Native Americans of Long Island

Nassau County Museum/Long Island Studies Institute
A typical wigwam home belonging to Long Island's Native Americans.

It is important to remember that the first Long Islanders were not European explorers but Native Americans. The first European settlers came over in the 1640's. The Native Americans had been here at least 9,000 years earlier. This was their homeland.

The Native Americans of that time period left behind some tools and that is how we know they were here then. Archaeologists (scientists who study old sites and look for remains) have found many fluted spear points that were used by early Native Americans as a tool or weapon.

The early Native Americans were members of the Algonquin tribe and were broken into thirteen communities on Long Island. (Press the button below to see their names and where they lived). They all spoke a very similar language and were known as a peaceful people. Never very large in number, their total population was probably never more than 6,500. These various communities seemed to get along pretty well with one another. Each community had its own sachem or leader who met with other sachems. Two of the 1600's great sachems were Wyandanch of the Montauks and Tackapausha of the Massapequas.

The Native Americans were hunters, fishermen and farmers. They became excellent whale hunters and made boats called dugouts out of single tree trunks. These tree trunks were hollowed with tools and fire and these boats allowed them to fish in the local waters. The many deer on Long Island were important to the Native Americans. Deer skin was used to make moccasins, skirt-like coverings and warm leg coverings. Besides the meats (deer, duck, turkey) and fish (particularly shellfish like oysters and clams) they ate the corn, beans, squash and pumpkins they grew in their fields. Growing crops was mostly the work of the women.

Relations between the Long Island's Native Americans and European settlers were pretty good. Native Americans often sold land to the English and Dutch settlers. Some worked for the settlers, particularly as whale hunters. But some Native Americans were also used as slaves on Long Island (many of these slaves were imported from other parts of the country). A 1679 New York State law forbid slavery of Native Americans, but it seems to have continued illegally in some cases up until 1827 when New York outlawed slavery of any kind in this state (the United States outlawed slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution; this was after the Civil War).

There are very few Native Americans left on Long Island. Many died of diseases brought to the New World by the Europeans. Some left Long Island, feeling pushed out by the European settlers. Others assimilated (blended in) into the European culture. Still, there are two Native American reservations on Long Island - the Possepatuck reservation in Mastic and the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton. Every Labor Day the Shinnecocks welcome visitors to their reservation for a celebration.

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