300 Years of Trials

Mr. Strong’s book is an uplifting account of a strong people who have endured three centuries of trials
Thomas Hill with eel spear and fishing equipment in a photo taken by Francis Harper in 1910. Smithsonian Institution

“The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island”
John A. Strong
University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95

   The Unkechaug Indians live today on a small reservation along the northern bank of Poospatuck Creek in Brookhaven Township. Although less familiar than the Shinnecock and Montaukett peoples, the Unkechaugs’ history parallels what is known about the native inhabitants of eastern Long Island before contact with early Dutch and English settlers.
    Their more recent history, while in some ways similar to that of their East End Indian neighbors, has been largely overlooked.
    What is known about the Unke­chaugs and other native communities hereabouts comes via the research and perseverance of John A. Strong, professor emeritus of history and American studies at Long Island University and author of “The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island,” “Algonquian Peoples of Long Island From Earliest Times to 1700,” and “We Are Still Here! — The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island Today.”
    Those familiar with Mr. Strong’s earlier works will find his latest, “The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island,” to be a keystone narrative that brings into focus the collision of cultures that occurred here in the mid-17th century. It further clarifies his earlier portraits of the people themselves, both Indian and settler, and the relationships that formed between them. The book is a tour de force of scholarship that reads like a novel, one that begins in 2007, when the Unkechaugs were sued by Gristedes Foods. The mega-chain alleged the Indians were not authorized to sell untaxed tobacco products over the Internet.
    You’ve got to love it. These were the same people visited in 1791 by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. The secretary of state stayed with the Unkechaugs long enough to learn something of their language and collect a vocabulary. When Jefferson later shipped some belongings back to his home in Virginia, his notebook was stolen. Most of its pages were tossed overboard, but those remaining are reproduced in a glossary in Mr. Strong’s book.
    A preface written by Jefferson reads: “The language they speak is a dialect differing a little from the Indians settled near Southampton called Shinicocks and also from those of Montock. The three tribes can barely understand each other.” A project undertaken recently by a group of Unkechaugs to relearn the tribal language could clarify the statement.
    Mr. Strong brings the reader back to the inshore whale fishery, perhaps the most fundamental relationship between settler and Indian, one that revealed the polar differences in their respective worldviews and formed the template for the commerce, politics, and exploitation to come. The natives had always prized drift whales, those that became stranded on East End beaches, as a food source. They designed a way to kill whales that swam close to shore, a skill that the settlers learned and exploited to obtain whale oil. Indian crews worked for English entrepreneurs. Mr. Strong shows that the whaling enterprise was not only an economic one, but one that forged the important political relationships between settler and native.
    Wyandanch, a young Montaukett sachem, saw the writing on the wall after the English routed the powerful Pequots in New England in 1637. He established a close relationship with Lion Gardiner, the commander of Fort Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Gardiner purchased the island named for him from a Montaukett leader. Gardiner and the English were willing to protect Wyandanch in large part to gain access to the wampum made by Indians on the East End. The shell beads were the currency used to purchase beaver pelts from Indian trappers farther north. The English wanted to corner the wampum supply in order to snatch the beaver trade from the Dutch. The Dutch shipped an average of 6,000 pelts to Europe each year between 1624 and 1636, the author tells us.
   With Gardiner’s backing, Wyandanch extended his power base. He became a deal maker between Montaukett, Shinnecock, and eventually Unkechaugs and whale oil merchants. Indians were paid in goods that they became more and more dependent upon. Their growing dependence when combined with a misunderstanding of the English definition of land ownership and law (Indians were forced to compensate the settlers whenever one of their community dogs attacked cattle) led to their slow but steady displacement from traditional lands.
    Mr. Strong’s colorful recounting of the many land purchases, and the questionable finagling that preceded them, is surprisingly complete by virtue of his digging into 300-year-old documents, his comprehensive knowledge of written histories, but perhaps most important through his working relationships with the descendants of the East End’s original inhabitants. He credits the late Lone Otter, Donald Treadwell, for his book “My People, the Unkechaug” and “Turtle People: The Unkechaug People of Spirit Island,” the latter an unpublished manuscript that was made accessible to him along with other archival material.
    The scholar takes us through the reshaping of the Unkechaugs’ world from 1550 to 1800, then the tribe’s later participation in the Civil War and the tribe’s efforts to defend its land from incursions by the likes of William Floyd, the Revolutionary War hero, and its heritage against claims that intermarriage between Unkechaugs and “negroes” nullified the tribe’s cultural identity. The Unkechaugs’ battle with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs is a book in itself, and fascinating.
    In the end, Mr. Strong’s book is an uplifting account of a strong people who have endured three centuries of trials. Harry Wallace, the Unkechaugs’ current chief, is among 16 others involved in the language revitalization program that was launched last September. One member is Howard Treadwell, grandson of the former chief Lone Otter and a graduate of Stony Brook University, where he majored in linguistics. The committee meets in the tribe’s new community center.
    Chief Wallace wrote of John Strong’s book: “This book is the most comprehensive analysis to date of Unkechaug history. John Strong has provided vast evidence to dispel misrepresentations, distortions, and intentional falsehoods concerning the Unkechaug. He makes the case for why we are still here and why we never left.”

    John A. Strong lives in Southampton.