North Fork History Project

North Fork History Project: When English arrive, Indians disperse

Her name was Sarah. She was 8 years old.

Old enough to be sold by her owner in Southold Town to a man named John Parker, who owned a mill on the Peconic River near what today is downtown Riverhead. 

On Oct. 7, 1689, for the “just sum of sixteen pounds current money of this province,” James Parshall sold Sarah, whom he had owned since her birth, to Parker. The bill of sale describes Sarah as an “Indian girle.”

The sale of this child came 49 years after English settlers arrived to colonize the North Fork and eastern Long Island. By then, slavery was a well-established institution. There are few records of Indian slaves in Southold, but they were here and part of the fabric of life on the North Fork, Shelter Island and the South Fork. African slaves were also here, and in larger numbers.

The story of Sarah is told in official records. Hers is a small part of the larger story of what became of the Indians who called eastern Long Island home for thousands of years and who barely survived as intact communities in the years immediately following the arrival of Europeans.

“Apart from the slavery issue, the Indians by then [1689] had become a marginalized segment of the population,” said John Strong, an acclaimed scholar of Long Island Indian history and a former professor at Southampton College. “They had become the domestic labor pool.

“Families were dispersed and children often left the home by age 7 to live as domestics,” Mr. Strong said. “These Indian communities were intact at first, but were quickly impacted after the English arrived. And their land went very quickly. They had nothing to exchange with the Europeans but their labor.”

Organized groups of English men, women and children first arrived on the North and South forks, and later Shelter Island, in 1640 or so. There is no known account on eastern Long Island of the very moment when the Indians, the first people to live on this land, encountered Europeans arriving in boats on beaches to begin new lives in what to them was a new world.

Historians say the large-scale English settlement of eastern Long Island was made possible by the extermination of the Pequot people during the 1637 Pequot War in Connecticut. Once they were out of the way, the English leapfrogged across Long Island Sound to eastern Long Island to take over land occupied by Indians who had long been subjugated by the Pequots.

Among the first Englishmen to come was Lion Gardiner, who had been a mercenary in the Pequot War. For a black dog and some trinkets, he “bought” what was first called the Isle of Wight and later Gardiners Island. On the South Fork lived people the English would call the Montauketts and the Shinnecocks. The Manhansetts live on Shelter Island and the Corchaugs on the North Fork.

Another mercenary in that war was John Underhill, who briefly lived in Southold on the site of today’s Southold Free Library. He was an accomplished Indian killer — more than 400 were slaughtered in the Pequot War and more than 100 in a later massacre in western Long Island. His life is celebrated by a large obelisk monument in the Oyster Bay cemetery where he was buried in 1672.

To the English, acquiring land they could own in their own names was paramount. Using English law and language, they wrote up formal deeds incomprehensible to the Indians, Mr. Strong said, describing a particular tract of land that would be transferred to the new owner. The English buyers signed at the bottom, and then wrote out the names as they understood them for the Indians who were — in the English view, not the Indian one — selling the land. The Indians then scratched a large X next to their names.

By this process, and over just a few years, the Indians “sold” off their land — and all for trinkets such as beads, sewing needles, cloth and some tools. Many, such as the Corchaug Indians, either left as laborers on whaling boats or on farms or relocated to so-called remnant communities of impoverished Indians living together anywhere they could, such as in Mastic or at Montauk Point.

It appears from Southold records that by the late 1680s, the last community of Corchaugs was living at Indian Neck in Peconic. That land was later sold out from under them. Records show the town set up a reservation for the Corchaugs at that time north and east of Indian Neck, at a place then called Corchaug Pond.

Ft. Corchaug Credit: Jeremy Dennis

In his years of research, Mr. Strong has found some 300 Indian names on dozens of documents. Names like Mammawetough, a Corchaug; Wyandanch, a Montaukett; Weenagaminin, a Shinnecock; and Poggattacut, a Manhansett from Shelter Island.

Bob Stanonis, a retired Suffolk County probation officer who lives in Southold, has done extensive work as an amateur historian on Sarah’s life and fate. His work has been supported by Dan McCarthy, an assistant in the local history section of Southold Free Library. Both men have worked to retrieve this Indian slave girl from being lost to history. Mr. Stanonis’ work confirms that Parshall sold Sarah to Parker, who later, when Sarah was in her 20s, sold her to John Wick, owner of the Bulls Head tavern in Bridgehampton. He has been identified in other research as being John Wickham, the brother of Joseph Wickham of Cutchogue. Sarah was then sold to a Robert Walter, who put her aboard the boat The Ambitious headed for the Portuguese island of Madeira.

Mr. Stanonis has shown that Sarah’s mother was named Dorcas; both mother and daughter were likely Pequots who survived the massacre and the hunting down of survivors after the fighting had ended. Sarah may have been born on Gardiners Island, where Lion Gardiner was a slave owner.

“We know that Sarah petitioned Albany asking for her freedom,” Mr. Stanonis said. “She argued that she should not have been enslaved. A Captain Peter Roland returned her to New York in 1713 from Madeira. This is the last trace we know of her.”

[email protected]

North Fork History Project

Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’