The Wangunk Reservation

While English colonists had established a foothold in the middle of Wangunk country in 1635, it may have been as early as 1638 that colonial authorities persuaded the local sachem Sowheage to agree to an expansion of English settlement into other parts of his territory.  Subsequently, the townsmen of Wethersfield, Connecticut purchased a tract of land six miles in breadth on both sides of the Connecticut River which expanded six miles deep to the west of the river and three miles deep to its east.1 Yet, plans for planting Mattabesset were in place at least by 1646, when William Phelps joined an already established committee for that purpose, [PRCC 1:146] and accelerated after Sowheage’s death sometime around 1649. 

In 1650 the committee tasked to investigate possible settlements within Wangunk country reported that the only suitable place it could find was one about a half mile from the Indian village at Mattabesset and that site would be able to support about fifteen colonial families.  [Charles Adams, 5]  In September of 1651, the colony ordered that Mattabesset, later renamed Middletown, should be formed as a town, and, starting the following year, representatives from there were elected to the General Court.   

While the English settlement of Middletown had begun, plans were made to draw boundaries around Native and colonial properties.  In 1650, Governors John Haynes and Edward Hopkins reserved about 350 acres in three tracts of land for Sowheage’s heirs and descendants at Mattabesset and Wangunk but the limits of the reservation remained undefined for close to a dozen years.

Evidence exists that suggests no one person may have emerged to replace the charismatic leader Sowheage, and, as a consequence, there was no authoritative Native challenge to the English settlers.  By 1650 violence (or at least the reporting of such violence) between Wangunk and colonists increased.  In March of that year, Connecticut’s Particular Court required two colonists to pay for the medical expenses of an Indian woman whose ear was bitten off by their dog.  But the court also cautioned Indians not to throw stones at or clap their hands near colonists’ dogs.  In years to come, colonists’ animals would trample and destroy Indian gardens, and settler families would pilfer Indian harvests.  In 1654, incidents of Indian-on-Indian violence, something that most likely would have come before Wangunk tribal authorities for adjudication, appeared on the Hartford’s court dockets.  Papaqueeote was forced to pay six fathom of wampum as restitution to Jackstraw for the “iniurious pulling of his haire from his head to the Roots.”  Peetoosoh had to pay three fathom of wampum to Sepus for “his Cruell stamping uppon him to the efusion of blood at his mout.”  [Particular Court 79, 128-9.]

In the summer of 1662, eleven Wangunks sold a one hundred and fifty square mile strip of land spread over six miles on both banks of the river, preserving for themselves the use of thirty acres.  But settlement and land sales only aggravated tensions between settlers and the tribe.  In 1665 colonial authorities organized a committee2 to investigate a “difference” between the town and the Indians living nearby with a view towards establishing the bounds of a Wangunk reservation.  [PRCC 2:14] The Town of Middletown appointed its own exploratory team to assist the committee on May 4, 1666 [IP 1.2.137/1757.05.11.00], but nothing much was accomplished until 1670.3 In March, Middletown officials selected three townsmen to walk the bounds of the remaining common land granted by Haynes and Hopkins on the east side of the river. Three weeks later, the colonial survey revealed the Wangunk tribal property to be thirty-three acres of land butted and bounded by the river and a highway, nine more acres of grassland divided into parcels, and approximately six acres of land at Otter or Deer Island. 

On January 24, 1672, a group of thirteen Wangunk signed a confirmatory deed of Sowheage’s grant to Haynes but, in doing so, made clear their claims to three hundred acres at Wangunk and a smaller plot at Mattabesset.  Five months later, Middletown authorities offered an alternative – that the Indians be given the opportunity of exchanging their land for an undivided tract elsewhere, but the proposal apparently went nowhere.  On April 8, 1673 four more tribal leaders signed their names to the original confirmatory deed.  On May 28 of the same year, most of Sowheage’s surviving heirs united in defining the bounds of the 300 acre reservation as fifty acres of land near Wangunk at Indian Hill and an adjacent two hundred an fifty acres of upland at Wangunk itself.  Such a united response to the English plans may indicate the appearance of a unifying tribal leader, Robin, whose name appears on the January 24th record as Puccanan.   Robin may have also been a tribal healer, for William Russell, the pastor of Middletown’s First Church once remarked that Robin and his family were quite successful in curing the king’s evil (scrofula).4 

This did not stop individual tribal members from selling off their personal plots of land.  The General Assembly, the body who regulated purchases of Indian property, allowed a number of settlers to buy land at Wangunk.  [MLR 1:61, MLR 4:98, PRCC 4: 98]  In 1697, it relaxed its normally strict regulations to permit individuals to acquire up to an acre of Wangunk meadowland, [PRCC 4:212] and many of Sowheage’s descendants sold their properties on both sides of the Connecticut River.  In some instances these sales were out of private pecuniary gain.  Other times, they were to pay debts to colonists, as in the 1713 deed from the sons of the late sunksqua to settle her funeral expenses.  [YIPP Wyllys Papers]. 

In any event, there was no shortage of English purchasers.   Middletown farmers had used Wangunk meadows to grow crops and feed their animals since 1650.  However, as their numbers increased, many colonists moved their households across the river permanently and called their settlement East Middletown or the Third Society.   As Ives observes, Indian Hill “became a target of colonial industry.”  [Ives 67] In 1714 residents there petitioned for parish privileges.  The General Assembly permitted Giles Hall, a mariner and local ship builder, to purchase land there in 1716.  The following year Hall was tasked with planning access roads to transport materials to the river.  Job Bates, a blacksmith, followed Hall and other families of rope makers, metal workers, and sail outfitters, all of whose livelihoods depending on ship building or the shipping industry.  [Ives 67]  By 1725 Middletown had become the largest port city between New York and Boston.  Because of the shallowness of the Connecticut River at Middletown, the town became the final port on the river for many large ships, especially those in the West Indies trade.

Over all this development, in an expression of the tribe’s sovereignty, Wangunk leadership maintained a watchful eye and acted decisively.  In 1697, Papenum, the sachem of Haddam, in response to the growing colonial desire for Indian land, wrote a will that restricted the sale of her property to tribal members only.  [Hermes, 153]  Similarly in 1713, Sarah One-Penny directed that her property should be inherited only by her grandson Scippio Two-Shoes.  [Hartford Probate]  In 1728, tribal leadership, now in the hands of Cushoy, a descendant of Robin, monitored the expansion of colonial roads at Wangunk by being part of the survey and construction crews.

However, the General Assembly’s decision to place the colonists’ new meeting house strategically within the Wangunk reservation in the 1740s may have marked a turning point in tribal affairs.  By then, many of the Wangunk were tempted to move elsewhere.  In 1731, some of their Quinnipiac relatives were encouraged to resettle at Waterbury, Connecticut, and by 1747 a number of Quinnipiac had removed among the Tunxis at Farmington, Connecticut.  By the middle of the eighteenth century, a Wangunk diaspora took tribal members to Indian communities at Mohegan, Farmington, Hartford, and New Hartford.  At the same time, the presence of a growing congregation of colonial settlers in the middle of the Wangunk reservation must have been disconcerting.   The remaining Wangunk responded to these pressures by consolidating their properties in the hands of tribal leaders instead of alienating them to colonial settlers.  From 1740 to 1751, land deeds indicate that the Wangunk sold land to Cushoy or members of his family.  [MLR 10: 546-8, MLR 10:548, MLR 13: 187, 612.]  Land that was still held by absentee Wangunk were often leased, but it is unknown whether the leaseholders were Indian or colonists.

The first major challenge to this strategy was in 1754, when Jabez Hamlin, an agent for the colonists of the Third Society presented a memorial to the General Assembly [1754.05.13.00, 1754.05.14.00], complaining that the land around their new meeting house was surrounded by two hundred and fifty acres of Indian land, and requested that lots of “five or six acres.” The proposal failed to pass though the Lower House, and the Upper House concurred in the negative outcome. 

Two years later, the society adapted a new approach.  On May 13, 1756 several of the society’s residents—a number of military officers, farmers, and a blacksmith—wrote the General Assembly [1756.05.13.00] to say that the Indian land around their meeting place was well suited for development, either for ship building or tillage, and considering the small numbers of Indians who lived there, it would be most advantageous to be able to purchase the land or trade it for another parcel.  They accompanied their request with a memorial from a less than impartial number of selectmen from Middletown [1756.05.15.00], a tax collector, two ship captains of the West Indies trade, and a town merchant heavily invested in the advancement of shipbuilding.   The selectmen indicated that for a number of years they had supported Cushoy, now aged and infirm, and his son Tom in his final sickness.  The town officials noted that the Indians were indigent but owned significant parcels of land, which they offered could be sold to cover the expense of the Indians’ care.  The Assembly commissioned an investigative committee [1756.05.00.00], and, encouraged by such progress, one of the selectmen, Samson Howe, hired Hartford County surveyor William Welles to map the two reservations.  [1756.09.28.00]  Despite a strong recommendation to sell from the committee [1756.10.11.00], the legislature once again failed to approve the request.

The second major challenge to the tribe came from a petition from an absentee tribal member, Richard Ranney in 1757.  [1757.04.15.00] A grandson of the former sachem Robin, Ranney had grown up off the reservation in Newtown, Connecticut and lived among the English as an educated Christian employed in the joiner’s trade.  While he was unable to articulate what his rights to the reservation exactly were, he asked the General Assembly to set aside a piece of the Wangunk land so that he could “enter upon, enjoy, and improve the same in the English manner.”  After a favorable investigation by a legislative committee [1757.05.00.02, 1757.05.00.3, 1758.05.00.01, 1758.05.29.00], the Assembly accepted the report and provided Ranney with ten acres of land. [1758.07.05.00]

Building upon the success of Ranney, in October 1760, two Middletown residents, Job Bates and Isaac Waterman, applied to the General Assembly, requesting the partition and sale of the Wangunk reservation.  [1760.10.06.00] Their argument consisted of explaining that the fifty acres at Indian Hill had been “used, worn out, and left useless almost by the Indians, and is of but little service to them.”  Bates and Waterman offered a supporting affidavit by five Wangunk proprietors, but the measure failed to win the support of both houses and died in committee.

In May of 1762, five male descendants of the original Wangunk proprietors, showing that their numbers were reduced and scattered, petitioned for a “wise and judicious” committee to examine the title and circumstances of the Indian land, indicating that “it would be much best said lands be sold and the avails thereof be divided” among them.  [1762.05.18.00] Like Ranney, the petitioners were absentee tribal members, most of them Christianized and educated, living at Tunxis in Farmington.  While there is no official record of the General Assembly’s immediate action on the request, it is most likely that they tabled consideration on the matter.

In the meantime, Middletown authorities and the two 1760 petitioners used the opportunity to advance their agenda.  In October of 1762, copies of the 1673 confirmatory deed were made for Isaac Waterman to be left with one of Middletown’s selectman, Seth Wetmore [1673.05.28.01].   Two years later, they presented a petition to the General Assembly indicating that most of the Wangunk who had dispersed to other Indian communities were in favor of the dissolution and that the remaining few—Cushoy’s blind wife and three of her children—were on the town’s poor relief [1764.10.00.00].  On May 29, 1765 a larger group of Wangunk descendants notified the Assembly that it was their “joint desire” to make sale of their lands and requested a committee to determine the rights and claims of all of the remaining Wangunk.  [1765.05.29.00] Those that wished to receive money from the sale would take according their specific proportion, while those that chose to stay at Indian Hill would be supported by the remaining tribal funds.  Their request was supported by the committee’s report, which considered a number of familiar arguments—the hardship of the society to expand their community, the expense of the remaining Wangunk to the town, and the desire of most of the Indian proprietors for a sale.  Moreover, it reminded the Assembly that it had allowed one Wangunk descendant, Richard Ranney, to claim a share of the reservation in his own right and recommended a similar approach for the other Indian claimants. Persuaded by these arguments, the legislature approved the measure, permitting the funds of the sale to be distributed among the Indians, be used to purchase other land for them, be used to pay their debts, to be “put to usury.” 

Shortly thereafter, the Wangunk reservation was sold out of Indian control, and part of the money generated paid Middletown’s expenses for Mary Cushoy’s care. In 1771 [1771.10.15.00] and 1772 [1772.05.00.00], the towns of Middletown and Chatham (formerly the Third Society) asked for repayment of additional charges to Mary’s account.  While the last known charges against the reservation sale fund were recorded in May of 1784, it is presently unknown when the reserve was finally depleted. [1784.05.00.00]

  • 1. The date of this transaction is uncertain. PRCC 1:5
  • 2. Samuel Willis, Lt. Samuel Welles, James Richards, and Samuel Boardman
  • 3. This may have been due to the outbreak of hostilities between the Mohawk and several New England Indian tribes which drew in a number of the Connecticut River Indians. The Ouragie War, as it is called, might also explain why several Wangunk leaders had disposed of some of their land at this time. Richard Beckley of Wethersfield recalled in 1668 that the sachem of Mattabesett, “understanding that he [the sachem] was going out of ye country to warr with the Mohawk” had given him [Beckley] some land. Similarly, John Jennings indicated that Nesseheagan promised to give him a plot of land near Poquonnock and Mussacoh. [1668.10.14.00, CHS Wyllys Papers, p. 185]
  • 4. The extent of Robin’s leadership in unclear. In October 1686, Hartford’s Particular Court entertained a complaint by the Indians at Podunk that one Pussuck—possibly Pucaca—and his sister, the widow of Sowheage’s son Seacutt, were claiming to be the sachems of Podunk and selling off their tribal lands. [CHS, Wyllys Papers, p. xx]