Apocalypse Then

By Richard Barons
“The Saltwater Frontier” is Andrew Lipman’s first book.

“The Saltwater Frontier”

Andrew Lipman

Yale University Press, $38

There are several historians who have given those of us who reside on the end of Long Island a series of enlightening books that examine epochs from our past with careful scholarship and surprising conclusions. Within the last 20 years, these authors have unearthed remarkable documents that open up what was once a foggy past obscured by folklore, misconceptions, and Eurocentric posturing. 

I am thinking of Kathleen Bragdon’s “Native People of Southern New England, 1665-1775,” David Goddard’s “Colonizing Southampton,” Katherine Howlett Hayes’s “Slavery Before Race,” Faren R. Siminoff’s “Crossing the Sound,” and anything by Karen Ordahl Kupperman or John Strong.

Andrew Lipman, a professor at Barnard College, has written such a book. His “The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast” gives the reader an intriguing and ingenious story that follows along the East Coast from Plymouth, Mass., tracing the Connecticut shore to Manhattan. The author’s territory continues on to Long Island’s North Shore and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while stopping at the tip of Cape Cod. And, since this book is about water, everything in between.

In his introduction, Mr. Lipman clearly focuses on a major blind spot in most American history publications. These books and articles have tended to see the natives standing on shore while the foreigners looked at them from huge floating ships. Earlier writers construed the invasion as one-sided: the Europeans on the ocean and the locals in the woods. The power was seen unfairly as totally in the fists of the armor-clad white warriors. 

But the Indians were just as much mariners and warriors as were the Dutch, English, French, and Spanish. Indeed, both cultures learned from each other about the best ways to use the saltwater highway to their advantage. In the beginning, it was often unclear who did in fact have the upper hand. This sense of lack of control kept both parties always on edge.

Mr. Lipman starts his first chapter by examining the Indian story of creation. This mythic tale is drenched in seawater. We are introduced to a great giant who splashes about the waters from the Hudson River to Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod. He grabs whales and braises them for his morning meal. While enjoying his tobacco, he creates Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard from the ashes he empties from his pipe. When he becomes angered by biting crabs or an annoying wife, other islands are created or whole schools of sea life are transported. 

He was not the only deity in the deep waters, but it was this colossus who, before vanishing into the sea, sculpted the irregular Connecticut shoreline and the collection of islands that became home to our native people.

Mr. Lipman sees a strong relationship between this cranky giant (called Weetucks by the Pequots, Mohegans, and Narragansetts) and the great glacial knife blade that scraped over our land some 25,000 years ago during the last ice age. It, too, was a sculptor. It formed Long Island and played about with the topography with as much energy and creativity as Weetucks.

The amazing environment that was left by the giants of nature and the gods became a coastal collection of lively neighboring societies that fished, planted, and enjoyed a rich life. These people explored and mapped their world. They entertained guests from the south (who likely introduced corn to the area’s diet), north, and west. They hunted the wetlands and forests for food. Wives and husbands were sometimes from away. This was a connected culture that used canoes (some of impressive size) to maintain trade and communication. And yes, there were disagreements and bloodshed.

Into this world sailed an apocalypse. Henry VII had Capt. John Cabot sail to Newfoundland in 1497. The French sent Verrazzano out to explore in 1524, and Bartholomew Gosnold told his English sponsors about the riches he had seen from his ship in 1602. The Dutch hired Henry Hudson to search for a water route to the East in 1609. The adventure started slowly, but by the early 1630s both the Dutch and the English were building their colonies, the Dutch to the west up and down the Hudson River and the English along the eastern coast stretching from Plymouth both north and south.

The author gives us an excellent introduction to the follies of both enterprises. Though the Dutch seemed to be the most wrongheaded in their approach to dealing with the Indians, the English were not far behind in their entitled attitude toward a civilization that was merely in their way.

The English and Dutch boats were far too large and cumbersome when it came to maneuvering in and out of the many small coves off the south shore of Connecticut. First the English stole native canoes because they were perfect (if tippy) for their use. But soon the Indians were manufacturing them, in great numbers, to sell to the foreigners. And natives even began to build larger boats for themselves that were based on the Dutch and English vernacular forms.

This book is centered on Long Island Sound and clearly relies on the ancient town records of East Hampton and Southampton to help illuminate the roles played by both the colonists and the natives (Montauketts, Shinnecocks, and Corchaugs) in their conflicts. Lion Gardiner and Wyandanch are carefully presented as important actors in this drama. Gardiner’s understanding of the respect due the sachems as well the adoption of some of the more brutal aspects of Indian surrender (gifting the head of a murdered enemy) clearly were vital to the English side. I should note that the author assures us that neither side was bloodier than the other. The tradition of whaling and wampum is particularly well explained. 

The Europeans began to get more aggressive in their desire to contain the native population and restrict their use of the traditional fishing and hunting grounds. In Southampton, the Indians’ dogs were shot because they bothered the colonists. Soon the settlers were taking the Indians’ farming tools away from them because their hoes and rakes could become weapons. War was inevitable.

Though we know how the story ends, we really have never been shown in detail the steps that led to the end of the nations of natives who populated our part of the world. Andrew Lipman has produced an important volume that traces the understandings and misunderstandings of this vital chapter in Long Island history. The battles on land and sea are carefully balanced with the technology of the time, but this fable is mixed with tragic relationships that were built and smashed by human greed and ideology. 

This is a fascinating and real story that is written in an enlightening and intelligent style. It is very approachable and certainly engaging. It is also one of the saddest chapters of our history.

Richard Barons is the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. He lives in Springs.

In March “The Saltwater Frontier” won the Bancroft Prize for books about American history.