Lawmakers want statue of John Mason removed from Capitol. Preservation group says no

A normally placid panel that oversees the State Capitol complex erupted in opposition Thursday to a plan to remove the marble statue of an early English settler who led the massacre of hundreds of Native Americans in the 1637 Battle of Mystic.

The State Capitol Preservation & Restoration Commission bristled at plans by legislative leaders to take down the stone likeness of John Mason from the north exterior of the Capitol. By keeping the statue in its third-floor niche overlooking Bushnell Park, they insisted, the figure can become a learning tool whether or not it offends people.

Commission members warned that if Mason is removed from the high-profile perch above the Capitol’s north steps, other statues of early settlers, including slave owners, can be next. “It’s not going to stop at one thing,” warned Mary Finnegan, a commission member who worked in the General Assembly for nearly 38 years.

The state budget that Gov. Ned Lamont signed on Wednesday includes a plan to move Mason’s likeness to the Old State House one mile away from the Capitol, as key lawmakers wanted it out of the collection of historic statues that ring the Capitol building.

Complicating the issue, the commission members, during their quarterly meeting, became confused over the possible timetable to remove the statue after legislative staff told them that money for moving Mason from the State Capitol was not actually included in the new state budget.

But right after the hour-and-20-minute-long commission meeting, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the powerful co-chairwoman of the legislative Appropriations Committee, said her plans to remove the statue indeed remain in the state budget that starts July 1.

“It will show up in the budget books,” Osten said in a phone interview. “There’s no dollar write-up because it will be removed within existing expenditures.” Osten had originally budgeted about $15,000 to take the statue off the third-floor exterior and truck it over to the Old State House Museum in the center of downtown Hartford.

Mason’s colonial troops joined with allies from the Narragansett and Mohegan tribes to the battle against the Eastern Pequot tribe in May of 1637, killing about 500 Native Americans. The massacre, which is also the subject of another commemoration on the Capitol, is an affront to Native Americans, said Osten, whose district includes the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations.

Osten said that those women, children and older Native Americans who were not killed in the massacre were tortured and became slaves. She said that the statue could be sent to the Old State House for permanent exhibition rather than taking a honored location at the Capitol.

Commission member William Morgan, the former longtime chief of the State Capitol Police, initially called for the commission to go to Superior Court for an injunction against the removal of the statue. But members led by Chairman Buddy Altobello of Meriden, a former longtime member of the state House of Representatives, agreed to take a wait-and-see attitude, with a possible public hearing on the issue during the next quarterly meeting in September.

Walter Woodward, an associate professor of history at UConn who serves on the commission and is an expert in early Connecticut history, joined in the defense of the keeping the statute in public view on the exterior of the 1878 Capitol.

“One of the things that I know is that John Mason certainly, in that Pequot fort on that morning, did something that was horrendous to save his and his men’s lives,” said Woodward, who is also the Connecticut state historian, during the virtual commission meeting.

Woodward continued, “The massacre at Mystic, as it is called now, was a desperate act by someone in desperate trouble, by someone trying to survive. And at that moment he and his men were fighting to save the colony of Connecticut as well. The reason the state of Connecticut honored him through those centuries, is because at a moment of great peril for this fledgling colony that was facing starvation and surrounded by enemies, he was the great risk-taker.”

While the commission serves as an advisory group to the legislature, which runs the 14-acre Capitol complex as well as the Old State House, the state mandate guiding the preservation panel says “The integrity of the location, design, setting, material, decoration and appearance of all exterior structure, surfaces, and finishes shall be maintained, whenever possible, as originally designed and created... There shall be no changes to the exterior structure, surfaces, or finishes without approval of the Commission on Preservation and Restoration of the State Capitol or its designated subcommittee.”

Woodward described Mason as a complex man who after the Pequot War, became close friends with Uncas, who as the sachem of the Mohegans was the leader of that tribal nation. Woodward said it took him a long time to understand the complexity of their relationship.

“When we project present values into the past, not only is it a slippery slope, but we lose what can be incredibly important milestone markers for our own future,” Woodward told the commission. “A person like John Mason, who the people of this state honored for centuries who may have been, without his actions, the state of Connecticut, the colony of Connecticut, might have ceased to exist. We should really be cautious in our own time about the assumptions we hold and the actions we take based on those assumptions.”

In other business, the 12-member commission, whose members are appointees from legislative leaders and the governor, were told that the replica of the allegorical “Genius of Connecticut,” that has stood in the Capitol rotunda since 2009, may finally be hoisted to the top of the dome. The state budget includes $500,000 to perform the complicated installation.

The original 18-foot-tall statue was removed from the top of the dome after it was found to be damaged after the famous hurricane of 1938. The winged statue was melted down for munitions during World War II.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT