The Algonquians Had the East End All to Themselves, Until…

Posted on 30 July 2009

by Jim Marquardt

Before there was Sag Harbor, before the Hamptons even existed, the Woodland Indians of the Algonquian Nation enjoyed a relatively peaceful life on the East End of Long Island. The local Indians got along well together and spent their time hunting, fishing, planting crops and raising families. Several hundred years before the “beautiful people” discovered the Hamptons, beautiful people were already living here, and they didn’t have that long commute on weekends.

Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazano described the natives he met.

“The people excel us in size; they are of bronze color, some inclining more to whiteness, others to tawny color; the face sharply cut, the hair long and black, upon which they bestow the greatest study in adorning it; the eyes black and alert, the bearing kind and gentle.”           

They dressed modestly, not in bikinis or Speedos. The men wore breech cloths of deerskin front and rear, and in winter, robes of deer hide or animal fur. The women wore skirts and tops of deerskin while both braves and squaws wore skin moccasins, leggings and a belt.

One historian, William Golder, wrote that Indians lived in wigwams constructed by digging a circular trench two or three feet deep and 15 feet in diameter. They drove saplings into the trench and lashed the tops together to create a framework on which they laid grass mats. A hole in the dome let out smoke from a cooking and heating fire within the shelter. A replica of one of these dwellings sits outside the Shinnecock Museum on Route 27A, a little east of Southampton College.

 The women cultivated corn, beans and squash, prepared meals and clothing, and wove fish traps and nets while the men hunted and fished and chased the occasional whale that appeared offshore (today’s husbands would love a deal like that). They also ground chestnuts and acorns to make flat bread. Meat sources abounded – raccoon, opossum, fox, squirrel, groundhog, rabbit, beaver, muskrat, and, most importantly, deer. John Strong, a professor of history at Southampton College who has written extensively about the East End Indians, says that the natives here usually prepared communal meals in a large stew pot made from clay. And long before today’s sophisticated chefs discovered the technique, the Indians baked fish, fowl and small game in clay crocks to retain the juices and flavor. Clams, oysters, mussels and scallops were plentiful, and long before it became a special summer event, the Algonquians baked clams in pits heated with red hot stones and covered with eel grass.

Cynics probably think wampum was invented by Paramount Studios, but it actually was an important art and craft. The East End Algonquians had a ready supply of hard clam shells, especially quahogs, which the women (in their spare time) laboriously fashioned into wampum beads using crude stone and bone tools. Wampum adorned necklaces, bracelets and decorations for clothes and moccasins, and was assembled into bands and belts which conveyed messages to other Indians and later were a form of exchange with Europeans.

Colonists from Massachusetts arrived in North Sea Harbor in Southampton in 1640, seeking to establish a village, procure land and plant crops. The local Indians were friendly and helped the settlers survive their early difficult years. But a critical confusion involving land ownership eventually arose. To the Indians, says John Strong, land was part of nature to be used by all the people and it made no sense to divide it into privately owned parcels. Europeans considered land a commodity that could be bought and sold, as we do, or try to do, today. Indians considered goods and gifts from colonists as gestures of friendship for simply sharing access, not as payment for land. This cultural discord inevitably led to disputes when the Europeans claimed property ownership and wanted to keep it for their own use.

Strong notes that popular history generally lists 13 tribes on Long Island, as if these were formal sub-tribes within the Algonquian Nation. Initially, there were no such official entities, the Indians more likely identifying themselves with clans or communities. After 1650 a tribal system emerged among the Montauketts, Shinnecocks and other groups as a means of survival against encroaching English settlers. (Even today, hundreds of years later, stresses continue. The Shinnecocks are pressing Southampton for protection of newly discovered burial sites which might be found on private properties.) 

Place names grew into tribal names. The Montauketts living in the area from Bridgehampton to what became Montauk Point and Gardiner’s Island, took the Algonquin word for “a fortified place;” the Shinnecocks adopted the word for “at the level land” covering Eastport to Bridgehampton; the Manhasets’ name means “island sheltered by islands” from their home on Shelter Island; and the Corchaugs, dwelling from Wading River to Orient, used the Algonquian term for “principal place”. Their numbers were surprisingly small. Several sources say there were perhaps 6500 Indians on all of Long Island in the mid-17th century with 500 more or less in each tribe.

A chief or sachem headed each of the small tribes, mainly through respect and persuasion, exerting power only when necessary. Like a chairman of the board, the chief of the Montauketts, Wyandanch, was grand sachem of the East End Indians, and the primary contact with English colonists. He was regularly criticized as being too accommodating. Though the Algonquians on the East End were peaceful people, they were forced to defend themselves against aggressive clans from Connecticut and Rhode Island. Ninigret, sachem of the Rhode Island Niantics, was a constant threat and in one episode raided the Montauketts, kidnapping Wyandanch’s daughter, supposedly on her wedding day. Wyandanch asked for help from the English, and Lion Gardiner came to his aid. Wyandanch’s tribulations will be recounted in another article.

To learn more about the lives of the East End Indians and see some of their handicrafts, visit the Shinnecock Museum (287-4923) in Southampton or the Southold Indian Museum (765-5577) on the North Fork. Be sure to call ahead for open hours.

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