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Long IslandHistory

The first Long Islanders

A language called Munsee Delaware, once spoken by some of the first Long Islanders, could still be heard when a reporter visited the 3,000-acre Delaware Nation Reserve about 150 miles southwest of Toronto.  Hear it and meet some of the descendants who were trying to keep this linguistic legacy alive. (Credit: Newsday)

They arrived thousands of years ago when the ice was finally gone, a trickle of big-game hunters who sought out shelter near freshwater streams and lakes. They had been walking for centuries, generation after generation, traveling imponderable distances, continent to continent. When they arrived in the land that divided into two forks at its easternmost end like the tail of a great fish, they were as far east as they could go.

Surrounded by salt water, these new arrivals discovered that the bays were filled with food -- shellfish of all varieties in unlimited quantities, and fish so numerous that when they migrated into shallow creeks they seemed to push out all the water.

In thick forests of pine and oak, they built shelters from tree branches and grasses, cultivated crops with stone tools, carved out canoes from tree trunks and used them to hunt whales and to journey great distances across open ocean. And for as long as 12, 500 years -- more than 550 generations of people, one following the other in an unbroken chain -- they lived all to themselves on the long island by the ocean.

If Long Island’s first residents had a name for themselves, it is lost in the mists of history. When Europeans arrived along the northeast coastline in the early 16th Century, floating ashore in their own great boats, they called the people they met Indians. What that first momentous encounter was like for the Indians can, for the most part, only be guessed at. But wispy clues are buried like precious gems in historical documents.

“Many years ago, when men with a white skin had never yet been seen in this land, some Indians were out fishing in the mouth of the Cohotatea River . . . spied at a great distance something remarkably large floating on the water,’’ an Indian told a Moravian missionary in 1801. “Some believed it to be an uncommonly large fish or animal, while others thought it was a very big house floating on the sea.’’

If history is a chronology of events, there is little hard evidence of the earliest inhabitants of Long Island -- a people called the Paleo-Indians. There is more about the Indians who were here when Europeans arrived -- they are called the Woodland Period Indians -- but nearly all of it was written by Dutch and English settlers. What constitutes the Indians’ own writings can be seen in the mysterious symbols and squiggly lines they made on the deeds the Europeans used to claim land as their own. History you can hold in your hand has been found in the ground Long Islanders live, play and walk on -- stone utensils the Indians used in virtually every aspect of their lives.

So much seems lost to the centuries. Their language, part of the Algonquian language group, is extinct, with only a few words saved for posterity. In one celebrated case, words were recorded by a man soon to be president -- Thomas Jefferson -- who traveled to Long Island on horseback to conduct research. But most of his notes were stolen. The Indians’ social mores, how they raised their children, how they farmed, how groups living near each other on Long Island were related, how far they traveled, who their allies and their enemies were -- all these remain shrouded in mystery.

Today, artists can only guess what they looked like. A drawing by Shinnecock artist David Bunn Martine shows a tall, lean, leather-clad man, decorated in a colorful belt made from shells, with bird feathers and porcupine quills adorning his hair. The earliest photographs, made in the 19th Century, show an entirely different people -- formally dressed, stern, sometimes sad-eyed men and women staring into the camera like strangers in their own land.

One famous photo taken in 1867, shows Stephen (Talkhouse) Pharaoh -- a Montaukett who was born and died on Montauk Point -- sitting in a chair, his legs crossed, the long, graceful fingers of his left hand draped across his thighs, his right hand clutching a stout walking stick the way he once held a whaler’s harpoon, his long black hair draped across his broad shoulders. If a people’s history can be seen in a single photograph, it is perhaps found in this one.

“He is my great-great-uncle,’’ said Robert Cooper, who sits in a home in a section of East Hampton called Freetown, where Indians and freed black slaves once lived. Old black-and-white photographs decorate his walls, monuments to his ancestors. “He is a stern-faced gentleman, isn’t he? You know, he would walk from East Hampton to New York City in a single day. He was a Civil War veteran, and proud of it. He was born at a place on Montauk Point that used to be called Indian Fields. I believe he was of the last generation to live there before they were removed.

“He is buried there, too. Most days, even now, there is a flag on his grave. People sometimes leave little coins on his grave, little keepsake items. I believe that, before he died in 1879, he could say he had been true to his heritage as much as he could. In a way, I guess, he was the last great Montaukett.’’

Stephen Pharaoh’s story connects like the beads of a necklace, all the way back to an enigmatic Indian named Wyandanch, who also lived on Montauk Point. Wyandanch sold off thousands of acres of Long Island to the English after their arrival on the East End in the 1640s -- actions that would reduce his people to guests on their former land.

For the most part, an examination of the record of Indian history on Long Island shows that Wyandanch’s story, along with the stories of so many other Indians, remains untold.

“I think their history has been ignored,’’ said John Strong, a professor at the Southampton Campus of Long Island University and the region’s leading expert on Indians. “I don’t think there’s any question of that. There is a new way of looking at the Algonquian people that is essentially from the wigwam out, rather than from the outside in, as it always had been done. It is looking at what they saw, what they experienced. In a real sense, it’s an effort to right a wrong in the telling of our history.’’

As taught for years in Long Island schools, the region’s Indians lived in tribal groups that had names like Corchaug and Canarsie, Unkechaug and Setauket. They greeted the Europeans when they came and sold their land to the new arrivals. After that, they “disappeared’’ or “died off,’’ vanishing from the landscape as if they had never really been here.

The “new’’ Indian history of which Strong is a leading proponent tells a far different story.

* * *

Experts divide the periods before Europeans arrived in the New World into four groups: Paleo-Indian Period, 12,500 to 8,000 BP (before present); Archaic Period, 8,000 to 3,000 BP; Woodland Period, 3,000 to 1,000 BP, and Late Woodland, 1,000 BP to the calendar year 1600.

It has been long accepted that the Paleo-Indians, whose origins are believed to be in Asia, walked across a land bridge between modern-day Siberia and Alaska when huge glaciers had absorbed enough ocean water to drop sea levels by up to 500 feet. This epic crossing took place more than 13,000 years ago. Once on the North American continent, the Paleo-Indians followed their prey -- large, hairy, elephant-like beasts -- wherever it took them, across vast and frozen distances.

Over the generations, small bands of hunters moved from Alaska down a north-south corridor between enormous walls of ice. The southern end of the corridor was in modern-day Montana. The Paleo-Indians carried spears tipped with what archeologists call Clovis points -- intricately carved pieces of stone with characteristic fluting down the center. Named after a town in New Mexico where a similar point was found, they date to hunters who used them to kill big game. Fourteen such points have been found on Long Island.

“The Clovis points on Long Island are certainly suggestive of Paleo-Indians being there eleven thousand years ago,’’ said James Adovisio, an archeologist who helped excavate a site in southwest Pennsylvania that suggests humans were there approximately 16,000 years ago. To arrive then, Adovisio said in an interview, would mean humans walked across the Bering Strait more than 30,000 years ago.

“Using these older numbers,’’ said Adovisio, “then people were at Long Island well before the eleven-thousand date.’’ He said the archeological community is involved in an intense debate about these numbers; to date, he said, no one has even named the people who might have preceded the Paleo-Indians to the East Coast. He said physical proof of an earlier occupation on Long Island may never be found, in part because the landmass shrank as huge glaciers melted and sea levels rose. The best archeological sites, he said, are now under water.

Whether their occupation was 11,000 years ago or 5,000 years earlier, it can only be imagined today how a people with such deep roots reacted when Europeans arrived on the scene in the early 16th Century. For their part, the first encounters gave the Europeans an opportunity to gather specimens they had never seen before and take them home -- including Indians.

A little-known aspect of early exploration of the North American coastline -- one certainly not discussed in social studies textbooks -- is the kidnaping of Indians from coastal communities back to Europe, where they were sold into slavery. Kidnapings appear to have begun as early as 1500, when Portugese explorers went ashore somewhere on the north Atlantic coast, grabbed 57 Indians and took them back to Portugal, where they were sold on the auction block. Two years later, English sailors landed at Newfoundland and kidnaped three Indian men as proof they had made landfall. In July, 1525, a Spanish expedition abducted 58 men and women near what is now Newport, R.I., and brought them back to Spain.

“There are numerous examples of kidnapings up and down the coastline,’’ said James Axtell, a historian at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “A number of European countries were doing it.’’ Records in England show North American Indians were used as sideshow acts, in some cases giving canoe demonstrations in the Thames River. There are accounts, Axtell said, of kidnaped Indians making it back to their homelands after being taken to Europe. Squanto, the celebrated Massachusetts Indian of American Thanksgiving stories, was taken from the Cape Cod area and, before 1620, was back home in time to greet the Pilgrims.

In spite of these incidents, Indians continued to greet Europeans when they arrived on their coastlines. A year before the Newport kidnapings, a group of Indians happily greeted Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano when, in the spring of 1524, he dropped anchor in the flooded valley of New York Harbor -- the wooded landscape of Long Island to the east, a narrow, pointed island to his north. Everywhere, thick stands of forest ran to salt water.

“ . . . Pursuing our voyage . . . we reached a new country, which had never before been seen by anyone, either in ancient or modern times . . .’’ Verrazano wrote on July 8, 1524, to Francis I, the king of France and sponsor of his expedition. He went on:

“Many people who were seen coming to the seaside fled at our approach, but occasionally stopping, they looked back at us with astonishment, and some were at length induced, by various friendly signs, to come to us.

These showed the greatest delight in beholding us, wondering at our dress, countenances and complexion. They then showed us by signs where we could more conveniently secure our boat, and offered us some of their provisions ...

They go entirely naked, except that about the loins they wear skins of small animals like martens fastened by a girdle of plaited grass, to which they tie, all round the body, the tails of other animals hanging down to the knees; all other parts of the body are naked. Some wear garments similar to birds’ feathers.

The complexion of these people is black, not much different from that of the Ethiopians; their hair is black and thick, and not very long. It is worn tied back upon the head in the form of a little tail. In person they are of good proportions, of middle stature, a little above our own, broad across the breast, strong in the arms, and well formed in the legs and other parts of the body; the only exception to their good looks is that they have broad faces, but not all, however, as we saw many that had sharp ones, with large black eyes and a fixed expression. They are . . . acute in mind, active and swift of foot, as far as we could judge by observation. In these last two particulars they resemble the people of the east . . .”

Except for a few spare references in some historical documents, the Indians’ reaction to meeting Europeans is not known. One of them -- written nearly two centuries after the fact -- concerns the arrival in 1609 in New York Harbor of Henry Hudson, an Englishman working for the Dutch.

“Many years ago, when men with a white skin had never yet been seen in this land, some Indians were out fishing at a place where the sea widens . . . espied at a great distance something remarkably large floating on the water . . . some believed it to be an uncommonly large fish or animal, while others (thought it was) a very big house floating on the sea.”

Strong, in his book “The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island From Earliest Times to 1700,’’ writes that this account was given in 1801 to a Moravian missionary named John Heckewelder. “As the floating house drew near,’’ Strong writes, “word came back that it was a house of bright colors and crowded with people. The leader, who they thought at first must be a manito, was dressed in red pants and a red coat covered with glittering gold lace.’’

The man in the fancy red suit was Hudson, who was working for a Dutch conglomerate called the East India Co. He sailed his Half Moon into New York Harbor in early September, 1609. In an extraordinary account of the voyage, Hudson’s mate, Robert Juet, wrote in his journal of their arrival that “this day the people of the country came aboard of us, seeming very glad of our coming, and brought green tobacco, and gave us of it for knives and beads. They go in deer skins loose, well dressed. They have yellow copper. They desire clothes and are very civil. They have great store of maize or Indian wheat, whereof they make good bread. The country is full of great and tall oaks.’’

After daylight on the morning of Sept. 5, Hudson sent a crew onto land to his east -- Long Island. They encountered great numbers of men, women and children, Juet wrote, and saw huge trees and ate dried berries. They met Indians they invited aboard the Half Moon who had red copper tobacco pipes, and copper ornaments around their necks. “At night they went on land again,’’ Juet wrote, “so we rode very quiet, but durst not trust them.’’

On Sunday, Sept. 6, Hudson sent a five-man crew ashore to explore. On their way back to the Half Moon, “they were set upon by two canoes, the one having twelve, the other fourteen men. The night came on, and it began to rain, so that their match went out; and they had one man slain in the fight, which was an Englishman named John Colman, with an arrow shot into his throat, and two more hurt. It grew so dark that they could not find the ship that night . . .’’

The following morning, Juet wrote, Colman was carried to a point of land near present-day Coney Island. On a spot of cleared land not known today or marked with granite -- the wide neck of land was named Colman’s Point by Hudson’s crew -- he was laid to rest.

“I believe it’s safe to say that Colman is the first European killed on Long Island and perhaps New York,’’ said Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherlands Project at the New York State Library in Albany. “The Half Moon was made up of Englishmen and Dutchmen. Colman was an Englishman who had the misfortune to go ashore and get killed.’’

After burying Colman, Hudson headed the Half Moon farther up into the harbor. On Sept. 14, he moved into the river that would later bear his name, all the while encountering Indians in “great canoes . . . full of men.’’ Several Indians were kidnaped and held on board to assure safe passage. They caught “great stores of very good fish,’’ Juet wrote, and at several places on the river fought with small groups of Indians. In one case, a mate on the Half Moon cut off an Indian’s hand with a sword. At one point, Hudson ordered a cannon fired at a large group of Indians on a point of land, killing a number of them.

After his bloody trip up and down the river, Hudson returned to Europe touting the wonders of New York. Two years later, he was followed by another Dutchman, a lawyer-turned-explorer named Adrian Block, on a ship called the Tiger. He returned to the Netherlands with a rich store of furs and two kidnaped Indians he called Valentine and Orson.

But it was Block’s third trip to New York, in November, 1613, that made history.

On a November night, the Tiger, laden with beaver pelts destined for markets in the Netherlands, rode at anchor on the Hudson River side of the southern, pointed tip of Manhattan, near where the World Trade Center towers stand today. To Block’s horror, the ship caught fire, which raged out of control. As he stood on the shore with his crew, Block watched the Tiger burn to the waterline.

Block and his crew then did the incredible -- over a long, cold winter they built another ship. Cutting trees on the island, using tools retrieved from the burned wreckage, they built a 42-foot ship they christened the Onrust, the Restless. Eventually, Block made it home to the Netherlands.

In 1616, Block drew a map of the land the Dutch called Lange Eylandt. Block’s Long Island looked like a series of islands pushed together, ending on the North Fork in a series of dots. On the south side, near where the South Fork juts out on his map, he wrote an Algonquian word, Nahicans, one of the first descriptions of Long Island Indians.

For the Indians of Long Island, the journey from their discovery by outsiders to their displacement from their land was relatively short. By 1636, the Dutch began making the first land purchases on Long Island, near the present-day Brooklyn Borough Hall. Large sections of Brooklyn were purchased for trade items such as cloth, kettles, axes, hatchets, knives and awls.

Nowhere in the Algonquian view of their world was there a provision for selling land. Nor did the Europeans believe the Indians “owned’’ land. What the Indians thought they were doing when they etched their unique marks on these deeds is not known today.

“At most,’’ Strong said, “they thought they were sharing the land with the new people. They didn’t believe these deeds were as final as they were.’’

Historical records show that the Dutch relationship with the Indians in western Long Island and near their principal settlement on Manhattan was murderous. One of the largest massacres occurred in present-day Massapequa, at a site where the Indians had built a log fort for their protection. There, in 1644, an English mercenary named John Underhill, hired out to the Dutch, killed more than 120 Indian men, women and children.

Years after the slaughter, an Oyster Bay resident wrote:

“After the battle of Ft. Neck, the weather being very cold and the wind northwest, Capt. Underhill and his men collected the bodies of the Indians and threw them in a heap on the brow of a hill and then sat down on the leeward side of the heap to eat their breakfast. When this part of the county came to be settled, the highway across the neck passed directly over the spot where, it was said, the heap of Indians lay, and the earth in that spot was remarkably different from the ground about it, being strongly tinged with a reddish cast, which the old said was occasioned by the blood of the Indians.

Only 54 years after Block wrote “Nahicans’’ on his map, Indian life on Long Island had undergone fundamental change. In numerous accounts, observers of the day wrote that Indian villages were being decimated by diseases. Reservations were set up where Indian communities were supposed to live and plant crops. All across Long Island, evidence that a people had once lived for 500 generations had faded.

In 1670, just 30 years after the English arrived to settle towns on the East End, a Hempstead minister’s son, Daniel Denton, published an account he called “A Brief Description of New York.’’ He wrote of the wonders of Long Island, a place he said was “capable of entertaining so great a number of inhabitants, where they may with God’s blessings, and their own industry, live as happily as any people in the world . . .’’

He continued:

To say something of the Indians, there is now but few upon the Island, and those few no ways hurtful but rather serviceable to the English, and it is to be admired, how strangely they have decreast by the Hand of God, since the English first settling of these parts; for since my time, where there were six towns, they are reduced to two small Villages, and it hath been generally observed that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them, by removing or cutting off the Indians either by Wars one with the other, or by some raging mortal Disease.

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