Name Variants: Wongunk, Wongum, Mattabesett, Pyquag, River Indians, Middletown Indians, Sequins
Meaning: The people at the bend in the river
Tribal Associations: Podunk, Suckiag, Podunk, Tunxis, Mohegan, Quinnipiac, New Hartford, Brothertown
Location: Middlesex County west of the Connecticut River in present-day Cromwell, Durham, Haddam, Middletown, Wethersfield, and east of the Connecticut River in East Haddam, East Hampton, Glastonbury, and Portland (Chatham)
Villages:Cockaponset, Coginchaug, Cossonnacock, Hockanum, Machamoodus, Mattabesec, Mattacomacok,
Naubuc, Pocowset, Pyquag, Suckiog
The Wangunk were Eastern Algonquin indigenous people who lived along the oxbows of the southern span of the “long tidal river” (Quinnitukqut) in present-day central Connecticut. Their main village, Wangunk (“where the river bends”), from which the tribe derived its name, was on the eastern side of the river, with equally important residences at Mattabesett on the west and Pyquag to the north. Wangunk country radiated from these communities to other settlements on both sides of the river, adapted to seasonal use: Coginchaug, Suckiog, Naubuc, Nayaug, and possibly as north as Hoccanum and south to Cossonnacock and Machemoodus.
Post-Contact Wangunk Community (1630-1673)
It is uncertain when the Wangunk first encountered Europeans. The earliest recorded contact was in 1614, when the Dutch merchant Adriaen Block (c. 1567-1627) sailed up the Quinnitukqut on an exploratory voyage for the Dutch West Indian Company. In subsequent years, Wangunk territory became a focal point for the developing European fur trade, as the tribe’s position along the river provided a ready access to more inland forests, where the fur-bearing animals thrived. For that reason, the Wangunk fell victim to Pequot expansion at the start of the seventeenth century, as that tribe attempted a measure of control over trade-related resources.
After losing three battle contests, the Wangunk became tributaries to the more powerful Pequot. Frustrated by this situation, their sachem Sowheage created alliances with the equally powerful Narragansett by the marriage of one of his family to Massecump, the son of the Narragansett leader Miantonomo. Looking for broader allies, one of Sowheage’s sons travelled with a diplomatic envoy from the River tribes in 1631 to Massachusetts, where a community of English separatists had recently arrived, in hopes of persuading the newcomers to settle along the Connecticut River.
The first to establish a permanent European presence, however, were the Dutch. In 1633, the West India Company purchased land at Suckiog from the local Native proprietors to build a fortified trading post called the House of Good Hope. This was followed in quick succession by English settlements at Matianuck (Windsor) in 1633, Pyquag (Wethersfield) in 1634, and Suckigog (Hartford) in 1636.
It is suspected that Wethersfield’s displacement of Sowheage to Mattabesett in disregard of its treaty responsibilities led the sachem to reconsider an alliance with the Pequot. As revenge in early 1637, a number of Pequot warriors attacked the town, killing several colonists and capturing two girls, an event which led to the outbreak of the Pequot War and an English distrust of the Wangunk. In the wake of the defeat of the Pequot, relationships among the Indian tribes deteriorated. The Wangunk and their Narragansett allies spent more than a decade fighting with the Mohegan over control of territory and political power.
At the same time, however, affairs between the English and the Wangunk had improved considerably. Sowheage allowed Connecticut Governor John Haynes to expand further into Wangunk country and eventually conveyed to colonial authorities a large tract of land. After Sowheage’s death in 1649, the General Court established the English settlement at Mattabesett (later renamed Middletown) and reserved two parcels of land for Sowheage’s descendants: one fifty-acre tract at Mattabesett and three hundred undefined acres at Wangunk. In 1673, thirteen Indian proprietors determined the boundaries of the Wangunk reservation to be fifty acres at Indian Hill, where their council lodge and sweathouse were located, and two hundred and fifty acres of upland grassland at Wangunk meadow.
Wangunk Reservation Period (1673-1785)
While relations between the Indians and the English at Middletown remained civil, the town’s desire to expand both physically and economically became a driving force behind its Indian policies. By 1670 Middletown’s population had doubled to fifty-two families. In 1703 the town’s northern section had become so numerous that it formed its own congregation and erected a meetinghouse the following year. Ten years later, colonial desire for more space drove the Wangunk off the Mattabesett reservation in the center of town, with the remaining Indian families removing across the river to Wangunk or to other Native communities.
Colonists used the Wangunk fields for pasturage and growing crops as early as 1650, but they began to build permanent houses among the Indians there in 1690. By 1714 there were significantly enough English at East Middletown that the General Assembly granted their request for a separate meetinghouse, which was built two years later at the edge of the Wangunk reservation. As the ship building and shipping industry came to dominate the Middletown economy, the colonists’ need to transport their goods to the river docks required them to petition for roads through the Indians’ fields, a process that was monitored closely by the Wangunk sachem Cushoy.
In 1732 the new minister of the society purchased forty acres of Wangunk land and built his residence, not among the English, but within the Indian reservation, perhaps as an effort to proselytize the tribe. However, it was left to others to provide more extensive instructions, especially during the time of a heightened religious revival, known as the Great Awakening. Funded mostly by the Church of England’s missionary agency in Boston, several attempts were made to catechize the River Indians. Richard Treat held weekly meetings with the Wangunk until he became discouraged by a lack of progress. One successful convert, however, was John Mettawan, a young Indian from Middletown, who began an English education under the tutorship of the parish minister from the neighboring town of Farmington. So successful had Mettawan become that he became a schoolteacher to the Tunxis in Farmington. But effects of the Great Awakening proved to be problematic to the Wangunk’s stability, first by encouraging a migration of tribal members to centers of religious teaching, such as at Farmington, and second, by attracting more English colonists to the Third Society church, thirty-one new families by 1742. In 1746, the society outgrew its old meetinghouse and petitioned the General Assembly for a location to construct the new building, which a legislative committee determined to be at the center of the Wangunk reservation.
The establishment of the new meetinghouse heralded a renewed interest in disseizing the Wangunk from their lands. In a first series of negotiations, in 1754 a representative of the society complained to the General Assembly that a considerable part of their meetinghouse was surrounded by Indian land, which was not properly utilized, and requested the ability to purchase parcels no more than five or six acres apiece. Both houses of the legislature rejected the proposal. Two years later, the society brought a second petition, this time requesting an exchange of land. To strengthen their case, they accompanied the petition with a memorial from the town selectmen indicating that some of the indigent and infirm Wangunk were at the town’s expense and that the town requested a sale of Indian land to pay the costs. The Assembly appointed an investigative committee who recommended the sale; however, the legislature once again failed to approve the measure.
In the second series of negotiations, Richard Ranney, an absentee descendant of the original Wangunk proprietors, petitioned for a determination of his land rights on the reservation in 1757. A year later, after a committee found him to be properly “deserving,” the Assembly provided Ranney with ten acres of land to cultivate and improve.
At this time, Middletown had become the largest port between New York and Boston and could boast that it was the most populous and one of the wealthiest towns in the colony. It has been estimated that one third of greater Middletown’s population was involved in the shipbuilding industry with another half with shipping and trade. By 1760, most of the remaining Wangunk heirs had removed to Farmington with the Tunxis, to Mohegan, Hartford, and New Hartford. In that year, two society residents informed the General Assembly that the land at Indian Hill had been “used, worn out, and left useless almost by the Indians and is of but little service to them” and requested a sale of the land. Even though a number of Wangunk signed a supporting affidavit, the Assembly failed to pass a resolution in a split vote. Two years later, a memorial from the male descendants of the Native proprietors with another from the selectmen of Middletown requested a sale of the entire reservation. A legislative committee determined that only a few individuals were left at Wangunk—Tyke or Mary Cushoy, the widow of the former sachem, some of her children, and another unnamed woman—and advised the Assembly to approve a dissolution of the tribal land base with the conditions that any outstanding debts would paid from the avails and that a portion of the land be set aside to pay for the maintenance of the remaining few Wangunk. The reservation was subsequently sold and in 1767, the Third Society was incorporated as the Town of Chatham.
Post-Reservation Wangunk Community (1767-1784)
Between 1767 and 1784, town authorities sold off pieces of the remaining parcel for the expenses of Mary Cushoy, who died sometime before 1771. Most likely the other few tribal members who had been living on the reservation removed elsewhere, perhaps to other parts of Chatham or to Middletown with their relatives and kin. By 1774, there were twenty-eight Indians living in Chatham, described as “miserably destitute.” Many of the Wangunk who had earlier migrated to Farmington participated in the Brothertown removal, a pan-Indian design to quit southern New England and rebuilt their community in Indian Country among the Oneida in New York. Some settled there as early as 1775 but became temporary refugees at Stockbridge, Massachusetts during the American Revolution.
- R. W. Bacon, “Native Americans in Middletown: Who called it ‘home’ before our ‘First Settlers’?, Middlesex County Historical Society, The Middler, Newsletter of the Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants, Part I (vol. 10:1, Spring 2010), Part II (vol. 10, no 2) Fall 2010.
- The Bridge, “The Wangunk Native Americans of Middletown” (October 2010).
- Karen Cody Cooper, “They Have Seized Upon Our Country: The Wangunk of Wethersfield, Artifacts 14 (2): 4-8.
- Eliot Gray Fisher, Last of the Wangunks.
- Katherine Hermes, “’By their desire recorded’: Native American Wills and Estate Papers in Colonial Connecticut,” Connecticut History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Fall, 1999), 150-173.
- Timothy Ives, “Reconstructing the Wangunk Reservation land System: A Case Study of Native and Colonial Likeness in Central Connecticut,” Ethnohistory 58 (1): 65-89.
- Timothy Ives, Wangunk Ethnohistory: A Case Study of a Connecticut River Indian Community (Ph.D. Dissertation, College of William and Mary, 2001).
- Timothy Ives, “Expressions of Community: Reconstructing Native Identity in Seventeenth-Century Central Connecticut Through land Deed Shirley W. Dunn, ed., Mohican Seminar 3: The Journey—An Algonquian Peoples Seminar (Albany, 2009), 25-68.
- Sarah Schneider Kavanagh, “Educating a New American Citizenry at Indian Hill Cemetery,” in Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush, eds., Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture & History (Lincoln, NE: 2011).
- Middlesex County Historical Society, “Wangunks: Their Own Stories: Voices from Middletown’s Melting Pot.”
- Carl F. Price, Yankee Township (East Hampton, CT, 1941).
- Doris Sherrow, “What Happened to the Wangunk?,” Portland, On the Move (Portland, CT, 1999).
- Doris Sherrow, “Who Were the Wangunk?,” Portland, On the Move (Portland, CT 1999).
Seventeenth Century Leadership Chart (Click Title)
Photo of Wangunk sculpture at Harbor Park, Middletown, CT courtesy of MMannetti21.