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Column: In 1764, Native Americans asked for help that never came

In 1764 something happened in Southold that received almost no attention in the narrative put forward by early town historians. 

Those historians wanted to celebrate the “founding families,” to hold parades in their memory, to dress up in period costumes and pretend that all history on the North Fork began on the day members of these families stepped ashore to create order out of the wilderness. But nostalgia is not history.

As we begin to approach our history in a more critical way, an effort now underway at the Oysterponds Historical Society, the stories we have not told are coming into the spotlight, such as the presence of enslaved persons on the North Fork. Southold Town historian Amy Folk is committed to research that broadens our story by telling the stories of people long ignored in the past. 

In Riverhead, Richard Wines is doing serious research into the town’s slave history. In East Hampton, David Rattray, editor of the East Hampton Star, has helped start what he calls the Plain Sight Project, an effort to document the area’s slave past.

With all that is going on in American today, what we learn about the past will help guide is into the future.

On Aug. 27, 1764, 17 Native American residents of Southold sent a letter to the state capital in Albany in which they begged for the return of land they believed had been reserved exclusively for them decades before. This is what they wrote, in their diction and spellings:

“Honored — we thy poor subjects and natives of the township of Southold do earnestly request and beseach your favor and protection in our extremity who are destitute of friends and money and are deprived of our land and all other necessary priviledges so that our wives and our children due cry for bred and we can’t help them by reason of being indet [indentured] and our masters won’t let us go to their relief — all — de-prive us of the fishing and clamming only in the town where we belong … we have never had any bricks and blankets or seeds that was free as neighboring governments have. We with our sanity do humbly entreat thee to help us who lie at the feet of your mercy.”

The letter was signed by the following people: Samuel Gohe, Sary Hay, Elizabeth Hannibel, Sary Toby, Geny Gebry, Prince Cuffey, Elizabeth Cuffey, Sary Shee, Mary Garden, Esther Samson, Sara Beeman, Josiah Beeman, William Hannibel, Mary Hannibel, Daniel, Harry, Stephen Hannibel.

The letter found its way to Cadwallader Colden, the colony’s lieutenant governor, who, in response, asked the Southold town clerk to inform him of which properties in the town had been reserved for the native inhabitants. The answer came back that Indian Neck in the hamlet of Peconic — and not the land immediately east of Indian Neck, called Corchaug Pond — was considered set-aside Indian land.

Confined to one tract of land by the English, the natives were, according to this letter, crying out for bread and were prohibited from fishing and clamming to feed themselves. They were even prevented by their “masters” from going to their children’s assistance.

A month after the letter was written, the owners of Indian Neck, who wanted to hold on to their land, wrote Colden. In their letter, they said that on Aug. 3, 1685, the town had created a “planting field laid out for the use of those Indians of Right belonging to this township at the east side of the meadow now belonging to Mr. Thomas Mapes Sr., near a place called and known by the name of Corchoague Pond, which field is to run south of the Highway to the value of one hundred and twenty acres.”

The owners of Indian Neck argued to Colden that they had deeds to their land and said the natives could live only at Corchaug Pond and nowhere else in town and certainly not on their land. 

Colden sent John Tabor Kempe, the colony’s attorney general, to Southold to investigate. By all appearances from the available record, the town did not — or would not — assist Kempe in his effort to find out which tract of land had been set aside for the Corchaugs. Older residents told the lawyer that natives had lived at Corchaug Pond until 1691, when they were removed to Indian Neck. 

These statements gathered by the attorney were notarized by the town justice, Parker Wickham, who a few years later would lose his entire Cutchogue holdings when the new State of New York confiscated his property and put the land up for public auction. Kempe made it clear in his correspondence that the natives had been unfairly treated in Southold. He even suggested that he believed the original land patent for the town might not hold up to a court challenge by the natives — a point that would have spawned panic among the town’s land-owning families.

Kempe told Colden the native residents had the same rights “as the King’s natural born subjects.” And there was this: While he had been informed of the existence of documents related to lands reserved for the Corchaugs, Kempe said, “I cannot find out the purport of it, nor where it is to be found.” 

With the town giving him the cold shoulder, Kempe went on to say he could not help the Natives reclaim any land, including Indian Neck, which he said had been vacated by the Corchaugs in the early 1700s when English families wanted that handsome parcel. He said people told him there were wigwams on Indian Neck as late as the 1720s and the Natives buried their dead there. But that land was now privately owned and off limits to them.

Kempe suggested the Corchaugs sue the town “in forma pauperis,” or as poor people. There is no record that any court action was ever brought. If it was, it surely went nowhere as its potential consequences were enormous — perhaps similar to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that nearly half of the state of Oklahoma was, in fact, land reserved for the Creek Nation through early 19th century treaties. 

In March 1765, a lawyer named David Colden wrote to Kempe, asking him again to help the Corchaugs. David Colden’s letter reads, in part: “There is reason to think the Indians are really ill used, and their poverty and ignorance excites compassion in such a case. You may remember that the Council last year made an order concerning this matter, which was served upon the Southold people, but I think they have not paid the least regard to it.”

What happened after this is lost to history. Nothing remains to tell us what became of the 17 who signed the letter. The letter and the correspondence of state officials and attorneys who sought to help the Corchaugs were located in both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New York Historical Society. This effort by this tiny group was the gravest threat to English property rights and, in the end, the English did what was necessary to hold on to their land.

In the cemetery behind the now shuttered Cutchogue Methodist Church is the grave of one David Hannibal, who died in 1936. Four signers of the 1764 letter had the name Hannibel. Old-timers told me in the 1990s that David Hannibal lived in a shack in woods off what is now Stillwater Avenue and worked as a field hand for the Fleet family. They described him as being native.

David Hannibal was, by everything we can surmise today, a descendant of the original inhabitants of this narrow peninsula, who were quickly turned into beggars and slaves as the English appropriated their extraordinary land. (A 1921 story in the County Review in Riverhead says that David Hannibal “descended on his mother’s side from the Papoosie tribe of Indians of Long Island.” A 1933 story in the Long Island Traveler said he “was the sturdy Indian brave” sitting on a float during a parade in Riverhead — a staged prop in an anniversary celebration.)

Where was Corchaug Pond? One guess is a patch of land south of Main Road opposite what is today Osprey’s Dominion, along the east side of a narrow finger of Richmond Creek, and east towards today’s South Harbor Lane. 

Unbeknownst to David Hannibal, that was land reserved for his ancestors.