The Wangunk or Wongunk are an indigenous people from central Connecticut. They had three major settlements in present-day Portland, Middletown, and Wethersfield, but also used land in other parts of Middlesex and Hartford Counties. Some sources call the Wangunk the Mattabessett, but Wangunk is the name used by scholars and by contemporary Wangunk descendents.
The Wangunk were part of the Algonquin language group, and had strong connections with other Algonquian nations. The Wangunk are not recognized as a tribe by either the US Federal Government or by the State of Connecticut. However, some people today identify as being of Wangunk ancestry and strive to carry on cultural traditions.
The Wangunk peoples as encountered by English colonists occupied present-day Middletown, Haddam, and Portland Connecticut. Originally located around Hartford and Wethersfield but displaced by settlers there, they relocated to the land around the oxbow bend in the Connecticut River. Before English settlement, there were at least half a dozen villages around the area on both sides of the river. Of these, Mattabassett (or Mattabesseck, Matabesset) was the name most associated with the Wangunk by the English (corresponding with Middletown). Other villages include Pocowset (Portland), Cockaponet (Haddam), Coginchaug, Cononnacock, and Machamodus. The Wangunk are also sometimes referred to as “the River People” because of their positioning within the fertile Connecticut river valley. When the English settled and established Middletown on the west side of the river, the designated Wangunk reservation land was mainly on the East side of the river bend, with a small parcel on the West side, an area near where Indian Hill is today. Wongunk is also used to describe a meadow in Portland that was part of the Wangunk reservation. As the Wangunk felt pressure from the settlers for the land, they sold off portions of this land and joined either neighboring tribes such as the Tunxis (Farmington, CT), many of whom later moved with other communities of Christian Indians as far as the Great Lakes, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma.
Like other Algonquian groups, the Wangunk political leadership rested with an individual leader called a sachem, although this understanding comes mostly from settler documentation. Most Algonquian social structures were known to be matrilineal with shared responsibilities and power, and the Wangunk seem to fit this trend. They lived off the seasonal economies of the region, and contemporary scholars think they migrated between two villages: one for winter and spring, another for summer and fall.
First European Contact Period (1614-1673)
The first known Wangunk interaction with Europeans was with traders from the Dutch East India Company in 1614. The Wangunk’s proximity to the Connecticut River made their homeland desirable for European fur traders, leading to conflicts with the Pequot tribe over the area. Wangunks allied with Narragansetts and reached out to English settlers as defensive strategies against the Pequot.
However alliances may have shifted with the outbreak of the Pequot War in 1637. Colonial accounts suggest that Wangunk sachem Sowheage assisted the Pequots in their attack on Wethersfield, where he resided at the time. Around the same time, Sowheage relocated to Mattabesett, later to become Middletown. This movement and the confusion of the war may be reasons why Middletown was not founded until 1650, later than other towns in the region. The Pequot War is described elsewhere as the Pequot massacre because of violent tactics used by settlers. During this period, Natives and settlers living at Middletown are documented as engaging in a series of land transactions, culminating in a written reservation deed in 1673.
Land transactions between Wangunks and settlers took place within the European legal system of land ownership. This is based on ideals of individualism and land improvement – to be a proprietor is to own land individually and to work to “improve” it. Settlers often did not recognize Native ways of farming as “improvement”. Wangunks had a collective relationship to land. No single person or group had definite claim to a particular piece of land, and land could therefore not be bought or sold. Colonial law did not recognize Native ways of owning land. Therefore, in order to keep claim to their lands amongst settler expropriation, Wangunk worked within the system of land proprietorship, at least for the purposes of legal documentation.
Early Reservation Period: 1673-1732
After the establishment of Middletown in 1650, Connecticut’s government reserved approximately 350 acres of land on the east side of the Connecticut River for the descendants of Wangunk sachem Sowheage and the Wangunk tribe. The reservation remained undefined until 1673, when 13 of Sowheage’s heirs signed a document which created two parcels, one of fifty acres at Indian Hill and another of 250 acres upland, on the east side of the Connecticut River. Reservation land was specified as belonging to Wangunk heirs forever. In Wangunk Meadow, next to the reservation land on the east side of Connecticut River, individual Wangunks owned plots amounting to 9 acres.
Wangunk land ownership remained largely communal into the reservation period. Those who signed deeds did not necessarily “own” the land, and therefore sales were often contested by other Wangunks. Most Wangunks in this period were unable to read English deeds. The establishment of the reservation was economically harmful to the Wangunk, who needed a larger area of land to carry on their traditional agricultural and hunting practices. The lack of economic opportunities led to poverty and debt. During this period some Wangunk were enslaved by or indentured to English people.
King Philip’s War broke out in 1675 as a united Indian resistance movement. The Wangunk, along with many other tribes, remained neutral. This neutrality may have been coerced, as English people passed a series of laws during this period limiting Indian economic opportunities and access to weapons, and demanding hostages from tribes. During and after King Philip’s War, some Wangunks sold land to colonists, often to pay debts.The English population of Middletown grew, and in the late 17th century colonists began building homes on Wangunk Meadows on the east bank of the river next to the reservation. In 1714 this group of settlers split from Middletown and formed the Third Society of Middletown, which had its own meetinghouse and separate leadership. By 1713 Wangunks had been forced to vacate the Mattabessett portion of the reservation, which was in central Middletown.
Later Reservation Period: 1732-1767
Settler encroachment on Indian land accelerated in 1732 when the Third Society got a new pastor, who built his home on the reservation. Some Wangunks began converting to Christianity during this period, resulting in migration to Christian communities. In 1746 the Third Society petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for a new meeting house, and were granted land on the Wangunk reservation. The meeting house served to justify increased settler claims to reservation land, which they claimed the Wangunk were not putting to proper use.
In 1757, after two petitions from settlers to the Connecticut General Assembly, Wangunk Richard Ranney, who lived away from the reservation, made a land claim and was granted 10 acres. Settlers petitioned twice more for the privilege to buy the reservation lands. In 1762 a group of male Wangunks submitted a memorial to the Assembly requesting that the entire reservation be sold. A committee approved this request, citing the fact that only women and children were left on the reservation. The group of Wangunk left on the reservation were unable to support themselves, so part of the sale of their land went to payment of debts. During this time, several Wangunk men are known to have served in the French and Indian War as a means of employment. In 1767, the Third Society officially became the town of Chatham (later Portland).
Post-Reservation and Wangunk Diaspora: 1767-1813
The last piece of Wangunk reservation land was sold somewhere between 1772 and 1784. It appears that Wangunk community remained active throughout this period, with one report putting the number of Wangunks in Portland at 28 in 1777. Some Wangunks are identified as residing in Portland into the 19th century. One of these people is Bette Nepash, or Old Betty, a Wangunk who held yearly tribal gatherings until the 1810s. These gatherings helped facilitate a longstanding Wangunk connection to the region. After Nepash’s death, Jonathan Palmer was named the last Indian in Middletown when he died in 1813. However the Palmer family line has survived into the present and many members continue to live in Middlesex County.
In the 18th century many Wangunks moved away from the reservation. Some of these individuals married members of other Native tribes including Quinnipiac and Mohegan, and Wangunks are known to have lived into old age and had children on the Mohegan reservation. Some Wangunks served in the Revolutionary War. Other Wangunks joined the Farmington Indians in Connecticut, a group that formed when the Tunxis invited other Native Americans to move to their reservation and become a new tribe. The Farmington Indians were Indian Christians who later moved to Oneida, New York and then to Brotherton, Wisconsin in response to land encroachment. A large number of Wangunks moved to Farmington and many of them participated in the tribe’s later movements to new settlement. Despite increased geographic distance, Wangunks continued to identify as Wangunk, sign land deeds, and return to Middletown for important occasions after moving away.
When colonists first entered the Connecticut River Valley in the early 17th century, Sowheage (Sequin, Sowheag) was the grand sachem presiding over all the Wangunk territory, including lands at Pyquag, Wangunk, and Mattabesett. While he was originally settled at Pyquag during this time, Sowheage relocated his seat of power to Mattabessett following a series of antagonisms from the English. Harboring animosity for the English, Sowheage has been linked to the Pequot War for inciting the Pequots to attack the colonists and sheltering Pequot fighters. Sowheage died in approximately 1649 but was survived by many children that occupied positions of power long past his death. Among these children were Montowese, a leader among the Quinnipiac and Wangunks, and Sequassen, Sachem of Suckiog, who navigated a tense relationship with the colonists in Hartford and challenged the Mohegan leader Uncas for power in the region, removing to Massachusetts after his defeat. Sowheage’s son Turramuggus (b. 1623) assumed leadership in the Wethersfield area and was involved in several large land transactions with the English colonists, signing a 1668 deed of 300 acres to Richard Beckley and two deeds during 1673 concerning land at Wethersfield and Eastbury. Additionally, Turramuggus was kept as a hostage in a prison at Hartford during King Philip’s War. Turramuggus likely died sometime before 1704 and his son Peetoosh succeeded him as a sachem among the Wangunks, but little has been left on Peetoosh in the colonial record.
Towwehashque (d. 1713), sister of Turramuggus, reigned as Saunks Squaw over Haddam and its surrounding territory, including Thirty Mile Island. Towwehashque (Townhashque, Towkishk) is noted in the colonial record for selling a piece of Wangunk meadow land to John Clark in 1691. Although she attempted to sell land at Thirty Mile Island to Samuel Wyllys in 1662, this transaction was nullified and responsibility for the land fell to her daughter Pampenum in 1697. As sovereign of the island, Pampenum attempted to keep control over her land for future Wangunk generations through two separate wills, naming Cheehums as her successor Saunks Squaw and prohibiting her descendants from selling the land to any non-Indians. Ultimately, this land was sold along with other Wangunk reservation land in the closing decades of the 18th century, but Pampenum is noted for her resolve and determination in maintaining these lands through the colonial court system.
Robin (Dr. Robin, Robbins, Robins, Puccaca) is thought to be another son of Sowheage, and likely served as a sachem in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He is listed as one of the “heirs and descendents of Sowheag” in the 1673 confirmatory deed reserving 300 acres of land for the Wangunks on the east side of the Connecticut River. Robin was a medicine man in the tribe and acquired the title of “Doctor” among the English for his and his family’s ability to heal scrofula. Robin died around 1750 but many of his heirs appear throughout the colonial record. For instance, his son Samuel Robin, who was living at Tunxis at the time, signed a 1762 petition to the General Assembly indicating that he, his wife Moll, and the other Indian signatories, wished to sell their tribal lands amidst pressure from the colonists.
Richard Ranney was born September 8, 1732 to a daughter of Robin, and died sometime after 1775. He was raised in Newtown probably by a settler named Richard Ranney, who raised him Christian, taught him to speak and write the English language, and trained him as a joiner. While it is unclear what circumstances led Ranney to be raised in a settler family, the Yale Indian Papers Project suggests that he was likely some form of indentured servant to the family. In 1756, Ranney petitioned the General Assembly for the purchase of 10 acres of Wangunk land from Cushoy, and was granted his appeal in 1758. After that point Ranney drops out from any Wangunk records until 1775, when he enlisted in Capt. William Goodrich’s Company of Indians.
Cushoy was the son of Towwehashque and grandson of Sowheage. Cushoy was understood by colonists to be the leader of the Wangunk tribe from early as 1713 when he first signed a deed, until 1763 when he died. In the written record of the surveillance and construction of a highway in 1728, colonists attested that Cushoy spoke “in behalf of ye other Indians.” In the 1756 “Memorial of Selectmen of Middletown,” the Selectmen of Middletown explain to the Connecticut General Assembly that Cushoy did “not having any [relative] to help him, as his children, all being dead, his grandchildren young.” They claim that Cushoy had “been unable to support himself and would have perished for hunger and want of clothing had he not been relieved by the selectmen of said town.” Specifically, they tell the General Assembly that they paid about 57 shillings for the care of Cushoy and his son Tom over a year long period, and that this debt would happily be settled in exchange for the land in question. This petition to the assembly is denied but the selectmen eventually gain access to the land and settle the debt amongst themselves. He, his wife Tyke or Mary Cushoy, and his son Tom all die of various illnesses or ill health in 1763, 1771, and 1755 respectively.
Jonathan Palmer (?-1819), referred to improperly by Carl Price as “Jonathan Indian,” was a Wangunk man who lived in East Hampton, where his descendants still reside. In 1818, a local doctor, Dr. John Richmond, sought “a complete human skeleton with which to demonstrate to his students the fine points of anatomy.” One day, he thought, “What a fine skeleton Jonathan Indian would make!" Richmond offered Jonathan “a pint of rum every month” in exchange for “the possession of his body after death for medical purposes.” By 1819, Jonathan was dead, likely as a result of his enabled alcoholism. As his family began to mourn the loss of their “lamented grandfather,” Doctor Richmond arrived at their door with the “ratified contract” for his possession of their grandfather’s body. Though Palmer’s family protested, when Doctor Richmond threatened to “have the law on them,” they relented, and Richmond took the body. Richmond went on to “fondly [dissect] the Indian before his students . . . each organ or muscle or bone [coming] to light under his skillful knife. Palmer’s skeleton traveled to different universities and museums in the next stages of its journey. Today the remains are lost.
Lake Pocotopaug is a site that has been mentioned in many different accounts of the Wangunk people as an area that they frequented for fishing and hunting. It is located in what we now call East Hampton, and is approximately 9 miles in circumference. Many arrowheads have been found along the banks of the river, and while there is little record of what the site meant to Wangunk people, settlers have spread many “Indian stories” about the lake since the 1700s, but these stories are uncorroborated.
Indian Hill Cemetery
Indian Hill was a part of the initial reservation during the “Reservation period.” On the gates to the cemetery is an image of a “noble savage” - one of the only markers of the land’s colonial history and present. The cemetery was in some ways intentionally repurposed. The fact that Indian Hill was central to Wangunk life was important. The meaning of Indian Hill has to be read in the context of the rural cemetery movement. As Kavanagh states: “as American citizens realized that their experiment in republican government had the potential for a “limitless future,” they were faced with the daunting task of constructing for themselves an “immemorial past.
For the founding of the cemetery this poem was read:
On this high place, that swells so fair,
O’er town and river, grove and lea,
We stand, O God, with song and prayer.
To give these grounds to Death and Thee.
To Death, thy servant, who, of old,
With tomahawk and arrowy spear,
As by our fathers we are told,
Hath reaped a bloody harvest here.
Wangunk meadows was one of the areas that the Wangunk continued to occupy after settlers arrived in 1650 to set up Middletown. There is record of the fertility of the meadowland and Wangunk cultivation of corn in this area. According to present day landmarks, it is located between the Connecticut river and Route 17 and has both hilly and low terrain. There are many records of settlers being interested in this land and asking the courts to purchase small section of land at different points in time. In his analysis of land distribution, Timothy Ives noted that “Indians tended to hold upland communally while village plots and scattered meadowland.” Ives describes the process of dispossession of small plots of land that he describes as creating different farming areas cultivated by Wangunk and colonizers in the late 1600s.
Family Cemetery in East Hampton
Algonquian and English
Algonquian Religious Traditions
Throughout colonial New England and the Connecticut River Valley, efforts to convert native populations to Christianity were carried out by both individuals and governments. Conversion to Christianity also often required the rejection of Wangunk language, culture, and family. Rev. Richard Treat established a school for Wangunk children in 1734, which aimed to teach Christian scripture and morality in addition to the English language. However, the school lacked funding and closed only four months after its founding.
Van Thomas Green
In 2003, Van Thomas Green, who claimed to be a Wangunk descendant (through Betty Cuschoy as his great-great-aunt), filed suit against the town of Portland, Wesleyan University, and other parties. He sought $10 million, the return of 300 acres to tribal descendants, and federal recognition for his family. The case was dismissed in a US District Court due to the plaintiff’s lack of standing. In his complaint he also alleged that Indian burial grounds in Glastonbury and Portland, Connecticut have been desecrated; that from 1799 to 2003 tribal lands were unlawfully transferred in violation of 25 U.S.C. § 177; and that agreements regarding 300 acres of land set aside for the native heirs of the Wangunk band of Indians were not honored. However, the court found that he was unable to establish any causal connection between the injury and/or conduct complained of and some challenged action of defendants Wesleyan University and others. Elements of this lawsuit are treated in a student documentary, “The Last of the Wangunks,” which features Green. The video also includes interviews with Gary O’Neil and genealogist Vicki Welch, Director at Seven Generations Research, both of whom challenge Green’s identity claims to being Wangunk.
Known contemporary Wangunk individuals in Connecticut are descendants of Jonathan Palmer, including Gary O’Neil, who traces Wangunk ancestry through his father’s line. He is the family genealogist of the remaining Wangunks in the Middlesex County who has been an organizer and leader of the Wangunks since the 1970s. He is a potter and retired art teacher from the Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut.  O’Neil has exhibited in art shows along with his daughter Kyle O’Neil, who is also a visual artist working with multimedia. She has exhibited with Connecticut Woman Artists, at the United Nations, in a Down Syndrome exhibit in Argentina. Among several joint exhibits, the father-daughter artist team have held a show at Gallery 53 in Meriden called “Leap of Faith,” which included a special exhibit to honor their heritage.
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