An Investigation of Our Histories of Racism, White Supremacy and Enslavement
It was in a 1965 Ebony essay that James Baldwin once said history wasn’t something to be read, that it didn’t refer merely to the past. No, he wrote, “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Baldwin wrote presciently on the harm caused by a refusal to confront our history and racial history in particular when he lamented, “One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it.”
This series of articles is Christ Church Easton’s attempt to confront our record of complicity in racism. We’ll focus on our origin stories, from which so many recent and present inequalities stem. We seek to answer the call issued by Baldwin, the prophets of our own age, and our broader church.
In 2020, the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (ECCT) committed itself to “acknowledging and confronting systemic racism, white supremacy and anti-Black bias” and charged parishes to “take steps to discover and document historic complicity in racism in their parish and communities.” In our Judeo-Christian scriptures, the book of Joel mourns the state of affairs past and present and urges repentance. And what is the first step in repentance? Acknowledgement and truth-telling. “Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.”
Failure to address the living and complex histories that include the brutality of enslavement, systemic inequality, white supremacy, and racial terrorization leaves us impotent, as Baldwin described, “impaled on [our] history like a butterfly on a pin.” In the ensuing articles, we will trace the history of our lands and peoples from antiquity through the 19th century. We do so in humble hopes that, together, we might refuse continued “impalement” and, instead, unfurl our wings, choosing the freeing and Godly path of repentance, love, and justice.
Article 1: Aspetuck and Sasqua Valleys/First Peoples, the Paugusett Confederacy, and European Arrival
Christ Church Easton’s history in many ways mirrors our national one. Like all histories, it’s a story of peoples and lands. Over 10,000 years ago these lands took shape in the glacial retreat as fertile river valleys we now know as the Mill (Sasqua) and Aspetuck river basins, as the ancestors of the Paugussett Confederacy settled the area. By 6,000 BCE the Aspetuck waterways were home to relatively large populations and by 2,000 BCE land use had diversified, while religious ceremonialism like cremation in burial developed.
And 1,000 years before Jesus walked the earth, around the same time Joel made his prophecies, the Haudenosaunee nation (known today by some as the Iroquois) began their political domination. Meanwhile, the ancestors of the Paugussett moved further inland, setting up camp on hilly uplands that included the present site of Christ Church Easton at 59 Church Rd (Reeve, Silverglade, and von Jena 2009).
Over the next two centuries, the Paugussett peoples — a loosely affiliated nation of several clans (among them, the Weantinochs, Potatucks, and Pequannocks (variously known by their places of residence at Pequaonock (Bridgeport), Uncoway (Fairfield), Sasqua/Sasco (Southport), Cupheag (Stratford), and Aspetuck (Easton/Weston)) — lived, celebrated, cultivated, and governed. As did several surrounding peoples, they spoke Wampano or Quiripi, an Eastern Algonquin language.
They used plants for medicine and food, planted in the spring and summer, gathered nuts and fruits in the late summer and fall and lived in swaths of undisturbed forest, sharing the fish of the Mill and Aspetuck rivers and streams in their flourishing biodiversity. And they paid tribute to the dominant regional nations, the Haudenosaunee and the Pequots (Wojciechowski 1992; Reeve et al. 2009).
Europeans arrived in the early 1600s. The Dutch came first, as traders, bringing goods and disease. Two epidemics killed 95% of the indigenous peoples of the region (2009). A note: as we live through the Covid-19 pandemic that’s ravaged our communities with a national death rate of less than 1%, grappling with the gut-wrenching inequalities that have disparately taken Black, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous lives, a 95% mortality rate is shocking. We should not fail to remember this devastation, nor should we allow its memory to obscure the Paugussett peoples who lived.
Paugussett survivors met the English next, in the wake of the pandemics, along the coast and then slowly inland. English encroachment on trade routes and lands in the 1630s brought conflict to the Pequot Nation first, as settlers of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies waged war. War came to the shores of Fairfield County (coastal Fairfield, known then as Uncoway) following the English massacre of hundreds of Pequot women, children and the elderly in Mystic.
Fleeing warriors made their last stand in Sasqua (the indigenous name for the Mill River used by the English to describe the lands and the peoples) now known as Southport. The English captured members, mostly children, of the coastal band of the Paugussett peoples and Pequot soldiers, selling them into enslavement (Town History n.d.; 2009).
Still, Paugussett peoples dwelled, farmed, hunted, fished, traded and worshipped in Fairfield County. Based on the coastal “right of conquest” claims after the Pequot war, extended by the English to include the lands of the Paugussett, the early Connecticut settlers forced some Paugussett peoples onto a 160-acre reserve of land along the coast (established for native peoples by the Connecticut Assembly in 1659, in what we now call Bridgeport).
They would face constant encroachment from the English. Others continued to live relatively unimpeded in the hilly territories of the Aspetuck and Sasqua (Mill) rivers. As the English sought to move inland in the later 17th and early 18th centuries, however, they required a transfer of land (2009). This dubious history of land acquisition by purportedly legal means will be described in full in our next article. Central to our story are the stories of the Paugussett peoples, who despite the nefarious deeds of the English and inconsistent claims against them, lived, and so live today.
On citations: Our historical investigation draws widely from over 50 secondary and primary sources (see here for a full bibliography). We are especially indebted to Stuart Reeve, David Silverglade, and Kathleen von Jena’s Historical Archeological Assessment: Survey of Easton (2009) and the Vincent J. Rosivach Register of Slaves in Fairfield, Connecticut.