Indian Church Among Oldest

Footnotes to Long Island History

Indian Church Among Oldest


Thomas R. Bayles



The Shinnecock church is one of the oldest Protestant churches among the American Indians, and the Shinnecock reservation near Southampton was set up by the early settlers. The original deed was dated December 13, 1640, and was renewed in 1703.

      The Shinnecock tribe has for 300 years been self-governing, and the tribe annually elects its trustees, who are responsible to Southampton town.

      When John Eliot translated the Bible for the New England Indians his interpreter was Cockenoe de Long Island, a Montauk Indian.  His wife was Quashawan, head of the Shinnecock tribe.

      The early ministers of both Southampton and East Hampton were very active among the Indians. Abraham Pierson, a Southampton minister, wrote a catechism for them and Thomas James, the East Hampton minister, taught them.

      In 1741 the Rev. Azariah Horton of Southold came as a missionary to all the Long Island Indians, from the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, with headquarters in Scotland. The Rev. Mr. Horton covered an immense territory from Rockaway to Montauk and taught them the Christian religion. There is no stone set up as a memorial to his work on Long Island, but the Shinnecock church, which he founded, stands as a memorial to him and his successful labors among the Indians.

      ...went to Great Britain to raise money for an Indian school. Dartmouth College at Hanover, N.H., was the results of his efforts. Like many others, this great Indian who accomplished so much for his people and brought the Gospel to them in their own tongue, was buried in obscurity and his grave is unmarked.

        The first schoolmaster at Shinnecock was Samson Occom, who was a grandson of Uncas, the great Mohegan chief.  In the summer of 1749 he came to Montauk and through the Rev. Mr. Horton was engaged to teach school on Montauk and at Shinnecock.  By day he taught school and at night made wooden spoons, gun stocks, etc. He preached three times on Sunday and on Wednesday nights.

        He studied under Dr. Samuel of East Hampton for 10 years, and was ordained by him in the East Hampton church, the first Indian to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church in this country.  Occom wrote many hymns, one of which is a traditional melody the Indians declared they had heard in the skies.

The Rev. Paul Cuffee was another Shinnecock Indian, the grandson of Peter John. He was an eloquent preacher and Dr. Lyman Beecher was enthusiastic about him. People came by stagecoach from Brooklyn to hear him and it is said he was the one who established June Meeting day which continues to be the Old Home day at the Shinnecock reservation and also at the Poosepatuck reservation at Mastic.

        Since the Rev. Mr. Cuffee’s day, many men have served the Shinnecock tribe faithfully.  Jacob Corwin, the Congregational minister at Aquebogue, gave much of his time to them. The Rev. William Benjamin came every Sunday for 36 years and served without pay. Under the Rev. James Young the Indian church became the responsibility of the Long Island Presbytery. In later years the reservation has been served by the Rev. Raymond Case, the Rev. William Newell and last by the Rev. John R. Vaughn.

       The treaty between the English settlers and the Shinnecock Indians in 1640 established friendly relations that have lasted more than 300 years.

        The hurricane of 1938 lifted the Shinnecock church from its foundation, but with the help of loyal friends the building was made into a community house. The Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church helped to provide a new church building which today serves these people. 

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