Repairing Hartford’s indigenous past

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Will written by women in the Wangunk tribe of central Connecticut. Image credit: Connecticut State Library

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of pieces focused on Hartford and its regional identity which will be posted before and during the NCPH annual meeting in Hartford, Connecticut in March.

In 1999, when I was a fairly new associate professor at Central Connecticut State University, the editor of Connecticut History, Professor Bob Asher at the University of Connecticut, asked me if I knew of any interesting documents that might help increase the appeal of the journal. I found some wills and estate administrations by Native people included in a digest compiled by Charles Manwaring. They had never been published in full, so I went to the Connecticut State Library, pulled the documents up on microfilm and, with Alexandra Maravel’s help, transcribed them. At the time I knew little about Connecticut’s indigenous people, and I was surprised to learn that the wills I found were written by women in the Wangunk tribe. I knew about the Pequot, Mohegan, and Quinnipiac, but who were the Wangunk? No one else seemed to know much either, except for a graduate student named Timothy Ives, who eventually wrote an article in Ethnohistory. Ives did not publish his findings until after I had published my transcriptions, so an article by Karen Coody Cooper in a bulletin called Artifacts was all I could find in the scholarly literature. A few antiquarian works, like William Deloss Love’s The Colonial History of Hartford County, John De Forest’s History of the Indians of Connecticut from the Earliest Known Period to 1850, John Hammond Trumbull’s The Memorial History of Hartford County, Connecticut, 1633-1884, essays by Mathias Spiess, and a pamphlet, Indian Proprietors of Mattebeseck and Their Descendants, by Joseph Barratt seemed to exhaust the secondary sources .

Genealogical tree for Sowheag family.  Image credit: Katherine Hermes

Twenty years later we know a good deal more about the Wangunk. Alexandra Maravel and I have painstakingly created genealogical trees and RelationshipTrees™. We have met descendants of the Wangunk, including artist and family historian Gary O’Neil, and we have attended forums on the Wangunk at Wesleyan University hosted by Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui. There is also a special issue of the Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut edited by Lucianne Lavin exclusively about the Wangunk. Yet the Wangunk remain largely erased from Connecticut history, despite the fact that their territorial reach was greater than any other tribe in 1637, when the English established the colony of Connecticut, and they were the people who allowed the English to settle in Hartford, which they called Suckiog.

When the Dutch and the English first began to explore Connecticut and establish communities, the grand sachem at Suckiog was Altarbaenhoot, who probably died in an epidemic in 1634. He was succeeded by his son, Sowheag, sometimes called Sequin. Sowheag’s children were powerful in their own right. Sequassen, who appears to have been the eldest son, often conducted negotiations with the English and the Dutch. Wawarme (aka Wawaloam), Sowheag’s eldest daughter, married Miantonomi, the grand sachem of the powerful Narragansett nation. Sons Turramuggus and Montowese were signatories to deeds in Wethersfield and New Haven, respectively. Historians, however, often confused Sowheag and Sequassen, and they failed to follow Wangunk genealogy in the way they had the Mohegan or Narragansett. Thus, sachems and sunksquaws (sometimes called “queen sachems”) who were directly descended from Sowheag appeared in history books almost as if out of nowhere. When Professor Maravel and I examined the probated estates back in 1999, we had no idea that the three women who left actual wills were sunksquaws of the Wangunk.

Sarah Onepenny the Elder, Sarah Onepenny the Younger, and Pampenum left the only Native wills in Hartford County between 1637 and 1750. Sarah the Elder and Pampenum were granddaughters of Sowheag and Sarah the Younger was his great-granddaughter. Pampenum left important clues in her will about her relationships that showed among her kin were Mahomet, the Mohegan sachem, his wife, Wampeawask (aka Cheehums) and her children, Mahometups (Mahomet II) and Occoosque. Yet no genealogy connected Pampenum to the Mohegan or mentioned Wampeawask. When we first encountered this information, we wondered if our conclusions were correct, because no historians seemed to have ever made this connection and it seemed incredible we could be the first. Sarah Onepenny the Elder was the daughter of Seppunamo; Pampenum the daughter of Towkishke (Townhashque). Both Seppunamo and Towkishke were mentioned in histories because they signed deeds, but they were never connected as sisters, or daughters of Sowheag.

Pampenum’s mark. Image credit: Katharine Hermes

As we began to construct the genealogies, using wills, estate administrations, deeds, court records, town minutes, and stories from local lore, we were able to fill out a tree that showed a large family with extensive networks. One of the frustrations, however, was that sometimes we could not say exactly how someone was related. For example, Pampenum mentioned her cousin, Nanico, but how he was her cousin is not entirely clear. Nanico appeared, under various spellings of his name (Nannico, Naneko), in colonial records. In 1693 he was beaten by a colonist and left lying in a puddle, which caused his death. Pampenum’s brother, Wawquashot, who predeceased her, had a son, Seemook (Ooseemoo). We wondered if Wawquashot was perhaps the son of Wawaqua, Uncas’ brother, and Towkishke, but so far we have not been able to prove that.  Pampenum also named Wampeawask (Cheehums) as her heir and successor sunksquaw, but she did not say how Wampeawask was related to her.

Pampenum RelationshipTree™. Image credit: Katharine Hermes

Because these relationships could not fit in the typical genealogical tree, which requires one to know exactly how one person descended from another, I asked Professor Stan Kurkowsky in CCSU’s computer science department for help. With a team of students, we created RelationshipTree™, which allows us to connect people without having to specify a biological connection. In Ancestry.com trees, for instance, you can place yourself among cousins many times removed, but your best friends can’t go in the tree, even if they feel like family to you. In order to represent the most important connections, we conceived of the additional relationships used in RelationshipTree™.

Our work to reconstruct and repair Hartford’s broken Native history is ongoing. With no existing Wangunk tribal nation remaining as an entity, there is no central repository for documents or research findings. The Yale Indian Papers Project has digitized many of the documents at the Connecticut State Library. We are fortunate to have published our findings in collaboration with faculty and students from Wesleyan University, Lucianne Lavin of the Institute for American Indian Studies, and other independent researchers. The fact is, people will continue to use and cite the historical works published by Love, De Forest, and Trumbull without correction, repeating the mistakes of the past. Spiess and Barratt, who were not historians at all, made the grossest of errors, but are cited as authorities whenever the Wangunk are mentioned. The Wangunk rank among the great indigenous nations at the time of European contact. Their network was vast and their role in Hartford’s founding paramount. As historians we owe it to them and to their descendants, who are still among us, to get the story right.

~Katherine Hermes is the former chair of the history department at Central Connecticut State University

For further reading:

Barrett, Joseph. Indian Proprietors of Mattebeseck and Their Descendants. Middletown: 1850.

Cooper, Karen Coody, “They Have Seized Upon Our Country: The Wangunk of Wethersfield, Artifacts 14 (2): 4-8.

De Forest, John William. History of the Indians of Connecticut from the Earliest known Period to 1850. Hartford: W. J. Hamersley, 1851.

Love, William DeLoss. The Colonial History of Hartford : Gathered from the Original Records. Hartford: Published by the author, 1914.

Hermes, Katherine. “‘By Their Desire Recorded’: Native American Wills and Estate Papers in Colonial Connecticut.” Connecticut History Review 38, no. 2 (1999): 150-73.

Erik Hesselberg, “Wesleyan Class Renews Interest In Wangunks, ‘Lost Tribe’ Of Lower Connecticut River,” Hartford Courant, May 9, 2016.

Ives, Timothy H. “Reconstructing the Wangunk Reservation Land System: A Case Study of Native and Colonial Likeness in Central Connecticut.” Ethnohistory 58, no. 1 (2011): 65-89.

Lavin, Lucianne. Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples: What Archaeology, History, and Oral Traditions Teach Us about Their Communities and Cultures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Lavin, Lucianne, ed. “Wangunk Tribal History.” Special Issue. Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut 79 (2017), with essays by Kauanui and her students, O’Neil, and Hermes and Maravel, among others.

Manwaring, Charles William, comp., A Digest of the Early Connecticut Probate Records. 3 vols. Hartford: R.S. Peck, 1904-1906.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 comments
  1. Gerard M Duclos says:

    I personally would love to see a map showing the extent of the Wangunk Tribal nation. I always associated the tribe as being located mostly in the Portland, East Hampton area, with seasonal movement to the shoreline, and back.

    1. I don’t know of an existing map that shows the Wangunk territory. I am going to try to create one for the book Prof. Maravel and I are working on. Antiquarians assumed there were “river tribes” and did not realize these were all Wangunk. Portland and East Hampton were the mid- to late 18th-century areas where most Wangunk lived and where many descendants lived to the present day. Hartford (Suckiog), Wethersfield (Pyquag), Rocky Hill (Nyaug), Middletown (Wongung), Haddam, Thirty Mile Island, and Killingly, Guilford, and other areas that blended into Niantic (Nehantic) lands were all part of the Wangunk grand sachem’s original lands.

  2. I am so pleased to see the results of the work you’ve engaged in. Forty years ago I talked with a Wangunk descendant calling from California who had seen the piece I published in Artifacts. I was so excited that I dreamed of eventually finding more and having an annual reunion and conference, but soon I moved out of state to another museum job. Enjoy your work. I know you will have a great career.

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