Our Homeland, Our Story
Our primary exhibit, Quinnetukut: Our Homeland, Our Story follows the 10,000 year long story of Connecticut's Native American Peoples from the distant past to their lives and culture today. Presented in chronological order, Quinnetukut takes visitors from a time at the end of the Ice Age, when humans were first venturing into the area that we now call Connecticut all the way into the modern age. Discover the stories of survival, ingenuity and spiritual connections to Mother Earth as well as the technological and artistic accomplishments of the people who have always called this place home.
Our story is one of community, of connections to Mother Earth and to one another. It is also a story of an enduring presence. The land now called Connecticut we have always known as Quinnetukut, the place of the long water. Our homelands have been here, along river banks, in forested uplands and beside coastal marshes for thousands of years. We are always adapting to new ideas, new technologies and a changing environment, yet our traditions and communities continue.
We are still here.
We are the Indigenous Peoples of Connecticut.
Connecticut's First Peoples
Paleo Indian Period (12,000 BC - 7000 BC)
As the glaciers that once covered Connecticut receded they left a landscape quite different from the familiar woodlands we know today. Water, churning with debris from rapidly melting ice sheets, gouged paths to the Atlantic Ocean creating a myriad of rivers, lakes and streams. This fast flowing slurry turned floodplains and coastal areas into barren, dangerous places unfit for human habitation. Inland, however, shrubs, grasses, and resilient trees like Red Oak, White Cedar and some White Pine were able to take root attracting elk, giant beaver, mastodon and a variety of other animals.
This new environment encouraged people from the south and west to venture into Connecticut's uplands and inland wetlands. Little is known about the people of these ancient communities. They likely traveled in small family groups moving frequently and remaining in each location for a short time. Stones that were collected locally were chipped into cutting and scraping tools as well as projectile points for spears. They also used some chert for points, obtained from the Hudson River Valley. There is some controversy over whether this exotic stone is the result of exchange or if people were actually traveling such long distances. Many questions remain that can only be answered by the discovery and careful excavation of additional undisturbed areas where Paleo-Indians once lived.
Hunting & Gathering
Early & Middle Archaic Periods (7000 BC - 4000 BC)
As the climate continued its warming trend, rising sea levels flooded the area we now know as the Long Island Sound. A variety of vegetation still common in Connecticut's woodlands emerged including birch, oak, cattail, Solomon's seal, and blue flag. This abundant flora could support many species of wildlife including white tailed deer, black bear, wolf, fox, turkeys, migratory birds, fish and turtles.
During the Early and Middle Archaic Periods indigenous populations remained relatively small but they began sophisticated patterns of cyclic migration known as "the seasonal round," which continued for over 7000 years, into the post-contact period. Communities moved several times throughout the year, hunting, fishing and gathering a wide range of seasonally available foods. Despite frequent moves, people expected to return to the same locations the following year. Like the Paleo-Indians before them, these Archaic Peoples focused their economic activities on the large inland wetland areas of Connecticut. Men, with their hunting skills and understanding of animal behavior, and women, with their knowledge of the usage of plants for nutrition and craft-making, all played key roles in the early economies.
Fishing & River Life
Late & Terminal Archaic Periods (4000 BC - 750 BC)
Connecticut's environment continued to change as a climate that was even warmer and drier than today prevailed. Shrinking interior wetlands encouraged Late and Terminal Archaic peoples to establish settlements in major river valleys where water resources were less affected by drought. From these "base camps" people continued their established patterns of seasonal movements utilizing resources from inland, riverine and coastal ecosystems.
By the Late Archaic Period, two distinct populations with differing lifeways were occupying Connecticut. People of the Narrow Point artifact tradition, thought to have originated along the southern Atlantic coastal region, engaged in a broad range of economic activities including hunting and gathering of edible plants as well as fishing. By the Late Archaic Period, fishing played a significant role in the lives of Connecticut's early indigenous peoples. These communities were highly territorial and may perhaps represent the beginnings of tribalization in Connecticut. Activities of the Laurentian People, who most likely migrated from areas north and northwest of Connecticut, and the Broad Spear culture that replaced them, were even more focused on rivers and lakes than their Narrow Point counterparts. They were particularly involved in heavy woodworking, including the manufacture of dugout canoes. These vessels facilitated extensive trade with people to the east, west and north.
Shaping New Lifeways
Early Woodland Period (750 BC - 300 AD)
The onset of the Early Woodland Period coincided with a "Little Ice Age" that slowed the melting of polar ice caps, reducing river currents and allowing for sediment build up. Newly created mudflats formed the foundation for bountiful marshlands which developed into nurseries for a variety of animal life.
The changing environment shaped Woodland Indian existence in profound ways. Connecticut's coasts and estuaries, with their ready supply of food, became ideal environments for the establishment of large settlements that could be occupied for long periods of time. Although population numbers as well as the number of settlements generally declined during the Early Woodland period, the size of communities grew. The Narrow Point tradition which was established during the Late Archaic Period was the dominant culture, moving into river floodplains and coastal areas as Broad Spear communities faded. Vegetation harvested from marshes often required long simmering times that led to a major innovation, the clay cooking pot. Significant use of clay to mold containers and smoking pipes was a hallmark of the Early Woodland Period.
Horticulture & Village Life
Middle & Late Woodland Periods (300 BC - 1524 AD)
After 13,000 years of continuous change, the climate stabilized at last and life for Connecticut's Indigenous Peoples became more sedentary. In some areas, village life, with many families working, playing and celebrating together year round, replaced the seasonal and multiseasonal base camps of earlier eras. Journeys to prime fishing locations in the spring, gathering nuts and other wild edible plants in late summer and hunting, with the newly introduced bow and arrowAlthough the bow and arrow had been used in Alaska since 3000 BC and the western United States since 200 AD, it did not appear in the Northeast until the Middle Woodland Period., continued to be essential to the Woodland economy.
A revolutionary development during the Late Woodland Period was the introduction of horticulture into various parts of Connecticut. Because coastal communities already had a prolific food source provided by the salt marshes and the ocean, many did not adopt horticulture until the end of the Late Woodland Period. The broad, fertile river floodplains were, however, conducive to large scale horticulture.
Maize, first cultivated in Mexico around 6,500 years ago, made its way into Connecticut around 1000 AD traveling with Native American traders and immigrants along established routes from the Mid-Atlantic and Hudson River regions. Beans were introduced four hundred years after maize. These crops, along with sunflowers, gourds and other types of squash, all became significant products. Women, already possessing a vast knowledge of plants and how to grow them, became the natural caretakers of community gardens. As the importance of horticulture to village life increased, the status of Native American women was also elevated.
Beaver Pelts For Iron Axes
Final Woodland Period (1524 AD - 1633 AD)
European explorers and fishermen began frequenting New England at the beginning of the 16th century with the earliest documented European visitor to the Long Island Sound being the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524. By the early 1600s, Dutch settlements had sprung up on both sides of the Sound and Dutch traders, including Adriaen Block, Hendrick Christiaensz and Cornelius May, navigated Connecticut's waters exchanging goods with the local indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples were well-accustomed to trade relationships, having participated in such dealings with other Native communities for thousands of years prior to European contact. As a result, local Woodland Indians were experts in the art of bartering. Early trade relationships between Europeans and Native Peoples were friendly and mutually satisfying. Connecticut's Indians were eager to acquire manufactured goods such as metal tools, woven blankets and bolts of cloth; European traders were enticed by the exquisite furs which Native Americans could provide. Some Native American communities even encouraged Europeans to settle amongst them since easy access to European goods enhanced their quality of life and improved their social and political status with other tribes.
Unfortunately, trade relations also signaled the importation of new and devastating diseases into Connecticut for which the indigenous population had no immunities, such as smallpox, the plague, cholera, whooping cough and measles. After witnessing the effects of an unspecified 1633 epidemic among the Connecticut River Indians, William Bradford, the leader of the Plimouth Colony, commented that "...they dye like rotten sheep...they were in the end not able to help one another... nor [were there] any [left] to burie the dead..." There is no way to know an exact number but by 1650 it has been estimated that as much as 80% of Connecticut's indigenous population had perished from disease.
Post Contact Period (1633 AD - 1850 AD)
Following closely behind explorers and traders, large numbers of English settlers arrived in New England seeking natural resources and religious freedom. Warfare, which had been rare in the Connecticut area before the influx of Europeans, occurred frequently throughout the mid-17th century. Many Native American warriors, as well as women and children, were captured by the English and sold into slavery. Ever increasing numbers of indigenous people perished as a result of conflict and disease, enabling English settlers to engulf precious Indian homelands. The land surrounding the fertile, majestic river known to indigenous peoples as Quinnetukut, or "the place of the long water," soon became the English Colony of Connecticut. One of the earliest actions of the new Colony was to establish its Indian reservation system, a phenomenon which pre-dates the formation of the United States by over a century.
Connecticut's American Indian communities have never been passive in their relationships with European-Americans. For many, adopting the English religion and learning British law became successful survival strategies; Christian Indian communities were exempt when Congress declared in the 1830s that all "uncivilized" Indians must be removedThe main villages of the Schaghticoke at Kent, and that of the Mahikan tribe at Sharon, became Moravian mission villages in the 1740s. The Mohegan tribe founded a Christian church and school on their reservation in 1831. to lands west of the Mississippi River. Although many Native Americans converted to Christianity, they never relinquished their traditional spiritual beliefs and faith in the Creator. These traditions are evidenced in a myriad of ways including sacred ceremonies that connect people to their ancestors and the natural world, the symbolic designs that adorn woven baskets, and an enduring reverence for Mother Earth.
A Story Of Survival
Post Contact Period (1850 AD - Today)
Since Indian reservations were first established in the 17th century the size of those land holdings has been gradually but drastically reduced. Small, rocky and infertile places, the reservations were generally unfit for cultivation or other traditional economic activities. Many Indians were forced to leave the reservations and move to nearby cities to toil in mills and factories, on fishing vessels, or as day laborers to support their families. A large percentage of Native American men joined the military. Indian women often worked as laundresses or servants in local Euro-American homes. Both men and women were basket makers, selling their wares to local farmers and storekeepers.
"It was common to see a group of older Indians going along the road...loaded down with baskets of all descriptions, from strong oak bushel baskets which the farmers like to own when picking corn or digging potatoes, to nice little ones made from very fine black ash splints" (New Milford Times; October 26, 1939).
Despite 375 years of adversity including racial discrimination, illegal sales of reservation lands by unscrupulous white overseers and governmental attempts at forced detribalization and cultural assimilation, five Connecticut tribes remain as indigenous, self-governing entities: Schaghticoke; Paucatuck Eastern Pequot; Mashantucket Pequot; Mohegan; and Golden Hill Paugussett. Although people must still often leave the reservations today in search of economic opportunities, they return regularly to visit relatives, attend celebrations and other social events and to participate in governmental decision-making. The Reservation is now the tribe's political and spiritual center.
Visit us today to learn more about the first peoples of Connecticut!