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Connecticut's Indigenous Peoples: What Archaeology, History, and Oral Traditions Teach Us About Their Communities and Cultures

Connecticut's Indigenous Peoples: What Archaeology, History, and Oral Traditions Teach Us About Their Communities and Cultures

by Lucianne Lavin, Paul Grant-Costa (Contribution by), Rosemary Volpe (Editor)

A groundbreaking volume on the rich 13,000-plus-year history and culture of Connecticut’s indigenous peoples

More than 13,000 years ago, people settled on lands that now lie within the boundaries of the state of Connecticut. Leaving no written records and scarce archaeological remains, these peoples and their communities have remained unknown to all


A groundbreaking volume on the rich 13,000-plus-year history and culture of Connecticut’s indigenous peoples

More than 13,000 years ago, people settled on lands that now lie within the boundaries of the state of Connecticut. Leaving no written records and scarce archaeological remains, these peoples and their communities have remained unknown to all but a few archaeologists and other scholars. This pioneering book is the first to provide a full account of Connecticut’s indigenous peoples, from the long-ago days of their arrival to the present day.
Lucianne Lavin draws on exciting new archaeological and ethnographic discoveries, interviews with Native Americans, rare documents including periodicals, archaeological reports, master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, conference papers, newspapers, and government records, as well as her own ongoing archaeological and documentary research. She creates a fascinating and remarkably detailed portrait of indigenous peoples in deep historic  times before European contact and of their changing lives during the past 400 years of colonial and state history. She also includes a short study of Native Americans in Connecticut in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This book brings to light the richness and diversity of Connecticut’s indigenous histories, corrects misinformation about the vanishing Connecticut Indian, and reveals the significant roles and contributions of Native Americans to modern-day Connecticut.


Editorial Reviews

Faith Damon Davison
“The scope of information in this book is impressive. . . . I urge anyone who is interested in Connecticut to purchase one.”—Faith Damon Davison, Archivist (retired), Mohegan Tribal Government, and elder, Mohegan Tribe
Laurie Weinstein
"Dr. Lavin’s book is a well-researched and very readable account of archaeology in Connecticut. The history of archaeology, along with copious site data is expertly presented against the backdrop of culture."—Laurie Weinstein, Series Editor, Native Peoples of the Americas
Nicholas Bellatoni
"Lucianne Lavin has accomplished an extraordinary achievement in this comprehensive synthesis of Connecticut’s Native peoples.  Compiling the latest scientific data from archaeology and history, she also includes native oral traditions.  The result is a compelling narrative stressing cultural change and continuity that is very much a story about today, as it is about the past."—Nicholas F. Bellantoni, Connecticut State Archaeologist
“As a comprehensive and synthesizing work, the book is outstanding and much needed.”—Choice
JM Northern Media - New England Book Festival
Won an Honorable Mention for the 2013 New England Book Festival given by the JM Northern Media Family of Festivals, in the General Non-Fiction Category.
Choice - Outstanding Academic Title
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the North America Category.
Connecticut League of History Organizations - Award of Merit
Winner of the 2014 Connecticut League of History Organizations Award of Merit.
New England Museum Association - Publication Award
Won Second Place in the books cateogry in the 2014 New England Museum Association Publication Award Competition.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
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Product dimensions:
7.40(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Connecticut's Indigenous Peoples

What Archaeology, History, and Oral Traditions Teach Us About Their Communities and Cultures

By Lucianne Lavin, Rosemary Volpe


Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18664-2



Connecticut's Earliest Settlers

The Paleo-Indian Period

The etymology of the word Muhheakunnuk, according to original signifying, is great waters or sea, which are constantly in motion, either flowing or ebbing. Our forefathers asserted that their ancestors were emigrated from west by north of another country; they passed over the great waters, where this and the other country is nearly connected, called Ukhkokpeck; it signifies snake water, or water where snakes abounded; and that they lived by [the] side of [a] great water or sea, from whence they derive the name of Muhheakunnuk nation.

—Hendrick Aupaumut, Mahikan (Mohican) Grand Sachem, about 1790

For the past million years much of North America was repeatedly covered and uncovered by a series of vast ice sheets. In some areas of New England these glaciers were over a mile thick (2 kilometers). Much of the earth's water was frozen into them. By about 15,000 B.P. sea level had dropped more than 435 feet (135 meters) lower than it is today, leaving much of the continental shelf exposed as dry land.


In northwestern North America the lower sea level exposed land along the Bering Strait, connecting Asia and Alaska. Although commonly called the Bering Land Bridge, it was rather a broad plain 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) wide. Geological and biological data suggest that this plain was exposed from about 80,000 B.P. to about 35,000 B.P., and that between 35,000 and 11,000 B.P. there were several submergences and re-emergences of the land. The Bering Plain, also called Beringia, was a treeless expanse of marshes, grasslands, and tundra, with low-growing plants capable of supporting large herds of animals.

There are several theories as to how humans came to inhabit North America. The earliest known settlers, the Paleo-Indians, could have easily emigrated from Asia across Beringia to Alaska. Geological evidence shows that there was an ice-free corridor in what are now the Yukon and Mackenzie river valleys. The path into the heart of North America lay along the east side of the Rocky Mountains, down an intermittently ice-free corridor between the Cordilleran ice sheet to the west and the Laurentide ice sheet to the east.

A more recent theory suggests that some Paleo-Indian groups followed the unglaciated coasts southward, possibly by boat, then eastward into the North and South American interiors. Several early sites have been discovered along the west coasts of North and South America. Tools and dietary remains from these sites suggest technologies and subsistence economies very different from those of inland Paleo-Indian sites, which are normally characterized by fluted spear points attributed to Clovis and its related cultural traditions. Radiocarbon-dated sites on islands off the California coast provide proof of Paleo-Indian seafaring. So do the Paleo-Indian boat-building sites on U.S. Department of Defense properties directly along the postulated sea route and along the margins of Glacial Lake Iroquois at Fort Drum, New York. Artifacts—including woodworking tools and an ochre-stained pestle (red ochre was sometimes used to temper the spruce gum used as a sealant for birch-bark canoes)—suggest boat-building activities.

The newest and most controversial theory for human emigration into the Americas suggests a route from Europe across Greenland and Iceland (whose land masses would have been greatly expanded by the dramatic drop in sea level caused by glaciation) into eastern North America. There is yet little evidence to support this theory, although advocates argue that some blade-like tools from the Topper site in South Carolina, which may be 15,000 years old, are reminiscent of European Paleolithic tools. Dr. Frederick Wiseman, an Abenaki Indian who is also a professional archaeologist, confronts western bias by suggesting that it was the Wabanaki (an inclusive term for the Abenaki and other northern New England and adjacent Canadian indigenous peoples), traditionally expert mariners, not Europeans who made the crossing. "Native American voyagers, through accident or design, contacted northwestern Europe and brought back to North America a very few Europeans, one woman of whom bore the X lineage [the genetic X haplogroup present in some Native American groups]."

The exact arrival of human groups in the Americas is heatedly debated. Most Paleo-Indian sites have been dated to between 12,000 and 10,000 B.P., so a date just before that time has traditionally been given for the arrival of the first humans south of the ice. More and more archaeological studies, however, point to a much earlier date, with sites in both North and South America dated between 37,000 and 15,000 B.P.

One example is the Pendejo Cave site near Orogrande, New Mexico, where soil levels contained artifacts, bones of extinct animals, and human finger and palm prints in baked clay (likely from clay-lined storage pits also at the site). Wood charcoal from the lowest soil level bearing a human print (zone K) provided a series of five radiocarbon dates ranging from 36,920 B.P. to 26,500 B.P. In the activity area where the print was found, archaeologists also unearthed stone artifacts and the toe bone of an extinct species of horse. This bone was pierced by the tip of a bone projectile point or wedge, proving that humans were there at the same time as the extinct animal.

Linguistic studies, and some genetic evidence, suggest that Native American populations diverged from those in Asia around 30,000 to 35,000 years ago. The more than 2,150 indigenous languages spoken in the Americas probably could not have evolved in less than 35,000 years. DNA studies are not that conclusive; those using mitochondrial DNA suggest divergence occurred up to 30,000 years ago while others suggest that divergence had already occurred by 20,000 B.P. Some genetic studies indicate that the early emigrants came from the Lake Baikal region of Russia. However, the skeleton of Kennewick Man, a young man buried over 9,000 years ago in what is now the state of Washington, is more physically similar to South Asian populations. The skeletal evidence supports an earlier DNA study that suggested a population movement from Southeast Asia or Polynesia to North America 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. All this suggests that there were multiple migrations over thousands of years by peoples from multiple Asian localities representing a diversity of cultures.


As late as 17,500 B.P. the Northeast was covered by glaciers, except for southeastern Connecticut and parts of New York's Long Island, which at that time was attached to Connecticut. There was no Long Island Sound. The Connecticut mainland extended more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Long Island onto the exposed continental shelf. Much of what is now Long Island Sound was covered by a great freshwater lake. As the ice retreated northward, many "glacial lakes" were formed by its moraines. Many smaller lakes, ponds, and swamps were also created by glacial movements throughout the state. Paleobotanical research indicates that a treeless arctic-alpine tundra of mosses, grasses, sedges, and other low-growing plants and small shrubs that included bilberry, dwarf birch, and dwarf willow flourished south of the glacier. Mastodon and mammoth remains recovered from the area show that the region was indeed habitable at the time and could have supported small multifamily communities of Paleo-Indians—the first settlers of New England.

A Paleo-Indian fluted spear point was recovered during dredging more than 900 feet (about 275 meters) from the present shore of Hammonasset Beach in Madison, Connecticut. This was likely an inland site during its occupation by Connecticut's earliest settlers. To look for earlier (pre-17,000 B.P.) humans in the Northeast, archaeologists must investigate the submerged Atlantic shelf, where researchers have located drowned forests, grass and tree pollens, faunal remains, and even artifacts.

Several southern New England archaeologists are doing just that. Underwater archaeological investigations off Block Island have found undisturbed river valleys, terraces, and uplands that would have provided necessary food sources and shelter for early Indian communities. Water, peat, and other favorable conditions unique to submerged sites may have helped to preserve perishable bone, wood, and textiles that would otherwise quickly disappear in the normally acidic soils of terrestrial sites.

Connecticut's Post- Glacial Environment

By 13,500 B.P. all of Connecticut was ice-free tundra. Meltwater from the retreating glacier created rivers, streams, and brooks whose waters rushed across the countryside into the Atlantic Ocean. The rapidly rising sea level began a chronicle of coastal submergence that continues to this day, albeit at a much slower pace. Rocks and debris dropped by the retreating glacier dammed up some of the melt-water streams, creating many lakes, ponds, and swamps.

The availability of tundra-grazing animals made the area attractive to Paleo-Indian groups. By studying pollen grains and other plant remains buried in sediments, archaeobotanists can tell what kinds of trees, grasses, and other plants were present and in what proportion. Radiocarbon dating enables such materials to be accurately dated as far back as 50,000 years.

Pollen grains and plant parts, such as conifer needles and seeds from aquatic plants found buried in sediments in Connecticut marshes and ponds, indicate that the tundra lasted until about 12,000 B.P. About that time spruce, white pine, fir, and larch began to appear in the tundra. Their number gradually increased until the tundra was almost completely replaced by a mixed conifer-hardwood forest.

This vegetation supported large animals—mastodon, mammoth, horse, giant beaver, giant ground sloth, moose-elk, caribou, musk-ox, and elk. When the deciduous woodlands became established, these animals moved north with the coniferous forest. Mastodon remains have been found in Connecticut, New York, and western Massachusetts in areas that were once ancient lakes and swamps. For example, in 1913 workmen digging a ditch for drinking water found mastodon bones on the Hillstead estate in Farmington in a swampy area near the foot of Talcott Mountain. In the 1970s, mastodon bones were dredged up from Lake Kitchawan in Pound Ridge, New York, just across the Connecticut border. In the early 1980s, a mastodon was excavated from Ivory Pond in the Housatonic River valley of western Massachusetts by archaeologists from the American Indian Archaeological Institute (now the Institute for American Indian Studies) in Washington, Connecticut. This site yielded two radiocarbon dates—one from bone and one from white spruce cones found with the animal—of 11,440 B.P. ±655 years and 11,630 B.P. ±470 years, respectively.

Although radiocarbon dating has established that these animals and Paleo-Indians coexisted, no Connecticut site has the bones of these animals in the same soil levels as Paleo-Indian artifacts. However, only six Paleo-Indian sites have been found in Connecticut to date, and there are sites with animal-human associations in adjacent states: the Hiscock site near Buffalo, New York, with mastodon bones and Paleo-Indian tools; the Whipple site in New Hampshire with caribou and beaver bones; and the possible association of caribou with humans at the Bull Brook site in Massachusetts. These animals may have been part of the diet of Paleo-Indian communities in Connecticut as well.

By at least 10,215 B.P. small pockets of oak trees began to transform the Connecticut landscape into a mosaic of deciduous and evergreen environments, signaling a warming climate. At the Templeton (6LF21) site, a Paleo-Indian settlement along the Shepaug River in Washington, Connecticut, microscopic studies of charcoal sections were identified as red oak and either juniper or white cedar trees. White oak, or over-cup oak, aspen, and white pine charcoal were also identified from the site.

In Connecticut, the Templeton site provided the earliest radiocarbon dates for Paleo-Indian settlement at 10,215 ±90 years and 10,190 B.P. ±300 years. A radiocarbon date of 10,260 B.P from the Hidden Creek (Power Plant) site overlooking the Great Cedar Swamp, a glacial lake basin at Mashantucket Pequot Reservation near Ledyard, is a bit earlier, but its excavators feel that that date is too early for the site's Late Paleo-Indian "Holcomb-like" unfluted lanceolate points and other artifacts, which better fit the other two radiocarbon dates from Hidden Creek, both calculated to 9160 B.P.

This is not to say that the first human groups arrived in Connecticut on these dates. Archaeological research in Pennsylvania and nearby New York suggests that humans arrived earlier, though not before about 17,500 B.P., because all but southeastern Connecticut was glaciated before then. As noted above, the remains of earlier settlements would be located southward in what is now Long Island Sound and beyond, on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

Paleo- Indian Settlements in Connecticut

We know little about these ancient communities. The stereotype of Paleo-Indian society is one of small groups of widely roaming "big game hunters" whose economy was based on the pursuit of large, migratory herd animals using the highest quality stone materials in the manufacture of their weaponry and tool kits. But this traditional image of Paleo-Indian daily life is based on findings from other regions, some of which had very different post-glacial physical environments than Connecticut. Different soils, topography, and vegetation could most certainly promote different kinds of economies and settlements, which could produce divergences in social and political organization, cosmology, spirituality, and other parts of the cultural system.

There are six excavated Paleo-Indian settlements in Connecticut: Templeton in Washington, Hidden Creek near Ledyard, Lovers Leap in New Milford, Liebman in Lebanon, Allen's Meadows in Wilton, and Baldwin Ridge in Groton. By studying these sites we can sketch something about the people who lived there, and the little information we have from them is still enough to refute that stereotype of Connecticut's Paleo-Indian communities.

Although there are only six known encampments, there are more than fifty Paleo-Indian artifact find spots listed in the archaeology site files in Connecticut's Office of State Archaeology. Artifact find spots are represented by a single artifact, often out of its original context, such as a surface find eroded from a hillside or churned up by plowing. Among the most well-known and prevalent of these finds are projectile points, the pointed heads inserted in the wooden shaft or foreshaft of a spear, javelin, dart, or arrow that was used for hunting or defense. Because the normally acidic conditions of our local soils destroy most perishable materials such as wood, all that remains of these implements are their stone tips, so it is often difficult to determine which projectile the point represents.

There are many different point styles, or types. Artifact types are time markers used to identify a site with a specific cultural period. The material culture of all societies changes through time. We Connecticut folks of European descent no longer wear Pilgrim clothing, shoot muskets, or drive Model T Fords. Similarly, Native American cultural remains changed in style over time. An automobile buff can look at a specific car and tell you the year when it was manufactured. Likewise, archaeologists can identify the age of certain artifact styles, especially for projectile points and clay pottery containers. (These point and pot styles are identified and illustrated in the chapters describing the cultural periods in which they were made and used. The illustrations should help budding archaeologists and amateur collectors identify the age of their collections.)

Native Americans made points and many other tools from stone, bone, antler, and wood, from earliest times right up to contact with European explorers and traders. In northeastern North America indigenous peoples had no knowledge of metallurgy. Metal objects such as copper bead necklaces and some rare copper projectile points were manufactured in later pre-contact periods, but these were cold-hammered from copper nuggets and are relatively soft. A very rare copper axe was found in Essex.

Excerpted from Connecticut's Indigenous Peoples by Lucianne Lavin. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

Faith Damon Davison
The scope of information in this book is impressive.…I urge anyone who is interested in Connecticut to purchase one.—Faith Damon Davison, Archivist (retired), Mohegan Tribal Government, and member, Mohegan Tribe

Meet the Author

Lucianne Lavin is Director of Research and Collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies. She lives in northwestern Connecticut.

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