or anybody at the Capitol. We take requests from broad and far.”