November is National Native American Heritage Month and the Connecticut Shoreline is rich with Native American history. These first inhabitants made significant contributions to the establishment and growth of the United States and we are fortunate that many of our town historical societies have included the tribes in their historical records.
The first inhabitants of the CT Shoreline appeared around 10,500 B.C. and are referenced as the Woodland Period Tribes. These individuals moved seasonally, tracking the migration of large mammals in the area as they were primarily hunters. The herds provided meat, hides, and sinew to the tribes. Eventually these tribes would settle and begin to cultivate the land. Prominent tribes of the Shoreline include the Hammonassetts, Menunkatucks, Quinnipiacs, Pequots, and Mohegans:
- Hammonassetts – The word Hammonassett means “where we dig holes in the ground” and refers to the cultivated areas the people farmed along the southern Hammonasset River. They were mostly farmers in the areas of Madison, Clinton, and Killingworth who subsisted on corn, beans, and squash, but they also fished and hunted. During the winters they moved north to the wooded area that is near the present day Hammonasset Reservoir. Tom Paul, of the New England Antiquities Research Association, wrote a field report stating that many pre-colonial (and probably native-built) stone structures exist in the northern section of the Summer Hill Road area in Madison. These structures also exist near the Hammonasset Reservoir, in the area occupied by the Hammonassets before the colonial period. In general, the Hammonassets lived on the west side of the Connecticut River to the edges of the Hammonasset River along the Sound and also resided westward of that river in North Madison and North Guilford.
- Menunkatucks – Were a smaller sachemdom that operated within the sphere of Quinnipiac influence in the Guilford area. A sachemdom was a territory made up of several smaller regions and was presided over by a secondary leader called a sachem. These sachems reported up to a primary leader known as a grand sachem. Like their Hammonassett neighbors to the east, they too worked a seasonal schedule of farming in the spring and summer followed by hunting and fishing in the colder months.
- Quinnipiacs – The Quinnipiac are the Indigenous inhabitants along the Atlantic shoreline of what is now New Haven to Madison on the east and as far north as Meriden. Their name means “long water land,” and likely refers to the shoreline of Long Island Sound. Quinnipiac society followed a seasonal round, fishing and cultivating corn, beans, and squash near the coast in the summer, and hunting in the interior in the fall and winter. They dwelled in bark wigwams, traveled in elm canoes, and marked the passage of time by following a lunar calendar and an eight-part ceremonial cycle.
- Algonquin Nehantics – Inhabited the area of Old Saybrook and had a village at what is now known as Saybrook Point. They were a peaceful tribe who focused their energy on farming the land. Around 1590 they were conquered by the more warlike Pequots as they moved into the area, coming from the north.
Interested in learning more about the tribes that inhabited Connecticut? You’ll want to take a trip to one of the many great museums we have throughout the state:
- The Institute for American Indian Studies Museum & Research Center – Washington, CT.
- Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center – Mashantucket, CT.
- Tantaquidgeon Museum – Uncasville, CT.
- Connecticut Historical Society – Hartford, CT.
- Connecticut State Museum of Natural History – Storrs, CT.