By Dan Shine
The Quinnipiac Tribe, Revisited
West Haven and indeed the greater New Haven area are unique places to live. Following last week’s story about the topography of New Haven, we will now gain a greater understanding of the earliest settlers—Indians and Europeans—of New Haven, how they lived, and how they utilized and contributed to the area that we call home.
When Dutch explorer Adrien Block sailed into what is now New Haven Harbor, the year was 1614, and he was the first European to lay eyes on the reddish hues of East and West Rocks. So impressed was he by these sights, that he named the area Roodeberg, which is Dutch for “red hills.”
But Block was not nearly the first human to be so taken by the sights of this area—for it had been thousands of years since it was first settled by an Algonquian tribe of Native Americans known as the Quinnipiacs.
The people called Quinnipiac arrived in the Long Island Sound region about 10,000 years ago, during the closing years of the last Ice Age. At that time, the glaciers were receding, and Connecticut as we know it was quite a different place: on its south shore was an enormous freshwater lake, bounded on the other side by what is today Long Island. At the eastern end of the lake was a giant, thundering waterfall, one hundred miles long and three hundred times greater than Niagara Falls. The lake was fed by the massive ice-melt along the Connecticut River, and it was in this river valley that the settlers chose to live.
Long Island Sound became known as “Hobbamock’s Belt.” Hobbamock was the legendary Algonquian god of death and darkness. When in Indian lore, he was slain by mighty thunderbirds, his enormous body was covered by earth, and became the Sleeping Giant of Hamden.
We today have certain long-held beliefs and stereotypes concerning New England’s American Indians. In fact, much of what we think we know may be incorrect. For instance, American Indians have long been known as “red men,” when in fact an explorer in 1501 stated, “They are somewhat taller than our average person, their faces were marked with great signs (tattoos), the color of their skin must be said to be more white than anything else.” One hundred years later, another explorer said, “They are full-eyed, of a blacke colour…the color of their hair is divers, some blacke, some browne, and some yellow.” Quinnipiac descendents state that their ancestors used red ochre paint mixed with bear fat as a kind of protection from the elements. This red paint was very sacred. Not only did they tattoo their faces—they were also fond of tattooing their arms, legs, chests and backs.
This writer grew up with an understanding that American Indians could not grow beards or moustaches, but some accounts indicate that quite the opposite is true! In fact, one particular sketch from the 1600s is said to show an Algonquin Indian who is bearded, white and tattooed!
The earliest Quinnipiacs appear to have hunted mammoths, giant bears and giant beavers, and had fashioned hunting tools for these purposes; indeed, skeletons of these animals have been found with spearheads lodged between their ribs.
By about 5000 years ago, the Quinnipiacs had learned to fell trees and fashion dugout canoes from them. The tree trunks were hollowed out by the use of fire followed by the removal of charred wood, using the scraping action of seashells. These dugouts became the primary means of transportation for the Quinnipiacs; some of them were large enough that they could hold up to twenty men.
Now, they were no longer confined to the land. They took to the waters of the Quinnipiac River and Long Island Sound, and fished with the new implements that they had devised: nets, spears, hooks and traps. They crafted stone pots and bowls, which were set into their campfires as cookware.
Finally, the Quinnipiac Indians became farmers and cultivated the sunny hillsides, there to grow a variety of crops for their consumption. Their summer camps and plantations were set along the shore, and they wintered inland, away from the powerful winter winds that blew in from offshore.
When the first seven English settlers arrived by boat in their “new haven” to secure a new colony in 1637, they met the area’s longtime inhabitants—the Quinnipiac tribe. But the Quinnipiacs were no longer as they had been: plagues, smallpox and measles had reduced the size of most New England tribes by eighty to ninety percent, and the Quinnipiacs now numbered less than two hundred-fifty, with but forty-seven adult males. The Quinnipiacs, eager for support and protection from the Mohegan and Pequot tribes, welcomed the settlers warmly.
The Quinnipiac Indians were hunters and farmers who occupied present-day New Haven, West Haven, East Haven, North Haven, Hamden, Branford and Guilford. When the English settlers arrived, the tribe consisted of four distinct groups: the Momauguin (New Haven), the Montowese (North Haven), the Menunkatuck (Guilford), and the Totoket (Branford).
The four groups were unified into a tribe by their language, Quiripi, a dialect of the Eastern Algonquin. Other unifying factors were their culture, blood relations, and their proximity to one another.
Although the Quinnipiac natives were allies of the New Haven settlers, as a tribe they generally held to their own religious beliefs for the remainder of the tribe’s existence.
They lived in dome shaped wigwams, also referred to as round houses. These were built of wood and woven materials, and covered with animal skins. The typical wigwam was 6-8 feet high and 10-16 feet in diameter. This structure was large enough to house one or two families.
The settlers soon learned of the grim and brutal cold of the winters in this place called Quinnipiac. It was their good fortune that the Indians showed them how to survive this harshest of seasons, and for this, the white settlers were briefly appreciative.
Almost immediately, the settlers began to discuss purchasing land from the Quinnipiacs. Now, the concept of land ownership was a strange one to the Indians, who felt that a man had no more ownership of the land than he did of the sky. Nevertheless, in 1638 the Quinnipiacs sold to the white settlers a parcel of land extending from Branford to Meriden to West Haven. Later, they sold another parcel of land to the colonists that were settling Milford. Somehow, both New Haven and Milford ended up owning certain land around Oyster River; this disputed land deal sparked an un-neighborly friction between the villages that has continued on for centuries.
In exchange for the land they had sold, the Quinnipiacs were given hunting rights, English protection, twelve coats, an assortment of farming implements and a quantity of cloth. Sometime thereafter, the Quinnipiacs were allotted what was to be the first Indian reservation in the New World—it was located on 1200 acres at the site of today’s Fort Hale Park.
Early maps of West Farms indicate that there were three settlements of Quinnipiacs in that area: one at present-day Ames Point, one near Bradley Point, and one at “Wigwam Neck” on Old Field Creek near present day Morse Park. It is easy to surmise that these were all fishing and farming camps. In very recent times, an archaeological excavation has revealed numerous artifacts along the Cove River. This particular site is believed to have been used as a Quinnipiac settlement site, and was very likely used for the preservation of meat for winter use, and the processing of hides for clothing and shelter.
In the years that followed the English settlement of New Haven, the Quinnipiacs dwindled steadily in number, as the body of settlers grew in number. Then, between 1700-1750, groups of Quinnipiac Indians were relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts by the settlers. By 1740, only 15 or 20 Quinnipiac families remained near New Haven. The last parcel of their reservation was sold at public auction in 1773. By 1850, it was recorded that the Quinnipiac had ceased to exist as a tribe.