The Indians of Long Island

Footnotes to Long Island History

The Indians of Long Island


Thomas R. Bayles


       As there is no authentic data on the life of the Indians in Brookhaven town, I am going to quote from Munsell’s History of Suffolk County, 1882, written by my father, Richard M. Bayles. This is interesting reading and probably as a accurate a picture as can be found of the Indians before the coming of the white man.

            “On the shores of the different villages we find the Indians congregating in villages. These locations are the most favorable to their convenience and habits of life. From the nearby waters the fish, clams and oysters which constitute an important part of their bill of fare may be obtained, as well as shells from which they make wampum. The numerous springs bursting from the pebbled shores provide them with an abundant supply of water.

            “Approaching one of these rude settlements unobserved we may take refuge for the purpose behind one of these old oaks, which unmolested by the destructive hand of what we call improvement, has braved the storms of heaven and the decay of time for more than a century; or if we choose, hide ourselves within the hollow trunk of its neighboring ancestor, and from this covert watch the movement of the savages before us. They know nothing of the existence of any race of beings in the shape of man besides themselves. Their lives, habits, religion and language are unmixed, and shall we say uncorrupted, by contact with the white man.

            “From the elevated position which we have taken we look down upon a quiet Indian village in the immediate foreground, located upon a low bluff, rising from the shore of a bay, which with its partially encircling belt of white sand and the verdure clothed hills arising from it in beautiful undulations, presents a landscape scene of surpassing loveliness. Beyond the glimmer of the nearer waters, the view takes in the wider expense which loses itself in the hazy veil that obscures the distant horizon. On the placid water before us half a dozen canoes are paddling lazily about, some containing a single Indian each, others with several, neighborly errand to another tribe, or different villages of the same tribe, or it may be from some hunting or fishing expedition.

            “There comes one canoe containing three half-grown boys and a quantity of long coarse grass or rushes which they have gathered from the bog just across the cove.

They are bringing them to be made in mats by that group of women seated on the slope just in front of us. That rude manufacture in which they are engaged is to them one of the fine arts. But a much finer art is being practiced by that little company which you see to the right of them, hovering about the heap of shells. They are working out from the shells they have gathered, by a slow and tedious process, the details of which we are not near enough to see, those curious little beads which when strung are called wampum. The facilities of the Island Indians for obtaining desirable materials are superior to those of many living on the mainland; hence, this is an article of export, as far as their relations with those tribes allow commercial transactions. T h e n there are others about that shell heap, kept busy opening clams which they have taken from the flats not far away, and which when opened they expose in the sun until they are thoroughly dried. These dried clams are an important commodity with them, being in demand for home consumption, and exportation as well. The great quantities of them found benearth the waters here afford and exhaustless supply to the moderate wants and industry of the Indians.

            “Back on the rolling elevation to the right of us and in the rear of the little cluster of wigwams lay their corn field. In it six or eight women are at work pulling weeds or turning the soil with some rude implements. Just here on our left two men are digging clay from the side of the very hill upon which we stand. This clay they are forming roughly into some kind of primitive dishes, which they will presently harden by baking in a hot fire when all is ready.”

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