The Niantic (Nehântick or Nehantucket in their own language) were a tribe of Algonquian-speaking American Indians who were living in the area of present-day Connecticut and Rhode Island during the early colonial period. They were divided into eastern and western divisions due to intrusions by the more numerous and powerful Pequots. The Western Niantics were subject to the Pequots and lived just east of the mouth of the Connecticut River. The Eastern Niantics became very close allies to the Narragansetts.
The division of the Niantics became so great that the language of the eastern Niantics is classified as a dialect of Narragansett, while the language of the western Niantics is classified as Pequot-Mohegan.
The Niantics spoke an Algonquian Y-dialect similar to their neighbors the Pequots, Mohegans, and Narragansetts in New England, and the Montauks on eastern Long Island. The tribe's name "Nehantic" (Nehântick) means "of long-necked waters"; local residents believe that this refers to the "long neck" or peninsula of land 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 nuts, roots, and fruits.
Conflict broke out between the Niantics and their colonial neighbors. The English colonists conducted punitive military expeditions against them, resulting in massive destruction. The violence became more widespread on both sides of the conflict and degenerated into the Pequot War in 1637. This conflict resulted in almost total destruction of the Western Niantics by the colonists and their Indian allies. The roughly 100 surviving members of the Niantics merged into the Mohegans. Some members of the Mohegan can trace their ancestry back to known Nehântick members, especially in the vicinity of Lyme, Connecticut. Some of the Niantics fled west and joined the Brotherton Indians in western New England.
Following King Philip's War (1675–76), surviving Narragansetts fled to the Eastern Niantics in such great numbers that the tribe became known as the Narragansetts. But many modern-day Narragansetts have significant Niantic ancestry.
By 1870, the Nehantics were declared extinct by the state of Connecticut, which sold their 300-acre (1.2 km2) reservation on the Black Point peninsula of East Lyme. In 1886, the state sold their burial ground, which was desecrated. The Crescent beach community was developed on top of this area. Nehantic skeletal remains have been uncovered during excavation for new construction projects over the years, as recently as 1988.
In 1998, about 35 Connecticut families claiming Nehantic descent incorporated as a nonprofit association, the Nehantic Tribe and Nation. They 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.
- The East Lyme Public Library has some information, mainly as small booklets that were researched and written by local historians. These refer to Mercy Matthews and many other Nehantic Indians.
- 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.