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Long IslandHistory

Masters of agriculture

This painting by Dorothy Raynor, past president of

This painting by Dorothy Raynor, past president of the Incorporated Long Island Chapter, New York Archaeological Association, is of a typical Algonquin beehive type dwelling called a wigwam (in use prior to and during the contact period). Photo Credit: Dorothy Raynor

When Long Island was all theirs, Indians lived in small communal villages made up of grass-covered shelters that looked like large beehives. Their villages sat on necks of woodland and alongside tidal creeks that overflowed with food -- food so plentiful it could be scooped out by the basketful.

Their thatched huts, called wigwams, were open at the top to let out smoke and were placed in no particular order. Fields where corn, beans, tobacco and squash were grown were laid out between huts. Some villages were very small, perhaps accommodating fewer than a dozen people, while others were large and spread out along shorelines.

“In my mind’s eye,’’ said Ralph Solecki, an archeologist who grew up near a creek in Cutchogue that was the site of a large Indian settlement, “I see a village that overlooks salt water, with fields around it where the corn is high, with thick woods on the north side as a wind barrier, and nearby a freshwater pond or spring. They would have everything they needed -- food, water, wood -- within easy reach. Long Island was an ideal place in so many respects.’’

These villages were scattered along Long Island’s shorelines. A map made in 1639 by a Dutchman named Johannes Vingboons shows four longhouses -- longer wigwams that held several families -- on a jagged neck of land in present-day Brooklyn.

The Indians’ villages were agricultural marvels. Over thousands of years, corn had moved from the Southwest and Mexico to the East Coast -- passed along from Indian group to Indian group. It was planted in long, irregular rows. Between the rows, crops such as beans and squash were planted. Tobacco, another crop that had made its way from Mexico to the East Coast, also was planted and used in smoking rituals.

Corn and beans were the stuff of myth. Some coastal Indians believed a crow that had flown from thousands of miles away brought them their corn and bean seeds. Other coastal natives, such as the Montauketts of the South Fork, passed on stories from generation to generation that it was a god who lived in the west who brought them the seeds.

Because of where the Indians lived on Long Island, their lives were tied to salt water. Their lush gardens were a complement to their harvesting of the creeks, where they could obtain prodigious amounts of oysters and clams, as well as migrating fish that appeared regularly in great numbers. Europeans who arrived in the mid-17th Century wrote that the Indians netted small fish such as bunker and alewives and carried them to their planting fields, burying a fish around each seed to fertilize the soil.

The Indians of Long Island were as tied to the seasons as any modern farmer. When a cluster of stars that astronomers call the Pleiades moved across the winter sky and disappeared beneath the western horizon in early May, they broke up the rich brown soil with stone-tipped tools and hoes made of clam shells and began to plant their corn.

Intriguing finds on Long Island, including a site near Mount Sinai Harbor, suggest the Indians tracked the movement of stars in the winter sky. A crude lunar calendar was found at the Mount Sinai site. When the stars suggested spring had arrived, Indian women dug up the fields for planting.

“They make heaps like molehills, each about two and a half feet from the others, which they sow or plant in April with Maize, in each heap five or six grains,’’ wrote Isaack de Rasieres, a Dutchman who visited an Indian community in western Long Island in the early 1600s.

When the English arrived on the East End in the early 1640s, they discovered another feature of Indian agricultural practices -- deep holes covered with woven mats that were used to store food during winter. The English called them “Indian barnes’’ and they disliked them because their livestock frequently fell through the mat roofs.

The old fields and villages of the Indians are long gone and memories have faded. But there are treasures of the past. One of them is a photograph taken in 1900 that shows a Shinnecock man named John Henry Thompson, dressed for the photographer in a three-piece suit. He is standing alongside a “barne,’’ he has just made. It is covered with grass and sticks.

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