American Indians: Southern New England

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American Indians: Southern New England

By 1760 the approximately five thousand Indians in southern New England lived in two fairly distinct worlds. Near the New York border, Mahican-Housatonics resided in relatively autonomous villages, growing crops, hunting, trading furs, and occasionally working and fighting for the English. The largest was the mission town of Stockbridge in Massachusetts, established in the 1730s; to the south in Connecticut lay Scatacook near Kent and a series of smaller settlements. Those to the east of the Connecticut River had deeper connections with Anglo-American culture and institutions and lived either as part of a tribe on a reservation, where they retained a distinctive community and culture, or in a town as an isolated household, a servant with a white family, or a sailor or laborer. There were about twenty-five reservations, primarily along the coast, most ranging from 100 to 4,000 acres, with anywhere from a few families to about 350 people. The largest were Mashpee and Gay Head in Massachusetts, Mohegan in Connecticut, and Narragansett in Rhode Island.

acculturation and autonomy

Within these communities, sachems were increasingly rejected as they sold too much land to colonists and became autocratic. Indian ministers were already leaders in Massachusetts before the first Great Awakening of the 1740s, and became very influential in the rest of the region when their people embraced Christianity during the Awakening; particularly prominent were Samson Occom, a Mohegan, and Samuel Niles, a Narragansett. One result was the conflict between "traditionals" and followers of the new Indian Christian preachers, which often paralleled older conflicts between sachems and their opponents. In addition, provincial governments appointed Anglo-American guardians who controlled tribal lands, resources, accounts, indentures, and labor contracts. While some groups asked for such assistance against trespassers and abuse, guardians were also challenged, particularly by Mashpees, who battled until they won autonomy in 1834. After the Revolution, elected tribal councils became prominent, particularly at Narragansett.

Indians throughout the region gradually adopted Anglo-American farming techniques, cattleraising, and material culture. However, older customs of communal resource management and hunting and gathering persisted, and subsistence rather than profit remained their goal; this was particularly true in the western part of the region. All felt increased pressure from white neighbors, who poached wood and fish or tried to obtain Indian land. A growing number left their ancestral homes to work for Anglo-Americans: most of the men went whaling, while women worked as domestics in white households. Women also found a growing demand for their crafts, and by 1800 Indian basket peddlers became part of New England folklore. Less romantic but also significant was that Indian children and adults continued to be pressed into servitude. A Rhode Island census in 1774 showed at least 35 percent of all Indians in the colony living in white households.

Communities also changed as natives abandoned small settlements for larger ones, such as Mashpee and Scatacook, driven by the rising population and number of colonial towns and attracted by churches that drew people from many communities. The most significant movement began in 1773, when Samson Occom and other native leaders in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and eastern Long Island joined to create a secure homeland in Oneida territory. After the war, over two hundred moved there to create Brothertown, nearly emptying some communities. Similarly, after the Revolution the Stockbridge Indians reacted to their growing problems by obtaining land from the Oneidas for a new settlement. Even after both communities were forced further west in the 1810s, finally settling in Wisconsin, the Brothertown residents maintained contact with their Mohegan and Narragansett cousins, and individuals occasionally returned to their ancestral communities or left for Brothertown.

Indians continued to have problems with disease; most notably, in 1763 yellow fever nearly wiped out Natives on Nantucket. Men left to fight in the colonial wars or work in the growing whaling industry; by 1765, the women outnumbered men 2 to 1, and a growing number married African Americans and poor whites. This trend was apparent in the smaller inland enclaves by 1750, but was significant throughout the region at the end of the century. By 1830 the number of identifiable Indians had declined to about fifteen hundred.

reaching a nadir

Those left faced many tribulations, and the early Republic may have been the nadir of Indian life in the region. Whaling pulled most men out of the villages, leaving the women and children vulnerable, and many sailors preferred to find better homes elsewhere or died at sea. Women and some men continued to work in Boston and other port towns, and many decided to stay, often marrying blacks and creating kinship networks through and alongside the African American community. Servitude continued, particularly affecting children; those in smaller enclaves whose parents were considered poor or disorderly were often indentured to white families for many years. Alcohol addiction became a major epidemic throughout America, although the resulting poverty, violence, and neglect seemed far worse among Indians; towns frequently reported Indian men or women dying alone, often of cold or injuries. White racism seemed to intensify as the rate of exogamous marriages increased, and observers began to view Indians as a disappearing race.

Those who remained on tribal reserves faced growing economic and social problems as neighboring whites poached timber and fish and trespassed on their pasture and fields. Meanwhile, guardians abused their powers and unstable families and lack of financial support battered schools and other institutions. While reform movements after 1820 led to improved social and economic conditions by midcentury, Indians continued to face poverty and prejudice. Ann Wampy, a Pequot basket maker and peddler, complained in the late 1820s that "by me come trouble very much, me very much troubled. Me no like Christians, me hate 'em, hate everybody" (O'Connell, p. 152). At the same time, Indian communities were braced by folk traditions, communal management of land and resources, and kinship and social connections that linked many groups. In 1820 Jedidiah Morse surveyed the larger groups as part of his Report to the Secretary of War of the United Stateson Indian Affairs (1822), commissioned in part to examine the question of removal, and concluded that they would not be willing to leave. And indeed, most of the groups remaining in 1830 still exist at the start of the twenty-first century.

See alsoDiplomatic and Military Relations, American Indian .


Calloway, Colin G., ed. After King Philip's War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England. Hanover, N.H..: University Press of New England, 1997.

Frazier, Patrick. The Mohicans of Stockbridge. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Mandell, Daniel R. "Shifting Boundaries of Race and Ethnicity: Indian-Black Intermarriage in Southern New England, 1760–1880." Journal of American History 85 (1998): 466–501.

O'Connell, Barry, ed. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Simmons, William S. Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620–1984. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986.

Daniel R. Mandell

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American Indians: Southern New England

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American Indians: Southern New England