Mashantucket and Mohegan Indians' seafaring history and contributions

The name Pequot translates as "people of the shallow water," yet the Indian tribe is often mistakenly associated with the landlocked area where they live today.

The Pequots were displaced from their native Noank coastal reservation in 1713, tearing them away from their traditional subsistence of fishing, fowling and clamming.

The tribe unsuccessfully petitioned the colony of Connecticut to keep their coastal locale, and were ultimately removed to the inland Mashantucket reservation.

Yet the Pequots' cultural experience revolving around the water expanded rather than contracted in the ensuing years. It's a largely untold story about the Pequots' adaptation to become, increasingly, the people of the deep water.

The men of the tribe used their skills to become mariners, joining other New England Indian men on voyages to exotic ports around the world as seaman on merchant and whaling vessels.

"I think it's a big surprise to everyone that there is a significant population of people that we didn't know about. If you're only looking for Indians on the reservation, you will think they have vanished, but if you look off the reservation they are there. Indians are following opportunities, and opportunities are at sea," said Jason Mancini, senior researcher at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

Perhaps even more important, through customs records, Mancini found that about 90 percent of mariners listed as Indians never show up on tribal records.

Several years ago, Mancini came across two Pequot tribal members, Peter and Benjamin George, in the Records of the Collector of Customs in the Customs District of New London. He knew the men were brothers, but wondered if they appeared with other Indians.

His curiosity ultimately led Mancini to launch the Indian Mariners Project to understand what was happening to the population at Mashantucket and among other Indian communities around the region as New London became a major maritime center.

His discovery fascinated him. After going through the Mystic Seaport's archives and viewing original documents on microfilm, he found many other Indian and men of color who contributed to America's maritime history.

Through researching seaman's certificates - which included detailed physical descriptions, as well as census figures, crew lists and other documents, Mancini began to trace the movement of Pequots to the seafaring life.

Using these records, "You can build biographies for Indians, their families and their communities, and can then understand the movement from tribal lands to sea," said Mancini.

Part of his research focuses on the period from 1830 to 1840. It's a time when the narrative of the "disappearing Indian" had been built - thanks largely to the publication of James Fenimore Cooper's popular novel "Last of the Mohicans" in 1826.

It also coincides with the expansion of New London's whalefishery when groups of Indians were going to sea on many whaleships, like the Charles W. Morgan.

This fraternity of mariners helped Indians keep their cultural identity while at sea but also presented strength in numbers, buffering them from the racism they surely faced at sea, which was still the only place at the time to offer men of color equal, merit-based opportunity.

Indian tribes included the Pequots, Mohegans, Narragansetts, Niantics, Shinnecocks and Wampanoags, among others.

"New London becomes an important place for Indians. It is one of the largest ports in the region and becomes an aggregation point for men of color," noted Mancini.

Combing through the lists, Mancini and his team eventually developed a database of 17,000 entries for men of color who signed up for voyages, some appearing many times.

While the men labored at sea, some Indian women used their pay to buy farms and went into business by opening boarding houses. It is not surprising, then, that when overseers went to reservations to look for Indians and found only the elderly and young children that they came to the conclusion that the Indian population was dwindling.

Not only was it not waning, but the women kept the culture alive, and also married men from other ethnicities who came to stay in between voyages.

Ports had become some of the most diverse places on the planet, said Mancini.

"Through maritime labor, what you began to see is social networks form. At first this occurred regionally, then it became international, especially as vessels began scouring the world's oceans for whales. There is a lot of intermarriage; the mariners from other places marry into a lot of Indian communities. The first Sebastian was a Brazilian or Portuguese mariner," said Mancini.

Other Indians Mancini followed for the mariners project included Elisha Apes, who was a career whaleman, departing on five known voyages. Off the coast of New Zealand, Apes mutinied with the ship's carpenter, and the two took a smaller whale boat into New Zealand. He remained there and married a Ngai Tahu (Maori) woman, and the couple had a number of children. Mancini has been in touch with Apes' descendants, and also traveled to New Zealand in June to meet several of them after presenting his research to an international audience at the University of Sydney, Australia.

In a reconnection with whaling cultures, this July, Mancini went with four Pequots to Point Lay, Alaska to stay with the Inupiaqs during their annual beluga whale hunt. One of the voyages Mancini had traced with Pequots aboard went through the Bering Straits and into the Arctic Ocean, about 130 miles from Point Lay.

Mancini has mapped five whaling voyages in collaboration with the Mystic Seaport using Google Earth. By clicking on points along each voyage route, the data collected from the ship's log pops up, revealing interesting information on the men's lives at sea.

Oftentimes, two ships would tie up and "gam" in the middle of the Ocean, sharing stories, letters, and even transporting oil if they were from the same company. It also offered Indian men the chance to catch up with brothers, cousins and other tribal members.

Colleagues, say Mancini, have been quite excited about his discovery of Indian maritime social networks at sea, and the impact it had on the tribes.

He has presented his research to New England tribes, and has consulted with the Mohegan Tribe, which retains quite a bit of oral history from the Fowler, Tantaquidgeon and Gray families, all of whom recall stories of family members who were whalers, said Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the Mohegans' medicine woman and tribal historian.

Mancini's research also has helped the Mohegans identify some whaling artifacts in their museum, said Tantaquidgeon Zobel. She added that the number of Mohegan whalers identified in Mancini's research was much larger than the tribe realized.

"I hope people will realize that whaling impacts the demographic record of Native Americans in this area, explaining the absence of males at certain times in our history. I also appreciate the way Dr. Mancini's work illuminates cooperation and camaraderie between diverse American groups engaged in the institution of whaling," said Tantaquidgeon Zobel.

Ultimately, Mancini, in conjunction with the Mystic Seaport, would like to present an interactive exhibit using the Google Earth to teach the public about maritime Indians.

Mancini also said he anticipates updating some of the Mashantucket exhibits to reflect these new discoveries about the tribe.

His decades of research on the Mashantucket Pequots and other Indian communities will eventually be released as a book, and now he has a fresh chapter on the tribe that had been overlooked - perhaps one of the most significant chapters yet.

"It dismantles our ideas of where Indians are supposed to be and takes them off the reservations and off the land and puts them and their experiences at sea on a global scale," Mancini said of maritime Indians.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE INDIAN MARINERS PROJECT, VISIT WWW.INDIANMARINERSPROJECT.COM.

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