Revisiting the National Guard’s Lineage Part II

Painting of the first Florida national guard

I started writing this series because I had a lot of questions about the founding date of the National Guard. As I mentioned in part one of this series, when I was a public affairs officer with the Florida National Guard I learned that two states, Florida and Massachusetts, both made conflicting claims as the first militias in North America, Florida claiming lineage to the Spanish militias in 1565, and Massachusetts claiming lineage to British militias in 1636. The National Guard Bureau (NGB) and the U.S. Army Center of Military History align with Massachusetts as “The Nation’s First.”

In part one, I mentioned that the Florida and Massachusetts National Guards were claiming that they were the first European militias with lineage to either the Spanish or British militias. This is an important distinction because both Florida and Massachusetts recognize that their current military units spawned from militia units in 1565 or 1636. The two states, the only two National Guard entities to assert definitive “first” status, cannot and do not claim lineage to other groups because there is no historical evidence linking those other cultures to the military heritage of Florida and Massachusetts.

Therefore, while I am aware that the indigenous people of North America were here thousands of years before any Europeans and they were likely the first militias in North America, a point agreed upon by one of the NGB historians, the militias of Florida and Massachusetts cannot be linked to the Native tribes. There is no historical evidence to support that position.

Similarly, I understand that the Norse came here long before the Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and others, making them the first Europeans to reach North America. They too likely had militias to protect their group, but like the Native Americans, there is no evidence linking the Norse to either the Florida or Massachusetts National Guards, therefore, the Norse are also excluded from this series.  

Central in this discussion is how the U.S. military, particularly the U.S. Army, determines lineage and honors for military units. According to the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History, a Lineage and Honors Certificate, like those for the U.S. Army’s original units, is a document that serves a legal function as the “birth certificate” of the unit, its “service record,” and its “deed” to organizational properties and historical records. These documents are concise statements of organizational history of units and they denote dates of constitution (being placed on the rolls of the Army), activations and inactivations, and changes in unit designation.

“In September 1565, the Spanish established St. Augustine, the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent,” author Michael D. Doubler wrote in his book, I am the Guard. As part of the organization of St. Augustine, the Spanish created a militia known as a “milicia.” The origins of militia can be argued depending on which historian you talk to, but some believe that the militias used in the European model introduced in North America, date back to the Greeks and Romans.

“Commemoration of the birth of the militia in St. Augustine stems from the research by National Park Service Historians Albert Manucy and Luis Arana who worked at the Castillo de San Marcos in the 1960s during St. Augustine’s Quadricentennial Celebrations,” Command Historian Alison Simpson of the Florida National Guard said via e-mail. According to Simpson, Manucy in 1965 published a significant work on Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the founder of St. Augustine, and later historian Dr. Eugene Lyon produced the seminal work on Menéndez and the establishment of St. Augustine in his book, The Enterprise of Florida, published in 1976.

The research material from these projects is housed in the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute at Flagler College and includes material, Simpson said, that shows that upon the founding of St. Augustine in September 1565, in addition to 500 professional troops, there were approximately 100 civilians of whom about half were men who qualified for service in the militia.

“These men, farmers, craftsmen and laborers, are considered the original members of St. Augustine’s 1565 militia,” Simpson said.

Doubler’s research confirms that the Spanish militias were the first in North America (excluding native tribes and the Norse as previously stated). He based this assertion on the fact that he found evidence considered the earliest documented proof of a militia in North America, a Spanish militia muster roster from St. Augustine which contains the names of 43 “citizen-soldiers” on it. However, the document is dated 1578. The dates are subject to further scrutiny, but the Spanish musters happened.

In his book, Florida’s Army, historian Robert Hawk wrote that the Florida National Guard was “the oldest militia tradition in America” and that for 250 years, Spanish had been the official language of the military in Florida.

Five historians—two of them U.S. government historians, spread out over several decades, from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and then the 1990s and 2000—all stated based on their research, including first-time reviews of historical Spanish documentation, that Florida had the oldest militia in America. While the dates of the first muster in Florida can be argued, credit for the first muster of a European militia goes to Spain and therefore, one would think, the Florida National Guard. However, that position is one that NGB historians do not support.

“The National Guard dates its origins to 13 December 1636 when the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony directed the establishment of three militia units,” Dr. Richard Dennis Harold Clark told me via e-mail. Clark, who is a historian with the National Guard Bureau’s history office said. “These units have continued in uninterrupted service since 1636 as a part of the organized militia and the National Guard.”

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by a group of people who left England seeking religious freedom just like the folks at the Plymouth Colony. In particular, and this will be really important in this discussion at a later time, the pilgrims left Europe because they had grown dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic Church and they wanted to practice Christianity differently than what England was enforcing under some of their compulsory religious laws. In short, the pilgrims, Anglo-Saxons, had problems with the Catholic Church. There was a massive migration of protestants to North America.

Almost 100 years after the Spaniards arrived in North America, the British landed and began to colonize North America. Sporadic uprisings and tensions with some Native American tribes, particularly the Pequots, and the threat posed by other colonizing nations, led to the establishment of a militia.

In 1636, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed legislation organizing a militia. One of the primary missions for the militia was the defensive protection of the colony against the Pequot tribe. The Pequot stood in the way of English colonial expansion and skirmishes broke out over the course of several years, but in 1636, with their newly formed militias, the Massachusetts colonies had a mechanism to deal with the Pequot tribe.

Battles with the Pequot would become known as the Pequot War and by the war’s end in 1638, only a few hundred Pequot survived due to war and disease transmitted by the puritans. The surviving Pequot surrendered, signed a treatise dissolving the tribe and they were distributed by the militias and enslaved to tribes that were allies of the militias. The Pequots were forbidden from occupying lands they previously held and they were almost pushed to extinction. Pequots were shipped to the West Indies as part of the slave trade or forced to become slaves in wealthy New England colonial households. Today, the Pequot number around 2,000 and their native tongue is extinct.

Two of the first officers to lead the newly formed Massachusetts militias were Colonel John Winthrop and Captain John Mason. Winthrop was a wealthy Anglo-Saxon landowner, a lawyer, and he would become the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Mason’s claim to fame is a little more nefarious.

In 1637 near the Mystic River, Mason led a group of around 200 militia soldiers and allied tribe warriors to a Pequot village. Their initial surprise attack was repelled by the Pequot, but under Mason’s orders the militia set fire to the palisades, trapping not only warriors inside, but the elderly, women and children. When Pequot tried to flee using the exits, they were killed. More than 500 were killed in the massacre and another militia captain journaled that maybe five got away with their lives.

After the killings, Mason went on to write: “Let the whole earth be filled with his glory! Thus, the lord was pleased to smite our enemies in the hinder parts, and to give us their land for an inheritance.”

Winthrop, a commander of one of the four original militia units recognized by the National Guard Bureau and the U.S. Army as having lineage honors, kept three slaves from the Pequot War. He believed that the rights of “more advanced” peoples superseded the rights of the Native Americans.

The Massachusetts National Guard refers to itself as “The Nation’s First.” The National Guard Bureau embraces that designation. If the lineage is correct then they are right. The Mystic River massacre would be the first time Anglos would kill unarmed Native American non-combatants, creating a precedence that would be seen over and over again for hundreds of years.

And those Massachusetts militias from the Mystic River massacre, are now, because of lineage and honors bestowed on them by the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the National Guard Bureau, officially a part of the U.S. Army and the National Guard.

1 comment

What about the formation of the Plymouth colony militia and election of Capt. Miles Standish as its first commander in 1621? Why is that not drawn on for lineage? Because 1636 was a “state” act? Not asking for a friend, just my ancestor, Capt. Standish.

Steve Hall,

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