Friday, April 7, 2017

Early Account of the Indians Living on Long Island, New York

Early Account of the Indians Living on Long Island, New York

The Indians of Long Island were designated on the 
Dutch maps Mohegans, and have been so called by his- 
torians. This is but a sub-title under the general term 
Algonquins, covering a great race of savages scattered 
over Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware and other 

The Indians of the island were tall and straight, mus- 
cular and agile, with straight hair and reddish-brown 
complexion. Their language was the Algonquin, the 
highly descriptive tongue in which the apostle Eliot 
wrote the Indian Bible, and which was used by other 
missionaries. It was the language that greeted the col- 
onists at Roanoke, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth. It 
was spoken through twenty degrees of latitude and sixty 
degrees of longitude. Strange that a language which a 
century ago was spoken so widely and freely between the 
aborigines and the settlers should have so perished that 
it is doubted whether a man is living who can speak it or 
read the Indian Bible, so laboriously prepared by the 
apostolic John Eliot. 

The Indian names of Long Island are said to be Se- 
wanhacky, Wamponomon and Paumanake. These names, 
or at least the first two, seem to have arisen from the 
abundance of the quahog or hard clam, the shell of which 
furnished the wampun or sewant, which in the earlier 
times was the money of the country, as well as the 
material for the embroidery and the record symbols of 
the Indian belts. Matouwacs is the name given the 
island on the earliest Dutch maps. The. deed to the 
settlers at Easthampton styles it Paumanake. Rev. 
William Hubbard, of Ipswich, in his history of New 
England, called it Mattamwake. In books and deeds it 
bears other names, as Meitowax, Metoac, etc. Sewan- 
hacky and Wamponomon both signify the island, or place, 
of shells. Of Mattanwake Judge Furman says: "In 
the Narragansett language mattan was a term used to 
signify anything fine or good, and duke or ake meant land 
or earth; thus the whole word meant the good or pleasant 
land, which was certainly highly characteristic of Long 
Island, even at that period of its early settlement." 

The religious notions of the Long Island Indians are 
described in a communication from the Rev. Samson 
Occum, published in the collections of the Massachusetts 
Historical Society. His words are: " They believe in a 
plurality of gods, and in one great and good being, who 
controls all the rest. They likewise believe in an evil 
spirit, and have their conjurors or paw-waws." The 
ceremony performed by these characters was so odious 
in the opinion of the whole people that the duke's laws 
of 1665 enacted that ''no Indian shall be permitted to 
paw-waw or perform worship to the devil in any town 
within this government." It is evident, however, that they 
still kept up their devil worship at the visit of the 
Labadists in 1679-80. They also had divinities in the 
winds and waters. It is surprising how few tokens are 
found, in the shape of idols, or carvings of any kind, to 
signify a reverence for their gods. The only thing which 
has attracted particular attention is " the foot-print of the 
evil spirit "^the impression of a foot on a boulder, now 
iu the possession of the Long Island Historical Society, 
which had lain upon Montauk Point from the earliest 
English knowledge, and probably for centuries before, 
and which was always an object of Indian veneration. 

The lodges or wigwams of the Long Island Indians 
were fifteen or twenty feet wide, having a frame of two 
rows of poles bent together and covered with rushes, 
except along the ridge, where an opening was left for 
smoke to escape. This frame of poles was interlaced 
with the bark of trees, and continued to a length of 180 
feet or more, as the families conjointly occupying the 
wigwam might require. Fires were built along the floor, 
each family having its own for cooking and for comfort 
in cold weather. The principal household utensils were 
earthen pots and gourds for holding water. 

The original fur and feather clothing of these savages 
gave place to cloth after the advent of Europeans. At 
first a blanket about the shoulders and a cloth hanging 
from a belt about the waist composed their costume, but 
they afterward imitated the dress of the whites. All were 
fond of decoration. In early deeds from them there is a 
peculiar reservation of " the trees in what eagles do build 
their nests," doubtless in order to secure to them the 
feathers of the royal bird, which were among their valued 

Their canoes were of different sizes, from the light 
shallop to those of sixty feet in length. They were 
wrought out of logs with stone axes, with the help of fire. 
Their pottery, of which specimens are found in the shell 
heaps, is of clay, mixed with water, hollowed out by the 
hand and baked. Most of the specimens are very inferior. 
Private collections abound in arrow-heads, stone axes, 
and the pestles and mortars which served them for mills. 
The Long Island Historical Society has a collection of 
Indian relics, in which the only metallic instrument is 
an ax of native copper unearthed a few years ago at 
Rockaway, together with a few stone axes and a quantity 
of spear heads, apparently buried for preservation. 

Long Island was the great source of the supply of 
wampun or sewant — the Indian shell money, as well as 
the beads which they wore as ornaments or fastened to 
their clothing. Along the shores of the island immense 
deposits of shells once existed (some of which yet remain), 
from which the blue portion forming the eye was care- 
fully removed for making blue beads; these were 
worth three times as much as the white, which were 
made from the inner pillars of the conch shell or 

Long Island will always be a monumental point in 
history as the place to which Hudson and his mariners 
first came as the key to open a world in commerce and 
civilization, to which the discoveries of Columbus were 
but the vestibule. The earliest account of the Indians 
of the island is that given by Hudson in the narrative of 
his voyage of 1609. On the 4th of September of that 
year he came to anchor in Gravesend Bay. He says the 
Canarsie Indians came on board his vessel without any 
apprehension and seemed very glad of his coming. They 
brought with them green tobacco and exchanged it for 
knives and beads. They were clad in deer skins, well 
dressed, and were "very civil." On a subsequent visit 
some of them were dressed in "mantles of feathers " and 
some in " skins of diver sorts of good furs." Hudson states 
that " they had yellow copper, and red copper tobacco 
pipes, and ornaments of copper about their necks;" also 
that they had currants and "great store of maize or 
Indian corn, whereof they made good bread." They also 
brought him hemp. Some of his men landed where is 
now the town of Gravesend and met many men, women 
and children, who gave them tobacco. They described 
the country to Hudson as " full of great tall oaks, and 
the lands as pleasant with grass and flowers and goodly 
trees as they had ever seen." 

Doubtless the natives presented their very best festal 
appearance to the great captain of the "big canoe;" 
though when, seventy years after (in 1679-80). when they 
were visited by the Labadist agents, Dankers and Sluyter, 
after contact with the early settlers, they had sadly de- 
generated, and the best collection that has been made of 
their utensils and adornments fails to show any of the 
yellow copper ornaments.