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The Massapequa Connection

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A Tale of the Massapequa Indians

By Eric Usinger

By the mid-1950's, bulldozers and housing crews had almost completely cleared through the south shore of Massapequa to make way for new homes in what is now Harbour Green. In doing so they paved over what was one of the last remnants of Massapequa's ancient past still in existence.

Before the Jones' built their first home in Massapequa, and before the Powell family settled in Farmingdale, the Massapequa Indians controlled the area. The Massapequas, also known as the Marsapague Indians, were just one of several Indian tribes on Long Island under the control of Sachem Tackapausha. Their land extended from Seaford to Islip, with their principal village in Massapequa.

The south shore of Long Island was more than suitable for the Indians, being in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, along with a vast woodland abundant with deer and game animals.

The men, known as braves, wore moccasins and loin-cloth and often dressed in decorated leather or deerskin. Some painted their faces red and black, while holding over their arm a six foot bow with arrows. The women, known as squaws, wore leggings which came up to their knees and a robe. They usually remained unclothed from the waist up for most of the year.

The Massapequas had no single spiritual being which they adhered to, nor did they attend church. In observance of their religious beliefs, the Indians held festivals in honor of the gods of fire, sun, wind, earth, sea, day, night, and the four seasons.

In the summertime when the weather was warm and the Indians farmed the land, living in encampments usually near the bay and suitable farmland. In the winter time, the Indians moved to more sheltered fortifications.

When the Dutch settlers first came into contact with the Massapequa Indians, they called these ancient encampments "forts."

There were two principal forts of the Massapequas in the area called Fort Neck, located east of Massapequa Shores and west of Nassau Shores in what is now known as Harbour Green. One of the forts was engulfed by the bay, and the other was leveled by construction crews when Harbour Green was developed.

The last of the forts remained undisturbed as a monument to the lives and civilization of the Massapequa Indians until the early mid-1930's. After being rediscovered, archaeologists and historians flocked to Massapequa to see one of the last remaining Indian forts still in existence.

But it was long before the discovery of the ruins at Fort Neck that historians, authors, poets, and older residents fabled about the only battle between the Native Americans and the Europeans to ever occur on Long Island. Many historians in the last century have cast doubt about the date and place of the battle, while others categorically deny that it ever took place.

The earliest accounts of the battle date back to the early 19th century, 150 years after the battle is alleged to have taken place. Known as The Battle of Fort Neck, the most common date used for the history books is 1653.

Between the years 1652 and 1654, a war in Europe raged between the English and the Dutch. It was thought at the time that during the spring of 1653, the Dutch government had been considering the expulsion of the English from their settlements in Dutch controlled Long Island. Needless to say, the colonists at Hempstead were alarmed for the safety of their homes.

At the time, a Dutch fleet was expected from Europe and it was suspected that the Dutch governor was urging the Long Island Indians to join in a raid of the English settlements.

Nine Long Island Indian Chiefs sent a messenger to Stamford, Connecticut to inform the English that the Dutch had offered them guns, ammunition and clothing if they allied with them to destroy the English. Captain John Underhill was sent to New Amsterdam (New York) to investigate the allegations of a Dutch conspiracy.

On May 24, Underhill wrote to the Commissioners of the United Colonies and told them that the settlements in New Amsterdam were in danger. Soon after, the people of Hempstead wrote to Connecticut verifying that they were in danger and that they wanted ammunition and weapons.

At that time Dutch governor William Kieft, who had perpetrated a great deal of cruelties on the Long Island Indians over the years, restricted the hunting and fishing rights of the Indians. The Massapequas resented the loss of their land. From Fort Neck, the Massapequas sent out raids to destroy the crops of the neighboring colonists, which were English, driving away cattle and horses. Eventually the Massapequas killed two or three settlers.

Because of this hostility to the English by the Massapequa Indians, the colonists at Hempstead feared that the convergence of natives at Fort Neck was a planing stage for an eventual raid intended to destroy the English settlements.

In the summer of 1653, the colonists at Hempstead took up arms and assembled under the leadership of Captain Underhill, proceeding to march toward South Oyster Bay.

Upon hearing that the English were making their way toward Fort Neck, the Massapequas sent their women and children to a small island just south of Massapequa, known as Squaw Island, for their safety. The rest remained at Fort Neck.

The embankment that the Indians used for protection was much unlike a European fort, rather it was a natural fortification. It was built upon high land, over looking the Massapequa Meadows. Ditches were dug around the high land, about three feet deep and six feet across. Wooden poles were driven into the ground, around which wild Hawthorne trees were planted in a zig-zag formation.

It was nearly impossible for other Indians to raid the fort and cause harm to its inhabitants, but not the forces under the control of Captain Underhill.

At the break of dawn, Underhill's forces of 120 men stormed the mud walls of Fort Neck and slaughtered about the same number of Massapequa Indians. Underhill quickly took control of the fort, keeping it in his control to prevent any future uprising by the native Indians.

Underhill and his men then collected the bodies of the defeated Massapequas and piled then up on the brow of a hill. He and his men then sat down on the side of the hill to eat their breakfast.

More then a hundered years later, Samuel Jones wrote that the spot where the bodies of the natives were piled up was "tinged with a reddish cast, which the old people said was occasioned by the blood of the Indians."

And to many historians, this was the first and only battle between the natives and the Europeans on Long Island. Fort Neck remained overgrown and hidden for more than two hundred years. In 1935 John T. Fox and William Claude of Seaford made headlines when they uncovered 24 skeletons of Indians buried in shallow graves, a short distance from the fort. The site attracted a great deal of publicity. Birdsall Jackson, a trusted antiquarian of the period, visited the site and announced that it was the remains of the Massapequas who were massacred by John Underhill.

In the 1940's the no-battle theorists resumed their skepticism that the battle ever took place. And by 1953, the Harbour Green real estate development covered over the ruins of Fort Neck and the history of the Massapequas.

Some Massapequas lived for a few decades, making deals with the Jone's family and selling Bethpage to Thomas Powell, but their civilization, respect, and culture were gone forever.

All that remains is a park at the corner of Fairfax Road and Cedar Shore Drive which marks the spot where the fort once stood, and possibly, where the lives and families of the Massapequa Indians were destroyed.