It’s easy for most American descendants of people from other continents to think of history in terms of mere hundreds of years. Prior to 1640, most of us have no knowledge of what existed on this land.
Jeremy Dennis, a photographer from the Shinnecock Nation, is on a quest to piece together the pre-colonial history of fish-shaped Long Island, visiting sites from the fish’s tail of the Twin Forks to its mouth at Jamaica Bay, documenting, in photographs, the current landscape and its historical significance.
His project already includes one volume in print, “On This Site,” which he completed during a residency at the Watermill Center this past summer after receiving his MFA in Photography from Pennsylvania State University in 2016.
Mr. Dennis spent two weeks in November as the first artist-in-residence at Peconic Landing in Greenport seeking out these sites on the North Fork, which he plans to compile in the second volume of “On This Site.”
“My biggest surprise was there was so much research. I went to libraries throughout Long Island, to their local history rooms, where they have town records and town minutes back to the 17th Century, often times talking about land claims, trading with Indians, whaling contracts,” he said.
His biggest resource was the New York State Historic Preservation Office, which allowed him access to a Geographic Information Service-based database of archeological sites throughout the island.
His work has also been supported by a grant from Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
“Indigenous peoples have been here for more than 10,000 years,” Mr. Dennis told the crowd at a presentation at Peconic Landing on the final day of his residency Nov. 16. “Natives remained in the area until around the 19th Century as a distinct community, after which they migrated or were absorbed.”
On the North Fork, sites of early indigenous life from the time known as the Orient Period (1,300 – 1,000 BC) show a clear pattern, with settlements near the Peconic Bay and burial mounds on hills, often closer to the morainal headland on the Long Island Sound.
From Orient to Riverhead, Mr. Dennis spent the first two weeks in November seeking out these sites in the golden hours of the late afternoon, searching for shots that tell the story of the places.
For the past hundred years, the best keepers of this archeological history on the North Fork have been local farmers, who turned up artifacts when plowing their fields, eventually forming the Southold Indian Museum, which contains many artifacts they found. In sites near the bay, excavation for construction often turns up “shell middens,” an archeological term for discard piles, which here are sedimentary filled with shells of oysters and other shellfish.
In Orient, closer to the bay on the Orient Peninsula, he visited the Jagger Site, believed by farmer Roy Latham to have been a large pre-contact village that was abandoned by the time colonists arrived, the Hallock Site, believed to be a 17th Century flaking workshop where 3,000 stone scrapers have been found, and a site known as Five Acre Village where remains of many Corchaug Indian camps were evidenced by shell middens. Looking south from King Street, he laid eyes and lens on Gideon Island Fort, a smattering of trees in the distance, bisected by a straight line of water through the marsh, likely a mosquito ditch, unreachable from the mainland.
Native people at that time lived in wetus, or wigwams, whose walls were made from a native grass similar to phragmites, making them easy to pick up and move to a new site, said Mr. Dennis.
Overlooking the Long Island Sound, Mr. Dennis photographed a major burial site from what’s known as the Orient Period, a time during which indigenous people began to keep their burial sites far distinct from their habitation sites, a sign of reverence for the dead. This site, he said, is now a private housing development.
“If you want to develop a house on a hill, it’s probably a sacred site,” said Mr. Dennis.
Just to the west of there are carvings along the sound made by Orient fisherman E.A. Brooks in 1933, dedicated to the “memory of the vanquished Poquatucks.”
Mr. Brooks had written of the time “that it proved to be a ceremonial burial mound, and I like to imagine that the Indian spirits led me to the cache in appreciation of my carving the memorial.”
Mr. Dennis describes this as a “confused appreciation.” After all, he said, Mr. Brooks was desecrating a prehistoric burial.
Heading west on the North Fork, Southold is the place where the arrival of colonists from Connecticut in 1640 began to disrupt the lives of native people living on the North Fork at the time.
At Founders Landing, the park named for the place where those settlers landed, five Indian burials have been found.
On a recent late afternoon visit to the site, Mr. Dennis said it struck him as strange that there are no markers on the site to discuss its historical significance, or to commemorate the burials found there. Instead, there was the sound of children’s laughter, as they rode scooters through the park and played on the playground, oblivious to its history.
In Southampton, he said, at Conscience Point, where settlers met the Shinnecock tribe, there are several markers that talk about the historic significance of the place.
The area of Southold now known as “Indian Neck” is actually where Indians were pushed when the colonists took over the open fields and farmland of South Harbor, now known as Bayview, he said.
“During the early contact period, local people were moving all the time under threat from colonists,” said Mr. Dennis. “They were pushed to land called Indian Neck across the channel from South Harbor. Indian Neck was a much less desirable place to live. It was very heavily wooded.”
The Indians called Indian Neck Pequash, he said.
Mr. Dennis said that by the 1700s only 40 native men, women and children were counted on the North Fork, though he’s found documentation of local workers working for Indians on Indian Neck until about 1750.
Fort Corchoug, overlooking Downs Creek in Cutchogue, is perhaps the most well-known of the North Fork’s native sites. The 17th Century log fort was built by Native Americans, with help from the Europeans, to protect themselves from other tribes from New England.
“They would subject us to violence if we didn’t give them wampum,” he said.
“In 1992, it was described as the best American Indian historical site on the Eastern Seaboard, and it’s the last historical remnant on Eastern Long Island,” said Mr. Dennis. “Today it is a national historical landmark.
Heading further west, a seemingly inconspicuous piece of farmland on the east side of the intersection of New Suffolk Avenue and Marratooka Lane, adjacent to Deep Hole Creek, was known as Pessapunk — the site of a sweat lodge.
Laurel Lake was originally named Lake Momoweta, after the Sachem of the Corchaug Indians around 1648, an ally of the Dutch who gave the land on the North Fork from Greenport east to Eaton of Connecticut. That transfer included Plum Island, which was disputed by another Sachem.
Mr. Dennis said Sachems were members of tribes who were chosen when European colonists arrived to represent the tribes in legal matters involving land — the concept of owning land had’t been a part of tribal life before the Europeans arrived.
On the Reeves Family Farm in Aquebogue, four prehistoric human remains were found in 1961.
“For decades following, schoolchildren flocked to farm to find artifacts,” said Mr. Dennis.
And farther west, at Indian Island County Park, a storm eroded the beach in 2005, exposing burials and artifacts. They were brought further inland and re-interred, in a ceremony the Shinnecock Nation, their only remaining cousins, helped to officiate.
“This project has taught me how the past stays with us,” said Mr. Dennis. “I believe now the past is never that distant or gone. Once it’s over, it stays with us in monuments and even in our imagination.”
Mr. Dennis is now looking into continuing his project in the Rockaways.