The Indians Of Connecticut

Soon after Henry Hudson explored the beautiful river that bears his name, Adrian Block, another Dutch navigator, followed him on a trading voyage. He had loaded his ship with bear-skins, and was about to sail homeward, when the vessel caught fire, and he was compelled to land on the island where the city of New York now stands.

During the following winter his men built a small yacht; and in the spring he sailed through Hellgate, and, skirting the shore, discovered the Housatonic, which he called the river of Red Hills. From thence he sailed east, and entered the Connecticut River, which he explored for some distance. He saw parties of Pequots, and found an Indian tribe near the site of Wethersfield, and another just above Hartford. The Dutch traders, for a number of years after this, made frequent trips along the shore of the Sound, and carried on a brisk trade with the Indians in furs. They also visited the charming valley through which flowed the river whose Indian name, Connecticut (Long River), was to designate the commonwealth, the foundations of which were soon to be laid in this wilderness.

The territory included in the present boundaries of the State was, at this time, occupied by small bodies of Indians who were connected with independent tribes that were generally hostile to every other.1 River Indians2 was the name given to the Indian who dwelt on the banks of the Connecticut. Very little is known of those who lived in the forests west of the river;3 but the eastern part of the State was the home of two powerful tribes, the Pequots and the Mohegans.

With the exception of the meadows which here and there bordered the larger streams and the shores of the Sound, the hills and valleys were covered with a dense forest growth. The Indians cleared a few places for their hunting grounds; and the grass that grew in these spots was burned, with the underbrush of the forests, by fires that were kindled for this purpose, in the autumn.

Many of the Indians, living in small collections of wigwams, were accustomed to remove twice a year; in winter seeking sunny and sheltered spots, and at other seasons visiting the shores of the Sound and the banks of the larger streams and lakes. Wild animals were numerous in the forests, and birds and water-fowl were abundant.

The Indian men were tall, athletic, and graceful in their movements, but lacked endurance. The skins of wild animals furnished their dress; and the chiefs wore costly and beautiful holts of curiously wrought shells, of varied colors.

Proud and haughty in bearing, they cherished a cruel and implacable spirit towards their enemies; and, never asking mercy when captured by their foes, they suffered the most excruciating torments with stoical composure. When they were not upon the warpath, they spent their time in hunting, fishing, and lazy enjoyment. The women did all the heavy manual labor, turning the sod, planting the corn, and crushing it, when harvested, with a stone pestle in a hollowed rock.

The furniture of the wigwams, besides blankets of skins, consisted of a few cooking-vessels of wood and stone, knives fashioned out of shells, and axes and chisels made with stone. The hatchet and club. weapons used in hunting and war-fare were wrought with much skill and care. Sassafras was the favorite wood for making bows, that were strung with the sinews of the deer or with hempen strings. Reeds from the swamps largely furnished the arrows, that were loaded with pieces of flint, stone, or bone sharpened to a point. Their most cruel weapon, the tomahawk, was a short club of hard wood terminating in a heavy knob.

Besides fish and game, the natives ate the nuts, roots, and berries which grew wild. Indian corn was a favorite article of food; and they also raised the squash, the pumpkin, and the bean. A hoe made of a clam-shell or a moose's shoulder-blade was the only implement they employed in their work in the field. In fishing they used hooks made of the sharpened bones of fishes or birds. Their lines and rude nets were fashioned of the twisted fibers of the dog-bane or the sinews of the deer.

They cooked their meat by roasting it before a tire on the point of a stick, and also by broiling it on hot coals or stones. Sometimes they boiled it in their vessels of stone. Corn was prepared in several ways; and, when boiled alone, was called hominy, and when mixed with beans, succotash.

Footnotes:

 

  1. Indians were numerous at Simsbury, New Hartford, and Farmington. Along the shore of the Sound, there were small tribes; at Guilford, Branford, and New Haven. Near the mouth of the Housatonic River, they built a strong fort as a defense against the Mohawks. There were two clans in Derby: the one at Paugusset, about four miles below the mouth of the Naugatuck River, erected a strong fort. At Milford and Stratford the Indians were numerous. There were several tribes in Stamford, and two small clans in Norwalk. The neighborhood about Woodbury was a favorite resort of several tribes. The number of Indians in Connecticut at the time of its settlement, was probably about sixteen thousand.
  2. River Indians. They were small bands scattered at different points along the river. They suffered from the attacks of the Mohawks from the West, and the Pequots from the East. For this reason they were anxious to have the English come into the valley. They sent some of their number all of the way to Boston to ask for help against the Pequots, and promised to give the English land if they would come and live among them. This visit called the attention of the colonists for the first time to Connecticut.
  3. The Indians in the western part of the State were tributary to the Mohawks. If they neglected to pay their tribute, the Mohawks would plunder, destroy, and carry them away captive. The cry "A Mohawk! a Mohawk!" was sufficient to arouse the greatest alarm and fear. After the English came, the Indians in this neighborhood, if they could not take refuge in their forts, would flee into the homes of the settlers: but the Mohawks would pursue, and sometimes kill them in the presence of the family. If the doors were shut, they would not attempt to open them by force; and they never did the least injury to the English.

Source: Sanford, Elias B.; A History of Connecticut; Pub. The S. S. Scrantom Company, Hartford, 1922. 


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