The Niantic, or in their own language, the Nehântick or Nehantucket, were a tribe of New England Native Americans, who were living in Connecticut and Rhode Island during the early colonial period. Due to intrusions of the Pequot, the Niantic were divided into an eastern and western division. The Western Niantic were subject to the Pequot and lived just east of the mouth of the Connecticut River while the Eastern Niantic became very close allies to the Narragansett.
The division of the Niantic became so great that the language of the eastern Niantic is classified as a dialect of Narragansett while the language of the western Niantic is classified as Pequot-Mohegan.
The Niantic were an Algonquian speaking people, speaking an Algonquian Y-dialect, similar to their neighbours the Pequot, Montauk, Mohegan, and Narragansett. The tribe's name "Nehantic" (Nehântick) means "of long-necked waters" believed by local residents to refer to the "long neck" or peninsula of land now known as Black Point; located in the village of Niantic, Connecticut. The Nehântics spent their summers fishing and digging the shellfish which were once abundant there and for which the area is famous (see Millstone Nuclear Power Plant). They lived on corn, beans, and squash, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and collecting.
Conflict broke out between the Niantic and their colonial neighbors, leading to punitive military expeditions that dealt out massive destruction in contrast to the rather limited incidents that had provoked the conflict. As the violence became more widespread it evolved into the Pequot War in 1637. This conflict resulted in almost total destruction of the Western Niantic, whose roughly 100 remaining members merged into the Mohegans and Pequots. There are members of these tribes who can trace their ancestry back to Nehântick members, especially in the vicinity of Lyme, Connecticut. Some of the Niantic who joined the Mohegan and Pequot fled west and joined the Brotherton Indians to escape further English harassment.
Following King Philip's War (1675–76), surviving Narragansett fled to the Eastern Niantic in such great numbers that the tribe became known as the Narragansett, however, many modern-day Narragansett have significant Niantic blood.
By 1870, the Nehantics were declared extinct by the state and their 300-acre (1.2 km2) reservation, the Black Point peninsula of East Lyme, was sold. In 1886, their burial ground was sold and desecrated, and the Crescent beach community filled over it. As recently as 1988, Nehantic skeletal remains were uncovered by new construction.
The East Lyme Public Library has some information, mainly as small booklets that were researched and written by local historians and that reference Mercy Matthews and many other Nehantic Indians.
In 1998, about 35 Connecticut families claiming Nehantic descent incorporated as a nonprofit association, the Nehantic Tribe and Nation, established a three-person governing board, researched their history more fully, and began the petition process of seeking recognition from the federal government as an Indian tribe.
- Moseley, Christopher and R. E. Asher, ed. Atlas of the World's Languages. (New York: Routelege, 1994) Map 3
- Libby, Sam (2 August 1998). "Now the Nehantics Ask U.S. Recognition". The New York Times. p. 9.
- Hodge, Frederick W. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, DC.: Government Printing Press, 1910.
- Sultzman, Lee (1997-07-15). "Niantic History". Retrieved 2012-11-04.
- Swanton, John R. The Indian Tribes of North America. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145. Washington DC.: Government Printing Office, 1952.