Sawconnick and the Quinnipiacs of Shushuck

-Old News From The Flats-

Sawconnick and the Quinnipiacs of Shushuck


Over the past sixty years I’ve accumulated a collection of prehistoric artifacts from the flats which exceeds 1000 assorted pieces including projectiles, stone knives, pestles for grinding corn and nuts and some well-worn stone hoes used in farming. The collection spans a time period of at least 8000 years and is dwarfed by the thousands of pieces which have been found by other collectors over the decades. I remember every farm family having some cigar boxes filled with many arrowheads which they found in their fields. Some of these farmers remembered “Yale Professors” surface hunting during the 1930s and 1940s.

So we can confidently assume the flats was a fairly active place over the millennia, but not in the period just before English contact in 1638. By 1633 a smallpox epidemic, preceded by plague, (both introduced by Europeans) had decimated the Quinnipiac population by an estimated eighty percent. The native people had no immunities against smallpox and the bubonic and pneumonia plagues.

In 1613 Adrian Block, sailing under a Dutch flag, explored the Connecticut coastline looking to establish a fur trade. At some point he entered present day New Haven harbor. He named the place “Roodenbergh” which means red hills in reference to present day East Rock and the Palisades of Meriden, which he saw in the distance while sailing up the Quinnipiac River. There is no record he explored inland on foot from the harbor, but he started a lucrative trade in beaver pelts with the dwindling Quinnipiac population, as all the local rivers including the West River, had abundant beaver. Likely the beaver fur trade with the Dutch extended into the flats at least two decades before the English settled in New Haven.

When New Haven was settled in 1638, its leaders John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton entered into a treaty with Montowese, sachem of the Northern Quinnipiac band, for long along the Quinnipiac River beyond North Haven. That treaty signing took place on December 11, 1638 and accompanying Montowese was Sawconnick, (Ezra Stiles 1761) who signed the treaty ceding the land northwest of New Haven, which included today’s flats. The Quinnipiac name for the West River Valley was, in the Algonquian language, “Shushuck” and Sawconn was its sachem. I’m enlightened to know the name of the man who likely used some of the arrowheads I’ve been so fortunate to find. Usually those names are unknown, and artifact collectors take for granted they will never know the name of the person who made or used the relics they find. The most common arrow point found in the flats is called “Levanna”. Their shape is an elongated triangle and they measure between one and a half to two inches in length. Their time period falls in the “Late Woodland” era. (A.D. 1400 to contact with the English). This is the point type which was made and used by the Quinnipiac people.

Trying to estimate the population of Shushuck at the time of the treaty of December, 1638 can at best be a calculated guess. When the treaty was signed it included a census of fifty-seven adult males. Women and children were not included in the census, but a probable ratio of four women and children to one adult male would result in approximately a population of 285 people living in the area from the east shore of present day New Haven harbor, extending north and terminating in the Flats. It’s likely Sawconnick and the people who inhabited Shushuck were but a scant few, perhaps twenty-five when the treaty was signed.

Recently, thanks to Don Menzies, I came across a Christmas card dated 1921 with a photo of Charles Bond and family, taken in their living room at the former Ebenezer Speery home, built in 1730. (Presently the Luciani homestead and farm). The card reads: “Christmas greetings from Shushuck Outlook”. So it seems the name Shushuck pre-dates the name Woodbridge by at least one hundred and forty years and was still being used in the 1920s.

Simon Donato