The Tribes of Long Island
The inhabitants of Long Island shared a desire for peace. They became expert whalers and deep sea fishermen. They worshiped the same gods and placated the same evil spirits. They talked the same language and followed the same customs in dress and decorations. Among them, wampum retained common values. They erected their dwellings and shaped their dugout canoes alike, using similar methods of construction. Their thirteen so-called tribes were united in an island-wide confederation. Each tribe had its own territory whose unmarked bounds were recognized and respected by the others. Each had its own chief but all acknowledged the authority of one inter-tribal grand sachem.
Long Island Name
The Indian names of Long Island are said to have been Sewanhacky, Wamponomon and Paumanake.2
The first two, which signify the island, or place, of shells, are said to have come from the abundance of the quahog, or hard clam, from the shell of which they made wampum, first used as money by the settlers.
The Dutch gave the name Matouwacs to the Island in their earliest maps, while the deed to the settlers at Easthampton state Long Island as Paumanake.
Rev. William Hubbard, of Ipswich, in his history of the New England, called it Mattamwake.
In books and deeds it bears other names, as Meitowax, Metoac, and others.3
Due to an extended glacial period that left the Northeast blanketed in thick ice sheets for thousands of years, the area was not inhabited by humans until around 11,000 years ago. The environmental setting of the northeastern United States continued to change throughout the prehistoric period, forcing the Native populations to continually adapt. Archaeologists have divided the time between the arrival of the first humans in northeastern North America and the arrival of Europeans more than 10,000 years later into three prehistoric periods: Paleo-Indian (11,000 to 10,000 before present [BP]), Archaic (10,000 to 2,700 BP), and Woodland (2,700 BP to AD 1500). These divisions are based on certain changes in environmental conditions, technological advancements, and cultural adaptations, which are observable in the archaeological record.
Tribes of Long Island
Descriptions from Coles, R. R. (1954). The Long Island Indian. Glen Cove, NY: Little Museum;
Although most of the earlier historians describe thirteen groups having existed on Long Island when the first white settlers arrived, there seems to be no reason for supposing that this number was fixed and definite. There seems to have been other, smaller groups from time to time and there is considerable confusion even concerning the thirteen that most of them mention. At this remote time we can only have a rough idea concerning the names and distributions of many of these. As well as we can tell, however, they were approximately as follows;
Canarsie – the fenced place
The Canarsies occupied territory on the western end of Long Island, including much of what is now Brooklyn and extending eastward to take in part of the former town of Jamaica. Being so near Manhattan Island, it is certain that they had frequent contact with the Indians living there, and there is some evidence that they had a settlement near the southern tip of that Island.
These were among the Indians encountered by Henry Hudson’s crew, in 1609, and described by his mate, Robert Juet.
We are told that the Canarsies were obliged to pay a regular tribute of wampum and dried clams to representatives of the Iroquois Indians and when they refused to do so on one occasion, at the advice of the whites, a part of warriors descended upon them with disastrous consequences.
Within the territory occupied by the Canarsies there was evidently another small chieftaincy, called the Marechkewicks, that migrated to the east shortly after the arrival of the settlers and took up residence on the south shore of the Island in the territory of the Massapequas, to whom they are said to have been compelled to pay tribute.
Rockaways – sandy place
In his History of Long Island, Thompson tells us that these Indians had their principal settlement at what is now Rockville Centre. Others were scattered throughout the southern part of the town of Hempstead and over a territory that extended from Rockville Centre west to Rockaway Beach and, perhaps north to Long Island Sound, including part of Jamaica. They also occupied some of the islands in the bays along the south shore.
In 1643 DeVries visited one of their villages, which he described as composed of about thirty dwellings that housed between two and three hundred Indians.
Merricks – at the barren land
The Merricks had communities on the southern part of Long Island, from near Rockville Centre to the western line of the pre-sent town of Oyster Bay, and north to a line running east and west through the middle of the Island. Originally they had lived at the extreme western end of Long Island, but were forced to move ,east into the territory controlled largely by the Massapequas, which chieftaincy is said to have dominated them and demanded tribute. The Merricks had villages on several of the necks of land along the Great South Bay.
Massapequas – great water land
The boundaries of their land extended along the south shore from Seaford to Islip and north to an arbitrary line running east and west through the center of the Island. They had a large settlement at Fort Neck where there stood a fort. A battle was fought there with the white settlers near the middle of the seventeenth century, with very disastrous results to the Indians.
This chieftaincy was powerful and, in its day, entered into many transactions with .the Dutch and English settlers. Evidences of their former camp and village sites are numerous today in the presence of extensive shell heaps found within their territory. One of their most famous chiefs, Tackapousha, was a very important figure in their dealings with the whites.
Matinecocks – at the hilly land
This was one of the most prominent chieftaincies on the north shore. Its territory extended all the way from Flushing Bay, on the west, to the Nissequogue River, at Smithtown, and south to the center of the Island. These Indians had extensive villages at Flushing, Port Washington, Glen Cove, Oyster Bay, Cold Spring Harbor, Huntington and many other locations within their territory, especially on the bays and harbors along the north shore. The names of their chiefs appear on many deeds and other transactions with the early settlers and the remains of their camp and village sites are numerous to this day.
NISSAQUOGUES – the clay or mud country
The territory of this chieftaincy was adjoined by the Matinecocks on the west, and extended eastward from the Nissequogue River to Stony Brook and south to the center of the Island. Apparently there was a disagreement for a time between the Nissequogue and Matinecock Indians concerning their boundary and, as a consequence, they did not always enjoy friendly relations. They had extensive villages at Smithtown and at several other places near the shore within the bounds of their territory.
SETAUKETS – land at the mouth of the river or creek
This north shore chieftaincy occupied the territory from Stony Brook to Wading River and south to the center of the Island. They had a village at Setauket and others on the various necks of land in that vicinity on the north shore.
CORCHAUGS – the greatest or principal place
These Indians controlled the land to the east of the Setaukets. Their territory was bounded on the west by a line extending from Wading River to the center of the Island and east along the north fluke of the Island to Orient Point. They also occupied several of the necks of land along the north shore of Peconic Bay.
SECATOGUES – the black or dark colored land
The territory of the Secatogues was to the east of that occupied by the Massapequas. It extended along the south shore from Islip to Patchogue and north to the center of the Island. They occupied many camp and village sites along the tidal creeks that flow into the Great South Bay.
UNKECHAUGS – land or place beyond the hill
It appears that these Indians have been often incorrectly referred to as the Patchogues and sometimes the Poospatuck. Their land extended along the south shore from Patchogue as far east as Westhampton, and perhaps, to Canoe Place. The Unkechaugs had villages at Patchogue, Fireplace, Mastic and Westhampton. They also had many camp sites for fishing all along the shores of the Great South Bay.
SHINNECOCK – flat or level country
The Shinnecock were one of the most famous and powerful of the chieftaincies on the Island. Their territory included the southern fluke of Long Island from Westhampton or Canoe Place to East Hampton. It also took in several of the necks of land along the south shore of Peconic Bay. A few descendants of these Indians intermarried with other races and live on a reservation, within their former territory, today.
MONTAUKETT – fort country
These Indians are recognized as having been the most powerful group on the eastern end of Long Island and probably
throughout its extent, from the narrows to Montauk Point. The Montauk chieftaincy controlled all the land on the southern fluke from East Hampton to the extreme eastern tip. They also occupied Gardiner’s Island, which lies between the north and south flukes of Long Island. They had extensive villages at Three Mile Harbor, Fort Pond, and many other locations in the vicinity. They were in almost continual trouble with the Indians of the mainland, who demanded tribute from them. The Indians of the mainland made frequent raiding parties upon the Island and, as a defensive measure, the Montauks built a substantial fort at Fort Pond, which stood for many years. Their chief was at one time recognized as head of all the Indians living on the eastern part of Long Island and exercised much authority in their dealings with the early settlers.
MANHANSETS – island land or neighborhood
This was apparently a large chieftaincy of considerable importance in the early days. They occupied Shelter Island, Hog Island and Ram Island, between the north and south flukes. They were also compelled to pay tribute to the Indians of the mainland with whom they were in a continual state of war.
Origin of Tribe Names
There were probably no Native peoples living in tribal systems on Long Island until the Europeans Arrived. Three tribal systems were developed later in response to the pressures from the expanding European communities.
No permanent social structure existed beyond these linguistic and kinship systems. On occasion, several villages might form temporary alliances to accomplish a limited goal, such as a military alliance against a common enemy or a large hunting expedition, but once the goal was reached, or hopelessly frustrated, the alliance quickly dissolved. Fears of “Indian conspiracies” frequently resulted in widespread hysteria during the latter half of the seventeenth century, but few of these military alliances ever posed a threat to the colonists. Shared religious ceremonies, which drew groups from some distance to a host village, were often viewed with great fear by some whites who suspected that a “confederacy” was being formed. The most common pattern of indigenous life on Long Island prior to the intervention of the whites was the autonomous village linked by kinship to its neighbors.4
Contemporary Indigenous Peoples of Long Island
Despite the endless oppression visited upon Long Island Natives, they have endured in force at Shinnecock, at Poosepatuck (whose lands, because of incursions by whites, have eroded from over 175 acres in 1700 to 120 acres in 1902 to even fewer today), in small communities at Eastville (Sag Harbor), Freetown (East Hampton), and Lakeville (Lake Success), and scattered throughout Long Island’s population.
Historians and local journalists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries left their readers with the false perception that because the Natives had intermarried with other ethnic groups, they had lost their tribal identity and have “deteriorated” into “mixed racial remnant” communities. These racist attitudes prevalent among early local historians continue to capture the public imagination and place an unpleasant burden on the indigenous people of Long Island to defend the integrity of their identity and tribal heritage.5
A certain unease now is felt by those in government or real estate, as today’s Native descendants have become educated, are knowledgeable about political action, protest the destruction of ancestral sites, and might sue for return of lands taken from their forebears, not always within the law.6
New England & Long Island Indians
The language of the eastern clans was similar to that of the Pequots, Mohegans, Quiripis and Narragansetts of New England and traces of it have survived until the middle of the nineteenth century. 7 Ives Goddard concluded that the languages here related to the southern New England Algonquian dialects. However, he could only speculate on the nature of these relationships. Working with a few brief vocabulary lists of Montauketts and Unkechaug, he suggested that the Montauketts might be related to Mohegan Pequots. The Unkechaugs, who live on the Poospatuck Reservation, he thought might possibly be grouped with the Quiripi of western Connecticut. 8
Shinnecock, as well as their neighbors: the Montauks, Corchaugs, and Manhasset, were under tribute to the Pequots and Narragansetts who sometimes raided the eastern part of Long Island.
Long Island Sound was a conduit for ancient peoples and cultures. The movements of prehistoric groups to and from Long Island occured longitudinally across the sound more often than overland from west to east. It would seem to follow, therefore, that to clarify Long Island’s complex prehistory, it must be examined within a perspective provided by adjacent southern Connecticut.
Swift currents run east to west in the Long Island Sound, allowing for voyages from Connecticut to Shelter Island for example. Such travel would assist in explaining parallels that exist between Shelter Island southern Connecticut’s prehistory regarding subsistence/settlement patterns, resource exploitation, and systems involving trade or tribute.9
- Strong, John A. The Thirteen Tribes of Long Island: The History of a Myth. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. The Hudson Valley Regional Review pp 40
- Thomas R. Bayles, The Long Island Indians
- W. W. Munsell, History of Suffolk County, New York, 1882, pp 19
- Strong, J. (1992). The Thirteen Tribes of Long Island – The History of a Myth (Vol. 9). Hudson Valley Regional Review.
- John Strong, The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island – A History, 2011, pp. xi
- Gaynell Stone, Long Island Native Americans, Selected Readings pp. 134
- Bailey, P. (1949). Long Island; a history of two great counties, Nassau and Suffolk. New York: Lewis Historical Pub. pp 119
- Strong, J. A. (1997). The Algonquian peoples of Long Island from earliest times to 1700. Interlaken, NY: Empire State Books. pp 23
- Carlyle Smith, quoted by John Charles Witek, Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut, Nm 53, 1990, pp. 42
About the Knowledgebase
The Knowledge Base is always a work in progress! Please feel free to contribute suggestions, edits and ask for more information at my contact menu.