A Documentary History of the Shinnecock Peoples:
How the Land Was Lost cont'd

A careful reexamination of the deeds and related documents is essential, therefore, for an understanding of Shinnecock history after 1640. The deeds themselves are most curious. Sharply contrasting philosophies of man-land relationships led to endless debates over the meaning and significance of these documents. The English proceeded as if the cultural differences did not exist, insisting that all agreements conform to their legal system. In fact, the Indians were never taken very seriously in the process at all. The English were primarily interested in securing land titles which would hold up when challenged in court. The deeds were negotiated by the English with an eye to third parties in their own culture rather than to the second parties.

This attitude was a direct result of the historical forces which brought together technologically advanced and simple hunting and gathering cultures. The Europeans found an immense continent inhabited by people who lacked the military technology to defend their lands. Here was an extreme example of a power vacuum. It was simply a question of which European power would be able to get there first and establish a foothold that they could defend. Local aboriginal titles were of little concern in the decades following the European discovery and exploration of the New World. Each nation made extravagant claims based on the most superficial contacts. The British, for example, claimed most of North America on the strength of a voyage along the Atlantic coast.

The King then sold or gave away as rewards to his loyal followers large parcels of land with extremely vague boundaries. Aboriginal title was at this time of concern neither to the King nor to the recipients of the grant. The Earl of Stirling was one of these King's favorites who received such a grant. His included all of Long Island, but he never realized his dream of establishing a settlement here. Instead, Stirling proceeded to sell parcels through his agent James Farrett in New England. It was an enviable profit margin for the Earl. Problems soon arose however, when the Dutch claimed a portion of the same lands on the basis of Henry Hudson's voyages. The Dutch strengthened their claims by signing treaties with local Indians, a practice endorsed by Roger Williams as well. Before long, the custom of dual title emerged. The claim of royal title by right of discovery was no longer deemed sufficient. Within a decade after the original settlements had been established in New England, it became necessary to extinguish Indian as well as Crown claims in order to secure legal title. The negotiations with the Indians were often viewed as an annoying antecedent to the "real" title purchase. The settlers who came to Southampton purchased a patent from Stirling's agent, lames Farrett. for eight square miles of land on Long Island. They had paid hard cash to Farrett for the land. Their ambivalent feelings about purchasing the same land a second time from the Shinnecock Indians is understandable in this context.

The naivete of the Indians is frequently cited as an explanation for the grossly unfair terms of the deeds. This may be true for deeds such as the 1640 document signed soon after the arrival of the Europeans. The Indians assumed that they were merely granting the visitors a place to sit down and use the land for a while. This understanding was consistent with aboriginal concepts of "property." Land was "used" by the community; it was not something that one owned either individually or collectively. The English principle of land ownership had no equivalent in Indian culture. This cultural gap, however, can not explain the subsequent deeds and treaties. It did not take the Indians long to figure out what the English were doing. The records indicate that it became more and more difficult after 1640 to get local village headmen to sign away their land. The English however, were quick to discover and exploit other areas of vulnerability in aboriginal culture.

Jennings outlines five strategies used by the English throughout New England during the seventeenth century to divest Indians of their lands. In summary they are as follows:

  1. Find or create a puppet sachem, Find an Indian with a claim to leadership no matter how tenuous, help him build up his following among local Indians by giving him money and goods to distribute and provide him with military support from time to time when his claim to leadership is challenged by other Indians. Once this has been accomplished this Indian can be established as the "lord of the lands" with the authority to sign away the lands of all the Indians in the area. (On Long Island this strategy included the imposition of a fictional and arbitrary "tribal" system on the small hunting and gathering bands and the designation of equally fictional "tribal" boundary lines).
  2. Confuse and seduce with alcohol. Take advantage of the cultural disarray which followed the breakdown of cultural mores by using alcohol to "ease" the process of negotiations.
  3. Intimidate by armed force. Opportunities for such actions always followed "incidents" such as an act of violence by an individual or a small group of Indians. The troops would visit the Indian community and force a land concession or further compromise local Indian autonomy with additional regulations.
  4. Harass the Indians with continual pressures from the private sector, The following techniques were most commonly used: livestock was allowed to roam through Indian fields destroying crops; whites would begin to cut hay or wood on Indian land; and some even went so far as to plough, plant and even to settle on the edges of Indian land, testing boundary definitions which were always very vaguely defined in the deeds.
  5. Force the Indian into debt and take land as payment. A favorite strategy in New England and on Long Island was to impose fines for a long list of offenses which ranged from individual acts of violence to the observation of native religious ceremonies. When these fines could not be paid, land was seized as compensation.
The documents strongly suggest that all of these strategies were used at one time or another on eastern Long Island.

The first deed on December 13, 1640 may reflect some naivete on the part of the Shinnecock regarding the motives of the English but the element of intimidation was also present. The Shinnecock were quite familiar with the fate of the Pequot who resisted the will of the English. In the spring of 1637 Captain John Mason led a surprise attack on a Pequot village near Stonington. Connecticut where he ruthlessly slaughtered 400 men, women and children. It was a massacre of horrifying proportions sending shock waves through all the Indian communities in the Northeast. Wyandanch visited Connecticut during the conflict with the Pequots and quickly allied himself with the English. He undoubtedly recognized the advantage of working out positive relationships with a people capable of such destructive force.