A Morning Walk on the Shores of Our Past

Written By: Samantha  Olson

This morning, I reached down and picked up the first seashell I saw. I rubbed my thumb across the white and purple groves of its smooth inside and smiled. I looked up across the sandy landscape, past the dark blue white caps of the sound, and imagined the day long ago when ships traveled to claim this land. With my feet half buried in the sand, I closed my eyes and remembered the stories of our shoreline.

More than 350 years ago, a war broke out on Long Island. While English settlers struggled to found New England, the local Pequot Native Americans of Connecticut left and set out on an excursion across the Sound to claim Long Island. Savagely they stormed the northeastern shores in search of battle and brandished glory. I looked down at the tops of my ankles, knowing the hulls of their canoes sank into the sands I stand on now.

Awaiting them were thousands of Montauk Native Americans and they would not fall under the Pequots’ dominion without a fight. What unfolded when they walked our shores was bound to change the course of history and rewrite the settlers’ relationship with Native Americans indefinitely.

Within days the Pequots began raiding fiercely across the Sound, threatening the peaceful territory the Montauk tribe Chief Wyandanch had preserved for years. The Pequot War waged on without either side able to claim victory. The island was bleeding and nothing could stop the carnage.

It wasn’t until the pivotal night Chief Wyandanch’s daughter was to marry that everything changed. Just before the wedding, the Pequots stole the bride to be and slaughtered her fiancé, leaving behind murderous matrimony in their wake. Overnight the balance of power seemed to shift with savage ferocity.

This morning, I placed the shell in my pocket and thought of the forlorn girl and her betrothed who had died trying to save her.

Historians say the ruthlessness of the Pequots is what drove Chief Wyandanch’s younger brother to seek help from the English in the early hours of the red morning. I imagine a fog bellowing over the waters as he traveled to Connecticut for Lion Gardiner, the English settler who had developed a rapport with the Pequots’ rivals—the Narragansets.

Gardiner brought his Native American allies and rescued Wyandanch’s daughter. When he returned the bride to her parents, Chief Wyandanch showed his gratitude by negotiating land, making Gardiner the first English settler to found land in New York.

If you look at a map of Long Island, between the crab-claw shaped peninsulas sit a small isle in the town of East Hampton known as Gardiner’s Island. I took a ferry there once with my grandmother. I wonder if she knew that was where it all began.

The war was weaved together with intricate defeats and small victories, with secret allegiances and merciless struggles for power, and it was the love of a daughter that led us here. And it is because of that love that we remain harmoniously amongst the lineage of those who first left footprints in the sand of our shores.

If we do not look back, we are lost. Walking along the shores of the land where I walked my first steps, swam in my first waves, and broke my first heart—I know I am because they were.

It is along these shores my own children will learn to swim and draw with Indian paint rocks as I have, and my mother, and grandmother, and her mother did. And when my children grow old, I hope it will be said we taught them to stand tall & proud, even in the face of history. I hope it will be said the future was made new and whole and better for us all, one child at a time.

I have watched houses on my street demolished and rebuilt to towering heights, the snack shack where I shared Italian ices with childhood playmates renovated and turned into a beach bar, and the farm my brother and I picked peaches from plowed down and replaced with cookie cutter homes.

This morning, I walked to the edge of the water and shuffled my feet into wet sand. Each grain softly scraping the bottoms of my feet, low-tide perfume flooding my nostrils, and salty wind combing through my hair, reminds me of what is and what has been. The ghosts of Gardiner are all around me—a person I have never met, someone who is long dead, whispers within the North Shore breeze. And it is as if his hand has come out and taken mine to say, “You are home here.”