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Native American Heritage Month: Quashawam’s Montaukett Tribe Leadership

Wyandanch was the well-known and widely respected sachem of the Montaukett Tribe in New York. You’ve probably heard his name…he was a strategic leader, he formed alliances like nobody’s business, and he got a sweet little Long Island town named after him.

But do you know the story of Quashawam, his daughter?! She’s the one who took over him as leader, ensured the tribe’s survival, and protected their land. You won’t find a trace of her name or story on a map or in a history book, so let’s talk about her, shall we!

Quashawam was born around 1640 in Montauk, the same year that colonists arrived with the lovely gifts of liquor, weapons, and contagious diseases. For centuries, the Americans had lived peacefully on Long Island, san colonists. They were surrounded by water – the women were the farmers and the men fished and hunted. Resources were plentiful and the Montaukett Tribe thrive (try saying that three times fast!). As colonists invaded, rapidly destroyed resources, and passed diseases that compromised the community’s health (aka everyone started dying), Quashawam’s father scrambled to maintain control. She observed him closely, brain like a sponge, taking it all in.

English and Dutch settles, as well as the Montauk and Shinnecock natives, competed for control of Eastern Long Island. Maybe they knew it would become the most expensive beach destination in the country and Robert De Niro would live there someday. There was total chaos in the 1640s, and Wyandanch formed an alliance with the English right away. The English colonists respected him, and made him the representative for all Eastern Long Island’ communities – huge authority for Wyandanch.

Then, when Quashawam was 13, she was kidnapped as a political prisoner. A tribe from Rhode Island invaded Montauk, killed 30 people and took her away from home, demanding a ransom payment from her dad. Wyanndanch was so respected by his English allies at this point, that they stepped in and forced the kidnappers to release his daughter.

So Quashawam saw first-hand how important it was to have allies. Her father maintained his relationships in a time of massive change, upheaval, and turbulence in Long Island, and that made him a great leader. And then in 1659, he died, as people do, but the succession was more complicated than the succession on the show Succession.

Not really, but Quashawam’s younger brother was too young to assume leadership, and then he died, along with Wyandanch’s widow, in a 1662 smallpox outbreak (once again, thanks to the colonists!). With things falling apart of the Montaukett Tribe and Quashawam as Wyandanch’s only living heir, she was their last hope. She stepped up and handled everything, as women tended too.

Quashawam got right to work on ensuring stability for her people. She issued treaties and negotiated deals that built safety nets in the event of her death. When English colonists instigated a conflict over land, Quashawam sent two representatives to meet with Peter Stuyvesant about the matter. She got the Dutch leader on her side and pitted the English and Dutch against each other; they fought each other over the land, temporarily leaving Quashawam alone.

This was the kind of strategist Quashawam was. She was so valued her allies that she decided to give her friend Pterosaur’s Stuyvesant a heads-up that the English were planning to invade his colony. But he didn’t listen. He ignored her warnings–his reports even avoided calling her by name, referring to her as “the savage woman.” Of course she was right; the English invaded New Netherland, the Dutch were unprepared, the colony fell to English control.

Quashawam convinced the English government to recognize the boundaries of her peoples’ land. When neighboring farmers from Southampton went within those limits to let their cattle graze, they owed taxes to Quashawam’s tribe. She was forward-thinking, always acting in the bests interests of her people. During her reign, she consolidated her power, weaponizing her enemies against each other, and set her community up for success against all odds. So…why don’t more people know Quashawam’s name?

 

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