Early Historical Background

Early Ancestors

Originally, the Native people who made up the Brothertown Tribe and the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe came from the greater New England area. In the 1770s, the first Brothertown settlement in western New York drew members from the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island; the Pequot, Mohegan, and Niantic tribes in southeastern Connecticut; the Tunxis and Wangunk tribes in north-central Connecticut; and the Montauk tribe on Long Island. At about the same time in Stockbridge, a mixed Native and White Christian community was formed in western Massachusetts, largely drawing on members of the Mahikan or Mohican tribe which occupied eastern New York, western Massachusetts, and parts of western Connecticut. In Wisconsin, they were later joined by Munsees who had moved from their homeland in southeastern New York and northeastern Pennsylvania to Canada after the Revolutionary War. The Munsee were part of the group of tribes called Delaware, or Lenni Lenape, whose culture was similar to that of New England Algonkians.

Like other Natives peoples of the Woodlands, the New England Indian forebears of the Brothertown Tribe and the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe spoke languages of the Algonkian language family. Prior to European contact, they were farming, hunting, and fishing people and their ways of life were adapted to the area's environments: forests and park-like woods, rivers, streams and lakes, and coastal areas. Algonkian people worked out consensual agreements in village and inter-village councils.

In greater New England, Native people relied on agriculture. Women raised corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers, while men hunted deer, moose, and smaller animals with bow and arrow, and fished on land and from dugout canoes using nets, hooks, and fish traps. Women also collected shellfish and wild foods. Generally, they lived near shore in agricultural hamlets and moved to villages inland for fall and winter hunting. Their dome-shaped wigwams and longhouses, of saplings covered with bark or woven mats, were furnished with sleeping mats and furs, pottery cooking vessels, wooden spoons and bowls, baskets and bags, and other tools and equipment. Their leather and fur clothing provided opportunities for painted and other decorations, including designs symbolized plants and animals.

Contact with Europeans and Early History

From the late 15th century onward, Native people encountered European explorers, exchanging furs and agricultural surplus for metal tools, beads, and other trade goods. In particular, part of this trade focused on wampum, small beads made of white or purple shell which both served as ornaments and were later adopted by Whites as a medium of exchange with Indian people. Wampum beads were made by coastal tribes and were traded with both inland tribes and with Whites. 

Following 17th-century epidemics that decimated Native populations and radically altered their ways of life, colonists flooded these areas, taking over prime fishing and agricultural areas. Through a series of wars, including the Pequot War of 1634-35 (southern New England), the Esopus Wars of 1655-65 (in the New York City vicinity), and King Philip's War in 1675-76 (all of New England), Native people lost political control over their lands, but remained in the area, adapting themselves to ways of life which depended on relations with Euroamericans, but maintaining a strong sense of communal life and family organization.

King Philip's War and the Esopus Wars are usually considered the end of Native autonomy in greater New England, but changes in Native culture long preceded that significant event. As a result of the decimation of Native populations by 17th-century epidemic diseases, alteration of Native lifeways, and participation in barter economies based on the fur and wampum trades, subsistence and land use changed. Women drew away from subsistence agriculture to produce wampum and male hunting for fur-bearers yielded less meat than traditional deer hunting. Agricultural production decreased or became insufficient for Native populations, and Native people began to rely on foods traded from colonists or groups not participating in European barter economies, leading to nutritional stress. Native people also took up raising livestock, especially chickens and swine, with the latter left feral and hunted like deer.

Land Transactions and Resulting Problems

In southeastern New England, land transactions between Natives and Europeans continued and combined with increasing encroachment on remaining Native lands. As Native people were confined to smaller parcels of land, they could no longer move their settlements freely when soils and firewood sources became depleted. Different patterns of land use probably arose, including shorter fallow periods or no fallow periods for agricultural lands, resulting in lower production. Native people may have countered this by increasing catches of herring for use as fish fertilizer or by taking up new European crops which were more tolerant of depleted soils.

At the same time, decreasing Native lands made subsistence hunting problematic, and Native people needed firearms to hunt more effectively on lands remaining to them. Simultaneously, hunters may have needed to venture farther from settlements to avoid competing with settlers. European fear of armed Native populations led to colonial laws against selling firearms, powder, and shot to Native people, which led to Native peoples' circumvention of laws and production of their own shot. As the number of European settlers grew, trading posts increasingly catered to their needs, making larger amounts and more diverse types of trade goods available to Native populations. Most categories of Native material culture had been replaced or were in the process of being supplanted by European goods, including lithic technologies, ceramics, and clothing (except moccasins). Conservatism helped maintain use of some traditional forms, including bone and shell hoes. Native woodenware -- including bowls, ladles, and spoons -- and textile production -- mats and baskets -- continued throughout the 17th century. Native house forms remained constant, but their construction was changed by introduction of iron tools.

Missionaries and Conversion to Christianity

Internal changes within Native societies created by epidemic depopulation, ethnic reorganizations, changes in status systems, economics, and subsistence were not the only sources of large-scale alterations in Native lives. The 1640s saw the beginning of attempts to convert Native people in southern New England, largely through simultaneously converting Native people to Christianity and European patterns of life via creation of "Praying Towns" where Christian Indians lived separately and were marginalized from both Europeans and non-Christian Natives.

At the same time, the reservation system for some Native groups began, with the Gay Head Indians living in Christian settlements on lands purchased for them in the 1640s. Similarly, the Mashpee Wampanoag were confined to 50 square miles set aside for them in 1660. With such changes, Native production changed to a greater extent. As other groups were divested of their lands, some Native people took up residence in newly developing urban areas if their adaptations suited them to those situations. Increasing numbers of "urban" Indians worked as domestics or in small-scale industry. However, even in these situations, European settlers attempted to control their interaction with Native people through mechanisms like curfews which dictated that Indians could not remain in town overnight. Other individuals and families left the area to join other groups in less settled areas.

After King Philip's War

The defeat of Native forces in the Pequot War and King Philip's War spelled the end of Native autonomy in southeastern New England and radically transformed the lives of Native people and the constitution of Native societies which remained in ancestral areas. What had been visible and organized tribes of villages headed by sachems and sagamores became increasingly amorphous, or shifted from patterns of hereditary to elected leadership.

By 1676, large numbers of Native people were enslaved or indentured, encouraging acculturation but simultaneously creating structures of inequality that continued for centuries. Native slaves and indentured servants worked in households as domestics and outdoor workers, and their free relatives might seek the same type of work in European settlements to remain close to their kin. Those who were not so controlled faced loss of massive amounts of their aboriginal land holdings and found it difficult to maintain earlier patterns of subsistence and land use in obvious Native settlements and instead dispersed themselves across the landscape in small communities or left the region, coalescing to the west and north to escape White encroachment creating amalgamated communities of mixed Native heritage. These groups were often known by place names rather than tribal names, such as Mashantucket, Mashpee, and the like. Those who maintained some land base practiced subsistence farming augmented by hunting, and craft commercial production -- woodenware and splint basketry -- and sale of herbal medicines, wage labor on local farms, and stone masonry. Native populations were also affected by changes in production and diversification of Euro-American economies. With the rise of urban centers, Native people often fit in as domestics and skilled laborers, although this usually meant they could not maintain contact with other Native people in distant, dispersed communities.

Regionalization of Culture

With population and demographic changes, Native people often emphasized cultural aspects they shared with other members of new groups, creating regional cultures focusing on similarity rather than difference. This process of regionalization was a continuation of the kinds of cultural interaction and links which had existed previously. However, dispersal of Native families and individuals also promoted the formation of new types of regional interaction based on traveling craftworkers, wage laborers, and Indian doctors. Links of kinship and tribal affiliation appear to have continued although tribal members were spatially separated or had joined amalgamated communities. Travel and exchange between new groups and existing small dispersed settlements increased, and intermarriage between members of previously distinct groups emphasized sharing and cultural mixing. Seasonal gatherings, celebrations, and perhaps ceremonies appear to have continued, encouraging further development of regional culture.

High male mortality resulting from the Pequot War, King Philip's War, the Revolutionary War, whaling, and other sea pursuits resulted in unequal Native sex ratios which recast the importance of women within the family; as culture carriers, women became increasingly important. Subsequent intermarriage with Whites and Blacks yielded dispersed mixed-heritage populations, many remaining close to their homelands or settling in local cities. These mixed families, often living on remaining tribally held lands, were strongly focused on the Native heritage of the women, and children were brought up within households that maintained traditional Native patterns of family, kinship, and work relationships. Despite continuity of Native traditions, many communities were not recognized as such, thus escaping persecution which might result from their identification. In general, all Native people were part of a spatially, socially, and economically marginalized underclass with limited social contacts with other segments of society.

Becoming Invisible

Colonial policies and attitudes of the 17th and 18th centuries identified Native people and their cultures as dangerous, and their elimination via extermination or assimilation as critical to American colonial success. Because of these attitudes, Native identity became a stigmatized category in southern New England after King Philip's War. Native people reacted to stigmatization of their identity by sometimes hiding its recognizable symbols to give the impression of assimilation. New England's Native people often restricted use of identifying symbols to avoid recognition and appear. Everyday life may have thus functioned between two different poles: that visible to Europeans and that shared with other Native people. In the 1730s, the Mahican consciously chose to regroup and form a mixed Native and White mission community in western Massachusetts for the continuation of their society. 

In many situations, Native people hid recognizable surviving characteristics of their culture by appearing, superficially at least, to assimilate to Euro-American society. During the Great Awakening in the 1740s, many converted to Christianity and shifted to European-style frame houses, while others furnished their wigwams with American-made chairs, chests, tools, and other articles, or built D-shaped structures that appeared European from the front but otherwise maintained the form of traditional wigwams. Aspects of Native dress and material culture were abandoned, although some traditional ornaments that could be hidden under clothing appear to have survived. Despite subversion of visible symbols, distinctive worldviews, oral traditions, foodways, and other cultural characteristics survived. Kinship and kin relations, seasonal Native observances and celebrations, oral tradition and oral history, traditional worldviews, Native foodways and planting rituals, herbal medicines and remedies, place names and the significance of place, ideas about time, weather lore, and the like all remained viable traditions. While some traditions show evidence of non-Native influence, Native people regarded these as Indian and consciously maintained them as such.

From The Brothertown Movement Onward

In the 1770s, Samson Occom and Joseph Johnson, both Mohegan, were determined to lead their people and other New England Indians to a home where they could live in peace and lead Christian lives. Occom, a Presbyterian minister, served as a Christian missionary to other Indian tribes as well. Following negotiations with the Oneida tribe in north central New York, Occum and Johnson led a group of New England tribal families to a new home among the Oneida. As Christians, they wanted to live in Brotherhood, and named their new home Brothertown. Another group of Algonkian-speaking people, the Stockbridge, also moved onto lands granted by the Oneida in the 1780s, escaping pressures from incoming settlers in western Massachusetts.

After removal of a significant portion of southeastern New England's Native population to Brothertown, New York in the 1780s and to Wisconsin in the 1840s, small communities remained in New England's marginal areas. While individuals may have been recognized as Indian, invisibility of Native cultures continued until the late 19th century. In other situations, Native people simply withdrew to less populated areas, where their distinctive ways of life could escape detection. Except by their own choice, Native people probably were not segregated. These racially mixed populations seldom "looked Indian" to non-Natives, were rarely recognized as such, and were usually seen as part of the colored underclass. Established reservation populations who could not or chose not to avoid recognition, such as the Narragansett and Mashpee, developed other means of accommodating to Euro-American society. Some individuals undoubtedly became completely assimilated, disappearing either into Euro-American or African-American society. Others retained much of their culture, and remain a strong presence in local New England society today.