The Niantic (Nehântick or Nehantucket in their own language) were a tribe of Algonquian-speaking American Indians who lived in the area of Connecticut and Rhode Island during the early colonial period. They were divided into eastern and western groups 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, while the Eastern Niantics became very close allies to the Narragansetts. It is likely that the name Nantucket is derived from the tribe's endonym, Nehantucket.
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 Mohegan-Pequot.
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"; area 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 Niantics spent their summers fishing and digging the shellfish which were 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.
Like the Narragansetts, the Niantics pre-contact lived around salt ponds mainly in what is now coastal Rhode Island, in semi-permanent settlements known to archaeologists as "dispersed villages." As part of their Late Woodland subsistence, they relied on the use of snakes and turtles. Socially, the Niantic community valued both personal autonomy and group unity, with individual families responsible for providing for themselves. Surviving artifacts include crafted shell items but few projectile points, showing similar shared culture extending from southern Connecticut to Long Island to Martha's Vineyard. The arrival of the Mohegan and Pequot peoples in the southeastern Connecticut region led to the split of the Niantic people into Western Niantic and Eastern Niantic divisions.
By the time European settlers arrived in southern Rhode Island in 1636, the Niantic and Narragansett peoples were closely related, both in terms of sociopolitics and family groups. The Eastern Niantic population, led by Ninigret, lived primarily in the areas of present-day Westerly, Rhode Island and Charlestown, Rhode Island.
Conflict developed between the Niantics and their colonial neighbors, with the English colonists conducting punitive military expeditions against the Niantics, 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 Western Niantics merged into the Mohegans.
Some members of the Mohegans can trace their ancestry back to the Niantics, especially in the vicinity of Lyme, Connecticut. Following King Philip's War (1675–1676), the Narragansetts were reduced in population from 5,000 to a few hundred, while Eastern Niantics were largely spared due to Ninigret's neutrality during the conflict. Surviving Narragansetts fled to the Eastern Niantics in such great numbers that the tribe became known as the Narragansetts. Eastern Niantics continued to lead the joined tribes; by 1679, Ninigret had been succeeded by his daughter Weunquest, who died circa 1686.
Entering the 18th century, the Eastern Niantic-Narragansett community in Rhode Island was one of the largest in Southern New England, with 300-500 Eastern Niantics outnumbering the surviving Narragansetts. Weunquest's half-brother Ninigret II succeeded her, and under his leadership, the Niantic-Narragansetts received their reservation in 1709. He died in 1723, by which time the Eastern Niantics were fully known as Narragansetts. Alcoholism, political infighting, and pressure from the European settlers in the area began to harm the tribe, with population shrinking to 51 families by 1730.
By the autumn of 1713, Christian missionaries had begun to try converting Eastern Niantics to Christianity, though they were met with resistance. In the 1720s, a more concentrated, organized effort began, but success was largely limited to those Eastern Niantics who had been taken as household servants and slaves by European families. Widespread interest in Christianity did not begin amongst the Western or Eastern Niantics until 1743, after which distinct congregations formed for each group.
In 1733, Western Niantics travelled to Woodstock, Connecticut from East Lyme, Connecticut in order "to barter their skins and furs for powder, shot, rings, knives, cloth, pipes, tobacco, beads, lace, whistle and other commodities" with local merchants.
In October 1761, Ezra Stiles encountered a Western Niantic community of 85 people, including 56 children, in the present-day village of Niantic. He sketched their wigwams and noted similarities between the design they used and those used by the Kickapoo. He further reported that 11 Niantic men had been killed between 1755-1761 while serving with colonial troops.
By the end of the 1700s, the Niantic peoples had adopted many aspects of Yankee New England culture, including adopting the dominant culture's religious beliefs, style of dress, and class system. In 1780, residents of New Shoreham, Rhode Island voted to take Eastern Niantic-Narragansett land on the grounds that "the native Indians [are] extinct in [this] Town."
1800s to present
Following the American Revolution, numerous Eastern Niantic families fled west and joined the Brotherton Indians in New York and eventually Wisconsin. Those that remained were often seen by political leaders as separate from the white community but also not as Indigenous, resulting in Niantics being listed as "Black" or "Negro" in Rhode Island town records, a re-classification that would make it difficult for them to maintain their claim on their ancestral lands.
By 1870, the Western Niantics 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. Niantic skeletal remains have been uncovered during excavation for new construction projects over the years, as recently as 1988.
In 1880, the Eastern Niantic-Narragansett reservation was sold to the state of Rhode Island, with only the church remaining under their control.
In the early 1900s, Mohegan people of southeastern Connecticut considered Western Niantic peoples to be amongst their elders, turning to them for additional guidance on sacred traditions, medicine, symbolism, and tribal history.
In 1998, about 35 Connecticut families claiming Niantic descent incorporated as the Nehantic Tribe and Nation non-profit association. 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.
- Ninigret, a Niantic sachem
- Harman Garrett, Niantic governor and sachem
- List of early settlers of Rhode Island
- Moseley, Christopher and R. E. Asher, ed. Atlas of the World's Languages. (New York: Routelege, 1994) Map 3
- Leveillee, Alan; Waller, Jr., Joseph; Ingham, Donna (2006). "Dispersed Villages In Late Woodland Period South-Coastal Rhode Island". Archaeology of Eastern North America. 34: 71–89. JSTOR 40914497. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- Byers, Douglas S. (October 1952). "Review: [Untitled]". American Journal of Archaeology. 56 (4): 236–238. doi:10.2307/500590. hdl:2027/nnc2.ark:/13960/t0cv73g6w. JSTOR 500590. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- Simmons, William S. (May 1983). "Red Yankees: Narragansett Conversion in the Great Awakening". American Ethnologist. 10 (2): 253–271. doi:10.1525/ae.1983.10.2.02a00030. JSTOR 643911. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- "History of King Philip's War". 31 May 2017.
- Herndon, Ruth Wallis (Summer 1997). "The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era". Ethnohistory. 44 (3): 433–462. doi:10.2307/483031. JSTOR 483031. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- Baron, Donna Keith; Hood, J. Edward; Izard, Holly V. (July 1996). "They Were Here All Along: The Native American Presence in Lower-Central New England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries". The William and Mary Quarterly. 53 (3): 561–586. doi:10.2307/2947204. JSTOR 2947204. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- Sturtevant, William C. (October 1975). "Two 1761 Wigwams at Niantic, Connecticut". American Antiquity. 40 (4): 437–444. doi:10.2307/279330. JSTOR 279330. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- 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 Niantic people.
- Beard, Laura J. (Summer 2003). "Review: [Untitled]". Studies in American Indian Literatures. 15 (2): 90–93. JSTOR 20737201. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- Valk, Anne; Ewald, Holly (2017). "Turning toward Mashapaug: Using Oral History to Teach about Place and Community in Providence, Rhode Island". Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy. 27 (1): 9–28. doi:10.5325/trajincschped.27.1.0009. JSTOR 10.5325/trajincschped.27.1.0009. Retrieved 23 August 2021.
- 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.