The Reservation Lands:
Use of the Land

by Gaynell Stone

Besides the traditional Shinnecock orientation to the sea, such as Fletcher's (1888: 567) evaluation at "these people draw much of their support from the bay in taking clams, oysters, and fish; quite a number of the men follow whaling as a business, in which they evidence skill and ability. They are generally industrious, temperate. and worthy people," use of the land was also a variable part of their livelihood. Most nineteenth-century press accounts relate that they are indifferent farmers and that only 1/l0th of their land is cultivated.

Perhaps a reason for this situation is to be found in the allotment system in relation to the type of soil. Fletcher noted that the Trustees assign distinct tracts of land for the separate use of families, but not exceeding 125 acres in a year, and may lease out Reservation lands (to local farmers) for terms not exceeding three years, with the consent of the justices of the peace. (Emphasis the author's; this system certainly perpetuated local political control over presumably Indian land.) The New York State Indian Report (1889, No. 51: 54-55) found none of the Shinnecock cultivating in excess of ten acres and some not more than an acre or two.

The Quakers (1866: 7-9) found that "the land requires manure to make it produce well, and few have the money to purchase it. Thus, they do little farming: about 300 acres are enclosed for pasturage, most of which is hired out, and the rent applied to the general purposes of the tribe. They also note, p. 51, that "as the population changes frequently by the return of those who have been at sea, the allotments are often altered, and the liability to this makes it uncertain whether the portions assigned can be held for more than a year, which discourages fencing and fertilizing and is a disadvantage to the farming interest."

Here we may have a strong reason Shinnecock enterprise continued with the sea. Trustee Kellis's testimony in the 1900 Hearing before the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee affirms that the Reservation as well as the Shinnecock Hills were used primarily for pasturage. This is an indication intensive measures would be needed for large-scale continuing agriculture. Huber (1909: 320) supports this by his comment that "farmers owning land adjacent raise very rich crops of potatoes, which yield an abundant revenue; and they covet this land which the Indian does not put to its natural uses." They were not able to do so because no capital was available to them.

Testimony at the 1888 New York State Assembly Hearings (Report of the Special Committee to Investigate the Indian Problem of the State of New York, 1889) indicates that there were no more incomes from the waters of Shinnecock Bay, which the Shinnecock had harvested for shellfish, because the salinity had altered due to an inlet closing. They could not fish commercially because it took capital, which they did not have. It was logical to use the Bay for the gunning, guiding, and decoy-making trades which then developed.