What We Find in the Archives

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

The New Haven Museum is hidden between the School of Management’s self-aggrandizing building and I-95’s cacophony. Families zip up and down Whitney Avenue, concerned only with beating Waze’s ETA to get to their son’s hockey game in time. I’m also to blame. I was so caught up in my studying for a Chinese test that I neglected to reach out to the Museum Librarian, Ed Surato, to set up an appointment to help me research the agreement between the Quinnipiac tribe and the English settlers. I assumed he wouldn’t be busy.

Ed cut me off during my first question. I began with “As a historian—” “archivist,” he interrupted. He needed to clarify his role. “My main function is to show visitors the references of their ancestors in the archives,” Ed continued. “They come here to create a story about who they are, just from one paragraph.” Ed grew up in New Haven’s East Shore neighborhood. He knows the city’s history better than anyone, yet few people go to the museum to hear his syntheses of New Haven history. They’re too focused on how history concerns them, at the cost of the great details and surprises that make history independently interesting. I got to the point: “I want to learn about the compact between John Davenport and the Quinnipiac.” Ed passed me a hardcover book with photocopies of the original agreement between the colonists and the Quinnipiac, and the story revealed itself.

The Quinnipiac resided in the 300 square miles that are now New Haven County. The umbrella term “Quinnipiac” refers to a set of four politically distinct sachemdoms with similar language (a dialect of Eastern Algonquin) and culture. They maintained peaceful relations with neighboring tribes though intermarriage. This offered them a buffer against the marauding Pequot and Mohawk tribes. 

Each chieftainship was led by a middle-aged sachem, advised by a counsel of elders. Tradition endowed the son of the previous sachem with the new kingship. But these sachems represented the voices of all adults in the community. In 1633, Quinnipiac life changed forever. European diseases, likely spread by Dutch traders or English colonists at Massachusetts Bay, swept through the region, killing 75 percent of their Quinnipiac population. Four years later, the crew of Englishmen led by John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton settled on their land. 

The Quinnipiac tribe was extremely hospitable. When the Englishmen first arrived, they left seven settlers to stay for the winter, tasking them with reporting back on how livable it—that is, if they survived. The Quinnipiac, unprompted, provided these stragglers with furs and food. 

The Quinnipiac had had amicable relations with European traders for the previous 20 years. Maybe their kindness reflects an interest in establishing a profitable new trade partnership. On the other hand, the Dutch settlers who preceded the English and the Quinnipiac might have avoided conflict because they weren’t competing over land. The relationship could be mutualistic. 

The Quinnipiac had heard that the Massachusetts Bay colonists wanted to expand their property holdings. To prevent future conflict, they could have picked off the colonists. 

The question of whether the Quinnipiac were hospitable out of self-interest or benevolence remains unanswered. What we do know is that they continued to live side by side with the colonists for the next sixty years. And according to existing records, they continued to be generous. The summer after the arrival of the English, the Quinnipiac showed the settlers how to dig for clams with their feet in the harbor. The Quinnipiac even fought alongside the colonists against other Native Americans during King Philip’s War and the Pequot War. Their immediate openness to a group with unknown intentions starkly contrasts with the English approach to being a neighbor. Even though they received a kind welcome, the English immediately began dictating and policing what the Quinnipiac could and couldn’t do. They closely monitored Quinnipiac movements and prohibited critical migrations to prevent them from threatening potential English land claims.

Once Davenport and his group of settlers heard that the winter group did not die, they sent nearly 500 people from the Massachusetts Bay down to this “new haven.” Even though the English outnumbered the now-decimated Quinnipiac population by 200 and had a personal entitlement to the land granted to them by the Earl of Warwick, they did not immediately seize all of the territory. Instead they wrote up an “agreement.”

The treaty between the colonists and Quinnipiac illustrates some of the imbalances of power which inevitably marked their relationship. The colonists met with Momauguin, the sachem of chieftainship occupying what’s now downtown New Haven. They did not meet with all four sachems, even though they envisioned expanding north into the other three’s territory. 

In the treaty, Momauguin ceded 10 square miles of land to the English settlers. The English settlers then gave Momauguin’s sachem two square miles of territory on the east side of the harbor, along with some coats and cutlery. This kind of agreement, complete with a land swap, was very unusual. The English, perhaps because of their small number, sought to establish a formal relationship with the Quinnipiac rather than to immediately overpower them. 

The English appear to have simultaneously aimed to treat the Quinnipiac as legally autonomous and to restrict their capacity for self-determination. They included Quinnipiac leaders in court cases involving both sides. While the English did not outright invade Quinnipiac land in those early years, they nevertheless restricted them from aligning more closely with any other Indigenous group and punished any Quinnipiac individual who did not report the crimes of their own tribespeople to English sovereigns. 

Despite the tensions, the two groups coexisted peacefully for 60 years. The Quinnipiac continued to live in wigwams, hunting deer and shellfish. The agreement did not stipulate that the Quinnipiac change their religion or social structure, and it protected them from the Mohawks, who, not having been so severely affected by disease, were still much stronger in number. 

By 1695, the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut allowed New Haven to unilaterally sell off Quinnipiac land to European newcomers, and sent the Quinnipiacs to another reserve in Waterford, Connecticut, far from their ancestral home. 

25 years later, they were moved again. 

In the 1840s, they were moved yet again, this time to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

137 years after their first encounter with the English, the last Quinnipiac sachem, Charles, froze to death at a lake near East Haven. He died right next to the Alling Memorial Golf Course. 

I was intrigued by this story because I was unsettled by the simplistic portraits of inept Native Americans and warmongering colonists in my head. I found that the reductive narratives I had accumulated did not do justice to either the Quinnipiac or the English. I did not expect the political shrewdness of the Quinnipiac; I didn’t know about their prolonged period of respectful coexistence with European settlers. 

I’m grateful to Ed for teaching me about these things, for reminding me that real life is rarely as simple as the stories we tell ourselves. He raised for me some important questions: what if we reject what we want the past to be? What if we open ourselves up to history’s surprises?

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