Montauk Life

History

 

MONTAUK'S INDIAN HERITAGE

Welcome to Montauk, the easternmost village in the Hamptons, and one of the premiere ocean front resorts in the world. Formed over 100 million years ago, during the last great Ice Age, Montauk is blessed with many of nature's greatest gifts. It's coastlines are dotted with pristine beaches, the climate is mild year round, the waters warm, it's proximity to the Gulf Stream makes for spectacular fishing, and Montauk's history ranks amongst the most interesting of any of the other towns and villages of the East End.

We know from archeological findings, that Montauk was inhabited by native American Indians over 3,000 years before any white man set foot on North America. The tribe principally associated with this area called their land Montauket, meaning "Hilly Country". A quick ride on the Old or New Montauk Highway confirms the appropriateness of that first name!

The Montauket tribe, although relatively isolated on the eastern tip of Long Island, grew to become one of the most influential in Southern New England. Their rise to prominence was based on the importance of wampum, as the chief means of barter between Indian tribes. Made from polished sea shells, particularly clam shells, wampum was the currency of it's time, and demand for it turned Montauk into a Hamptons mint. By the time British settlers first arrived on New England soil, the abundance of shells here had made Montauk the most important center for the manufacture and trade of wampum, raising this relatively small tribe into a position of great power and influence amongst all area tribes. This also made the Montaukets a natural target of tribal envy and ultimate aggression, factors that lead to the eventual collaboration of the Montaukets with the early British settlers.

At the time of the Mayflower landings in Massachusetts, 1620, the Montauks were led by their greatest chief, or "sachem", in their history - Wyandanch. Almost constant warring with rival tribes in New England marked this period. Although the largest tribe on Long Island, the Montauks were no match for the much larger, more aggressive tribes of Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Pequots of Rhode Island in particular, preyed on the Montauks, slipping across Long Island Sound in their silent war canoes, to raid at will. The Montauk's geographic isolation on Long Island prevented a protective alliance with any neighboring tribes and they were forced to pay tribute to the Pequots in wampum. The Pequots grew insatiable in their demands for wampum, and Wyandanch quickly realized he must put an end to this drain on his tribe. Needing a strong ally, and having little other alternative, in 1637 Wyandanch formed the first alliance between his people and the white settlers of the Connecticut colony.

Capt. Lion Gardiner, a 38-year-old soldier, engineer and adventurer commanded the British to whom Wyandanch pledged loyalty. He had been commissioned to Connecticut in 1636, with orders from the Crown to establish a fort at what is now Saybrook, Conn. It was there that Gardiner and Wyandanch first met. Gardiner was without doubt an impressive man for his time - standing over 6 feet tall, with brilliant red hair and piercing blue eyes, he must have looked as exotic to Wyandanch, as the Montauk sachem looked to Gardiner. They both shared iron wills, and ample abilities as warriors, but Gardiner's main appeal to Wyandanch lay in the simple fact that Gardiner was the first white man to treat the Indians with civility. His first impulse was to seek friendship rather than confrontation, to come to know the Indians, not simply conquer them. Gardiner viewed the Indian as his Christian brother, and not an obstacle to be beaten down, in the name of enlightened European civilization.

In the summer of 1637 the Montauks sealed their alliance with the British. Led by Gardiner, and supported by British troops, a Montauk war party met and destroyed the Pequot Indians at the Battle of the Great Swamp. It was Wyandanch's greatest triumph, with scores of Pequots killed, and many others taken hostage. The Pequot's demand for tribute ceased, and Wyandanch, in gratitude to his new ally, transferred that tribute to Gardiner. He also invited Gardiner to visit the East End, where he was quickly taken with the potential of this virgin land for new, British settlements. It was then that Gardiner took the final step into Indian culture, by undergoing a ritual of blood brothership with Wyandanch, and learning the Montauk tongue. However, no victory is with out some loss, and in Wyandanch's case, his new ties to the Europeans dimmed his influence with his fellow Indian tribes.

The friendship between these two leaders remained an isolated instance of friendly Indian and British relationships. Without their leadership example, the history of this area might well have been one of wholesale slaughter. Conditioned by their experience with the more aggressive, New England tribes, the early British community of neighboring Southampton adopted a cautious, even antagonistic stance towards their local tribe, the Shinnecocks. As early as 1641, the Southampton settlers passed ordinance prohibiting the sale of "guns, pistols, or any other instrument of wars" to the Indians. In spite of the peaceful attitude of the local tribes, the settlers maintained compulsory sentry duty and even required church goes to attend services with arms.

Wyandanch sealed the fate of the Montauks in one decisive blow during the attempted Indian uprising of 1642. The Narragansetts, sworn enemies of the Montauks, organized and led an uprising of the other New England tribes against the British settlements. Their intention was to wipe the British from their American shores - a mission, which understandably required the utmost in organization and secrecy. Wyandanch was approached, and his cooperation solicited for the attack, but the sachem choose loyalty to this blood brother, Gardiner. Gardiner alerted the Connecticut magistrates of the Narragansett's plans, and the uprising was crushed before it could be mounted. The Montauks were left completely isolated from the other Indian tribe, and their dependency and trust in the white settlers grew absolute. Unfortunately this course of action would lead to their destruction.

Soon however, it was Wyandanch and Gardiner who transacted the first large land sale on the East End, which resulted in the founding of East Hampton. Those 31,000 acres, spanning present Southampton's eastern border to the western edge of Napeague, cost the British colonists approx. 20 coats, 24 hatchets, hoes, knives, looking glasses, and 100 muxes - a form of drill, used for making wampum. The Montauks were left with only legal rights to fish and hunt in that area, along with the remainder of their original lands stretching from the Napeague border to Montauk Point.

The New England governor sold the rights to those 31,000 acres to a group of colonists who were determined to establish a settlement much like the neighboring Southampton. Arriving from New England in 1648, and landing at Northwest Harbor, they named their new settlement "Maidstone" - many of them having originally come from Maidstone, England. Within a few years, however, the town was renamed East Hampton. The settlers flourished, and by 1651 they finished paying their debt to the governors of Connecticut and New Haven, and received the final deed to their town. The original nine settlers, and those who soon after followed, include many names still common in East Hampton today - Hand, Mulford, Talmadge, Barnes, Dayton, Hedges, Osborn, Edwards and Strong.

Those early settlers were never as comfortable with the Montauks, as their leader Gardiner had hoped they would be. An incident in 1649, in which a Montauk brave was accused of the murder of an East Hampton settler, served only to increase the white's growing distrust of the Indian population. Even the discovery that the murder was the act of a renegade Pequot, did nothing to decrease the tension. Rumors of incipient Indian uprisings were always afoot - popular rumors of the mid-1600's being that the Dutch were secretly arming the Indians for a massive uprising!

In truth, the Montauks were never a real threat to the early settlers. Their constant warring with the Narragansetts had depleted the ranks of the Montauk warriors and severely reduced the population. In 1653 the Narragansetts ambushed the Montauks in what became known as "Massacre Valley", at the foot of the present day Montauk Manor, and inflicted massive losses on the tribe. Wyandanch's own daughter was captured and had to be ransomed from the Narragansetts through the assistance of Gardiner. Wyandanch rewarded Gardiner with a large tract of land in what now constitutes the greater part of Smithtown. It was disease that cast the final blow against the Montauks, as a series of smallpox epidemics in the late 1650's killed two-thirds of the remaining tribe.

The great Wyandanch died in 1659, leaving his 19-year-old son in joint guardianship to his widow and Gardiner. It was then that the few surviving Montauks moved to East Hampton village, to be nearer the homes of Gardiner and the Rev. Thomas James. He was, along with Gardiner, a true friend to the Montauks. James not only learned to speak their language, but also was the first to record it. The following year the Montauk sold the last of their lands to a group of East Hampton settlers, a total of 9,000 acres from Napeague to Montauk Point. This purchase was very unusual for its time, as it was effected by a private group of nine settlers, known as the Proprietors, who retained the land as private property and then rented it to the town. The price of the purchase - 100 pounds! With that sale, the Montauks relinquished all claims to their ancestral lands. Over the course of only 23 years they had sold, bartered or given in tribute nearly 60,000 acres of Eastern Long Island to the English settlers. Unlike their Southampton counterparts the Shinnecocks, who kept 300 acres as a reservation, the Montauks did not retain one single acre of their land. They, in effect, ceased to exist as a tribe. From that point forward, they were treated like guests, in their own land. The final insult to the Montauk Indian was rendered in 1909, when New York State Judge Abel Blackmar. Petitioned by a group of Montauk Indian descendants, to reassert their rights to their own land, Judge Blackmar declared the Montauk Indians to be no longer a recognized Indian tribe. As he wrote then, there is no tribe of Montauk Indians. It has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens. There is then no consideration of justice, which makes me loath to find there is no longer a tribe of Montauk Indians.

With that decision, the Montauk Indians lost their status as a tribe, and all legal rights to their former homeland. However, as bitter as that was, it is not the end of the Montauk Indians tale. This year the remaining members of the tribe, scattered as they may be across the Eastern End, have come together to petition the Federal government for recognition as a tribe once more. As many other tribes have done, they must chronicle their continued observance of tribal traditions, trace bloodlines, and establish tribal authorities and government, sufficient to convince an impartial board that they do indeed, carry the blood and tradition of that great clan. If they are successful, benefits may come to them material as well as spiritual. Will they succeed? That's a question that will be answered later this year. Should they succeed there's no question. The spirit of brotherhood first established between Lion Gardener and Wyandanch, demands it.

 


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