EAST HAMPTON, Conn (WTNH)–Close your eyes as you gaze along the banks of the Connecticut river and you can still see the landscape just as its first inhabitants did.
Quinnipiac Indians, Pequot and Mohawk to name a few…plus a tribe you likely never heard.
“They were really the first people,” said Gary O’Neil, a descendent of the tribe that called the areas around Middletown and Portland home.
The Wangunks world started to changed when the English Colonists arrived.
“Before you know it they said – guess what – you’re leaving and we are gonna take over,” said O’Neil.
O’Neil become the family historian, and in the process….the tribes keeper of lineage, history, births, deaths, pictures and places of the Wangunks rich Connecticut history.
The journey has not been easy.
“I went to my grandmother, and she just talked to me about why she didn’t want to help me, just thinking about this is so painful.” Said O’Neil.
Prejudice and discrimination, the tribe, like many were cheated off the land they lived on for hundreds of years.
“She was born in 1899, she said there was nothing about being proud of being an Indian,” said O’Neil.
The sister of O’Neil’s grandmother convinced her to share the Wangunks history with him, and preserve their people’s history.
“She talked about being a man without a country, she said do you know what it’s like to live in America and feel like you don’t have a place, that none of your people counted,” said O’Neil
He is now validating their history with documentation, pictures and proof.
He can trace relative back 250 years.
“Back to 1760, we can actually go back that far,” said O’Neil.
He’s discovered pictures dating back to the late 1800’s, one showing five generations of the family together.
“When they got to five generations that was time for a gathering. Most of our gatherings were in the fall – that was typical of natives,” said O’Neil.
The collection may be one of the most elaborate in the state.
“Making sure that the people before here were validated”,” said O’Neil.
It chronicles the Wangunk lineage, assimilation into the colonist community, church-life and even Wangunk men fighting in the civil war.
A journey of survival, and perseverance in the face of life’s most unfair treatment.
“When injustice comes your way, yes you have to talk about it. But you’ve got to go on. I think that’s a really important thing.
My great grandmother used to say, if you don’t go on…they win,” said O’Neil.
Students from Wesleyan University spent a semester digging through archives in Middlesex County to help uncover more about the Wangunks history.