Chief Wyandanch: Native Long Islander
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
By Tara Mae
Chief Wyandanch, a sachem of the Montaukett Indians, was responsible for approving the treaty that ceded land to European settlers who established the original settlement of Brookhaven. Respected by his tribe and friendly with the foreigners, Wyandanch worked to bridge the two worlds. He left a legacy of cooperation, though his efforts may have cost him dearly.
Born sometime in the early 1600s in Montauk village, Wyandanch was party to deadly conflicts between the settlers and Native Americans, including the Pequot War, which led to the decimation of the tribe. Wyandanch viewed the tragic saga of the Pequots as a cautionary tale. He determined that to engage the Europeans in battle would be a dangerous and deadly exercise in apparent futility. He believed that maintaining peaceful relationships with them was key to Montaukett survival.
Between 1636 and 1638, the Pequots fought colonists from the Plymouth, Saybrook, and Massachusetts Bay colonies who allied with the Mohegan and Narragansett tribes. By the end of the war, the Pequots had been defeated, and approximately 700 people had been killed or captured. Hundreds of prisoners were enslaved and sold to colonists in Bermuda, the West Indies, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Other captives were given to the victorious tribes. The Pequot tribe was effectively eliminated; colonial leaders declared it extinct. Survivors who stayed in the region were incorporated into other tribes.
This event made a lasting impact on how Wyandanch chose to interact and negotiate with the European settlers. The alliances he formed mitigated their immediate threat to the Montaukett, and provided him with outside support in inter-tribal discord, such as ongoing altercations with Uncas, a Mohegan sachem, and Ninigret, a Niantic sachem. Wyandanch’s maneuverings and negotiations helped him advance from a minor sachem to a powerful chief.
He navigated fraught relationships with the victors of the Pequot War. On decent terms with the English settlers, their support enabled Wyandanch to consolidate his power and elevate his standing. His esteem as a negotiator was renowned. Wyandanch was able to successfully disarm a strained standoff between the Shinnecock tribe and colonists, who were angry over the killing of an English woman, killed in retaliation for the death of a Shinnecock.
Sought for his ability to reason with the English, Wyandanch garnered both economic and military support from the colonists. His goal to remain at peace with the English was at least in part strategic. Born of a desire to protect the Montaukett, he reached out to Lion Gardiner. The two men became allies of sorts, a relationship that would have a profound impact on the continued development of Long Island.
Image courtesy of geni.com
Gardiner was unnerved by the prospect of Pequots or another tribe consolidating power and attacking the settlers. Having been commissioned by the English government to establish a fort in Saybrook, Gardiner was once shot in the leg by a Pequot arrow during an attack. Wyandanch reportedly canoed over the Long Island Sound to meet Gardiner in Saybrook; they came to an arrangement, a type of truce between the Montaukett and the English. This agreement guarded eastern Long Island against the violence of English-Native American confrontations.
Still Wyandanch faced threats from factions who were against his understanding with the English and his actions as a sachem. Wyandanch’s associates were also targeted. Mandush, the chief of the Shinnecock tribe, was the subject of an assassination attempt ordered by Ninigret. The attempt failed, and the perpetrator was executed.
In response, fourteen people, including Wyandanch’s daughter, were kidnapped by the Niantic. Thirty men, including her groom-to-be, were killed the night before their wedding. After paying a ransom, which Gardiner is believed to have helped facilitate, the captives were freed; Ninigret and Wyandanch apparently reached an accord, though they disputed the exact details. As a thank you to Gardiner, Wyandanch granted him a tract of land.
By this time, the Montauketts were the dominant tribe on Long Island and Wyandanch was the grand sachem. In 1655, the Setalcotts sold land to the settlers; this property was the original settlement of Brookhaven. Wyandanch approved the transaction, which was a common practice for any such interaction: deeds were typically signed by the chief of the tribe selling the land and Wyandanch. He continued to act as an intermediary between the Native Americans and Europeans, and pursued contested matters in colonial court.
Wyandanch advocated on behalf of members of the Shinnecock tribe who were accused of arson, and got the outrageously high fine somewhat reduced. Circa 1658, he allowed an Englishman, Jeremy Daily, to borrow his canoe in exchange for repairs being made to it. Daily did not hold up his end of the bargain, and the canoe was actually damaged in bad weather. Wyandanch sued Daily and won. This was one of the earliest cases involving an English defendant and a Native American plaintiff. Daily apparently had to pay him ten shillings for damages and fines for court fees.
In 1659, Wyandanch died. His wife and son seem to have died shortly after. During this time, the Montaukett tribe was ravaged by a deadly disease quite possibly brought to them by the settlers. Gardiner maintained that Wyandanch was poisoned, but never further elaborated on the point. Able to exist in two cultures, Wyandanch’s actions helped chart the course of modern Long Island history.