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Dawnland: A history of the Quinnipiac people

Displays at the Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum at the Dudley Farm including a reproduction dugout canoe.
Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum
Displays at the Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum at the Dudley Farm including a reproduction dugout canoe.

Quinnipiac!  The name is well-known here in Connecticut: the river, the trail, the roads, the University, and of course the people.   But how much is really known about the first people who settled along the southern Connecticut coastline?

Historian and archeologist Jim Powers has researched the history of the Quinnipiac people and the impact European contact had on them.  

Powers is also a founding member and the current vice president of theDudley Farm Museum in Guilford.  He was also the committee chair who created the new Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum at the Dudley Farm.  

On Sunday, June 26th, Powers will share his research on the Quinnipiac people at theNew Haven Museum’s Pardee-Morris House.

The Full Story has a preview. Host Tom Kuser spoke with Jim Powers to learn more about the people of the Dawnland. 

Tom Kuser: Quinnipiac! The name is well known in Connecticut, the river, the trail roads, the university polling Institute, and of course, the people. The Quinnipiac and their ancestors were the first people to settle along the southern Connecticut coastline. Their communities thrived here for thousands of years until the Dutch and English arrived on their shores, then, pretty much everything changed.

Jim Powers has researched the history of the Quinnipiac people and the impact that the European presidents had on them. He's a historian and archaeologist, a teacher and a founding member and the current Vice President of the Dudley Farm Museum in Guilford. He was also the Committee Chair who created the new Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum at the Dudley Farm. And Jim Powers joins us in the studios here today. Welcome.

Jim Powers: Thanks, Tom.

TK: Certainly. There are several Native American nations in our region, and most of us know at least a few of the names the Mohegan, the Mashantucket Pequots, the Shinnecock on eastern Long Island. And those are just a few of the tribes with the high profile names you might say. Now, Quinnipiac, that's also a very high-profile native name as well. Are there survivors today, though?

JP: That's an interesting question. And we get it all the time at our museum in Guilford. There certainly are descendants of the Quinnipiac. We have been working over the last really four or five years, in particular, with an anthropology professor from Quinnipiac University, to try to locate any possible people who can identify themselves as Quinnipiac, within the region. Believe it or not, up to this point, no. What had happened to the Quinnipiac, like so many other groups is that they began to disperse during the 18th century. And they joined other groups of people who were basically refugees.

TK: Other Native Americans…

JB: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Some merged with current tribes, current groups that identified as indigenous others, went as far eventually as Wisconsin. There was a movement in the late 18th century, where refugees from the various groups in Connecticut began to merge with others. They first ended up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and then eventually Oneida, New York, and they became identified as the Brothertown Indian Nation, and by the early 19th century, they were located north of Green Bay.

"The Three Sisters and Grandmother Moon" by Wampanoag artist and poet Robert Peters.
Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum
"The Three Sisters and Grandmother Moon" by Wampanoag artist and poet Robert Peters.

The Brothertown Indian Nation is actually still existent. And we have been trying to contact individuals of that organization to try to see if we could trace anybody who's an actual Quinnipiac.

TK: What does the name Quinnipiac mean?

JP: Well, there's a lot of interpretation of that. Partly because when the English first came here, they were focused on trying to identify who the various groups were, and they really couldn't understand the social and political organization of the indigenous people throughout Connecticut. So when they came to New Haven, they asked the people who you were, they undoubtedly did not say they were the Quinnipiac. That's what the English ended up interpreting what they said, but Indigenous people throughout Connecticut always identified themselves by the place where they lived. So the Quinnipiac people who were in New Haven obviously identified themselves in such a way that the English interpreted as Quinnipiac. I can't really explain to you what they actually call themselves.

TK: How large was the nation before, I guess you would call it a diaspora, how large was the Quinnipiac nation at the time of first contact with the Europeans?

JP: Well, that's also an interesting question. We know from archaeological sites throughout Connecticut that the late woodland population of Connecticut was relatively large and well into the maybe 10s of 1000s. Adrian Block when he sailed along the coast in 1614, and then up to Connecticut River identified multiple multiple villages with with lots of people.

The great tragedy from the point of view of the Quinnipiac and other indigenous people in Connecticut here was that in 1633, a horrible smallpox epidemic broke out and that lasted for 1634 killed an estimated up to 80% of the indigenous population.

TK: Brought to the shores right by the Europeans.

JP: Exactly. So when the Davenport and Eaton and that group came to New Haven in 1638, the estimate was that there were maybe 400 People in the New Haven area ward in total, we really don't know. The only real statistic I can probably give you that gives you an idea about the population was in Guilford, which was then called Menunkatuck for the band that lived there. In 1639, when Henry Whitfield and his group came to settle there, there were only 33 people left. And statistically based on what the environment was like, in terms of the type of lifestyle that the Native Americans lived there were probably prior to the smallpox epidemic as many as 400 people just in Menunkatuc, Guilford.

JK: How did they live? Prior to the European contact? What was the typical? If we can use that term? What was the typical lifestyle of the Quinnipiac or the indigenous people of Connecticut?

JP: Well, they tended to live during the spring and summer, along the shoreline here or along along the major rivers. Their whole lifestyle is based upon local resources and what was available seasonally so that during the spring and summer they take advantage obviously, what resources were along the shore, you know, everything from fish and shellfish, etc, to the wild plants, but also, by the time the Europeans arrived, the Quinnipiac, like many other people, southern New England were taken advantage of agriculture. They grew the Three Sisters: corn, maize, green beans, basically, and squash.

TK: I’ve done that in my backyard.

JP: O`kay. Okay, good. We're trying to encourage as many people as possible to do that, that's for sure. So they took advantage of growing those plants as well along the shoreline here. And then in the fall and winter, they'd break into smaller groups and they’d migrate inland. So we know that the Quinnipiac range of area was pretty much from West Haven all the way over to Clinton and then as far north as Cheshire and Meriden and Wallingford, and those more northern areas would be where they would go in the fall and winter, and they would take advantage of hunting for the most part.

TK: From what you know, from your research. How quickly would you say, life changed for the Quinnipiac once the European contact occurred? You talked about the early 1600s 1614 And then, barely 20 years later, 15 years later, smallpox epidemic it sounds like it was a a rapid, radical change.

JP: It really was. One of the things that really helped me to understand a little bit more about what happened was, I was privileged to be involved in an archeological dig in Branford, Connecticut in the late 1990s - 1998-1999, where we actually identified where a Dutch trading post was, and the artifacts dated from about the late 16th century of 1500s to about 1620. So we know that the Quinnipiac who had the village of Totoket there right on Indian Neck, which is that part of Branford lived side by side a Europeans earlier than probably any other Native American people in New England. As a result, they had a different type of relationship with the Europeans they were more used to living alongside them. Now the Europeans especially the Dutch came here primarily for trade. The main things that they wanted to bring back to Europe were beaver pelts and otter pelts. It was all the rage in Europe at the time for men to have hats made out of be beaver favorite belts of all things. The other thing was timber. Because Europe by then had pretty much been timbered off and there was a real demand for lumber and so that's why the Dutch were here and they traded European-made goods, metal, things made out of metal cloth, things of that nature that the indigenous people could use. So right from the beginning, I think it was a situation where the Europeans showing up, it was kind of viewed as an opportunity to trade and also to gain things that they did not have.

Unfortunately, the issue really came down to a different way cultural way of looking at land. That's where problems started

TK: An understanding of or misunderstanding regarding ownership.

JP: Exactly, exactly. Culturally, the tradition was that Native American people did not believe in the ownership of really almost any private property at all. Land was a resource and what the land would give you, were the resources upon which you lived. And culturally, they believed that if somebody came to you or where you lived and needed to share the land, you did that. And so when the first the Dutch but then later when the English settlers came, they were welcomed.

Now the English came with a whole different idea. Unlike the Dutch, they came not just to trade but they came to stay, and they came with families. And they came with large numbers of livestock and things of that nature. Their goal was to recreate what they left behind. They also came with a legal system that was predicated on private property and private ownership of land. So in all these agreements that they ended up making with the Quinnipiac, there was a fundamental cultural difference that I think in the beginning, was okay with the Quinnipiac only because they saw themselves as sharing the land, and in the beginning, I can see how that definitely happened. But as the English population exploded, and they expanded their farms and cut the trees, suddenly, the resources weren't there for the Quinnipiac. And that's primarily the driving force behind them leaving this area, they couldn't maintain their lifestyle anymore.

TK: How much evidence of the Quinnipiac people remains today, in this area?

JP: Wherever you go, there are names which is really pretty exciting. New Haven, for example, Quinnipiac Avenue. Wherever you go in some of the shoreline towns, you'll see Montowese Avenue or there's a section of North Haven called Montowese. Montowese was the Sachem of the village that was in North Haven at the time the English showed up.

TK: One of our small transmitters happens to be in a place called Totoket Ridge.

JP: Nice. Yeah. And so Totoket was the name for Branford.

TK: When did the adoption of the name become common or popular when did it start being put to streets and rivers and the university?

JP: It appears that it was part of almost a romantic nostalgia movement in the late 19th century. Where the poem Hiawatha and all this, you know the lost indigenous people and it seems like the people of this part of Connecticut decided that had a romantic sort of flair to it. A lot of the early resorts that sprang up along the Connecticut shoreline, were named after various indigenous groups or people. I know that for example, in the Indian Neck section of Brantford, there were a series of very large resorts. The biggest one was the Montowese house. And there's still one over there today called the Owenego Inn, so it became sort of a romantic connection to the past.

TK: I lived for many years on a street called Wepawaug Drive.

JP: Oh, yes, there you go.

TK: I'd like to talk a bit about the Dawnland Museum. Last September, Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum opened on the grounds of the Dudley Farm Museum in Guilford. How did this museum come together, this new facility?

JP: Basically what had happened is very early on when the Dudley Farm Museum actually got started as a nonprofit farm museum in the 90s, one of our members, was a gentleman from Stony Creek by the name of Gordon Brainard, who was a lifelong collector of Quinnipiac artifacts. And he wandered all through all the different towns with the Quinnipiac and once lived and was quite an expert on not only identifying sites that he could excavate, but also, he was pretty good at identifying the different types of artifacts. He came to us in 2003 and asked for a space to create a little museum for himself, that would draw people to the farm. And he was totally focused on the history and the Quinnipiac and preserving their legacy. We had only a small space on a loft of a big barn that we had just recently re- erected. We gave that to him.

He passed away in 2021. And one of the things our board of directors did was we realized that number one he had given us this this collection, with the idea that we would always make it available to the public, we decided it was time to build a new building a new museum, not only to honor what Gordon had given us, but also to tell the story of the Quinnipiac because many of us understood that most people in the region, though they understand that name, have no clue or have had no clue about who the Quinnipiac people were.

As a matter of fact, that's one reason why I started very often going over to speak to the anthropology class of Dr. Julia Giblin over at Quinnipiac University she was so frustrated by the fact that 90% of the students had no idea why it was named that. That was the impetus to begin the museum.

We had a generous gift from a local foundation to be the seed money to build it. We worked with some wonderful people from Yale Peabody Museum who helped us out with displays and things. And that was it.

TK: And the building itself is a rather unique design.

JR: Yes, it is. Because the Dudley farm is now on the National Registry of Historic Places as a circa 1900 Farm, one of the things we had to do was make the exterior look like a barn. And then because of the location that we chose, it's near wetlands, so we are limited in terms of size. But the interior, we wanted it to reflect how an Indigenous person might have created this museum.

We were lucky to have a number of indigenous advisors who would talk us down and talk us through and tell us what we should or shouldn't do sometimes, very graciously, of course.

The museum tells the story of the Quinnipiac and their ancestors going back 14,000 years. It also celebrates their life and their lifeways, their belief system. We work with Indigenous artists and poets to have their voices. And then the second half of the building actually turns a little darker because of the arrival of the Dutch and the English and all the issues that came up because associated with the impact on the Quinnipiac people.

TK: What sort of displays just a couple of examples perhaps illustrate the darker side and the brighter side?

JP: I think I'll start with the brighter side. And the brighter side was one of the things that we wanted to do was be able to sort of give people a sense of celebration. So the entire first half of the displays is the walls are very bright. We integrated the artwork for various themes. One is a Quinnipiac village that was painted by Deborah Spears Moorhead, a really prolific Wampanoag artist from Massachusetts. And then when we got to the spiritual beliefs, she created a painting called Mystic Wolf. So we were able to use their art to help tell the story.

We also were able to take Gordon's artifacts and use them in various ways. One is to show the adaptation, over thousands of years based on climate change. And we would pair the different types of artifacts with the changing climate, that kind of thing.

TK: So you illustrate how the Quinnipiac people kind of managed their version of climate change and what happened in their era.

JP: Exactly! When people come in, we talk about the fact that Connecticut 14,000 years ago, and we know people were first coming up here, it was a tundra. And then over time, it changed to a boreal forest, like, you know, up in Canada and Alaska. And then for a thousand years, it was actually a dry grassland, before it finally became the type of woodland that we sort of used to have here. So we use the different types of projectile points to tell the story of how they had to manage just hunting from the point of view of the variety of changes of animals based on the change of ecology.

Rare bow wrapped in snakeskin with metal-tipped arrows.
Quinnipiac Dawnland Museum
Rare bow wrapped in snakeskin with metal-tipped arrows.

TK: And by the way, Dawnland. What's the origin of that name attached to the museum?

JP: That's something we talked a lot about whether or not we would actually attach that name. And in the end, we decided that was the way to go simply because Gordon, always insisted, with his contacts with the indigenous people in the region, that New England and Connecticut are where the dawn first comes. We understood that more than likely, that's what they called the region. Deborah Spears Moorhead actually said, that's what they call themselves the People of the Dawn. We wanted to be able to sort of identify the area by what would have been an indigenous name they certainly would not have called Connecticut Connecticut.

TK: That's a whole other program.

JP: Yes, exactly, exactly.

TK: Is the Museum supporting any ongoing research into the indigenous history of Connecticut?

JP: Well, right now we've sort of teamed with an initial effort by Quinnipiac University professor Julia Gibbon and Bill Farley from Southern Connecticut State University. What we are trying to do is track down where all the actual Quinnipiac artifacts are located, and the various historical societies in the region and libraries to sort of get an idea, first of all, what's out there. And then once we know what's out there maybe eventually assist those organizations in interpreting what they have. That, unfortunately, other than the names that you mentioned, that's one of the only things that we really have that we can identify, as being Quinnipiac. And the whole idea would maybe someday have a Quinnipiac Trail.

TK: Do you suspect that there may be artifacts in private collections,

JP: There are a lot of artifacts and private collections. And that's one of the things that we're hoping to start to identify. Since we've opened the museum over in Guilford, we've had a lot of people come by with their grandfather's shoebox.

Every town in Connecticut, where there were once farms, there are collections that came out of those farms. We have probably over 1000. I know other institutions have even more. Some of them date back 12,000 years, which is really a phenomenal thing. So trying to get an idea about what's out there actually will help us in the end sort of understand more about the culture over time.

TK: Is there someplace people can go to not only to find out about the museum, but to perhaps better understand what they might have discovered on their own property and think, well, this looks like something more than just a random stone or, you know, piece of shale.

JP: Well, right now, it's very limited in terms of where people can go, we do have people walk in all the time with artifacts. And if I'm there at the museum that day, it's kind of fun to be able to help them identify. One of the things that we really worked hard on with some of the artifacts, especially the projectile points that are on display, we have them identified by how old they were, and not necessarily sometimes where they were found because Gordon wasn't really good at keeping track of that. But the age, the material, the type, and actually, sometimes when somebody comes in with a projectile point we’ll ask, “Well see if you can match it up with what's being displayed there”. And they get so excited, because, “Oh my god, look at that. That's what I have!” That kind of thing. So it's pretty, it's a lot of fun.

TK: They're doing their own work, archaeology, research, so to speak.

JP: Yeah.

TK: How did you get interested in the Quinnipiac people?

JP: Well, it's it's a long story, you know, when I've been doing talks about the Quinnipiac now for about three years, and various towns were they once lived. And that's why I'm excited to do the one at the party Morris house. Partly because that's on the site of where the agreement to welcome the English came. And then that's where the Quinnipiac people, their Grand Sachem Momauguin, lived in their village there and the legacy of of the Quinnipiac is so alive in that area still. But ever since I was a kid, when it came down to playing cowboys, and Indians I always insisted on being an Indian. And then going to school in terms of archaeology, for one of my masters. Though my expertise was not necessarily in that area, it was more of a historic archaeologist. I continue to always be interested. I had the opportunity very early on to teach at Guilford High School, where I actually created a local history of archaeology cours.

TK: A history teacher.

JP: Yeah, I was a history teacher there for 40 years. And it was a wonderful opportunity for me to actually get the kids out in town and into the field and doing archaeology. And very often, there were occasions when the state archaeologist at the time Nick Bellantoni would call me and say, “Hey, can you get a bus and bring kids up to this particular site to help doing a dig?” And back in those days, schools were a little more flexible in terms of letting kids leave for the day to go do that sort of thing. But I've always been interested in the, in the local history in general, I've always been interested in the culture in general and the belief systems of indigenous people.

TK: What kind of response reaction have you gotten from the Indigenous people in Connecticut, the various tribes to the work that you're doing? You're not an indigenous person yourself.

JP: No. And, you know, that was one of the things we made very clear when we began to make the museum is that we”re not Indigenous,.and we needed an Indigenous input right from the beginning. And the advisors that we had were really helpful in terms of that. In terms of Indigenous feedback to date, those people who have seen it are very, very positive, incredibly positive. The Connecticut archaeological community and t those that have seen it are very, very supportive and very positive. As to the two larger groups, our tribes, we really haven't had any contact with them at all.

To a certain extent there's there's a lot of politics involved in indigenous history right now.

TK: Have any other Indigenous people, either individually or through organizations reached out to your organization to find out how you did what you did?

JP: Not right now. But the historical societies, have been very interested because of the collections that they have. I think right now for most of the Indigenous groups, they're just sort of trying to maintain what they have, first of all, and then begin to begin to explore ways of telling their story. Unfortunately, a lot of these artifacts early on like in the 1900s and early 1800s came from sites that might have been looted. Give you an example. Gordon had done a dig at some point somewhere where he found the collection of some spear points that had been burned. And he didn't realize that they probably came from a cremation burial, and we have since given them to a group to rebury.

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Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.