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Unforgotten Shinnecock names in granite

This story appeared in Newsday on March 22, 1998, as part of the "Long Island: Our Story'' history series.

On the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton stands a small granite memorial with 10 names etched on it.

It is not in a public place, so the only people who see it are the residents of the reservation, who keep the weeds at bay and plant flowers to brighten the memorial. They have not forgotten the names of the 10, who died in the cold surf not far from the reservation on a bitter December day in 1876.

"Every December we have a church service in which we remember those who died," said the Rev. Michael Smith, pastor of the reservation's Shinnecock Church. "Many people on the reservation are related to those 10, so it's still fresh."

The Shinnecock men listed on the memorial died aboard a freighter called the Circassian. The ship was en route from Liverpool, England, to New York Harbor, when it foundered in a storm on a sandbar at Mecox, east of the reservation. The ship's holds contained more than 1,000 tons of such items as bricks, lime, bleach and rags, according to "The Shinnecock Indians: A Culture History," published in 1983.

The Circassian left England in early November with 36 men aboard and was soon in the teeth of a winter storm. En route across the Atlantic, the ship picked up the captain and crew of a boat it found foundering in heavy seas. It was not a good omen. Still hundreds of miles from New York, the freighter's riggings were covered with layers of ice and the storm was worsening.

Wind and sea raged as the ship neared Long Island. On the night of Dec. 11, the Circassian struck a sandbar. Flares shot into the dark sky as the freighter foundered a few hundred yards from shore, at the eastern edge of Mecox Bay, near the tiny farming hamlet of Bridgehampton.

Soon, rescuers from a nearby lifesaving station discovered the ship. But as dawn broke, attempts by the rescuers to launch dories into the surf were rebuffed by huge, icy waves. After repeated attempts, a line was successfully fired to the freighter with a mortar. The line landed on the ship's deck and was tied by the crew.

Then, at midmorning, as the storm subsided, rescuers reached the freighter in dories. After several hours, the crew was safely ashore. Now, the business of unloading the cargo and towing the ship off the sandbar began.

A company brought in to unload the cargo hired a group of Shinnecocks, most of whom had served on whaling vessels and were eager for the work. The men agreed to stay aboard the Circassian until all the work was done and the ship was free of the sandbar. But then, on Dec. 29, another storm approached. According to the Shinnecock book, some men left the boat, including an Indian named Alfonso Eleazer, but the others were ordered by an official of the salvage company to stay aboard and ride out the storm.

"There are stories handed down from generation to generation . . . that pistol threats had to be used to encourage the men to stay with the ship," according to the book. "No matter the reason, they stayed."

That night, the ship broke in half in a gale. Some men scrambled up the rigging to safety. Unable to reach the Circassian because of the storm, people on the beach could hear the Shinnecocks aboard the ship singing Christian hymns. By the morning of Dec. 30, the ship was in pieces, the men aboard tossed into the icy sea. Only four men made it to the beach alive.

Of the 32 men who had stayed aboard, 28 died, including all 10 Shinnecocks. Their names are carved on the memorial: Lewis Walker, John Walker, David W. Bunn, J. Franklin Bunn, Russell Bunn, William Cuffee, Warren N. Cuffee, George W. Cuffee, James R. Lee, Oliver J. Kellis.

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