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Long IslandHistory

Untangling a myth

The idea that Long Island had 13 distinct

The idea that Long Island had 13 distinct Indian tribes is largely believed to be a myth perpetrated by Silas Wood, an amateur historian from Huntington who lived during the early 19th century. Photo Credit: Steve Madden/Newsday

When school children learn Indian history, they read in textbooks that there were 13 tribes on Long Island at the time Europeans arrived to claim the land.

These 13 tribes had formal names, such as Matinecock, and lived in well-defined geographical areas and nowhere else. The Matinecock, for example, lived along the North Shore of Nassau County and as far east as modern-day Huntington.

This is what school children on Long Island have been told for decades. But it’s wrong.

“The 13 tribes has been a staple in generations of textbooks, on maps, and in newspaper articles,’’ said John Strong, an expert on Long Island Indian history who teaches at Southampton College. “There were no such tribes. It’s a myth. It’s a good example of how what we are told about Indian history is largely provided by outsiders, who in this case got it wrong.’’

The myth goes back to the early 19th Century, when an amateur historian from Huntington named Silas Wood drew up a list of 13 Indian “tribes’’ he said existed on Long Island at the time of contact with Europeans. The list made him famous.

“Wood’s list, with a few minor alterations made by local historians from time to time, has, unfortunately, become the standard reference for Native Americans of Long Island and has been repeated by historians and classroom teachers to the present day,’’ Strong writes in “The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island From Earliest Times to 1700.’’

Strong says Indians on Long Island were connected by kinship systems. This means, he said, that communities were related by marriages and other family connections. The place the Indians lived in had a name, Strong says, but not the people themselves, except as members of certain clans, or social groups.

Wood’s findings, which were based on a reading of land deeds made between Europeans and Indians, were included in an 1824 book called “A Sketch of the First Settlement of the Several Towns on Long Island.’’ He listed 13 tribes -- the Canarse, the Rockaway, the Merikoke, the Marsapeague, the Secatague, and the Patchague on the South Shore; the Matinecoc, the Nissaquague, the Satauket and the Corchaug, on the North Shore; the Shinnecoc, Manhanset and the Montauk on the South Fork and Shelter Island.

In addition to drawing up tribal names, Wood delineated specific territories for each group. For example, he wrote, “The Rockaway tribe claimed the territory around Rockaway, and more or less of the lands in Newtown and Jamaica. The Merikoke and the Marsapeague tribes extended from Rockaway through Queens county into Suffolk, on the south side of the island.’’

All this is a myth that has endured, Strong writes in his book, which was published this year. “The primary documents make it quite clear that there were no tribal systems on Long Island before the sporadic series of raids known as Governor Kieft’s War, 1640 to 1645, which resulted in the deaths of more than one thousand Native Americans and a few dozen whites.’’ At that time, Willem Kieft was the governor of the tiny Dutch colony that straddled the southern tip of Manhattan Island and the western shore of Long Island.

Upon arriving on Long Island, Europeans used to the social order of their home countries -- villages populated by people who owned the land they farmed and lived on -- looked for the same thing in their new land. But no such order existed here. The Algonquian-speaking people of Long Island did not, for example, understand the concept of ownership, and thus selling land was a foreign concept to them.

Looking for order and defined boundaries, the Dutch seem to have viewed the Indians they encountered at the west end of Long Island and along the Hudson River as being members of individual nations. The word “nations’’ and “tribes’’ are used interchangeably in the Dutch records. There are also numerous Indian names cited by the Dutch as designating the people living in communities in and around New Netherlands. Today, these names -- such as the Wappenas, Hogelanders, Wicquasgecks, Reckewacke, Mereckewacks, Tappanders, Massapeins, and the Zinkeeuw -- are historical mysteries without answers.

The most current thinking on these odd-sounding names is that they may have referred to a specific location, not a group or an Indian community. Since the Algonquian language once spoken by Indians on Long Island is extinct -- except for small vocabularies made in the 18th Century and a small colony of the last speakers of an Algonquian dialect in Canada -- these words today cannot be translated.

“Most experts today say these words were place names,’’ said Walter Smith, a longtime member of the Southold Indian Museum and a lifelong amateur archaeologist who lives in Orient. “In other words, the Indians were referring to the place they lived, not what they called themselves. They probably knew themselves as nothing more sophisticated than ‘the People.’ The Dutch, and later the English who did the same thing, evidently thought they were tribal names.’’

Wood’s work was accepted as dogma as soon as he published his book. Fifteen years later in 1839, Benjamin Thompson, a historian and writer who lived in Setauket, published “A History of Long Island,’’ which he dedicated to Wood. Thompson wrote that the Indians were divided into tribes which exercised “independent authority over separate portions of territory,’’ and he listed the same 13 tribes. The leaders of these tribes, Thompson wrote, made fair and equitable transactions with Europeans for the land they had occupied for thousands of years.

After Thompson, another popular Long Island historian, Peter Ross, published, in 1902, a multivolume history in which he listed the same 13 tribes. Ross, though, broke ranks with Thompson and others by arguing that Long Island’s Indians were cheated out of their lands and pushed to the brink of extinction.

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