They are a mystery in so many ways. Who were they? Where did they come from? What was the nature of their spoken language? Who were their ancestors?
The people who came to what would become Long Island some 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, as the 300-foot-high wall of ice retreated north, have names given them by archeologists and anthropologists who have plumbed their secrets. They are the Paleo Indians. Or the Clovis people.
When they crossed from what is now Siberia, over a land bridge called Beringia, into modern day Alaska, they arrived in a new world where there were no human beings. Their descendants found their way south — by boat along the western coast or through gaps in the ice wall. And then east. All the way east. All the way to the ocean.
Following giant animals like the woolly mammoth, these people were the first human beings on what is now our Long Island and, at some point, on the bony finger that would become the North Fork. We know they were here because collectors have found their most beautiful legacy: the Clovis Point, a distinctive, fluted stone arrowhead or spear point that dates back around 10,000 years.
Hold one in your hand. See the fluting, or channels, cut on both sides of the point. Eye its beauty. Its ingeniousness. Understand that a person created it. You are holding the ancient history of a long-gone people we know only by what they left behind.
“They are truly beautiful,” said John Pagliaro, a Shelter Island artist and an avid collector of arrowheads and other artifacts left behind by the people who lived here for so long before being evicted by incoming Europeans in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
He spends many weekends on beaches on the Island and in Southold looking for points. Awed by them, Mr. Pagliaro has a collection of perhaps 1,000 points, many that bear the distinctive look of Clovis Points or their successor, the Fulsom Point. They speak volumes to him about the people who made them, as their story is writ in stone.
“They tell us the story of the people who were here,” he said.
Some 14 Clovis Points are known to have been found on Long Island and authenticated by experts. One of them sits handsomely in a glass case at the Southold Indian Museum, home to a unique collection of artifacts of Eastern Long Island’s first people.
Lucinda Hemmick, president of the museum, holds the Clovis Point in her hand. She hands it to a visitor.
It is remarkably light, beautifully carved, a unique invention designed to kill the big animals. The visitor tries to picture the person who made it, and imagine how it must have felt to have lost something so precious — only to have it discovered in Greenport thousands of years later by Orient farmer Roy Latham.
“This is what we have that shows people were here then,” Ms. Hemmick said. “They were nomads who wandered here following the big animals. They didn’t stay to occupy the land because there was only tundra here, no trees, or anything that grew they could eat. That would come later. But these people were here first.”
She picks up another beautiful stone piece, a Fulsom Point, from the museum’s collection. It is probably 8,000 years old. It was found in Cutchogue by an amateur collector named Harrison Case. Like the Clovis Point, it is named after the place in what is now New Mexico where points of this style were first found.
“It was later when food could be planted here that people began to settle and occupy the land, to build villages along the creeks,” Ms. Hemmick said. “Societies were built along family lines. The population grew significantly. The creeks were filled with food. This was a rich place. They were here for thousands of years before anyone else came along, and there were many of them, particularly along the coast, when Europeans first arrived.”
John Strong, a historian of Long Island Indian history who taught at Southampton College and is a prolific author, said those first inhabitants arrived in small family groups of perhaps 25 to 40 people.
Consider, he pointed out, how many people it would take to bring down a huge mammoth with spears.
“Once you had a food base here, maybe around 8,000 years ago, you saw human beings begin to settle down,” Mr. Strong said. “Then villages were established and the population grew and you begin to see permanence.”
Scientists divide time periods by name, such as the Paleo period, the Archaic period, the early and late Woodlands periods. These periods were spread over thousands of years. During that time, Indian communities grew, their customs and languages became more sophisticated and they perfected trade routes with their neighbors that covered hundreds of miles. They became the Algonquian Indians we know of today.
Local Indians traded items such as the blue rims of clam shells or the center column of a conch shell that were cut up and used for decorative beads, and in return received stone from the west to be carved into points.
The North Fork and Shelter Island in the early and mid-twentieth century were noted for their amateur archeologists, like Latham, Case and Charles Goddard, a Mattituck lawyer. What they found — including a remarkable collection of clay pots, stone axe heads and thousands of points — became the core of the Southold Indian Museum, which was organized in 1925. Ground was broken for the museum on Main Bayview Road in 1962.
What unites experts like Mr. Strong, Lisa Cordani-Stevenson, an archeology professor at Suffolk Community College, and Gaynell Stone, director of the Suffolk County Archeology Association, is their desire that these first people not be forgotten, that their history be studied and that residents today know who they were — and are aware that their descendants are still among us. Mr. Pagliaro’s collecting is a way for him to honor these people.
“We need to understand what happened here,” Mr. Pagliaro said.
By the early 1600s, as Europeans began to arrive on Eastern Long Island, the lives of the native people fundamentally changed for the worst. In terms of their longevity here, their demise as large, self-sustaining and intact communities happened in the wink of an eye. They went from a free people to a destitute and even enslaved people within two generations of the English settlers’ arrival.
“The Indian people here were in a very good place, and then all of a sudden that changed,” said Ms. Cordani-Stevenson.
About this series
The History Project is a 16-part series telling the stories of the place we call home.