The Long Island Indians

The Long Island Indians
By Thomas Bayles



When Long Island was first discovered by the white man it was occupied by 13 tribes or groups of Indians, who inhabited the north and south shores of the Island. On the south side, from west to east, were the Canarsee, the Rockaway, the Merric, the Marsapeague, the Secatogue, the Unkechaug, the Shinnecock, and the Montauk tribe who lived on the eastern end of the Island on the south fork. On the north shore in the same order were the Matinecock, the Nissequog, the Setalcott, and the Corchaug (Cutchogue) tribes. The Manhassets inhab­ited Shelter Island.

 The Unkechaug tribe occupied the south side of Brookhaven Town with their headquarters at Mastic, and Tobaccus was their chief in 1664. The north side of Brookhaven Town was inhabited by the Setalcott tribe, with their headquarters at Setauket. They were considered a very powerful group and the first purchase of land for the settlement of Brookhaven Town was made from them in 1655 by the white men.

 Wyandanch, the Montauk chief, was the grand Sachem of all Long Island Indians, except possibly the Canarsees. The Montauks were supposed to have subdued all the Indians on the Island east of the Canarsee territory, and were under tribute to the Pequots in eastern Connecticut. The Canarsee group was under tribute to the Mohawks, which consisted of an annual payment of wampum and dried clams.

 The settlers of the various towns on Long Island almost always secured the signature of Wyandanch to their deeds in addition to that of the chief of the local Indians from whom their land was purchased.

 Wyandanch was the true friend of the white settlers and on this account was hated by Ninicraft, the chief of the Narragansett tribe from across the Sound, who had tried to get Wyandanch to help wipe out the first early settlements of the white men on eastern Long Island. Wyandanch refused to join him and exposed his plots to the English, so Ninicraft opened war on the Montauks in 1652, which nearly destroyed that once powerful tribe. On one of their raids upon the Montauks, which occurred during the marriage ceremony of the daughter of Wyandanch, the bridegroom was killed and the bride captured and carried back across the Sound. Lyon Gardiner of Gardiner’s Island, who was a great friend of Wyandanch, afterward rescued her and restored her to Wyandanch. In gratitude for this act, Wyandanch gave Gardiner a deed for a tract of land which now forms part of the Town of Smithtown, and was occupied by the Nesaquake Indians. During the latter part of 1658 the Montauks, who were weakened by this long war, were still further reduced by a disease that is said to have killed more than half their number. Within a short time, Wyandanch died and the remaining members of the tribe fled for protection to the settlement of their white neighbors at East Hampton, who received them kindly. In return, the Indians gave them their lands at Montauk, with certain reservations.

 The Indians of Long Island were tall and straight, muscular and agile, with straight hair and reddish brown complexion. Their language was the Algonquin, the highly descriptive tongue in which John Eliot wrote the Indian Bible, and was the language that greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth. It is doubtful if anyone now living is able to speak this tongue which was so freely used in those early years. The customs, habits and dispositions of the Long Island Indians were similar to those of other tribes on the mainland, but they seemed to have seen more friendly to the white settlers than those on the other side of the Sound were. This was no doubt because the white men on Long Island were careful to treat them with justice and fairness, which was not the case in other parts of the country

 When Long Island was first settled by the white men, the Indian population was very large, as shown by the shell banks found at various places around the shores of the bays and coves on both sides of the island. Their settlements were always near the shores, as there they found most of their food, fish and clams, and their transportation was by canoe along the water. The forests in the middle of the island were their hunting grounds for wild game, and clearings were made where they planted Indian corn, placing a fish in each hill for fertilizer.

 The Indian names of Long Island are said to have been Sewan­hacky, Wamponomon and Paumanake. The first two are said to have come from the abundance of the quahog, or hard clam, from the shell of which they made wampum, first used as money by the settlers. Wampum was made of little pieces of shells with holes punched through them with the aid of “muxes” or small brad awls, and run on a string. The black shells were counted as double the value of the white ones. Belts of wampum were exchanged when treaties were made between tribes.

 Some attempts were made at an early date to instruct the Indians in Christian religion and Rev. Abraham Pierson, the first minister of Southampton, devoted much time to this work. Azariah Horton was engaged in 1741 as a missionary to the Indians, and his work among them was successful.

 When the Indians wanted to build a home, materials were gathered, consisting of long straight poles and many bundles of a certain kind of grass that grew on the meadows, called “blue vent.” The poles were bent and tied in intersecting arches with their butts sticking into the ground, until a dome - shaped frame was made, either round or oval, and from ten to twenty feet across. When all the poles had been bound firmly together, horizontal strips were put in place and fastened in the same way. The bundles of grass were sewed fast to these, row after row, shingle fashion, until the dome was completely thatched except for a hole for smoke to escape. This smoke hole was plastered around with clay to keep the grass from catching fire, which happened too often for comfort. Below this rude chimney, on the ground, a saucer-like hollow was dug out for a hearth for the fire that furnished warmth and heat for cooking.

 The Poosepatuck Indians (part of the Unkechaug tribe) occupied a 175-acre tract of land on the west side of Forge River at Mastic, which was reserved for their use forever, when Colonel William Smith purchased the enormous acreage in 1691 known as the Manor of St. George. The Indians were not to sell or lease any part of this land to anyone else, and the annual rent to be paid by the Indians was “Two yellow Eares of Indian corne.” The Indian population was large at that time, but there are now only a few descendants of this tribe left on the reservation,

 Since before the coming of the white man, the “June Meeting Day” has been an annual event of great importance to the Poosepatuck Indians, They gathered on Sunday once  a year in June, during the “Moon of Flowers” for a big religious meeting and reunion, The mission teachers converted them to Christianity and their pagan ceremonies finally became Christian ones. For several days before this Sunday meeting (which is still held each year), small bands of Indians from all parts of the island made their way to Poosepatuck for the services, A small church is located there and neighboring ministers conduct services on Sunday afternoons twice a month.

 The Shinnecock Indians occupied the territory between the Unke­chaug and Montauk tribes, and were a once powerful tribe. Now there are not many left on their reservation, which is located west of South­ampton. A giant “Pow-Wow” is held annually around Labor Day, which attracts visitors by the thousands. The chief of this tribe, when the white men first landed at Southampton in the summer of 1640, was Nowedonah, who was a brother of Wyandanch. Eight square miles of land was purchased from the Indians for sixteen “coates” and sixty bushels of Indian corn.

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