Those of us who live on Long Island often do not realize the tremendous influence of the original native peoples had ,and still have on our lives. The names of many of our communities and roads attest to this heritage. Merrick, Massapequa, Shinnecock, Wyndanche, Rockaway, Canarsie, Setauket and Montauk are all native names. The list goes on forever. Many of there social units still live amongst us and are vibrant today (But that’s another article for the future).
When Long Island was first visited by Europeans in the late 16th and early 7th centuries there already existed a vibrant culture with a settled way of life extending thousands of years back. Though they appeared to the Europeans to live simply, their culture was complex and very much influenced by the water world of bays and seas surrounding them. Their culture would likewise affect the Europeans relationship to this environment.
The native people drew much from the sea. Highest on the list of sea gifts was the food they consumed. We most often imagine the indigenous peoples to be hunting in the woods with their stealthy bow and arrow shooting deer, turkey and wolves and while they certainly did that too evidence attests to their greatest reliance for sustenance was on the bounty of our water world.
Shell fish were a major source of delicious protein. Abundant beds of oysters, clams (Quohogs), mussels, snails, scallops and welks were all on the menu. The water was pristine and they could be harvested and eaten at any time of the year. The massive piles of shells that remain to this day are evidence of this heavy reliance of this food source. Shellbank Avenue in Rockville Centre is named for a large pile of shells found near a coastal stream there. Shellfish were eaten raw or often roasted in a fire pit til they opened. The Europeans who first settled on Long Island Quickly adapted the native knowledge and made it through the first years by relying on meals of shell fish and they learned from the natives the best areas to source shellfish and to prepare tasty stews and chowders for variety.
Indigenous people wasted little. The best clam shells were set aside to make “Wampum” which were long beautiful beads drilled and strung into belts. They were traded with other tribes and even got transferred through trades, all the way to the western plains peoples without actual direct contact between tribes. Long Island Wampum was the most valuable on the continent and even the colonists from England, Holland and France adopted it as “legal tender” and substitute it for coins into the early 19th century in some locals.
Whole shells of all types were also made into beautiful jewelry in the form of earrings, amulets, hair and clothing decorations worn by both men and women. These were also traded to other tribes for furs and types of stone not available on Long Island that made sharper arrow and spear heads. Yes, the bounty of the bay provided well.
Lobster and crab were also available and the bays, rivers and coast all around long Island offered unlimited access to giant schools of fish such as striped bass, fluke, weak fish, blue fish, herring and flounder indeed every type of fish we still fish for-but in unbelievable numbers - even salmon! Salmon were caught using hand-held fishing lines with bone hooks and stone weights. The natives also hunted by unique spears and could be trapped in baskets and larger impound nets. Long Islands Native Americans made their own canoes by hollowing out large trees by burning out the center of large logs and then finishing with a stone adze which looks like a hoe.
Some of these vessels could be quite large and hold a crew of able native seamen who could paddle ably and even fish beyond the bays out into the coastal ocean.
Our Long Island tribal family taught the Europeans how to harvest whales for meat and oils. They made their own harpoons and in later periods were valued as harpooners and sailed on American whaling ships out of Sag Harbor. One such Montaukette harpooner, Stephan Talkhouse (Pharouh) became a friend of Herman Melville and was styled into Queeqeg , the harpooner, in his classic “Moby Dick”. If you haven’t read it and love the sea, please do!
Long Island’s coastal summer breezes make the bay and beaches the ideal place to cool off during the warm summer and so it was with the native family groups. They stayed near their food source near the bay . They were blessed in their time with clean fresh water streams and rivers that ran from the center of the island out to the bays and sound. These provided turtles, frogs, and fresh water species for food consumption and, in the interest of wasting little, turtle shells could be made into bowls or spoons according to size. Larger fish bones made excellent needles and could be used for decoration. Local clay found on the shores were made into pottery.
The southern bays were surrounded by flat fields where maize (corn), squash, and native root vegetables were planted and fertilized with menhaden. Eel grass from the bottom of the bays would be harvested and spread on the fields like mulch. These techniques were taught by the natives and adapted by the English and Dutch farmers and soon Long Island had some of the most productive farms in the colonies . Long Island still holds the title for the most productive farms in all of New York State.
Marsh mallow is a sweet white substance that oozes from the native shore reeds. The natives used it as a sweetener and while our synthetic marshmallows are so popular in smores today, without that native knowledge transferred to our ancestors, we might not be enjoying them with our children.
The wetlands were visited by vast flocks of ducks, geese, birds, hawks and owls all year long. These game birds were hunted by various methods for both meat and decorative feathers. The Native Americans taught the colonists how to carve simple decoys to lure fowl into hunting range. These techniques are still used today and have actually become an art form. Marsh Mallow is a sweet white substance that oozes from the native shore reeds. The natives used it as a sweetener and while our synthetic marsh mallows are so popular in Smores today without the native knowledge transferred to our ancestors we might not be enjoying them with our children.
The influence of the Amerindians of Long Island is undeniable. Bit it is not in the past, for it continues still. They are rebuilding their communities, running businesses, rebuilding schools and churches, making just claims to their fair share of lands and entitlements. We have an obligation to help them in the new chapters of their story just as they helped our ancestors learn about and use their beautiful and bountiful water world.
Note from the Author. There will be future articles on the native peoples and there impact in the future. They will be descriptive of the historical details of all the native family groups, their historical past and future. Thank you.
All Illustrations by and copyrighted by author.