There was a gradual alienation of the ancient Shinnecock lands and the task
of locating this material was greatly facilitated by the works of William
Pelletreau, George R. Howell, and Henry Hedges, who devoted many years to
the careful editing and preservation of local records in Southampton and
East Hampton. Were it not for William Pelletreau's diligent efforts the town
records of Southampton might never have been saved. When he took over the
records in 1862 he was told that the seventeenth century documents had all
been lost. A thorough search through old records, however, turned up a cache
of small cloth sacks containing rolls of paper. As he carefully unrolled the
old papers, he discovered to his delight that they were actually the minutes
of town meetings going back to 1641. Pelletreau transcribed them along with
the other handwritten documents in the town archives and began publishing
them. The eight volume set was finally completed by H. D. Sleight in
When Pelletreau and Hedges published their collections of documents they were primarily concerned with illuminating the history of the English colonists. For Hedges it was essentially an uncritical exercise celebrating the rather modest accomplishments of the East Hampton settlers. Pelletreau, however, wanted to tell the whole story, warts and all. "Those who believe that the settlement was formed entirely of Godfearing and virtuous men..." he remarked candidly in his introduction to Volume I of the town records "... will find much in these pages that will fail to support these views." Whereas Hedges and Howell present a comforting picture of harmonious relations between "friendly Indians and settlers," Pelletreau boldly illuminates the tensions which characterized the early contact period.
...the settlers never saw a moment's rest for fear of their dreaded neighbors. In the field a guard was kept; at night none knew at what hour the alarm would sound: to meeting on the lords day they went as men prepared for instant war; every male from sixteen years of age to sixty was a soldier enrolled in the ranks; and in proportion to its population the town could boast of a larger standing army, armed and equipped, than any nation on the surface of the globe. (Pelletreau, 1874: III).
The town proprietors who pushed the Indians off their ancient lands were characterized by Pelletreau as grasping, unscrupulous and avaricious, yet he had no sympathy for the fate of the Indians. He reflected the prevailing feelings of whites in the nineteenth century when he said:
Not withstanding all the charm that romance has thrown around the red man, and which tends to blind our eyes to the true nature of savage life. by surrounding it with a halo of fictitious glory, we cannot regret that it passed away and it would be as absurd to mourn that the forest has been felled and the wilderness has given place to cultivation, as to lament the disappearance of this vanished race. Civilization in its progress over the earth sheds her blessings with a willing hand upon all who are willing to submit to its benign influence, but crushes in its march all who oppose her power."
Indian culture was of little concern to Pelletreau, Hedges or Howell. They edited and arranged the documents with their attention focused on the evolving political, social and economic institutions of the English settlers.
The documents narrow our focus to the actual process of land alienation. This was the central issue which dominated nearly all facets of Indian-White relations during the seventeenth century. The reason for this preoccupation was that land title and political sovereignty was inexorably intertwined. Once the major land cessions were made, political autonomy was lost as well. Francis Jennings concluded, after years of research as director of the Center for the History of the American Indian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, that:
It was a double conquest in which Indians lost not only sovereignty but also commons and severally and it established the harshest possible teens for the Indians who might hope to assimilate into 'civilization." Property and liberty were synonyms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When an Indian was dispossessed of his land, he lost all hope of finding any niche in the society called "civilized." except that of a servant or slave.