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The Quinnipiac Tribe: Cheshire’s “Original People”

The Quinnipiac Tribe: Cheshire’s “Original People”

Throughout the summer, The Cheshire Herald has been running a series focused on Cheshire history. This week, we look at the Native American tribe who were settled in this region before the English arrived.

English colonists settled  here in 1694, paving the way for the town we call Cheshire.

However, there were people already on this land, approximately 10,000 years before the present. These ancient people have been called, at various times, Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, or First Peoples. Those who were in Cheshire called themselves Eansketambawg or “Original People,” and were part of the Algonquin group, an indigenous collection of tribes with similar language and cultural attributes. In English, we call the “Original People” the Quinnipiac, adapted from what the they called  the region near the Long Island Sound — “Long-water-land.”

How do we know that the Quinnipiac lived in Cheshire? Cheshire Town Historian Jeanné Chesanow says, “The best evidence [of the presence of Native Americans] is in the northern part of Cheshire, where new farmers plowing the land found large numbers of Indian hunting  artifacts, including arrow and spear heads.” Examples of arrowheads and spearpoints that have been found in north Cheshire can be seen at the Cheshire Historical Society’s “Native American – First People” room.

 Chesanow’s soon-to-be-published book about Cheshire, entitled “From Glaciers to Greenhouses,” also includes a map identifying the locations of what were four permanent Quinnipiac settlements in the southeastern portion of Cheshire. It is possible that this was the permanent residence of  the hunters that went north, although hunters could have come to northern Cheshire from other locations as well. However, the Quinnipiac presence in pre-colonial times was more extensive than just Cheshire, and was especially strong throughout Greater New Haven, where they hunted, trapped, fished, gathered berries, nuts, and clams as well as farmed.

 When Native Americans settled in one place for any period of time, they built wigwams (also known as wetuash, or the singular wetu) — round or oval structures made from a frame of saplings joined at the top and covered with birch or elm bark. The women made the wigwams, creating a frame of saplings bending inward and then covering these with bark or even furs in the winter. An opening at the top for smoke allowed for a fire to be placed in the center of the wigwam for cooking and heating.

Like most tribes of the Algonquin group,  Quinnipiac division of labor was mostly according to gender. The men did the hunting, fishing, and fighting in battle, while the women watched the children, gathered wild food, made the wampum beads used for trade or ceremonial purposes, made the clothing, and farmed the land. Both men and women made pottery and practiced healing. Women could also be Sachems (chiefs). A female Sachem named Shaumpishuh held major land negotiations with the English for her band of Quinnipiac, and her daughter, Shambisqua, who was also a Sachem. 

The agriculture practiced by Quinnipiac was based on a controlled “slash-and-burn” technique, as well as crop rotation. “Slash and burn” carefully delineated areas of forest to be burned in order to provide agricultural land, creating a landscape of open fields since grassy areas were one result of clearing in this way.

The English found this very attractive. Indeed, one the first names they called the area of Cheshire was “Ye Fresh Meadows.”

 Like most Algonquins, the Quinnipiac famously grew the crops known as “the three sisters” — squash, beans, and corn — that grow better when planted together and also give better nourishment when eaten together. This they ate with venison, moose, or elk. In the summer, the Quinnipiac would have fish and clams, and year-round they would eat the berries, roots, nuts, and other wild offerings of the Connecticut land.

 Because Quinnipiac were able to make use of plants, animals, and minerals to support  themselves, make tools and weapons, and even heal and alleviate sickness, they had much to offer the new arrivals. “The English settlers would not have been able to survive without the help of the Native Americans ,” says  Eric Nelson, ethnobotanist of Cheshire. 

Despite this initial help that they gave, it didn’t take long for conflict to begin between the English settlers and the Quinnipiac. One constant problem was caused by the fact that livestock, kept by the English — cattle and hogs, mainly — roamed free. These animals would frequently trample fields planted by the Quinnipiac. The wandering livestock could then be attacked and injured or killed by the dogs owned by the Quinnipiac. Additionally, cultural differences, from religion to the concept of land ownership, added to the conflicts.

Eventually, the Quinnipiac were confined to reservations, and even these were encroached on by the English settlers. Impoverished from the inability to live as they did before the arrival and domination of the more powerful newcomers, they sold the little land that they attempted to live from. As the English colonies flourished and then became an independent nation, the Quinnipiac were constantly relocated, calling their journey, “The Trail of  Heartaches.” The Quinnipiac moved out of the state, westward, or lived invisibly on the fringes of Connecticut society. By the 19th century, many believed that the Quinnipiac had simply disappeared.

 Unlike the Mashantucket Pequot, the Mohegan, and the Golden Hill Paugussett, the Quinnipiac are not federally recognized, nor by the State of Connecticut. They have no reservations left in our state.  

Yet individuals of Quinnipiac descent are still amongst us. Gordon “Running Fox” Brainerd, 84, of Branford, is a Quinnipiac from his paternal grandmother, although he makes it clear that his ancestors are also from many other sources. He has been collecting Quinnipiac artifacts for decades, and has donated  his tribal artifacts to the Dudley Museum in Guilford. He also curates the museum-in-a museum, which is called “Dawnland,” after the Algonquin name for their Eastern ancestral home. In this way, he has been keeping his tribe’s legacy, as well as the legacy of our land, alive. 

Research assistance for this article was provided by Emma King, grade 5, of Highland School, at the Cheshire Historical Society.

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