The Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe
By Charles Brilvitch
The Golden Hill Paugussett tribe has been a part of Greater Bridgeport’s history from time immemorial. The original indigenous people of this region, who greeted the first European explorers and settlers and who were responsible for the pottery fragments, arrowheads, and shell middens excavated by archaeologists over the years, still manage to hold onto a tiny scrap of their ancestral territory, the Golden Hill Reservation in Trumbull. Their story is a fascinating one, sometimes tragic, more often inspirational.
It all goes back to the land. Scholars and historians generally agree that Paugussett territory extended along the Connecticut coast west from New Haven Harbor to the Saugatuck River in Westport, and to the upper reaches of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers. This is a unique geological province of Connecticut: It is the only portion of the state with a wide and fertile coastal plain, much like lands well to the south (to the east of New Haven and from Norwalk west the boulder-strewn granite hills extend down to the edge of the Sound). The Paugussett lands had long sandy beaches adjoined by extensive tidal flats and salt marshes, quite the opposite of the “rock-bound coast” usually associated with New England.
This gentle land was a paradise for fish, shellfish, and wildlife as well as Native people. It is estimated that then, as now, fully 25 per cent of Connecticut’s oyster population could be found at the mouth of the Housatonic River–and the area immediately off the coast of Bridgeport comprises the largest natural-growth oyster bed to the north of Chesapeake Bay. The Great Meadows salt marsh of Stratford, in pre-landfill days more than triple its current size, was a major marine nursery of Long Island Sound. Its waters were rife with crabs and terrapin and sheltered immense flocks of waterfowl as well as the fry of dozens of species of fish. The sand flats exposed off the beaches at low tide provided seemingly endless quantities of clams, on which the Indians would feast and often dry for winter use. The Housatonic itself was the southernmost river on the North American continent with a run of Atlantic salmon, which came every year on the heels of the run of shad, also smoked and dried to provide sustenance throughout the year.
The Paugussett tribesmen nurtured the terrestrial component of this coastline as well. They used fire as a tool to clear underbrush, add fertility to the soil, and provide optimal conditions for game animal habitat. They also cleared substantial areas to create major planting fields–indeed, the contact-era name for what is now Bridgeport, “Pequonnock,” means “cleared land.” Indian women were responsible for cultivating the proverbial “Three Sisters”–corn, beans, and squash–as well as other crops ranging from tobacco for ceremonial use to Jerusalem artichokes to be baked, boiled, or fried in the manner of potatoes.
It has been said that, of all the areas of North America, population density was the greatest in those pre-contact times around the periphery of Long Island Sound. And on the Sound, the population was far and away the greatest in the favored territory that would later be known as Bridgeport and Stratford. All those clams and oysters right offshore provided a protein source for a great multitude of people that required very little labor to gather (bereft of good knives, the Natives would roast them by their fires to extricate them from their shells). The planting fields that had been cultivated and enriched for centuries were known to be of such extent that a population of several thousand could have been supported in comfort and plenty. We know of major Paugussett village locations in the vicinity of Mountain Grove Cemetery, where the fresh water of the Rooster River pours into the saline Ash Creek; on the south side of Golden Hill where Elm Street would later be laid out; and at the head of Johnson’s Creek at the Stratford line (the so-called Johnson Oak nearby, which was estimated to have been 800 to 1000 years old when it succumbed in the 1970s, indicated by its horizontal branch structure that it had always grown in an open field).
For perhaps thousands of years the Natives lived in harmony with the land, understanding every facet of its character. We are told they held sacred an unusual series of springs that gushed from the earth at the summit of Golden Hill, what geologists of the present time tell us is the outlet of an underground river that comes down from New Milford. Here were found scores of graves over the course of the 19th and early-20th centuries. Orcutt’s History also tells of a “Pow-Wow or Medicine Camp,” a circle of stone posts at the foot of Old Mill Hill overlooking Yellow Mill Pond. Although thoughtlessly demolished and used for landfill in the 1840s, a few tantalizing components were preserved as “curiosities” and survive to the present day.
As we know all too well, this Arcadian wonderland came to an abrupt end. Europeans began to explore the coast in the 16th century, transmitting deadly diseases that spread from tribe to tribe for which the Natives had no resistance. In 1614 Dutch traders set up shop on the Hudson River, a mere 50 miles from Paugussett territory. Within a short time they managed to coerce the tribe into intensive manufacture of wampum, a product of the quahog shells found in profusion in the waters off the beaches of Fairfield, Milford, and Bridgeport. Used by Natives for millenia for religious and diplomatic purposes, the wampum belts became perverted into a form of currency that was used in the fur trade centered at Albany. The peaceful Paugussetts, whose few primitive weapons were useless against the firearms possessed by the Dutch, were in no position to refuse.
Worse was to come. A group of religious idealists, under pressure to conform in their native land, decided instead in the 1620s to emigrate en masse and establish a “New England” on the opposite side of the Atlantic, as if it were some vacant territory free for the taking. They swarmed into Massachusetts, its Indian population heavily decimated by a series of epidemics, and made the surviving Natives exiles in the land their ancestors had occupied for thousands of years. Bemoaning the religious persecution they had suffered in Europe, these “Puritans” forced the Natives to accept their narrow vision of divine worship or face death or a lifetime of enslavement. But, alas for the poor “Praying Indians” who tried to accommodate the ruthless intruders–they ended up being sold off into slavery in the West Indies anyway.
It would not be long before the choice lands that were home to the Golden Hill Paugussett caught the eye of the land-hungry Englishmen. Led by their clergymen, Puritan “flocks” helped themselves to the rich farmland of the Connecticut River Valley–the product of countless generations of toil on the part of the River Indians–beginning in 1633. The docile River tribes folded before the English, but another more warlike tribe–the Pequots–stood their ground and contested the Puritan incursion into Indian territory. Their resistance led to the Pequot War of 1637, in which the majority of the tribe regardless of age, gender, or history of taking up arms against the English, were murdered in their sleep, and much of the remainder found themselves enslaved, some thousands of miles from home.
A tattered remnant of the Pequot tribe fled overland, hoping to hook up with kinsmen in the Hudson Valley. They covered 80 grueling miles on foot before they were cornered by the English in a swamp in what is today known as Southport (between Center Street and Oxford Road, just to the north of the I-95 entrance ramp). Here most of the remaining warriors were slaughtered, although the Pequot chief Sassacus did manage to escape one last time (he attained his goal of reaching his Mohawk brethren; they, however, betrayed him, and sent his 000000000000severed head on a pike to the English at Hartford).
With the Pequot tribe vanquished, the Englishmen took a good calculating look at the land in the vicinity of their battlefield and liked what they saw–lots of level, fertile land already cleared and ready to farm, plenty of salt hay for their cattle in the marshes, and all those fish and oysters. It mattered little that the land was already “owned” and fully occupied, or that it had previously been claimed by the Dutch. Accordingly, two years later three new settlements were planted–Milford, Stratford, and Fairfield–right in the middle of the Paugussett heartland. As had been the practice elsewhere, the Indian inhabitants would simply have to be elbowed aside from their own country.
A year earlier (1638), the founders of the New Haven colony had struck upon a new and novel concept: the Indian reservation. The idea was to round up the Native leadership, gift them with a couple of iron kettles, a few bolts of cloth, and some assorted trinkets, and get them to in some fashion sign a legal document written in squiggles in an indecipherable foreign tongue that represented a concept that was inconceivable to the Native mind. “We the undersigned do hereby sell, bargain, and relinquish all right and title to the lands herein described….” The legal formalities over and proper title established, the Indians found themselves banished for all time to a tiny scrap of land, ideally a rock pile, that could in no way sustain life for the tribe. It then came down to a choice between starvation, running afoul of the strange English laws, which usually resulted in being sold into slavery or even execution, or exile from the land of the ancestors.
The New Haven innovation was a boon to the settlers of the Paugussett territories. Schenck’s History tells us that a de facto Paugussett reservation was set up in that year of 1639, its boundaries somewhat vague other than being to the west of Stratford and to the east of Fairfield. With the protein-rich estuary of the Pequonnock, the Great Planting Field, and the sacred precincts of Golden Hill still under their control, the Indians probably thought they could accommodate the invaders and live out their lives in peace. Any such optimism, however, was to be short-lived.
In 1659 the General Court met at Hartford to establish set boundaries that comprised barely half of Golden Hill itself, on which to supposedly sustain several hundred inhabitants. (The bounds of this tract were roughly Catherine Street/East Washington Avenue on the north; Harral Avenue to Harrison Street on the west; Fairfield Avenue to Golden Hill Street on the south, and the Pequonnock River on the east). In 1680 the Town of Stratford cavalierly laid out the present Washington Avenue right through the middle of the reservation lands, severing the western portion and reducing the tribal allotment to a mere 80 acres. An unwritten policy of harassment was apparently in practice over the years. White farmers would help themselves to the firewood the Indians desperately needed and would let their cattle graze in their cornfields. They gradually encroached on tribal lands so that by the 1760s only eight of those precious few 80 acres remained under Indian control. The tribe filed formal complaint with the General Court in Hartford but failed to obtain justice.
After the Revolutionary War the Golden Hill Indians thought they had found a champion in the man Aaron Hawley, whose lands adjoined theirs. He demanded redress from the new State of Connecticut on their behalf and was named official overseer of their legal and financial affairs. His motives became clear, however, in 1802, when he asked for and received permission to sell off the last of the Golden Hill reservation to satisfy the debt for legal representation that he himself had incurred. Hawley was paid in full, but the “last” of the Golden Hill Indians were left homeless to fend for themselves.
This is the point in time at which nineteenth-century historians lose interest in the saga of the Golden Hill Paugussetts, usually adding a vague footnote that they somehow “melted away” before a “better race.” Occasionally they note that a tribal overseer–they were continually appointed by the State throughout the 19th century–procured a new 19 1/2-acre reservation in the town of Trumbull for the tribe’s use in 1841. But the condescending concept of the tribe “melting away” so that the historian could turn his attention to more “important” matters ignores one of the most fascinating and inspiring stories of Native survival in New England history. The Paugussett people, far from being hapless and perpetual victims, adapted themselves with courage and panache to their new circumstances and took for themselves a page out of the white man’s playbook. They not only survived; they prospered, and in many ways laid the groundwork for the modern community that we all know.
Let us envision Fairfield County as it existed in the early days of the American republic: a collection of rural towns comprised basically of subsistence farms, with a handful of small manufactories and trading operations in the fledgling seaports. The Native population had basically been forced in its entirety off the reservations and had adapted Christianity and Anglo-Saxon surnames and outward lifestyles. They spoke English fluently in their public and private life (the last native speaker of the Paugussett language died in 1829, approaching her 100th birthday). They remained eminently conscious, however, of who and what they were, their cultural heritage amazingly intact beneath a veneer that was acceptable to their white neighbors (the diary kept by William Sherman from 1855 through the 1880s sheds much light on the depth and extent of this cultural survival). They generally supported themselves as farmhands, millhands, woodcutters, and general laborers in the country towns throughout the region.
In 1828 a man by the name of Joel Freeman moved from Derby to Bridgeport and took employment as a hand on a West India schooner. Freeman had been born in 1795 in a remnant Paugussett community that survived at the fringes of white civilization (we learned of his tribal membership through the discovery of a document that names him as one of seven surviving heirs in New Haven County to Paugussett tribal lands). Freeman was a man with a vision who took it upon himself to gather the far-flung remnants of the Paugussett community, uniting it once again as a cultural and economic force in the nascent town of Bridgeport. His success is one of the remarkable untold stories of Native persistence during the days of Andrew Jackson’s tenancy in the White House, a time when the Indian Removal Act was pushed through Congress as a final thrust of cultural genocide.
Despite the prevailing culture’s demands that Native peoples accept Protestant Christianity as their religion, Indians were treated as second-class members of their respective congregations. They generally had a non-voting status and were relegated to observing services from the balconies, out of the view of their white-skinned neighbors. Freeman took umbrage at this situation and resolved to do something about it. He became a circuit rider, traveling to isolated homesteads in towns like Redding, Easton, Monroe, Newtown, and Southbury, inspiring the inhabitants with his vision of a unified Native community with its very own place of worship. Beginning on a summer Sunday in that year of 1828, Indians from all over southwestern Connecticut gathered for divine service under the shelter of a great elm tree that stood until 1873 on the site of the present Bridgeport Public Library.
Perhaps as a reaction to the President’s initiatives in Washington to stamp out any last vestiges of the Red Man’s culture, a determined community began to coalesce around Joel Freeman’s residence on the shores of Bridgeport’s outer harbor in what is today known as the South End. Joel loaned “Zion Church” money to purchase a building lot, and more to construct a permanent edifice in 1835. Two brothers-in law opened a shipyard on Joel’s property; another close neighbor became Bridgeport’s largest purveyor of clams and oysters. The women of the community were renowned as cooks at a time when new-money white people aspired to European sophistication at their dining tables. Joel’s sister Mary earned a fortune as a chef for New York City hotels, and Presence Jackson, Mary Freeman’s neighbor across Main Street, was the head cook in the household of P.T. Barnum. In 1853 a major resort hotel opened, attracting people from all the major East Coast cities and cementing the community’s reputation as one of the stellar examples of successful Native American enterprise.
A man named William Sherman came of age during this heady period and partook of the South End community’s intoxicating atmosphere. The son of one of the shipyard owners on Joel Freeman’s property, Sherman worked his way up to the position of first mate on whaling ships out of New London, sailing around the world a total of nine times. We know from the meticulous records he kept that he was in frequent contact with virtually all members of the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe; that he was immersed in Indian culture and tradition, with particular emphasis on the use of medicinal plants; and that he served as a virtual ambassador of the Golden Hill Indians to the world at large, surviving into an era when the covert Indian activity of the Jacksonian era could begin to come out into the open.
Sherman apparently fretted, however, about the prospects for cultural survival in a Bridgeport that was evolving from a relatively small seaport town to a polyglot and worldly industrial city. As the whaling business declined precipitously in the 1860s, he moved his young family to the rural village of Nichols, site of the Golden Hill reservation from 1841 to 1854 and perhaps the place where he himself had grown up. Sherman took it upon himself to secure a permanent land base for the tribe, working much of his adult life to purchase a small holding that contained an ancient Indian burial ground and to construct a house on it. This he deeded to the State of Connecticut prior to his death to be held in trust in perpetuity as the Golden Hill Reservation. Sherman’s biography is included in both Hurd’s (1881) and Orcutt’s (1886) Histories, detailing his descent, his great knowledge of Native culture, and the responsibilities of his chieftainship.
Unlike the other Indian reservations in Connecticut, and, indeed, the whole of the American continent, the land base William Sherman reestablished was minuscule (one-quarter of an acre), and therefore unable to provide living space for any real portion of the tribal membership. So, from the time of its inception in 1875, the Golden Hill Trumbull reservation has served more-or-less as the “executive offices” of the tribe, as well as the home of its chieftain. There are complex reasons why an urbanized tribe like the Paugussetts were not able to live together in a community: Due to treaties that went back to the days of first contact, reservation Indians were not taxed, were not liable for debts, and were not subject to certain laws, such as those pertaining to hunting and fishing licenses. Conversely, they were not allowed to vote or own real property. American Indians living on reservations did not obtain the right to become American citizens until 1924, and it was not until 1940 that Indians born on American soil were “automatically” considered to be citizens of the United States! And so the rank-and-file membership of the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe continued to live out their lives in their respective communities in Bridgeport, in Ansonia, and scattered about the various towns of southeast Fairfield and southwest New Haven counties.
The Paugussett tribe is remarkable for the continuity of its leadership, which can be traced back in an unbroken line from Queriheag in the 1630s, through Musquatt in the 1660s, Raumaug and Montaugk from the beginning to the middle of the 18th century, and Tom Sherman (Shoran) as that century drew to a close. Tom Sherman Jr. assumed the leadership role following his father’s death in 1801, and served until his own passing in 1849 (it should be noted that Joel Freeman served in a demonstrable leadership role in the South End community as well until his death in 1865). This brings us to William Sherman, the first of the Paugussett tribal leaders to attract the interest of a plethora of writers, newsmen, and biographers during the course of his lifetime.
William Sherman was succeeded as chief in 1886 by his son George (b. 1871). George’s daughter, Ethel, was installed as “Chieftess Rising Star” at an impressive ceremony in 1933 that attracted 20 tribal chiefs from across America. George’s son, Edward, was named “Chief Black Hawk” following the father’s passing in 1938. Black Hawk served for the remainder of his life, which ended in 1974. The next in line was Ethel’s son, Aurelius, known as “Chief Big Eagle.” Big Eagle became a nationally known spokesman for Indian rights and, like his great-grandfather William Sherman, fought for the preservation and renewal of the tribe’s land base. Under his leadership a second reservation, 108 acres in size, was purchased for the tribe in the Eastern Connecticut town of Colchester (1981).
Recognized by the Colony and State of Connecticut continuously for some 350 years, the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe applied for Federal recognition with a simple heartfelt letter from Chief Big Eagle to President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Meanwhile, in October of 1983 President Reagan signed a bill which granted Federal recognition to Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot tribe, exempting them from the normal administrative process of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which requires documentation of cultural and community continuity as well as political organization for each and every decade from the time of first contact to the present day. The Mashantuckets went on to build the world’s largest resort casino, which for a time was also among the most lucrative. In 1994 the Mohegan tribe across the river was also federally recognized, despite the seeming disqualification factor that the tribe had voluntarily disbanded itself in 1861. The Mohegans as well went on to build one of the world’s most lucrative gaming facilities.
As can be seen, the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by Congress in 1988 created a new dynamic that skewed the motivation in many people’s minds for seeking Federal recognition. Chief Big Eagle, perplexed by the seeming inequity of having one of the state’s tribes skate through the process while the others were held to standards that were virtually impossible to meet (how does one account for tribal cultural and political activity as witnessed by ‘disinterested third-party sources’ during the decade of the 1830s, for example, when by the government’s own policies such activities would have resulted in exile of the entire tribe to the dreaded Oklahoma Territory?), decided to retire from this active pursuit. In 1991 he named his son Aurelius Jr. “Chief Quiet Hawk,” and retired from the fray.
Chief Quiet Hawk, an ex-Marine, rose to the occasion. He doggedly pursued the quest for recognition, overcoming every bureaucratic hurdle as it was thrown in his way. Thousands upon thousands of records were scrutinized from every archival source, putting together a rather complete picture of a continuing relationship between the Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Colony and State. The onus was put on the tribe to account for the inadequacy and incompetence of the state’s own appointed overseers, who often charged hefty fees to the tribe’s accounts while neglecting to keep any records at all. Meanwhile, the Governor of the State of Connecticut and the entire congressional delegation stood united in opposition to the Paugussetts ever being granted Federal recognition. Many prejudicial statements were issued by elected officials that would seem to have tainted the integrity of the evaluation process.
Chief Big Eagle died in August, 2008 at the age of 91, never living to see the hoped-for day when recognition would be granted. In the face of daunting opposition, Chief Quiet Hawk remains unrelenting in his quest for justice.
Batchellor, C.S., and R. Edward Steck. “Indian Archeology in and around Bridgeport, Connecticut.” Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Connecticut, No. 12 (May, 1941).
Brilvitch, Charles W. A History of Connecticut’s Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe. Charleston: The History Press, 2007.
DeForest, John William. History of the Indians of Connecticut. Hartford: W.J. Hammersley, 1851.
Hurd, D. Hamilton. A History of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1881.
Lavin, Lucianne. Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
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Orcutt, Rev. Samuel. A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport. Bridgeport: Fairfield County Historical Society, 1886.