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The Nehantics prove you can go home again

Every summer, descendants of the Nehantic Indians, for whom Niantic is named, hold their annual reunion in East Lyme. They return to their ancestral home to celebrate their culture and their resiliency. Quite lively for a people who were declared extinct by the State of Connecticut in 1870!

The Nehantics were among our state’s earliest inhabitants. They ranged between the Connecticut and Pawcatuck rivers, fishing, farming, hunting and following their traditional ways. But by 1700, everything had changed. They’d been hit by epidemics, Pequot aggression, and loss of land to the colonists. At this point, many of them were living on a reservation at Black Point in Niantic.

By the early 18th century, the Nehantic population had dwindled significantly. Despite this, Nehantics fought as allies with the colonists in the French and Indian Wars and in the American War for Independence. For example, one Nehantic hero fought against the British, suffered as a POW, and after his release from captivity, served two more years in the Revolution. Nehantic wartime losses were extremely heavy in proportion to their shrinking numbers.

By the middle of the 19th century, very few Nehantics were left, which led the state a few decades later to declare them extinct. This made desirable Black Point real estate, including the Nehantics’ sacred burial ground at Crescent Beach, available for white exploitation.

During this time, the lives of two Nehantic sisters, Betsy and Mercy Nonsuch, exemplified the challenge of living in a culture radically different from that of their ancestors. Each woman coped in her own way with the pain of feeling like a stranger in her own land.

Betsy was born in 1819; she was a wanderer, always on the move. Although she lived at Mohegan with her sister, Mercy, Betsy’s journeys often took her away from home, sometimes for years at a time. She walked twice all the way to Oneida, New York, to visit relatives who’d joined the Brothertown community of Christian Indians. After Brothertown relocated to Wisconsin, Betsy visited that settlement, too. She crossed the continent twice and died in Denver in 1888.

Mercy, Betsy’s younger sister, led a more settled life. She was born in 1822, just two months after her father’s death. Life was hard for her widowed mother, who had three other children, so at 7 years of age, Mercy was indentured to a family on Great Neck. It’s hard to see how leaving one’s mother to live as a servant among strangers, however kind, could benefit a tiny child, but 19th-century white commentators applauded the “civilizing” influence of such an arrangement.

In 1846, Mercy married Henry Matthews, a Mohegan stone mason. They raised four children, were members of the Mohegan Church, and lived in a home with plants on the windowsills and an organ in the parlor.

Mercy didn’t like to talk about the past. She was reluctant to be photographed but was finally persuaded to pose by the argument that her picture would reside in the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, where it would help future generations remember her people. Closer to home, the East Lyme Public Library owns an oil portrait of Mercy.

When the Nehantics were officially proclaimed extinct, Mercy observed with some asperity, “They may declare me extinct, but that does not make me extinct. I am not extinct. I am not buried.” Today Mercy would be gratified to know that her extended family not only survives but continues to celebrate its heritage.

Even those of us who can’t claim Nehantic kinship share their legacy. From Fort Trumbull to Crescent Beach, from Willetts Avenue to Logger Hill Road, from Gallup Lane to Society Road, from Rope Ferry Road to Nehantic Drive — we travel the byways that first belonged to them.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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