Native women in nineteenth century Long Island communities integrated work into the daily rhythms of their home. These women persisted – and in some cases, thrived – in the face of severe challenges and tragic conditions. They grew crops in gardens, raised chickens, took in washing, did reproductive labor, kept boarders, and performed vital cultural work.
While their labor is largely absent from census records, evidence can be gleaned from the childhood memoir of an elite white woman from a prominent landowning family. Sunny Memories of Mastic was written by Sarah “Sadie” Floyd Turner in 1886. In her memoir, Turner recounted childhood memories beginning with her arrival at her grandfather’s estate in 1843.
Sadie Floyd Turner’s family had moved from upstate New York to the Floyd estate at the request of her aging grandfather, Nicoll Floyd. The William Floyd House is a well-known Long Island landmark. During the American Revolution, it was owned by William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Floyd House was held by the family from 1718 until 1976. Located in Mastic, NY, the estate is now managed by the National Park Service.
To run their estate, the Floyd family drew on the labor pool provided by the nearby Unkechaug reservation at Poospatuck. They employed Unkechaug men and women as day laborers and domestic servants. Turner believed the racial mixing on the reservation was both a product and a cause of weakness; to this effect, she wrote in her journal that “the Indians and darkeys had married and intermarried til they had sunk into a mixed race weak in body and mind.” She described the community at Poospatuck as “a settlement of miserable little cabins, where Blacks and Indians together raised their mongrel breed of children and corn on the same small patch of land.”
Despite the racism in Turner’s writings, her memoir offers valuable information about the lives of Unkechaug women. She provides starkly different descriptions of the contributions of two Unkechaug women – Dolly Cuffee and Caroline Hannibal- to the Unkechaug community. Hannibal, in particular, is absent from census records altogether. Turner’s memoir provides us with a better understanding of the daily work of Native women on the South shore of Long Island, New York.
Dolly Cuffee (whose maiden name is unknown), was born on Long Island in about 1787. Dolly navigated the complexities of race, gender, and labor on Long Island through resourcefulness and remarriage. In 1806, she married William Cooper. Six years into her marriage, Cooper died in a naval battle between the USS Constitution and the British ship Java. In his 2016 book, The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island, historian John Strong argued Dolly was aware her well-being rested upon her “ability to form relationships within her own community and with the dominant white families who held economic and political power in Mastic.”
Dolly utilized her relationship to the Roberts’ family to advocate for herself and claim her husband’s pension after his death. Dolly then invested her time and energy in remarriage as a survival strategy. Some social scholars have theorized on the relationship between survival and remarriage. Anthropologist Victor Ngonidashe Muzvidziwa argued urban poor women in Zimbabwe invest time and energy in maintaining social networks (“intangible assets”) through marriage; these networks allow women to survive and work within their communities (2001). In 1827, Dolly married Adam Brewster. Her first child, Nelson Brewster, was born in 1829. One year later, Adam was dead – drowned while fishing. In 1835, Dolly married Obadiah Cuffee; their marriage lasted twelve years until his death in 1847. Persistence, marriage, and the creation of family networks helped Dolly to raise her son to adulthood.
Sadie Turner viewed Dolly Cuffee as a productive and respectable Unkechaug woman. Dolly was “an exception to most of her neighbors, living an honest life and walking her ways in uprightness and sobriety.” Turner’s respect may have been won by three key aspects of Dolly’s character: 1) her dedication to religion, 2) her commitment to her husband, and 3) her productivity. All three factors are tied to Dolly’s life as a laborer. One statement encapsulates all three factors at work: “[Dolly] had long bony fingers that held her peaceful pipe, or plucked the geese in June, patched Oby’s nether garments, pointed to Heaven in prayer, or touched each word as she spelt out a text in her course print testament.”
Dolly did cultural work through the church. Dolly’s husband Obadiah is believed to have been the brother of famous Montaukett preacher Paul Cuffee. Obadiah was a deacon in the church and a religious patriarch of the community at Poospatuck. Like many other Unkechaug women, Dolly underwrote, with her time and energy, the annual June Meeting. Nineteenth century Unkechaug women made the Meeting possible by preparing foods, setting up the event, and managing the logistics. The Meeting reinforced community bonds at Poospatuck. Throughout her life, Dolly also exhibited a persistent commitment to small bible study groups. At one bible study meeting, Sadie Turner reported that “Aunt Tempy, Aunt Dolly, and old Aunt Hannah wiped their eyes under their gay bandana turbans, looking as devout as three master dolorosas.”
Through her steadfast support and care of her husband, Dolly did marital work. She mended his clothing, cared for his children from a previous marriage, behaved as a good wife, and prepared his body in death. Upon Obadiah’s death, Dolly dressed him in a homespun linen shirt and used “the faithful old white horse” to carry his body “respectably to the grave” according to Turner. Sadie Turner’s language regarding this relationship stresses loyalty and fidelity. In Turner’s eyes, this was a faithful, respectable, and legitimate marriage.
Much can also be gleaned from Turner’s descriptions of Dolly’s home. Dolly’s cabin was a place of household food production. Turner wrote fondly about Dolly’s garden – she raised chickens, cultivated corn, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and asparagus in “an atmosphere of peace and plenty.” Turner also remarked on Dolly’s orderliness, saying she “wore a bright bandana hankerchief on her head, a spotless calico gown, large round goggles on her nose, leather brogans on her feet, and a clean apron that hung from an invisible belt.” Turner seemed to invest Dolly and Obadiah with some special quality which allowed them to rise above the rest of their community. After Dolly’s death, Turner lamented that their cabin was “merged into the Poosepatuck disorder.”
Turner’s descriptions of Caroline Hannibal are starkly different and her dislike of Hannibal is evident. These descriptions must be examined through the lens of gendered labor and racialization. Turner came from a culture which invested power in patriarchal structures of authority; by contrast, Hannibal operated within a cultural world which invested matriarchal figures with special knowledge and authority. Though Turner identified Hannibal as “the rightful Queen of the Poospattuck” and acknowledges Caroline was “respectable enough to put on clean calicoes and blue jean and go to ‘Meeting!!’,” Turner took issue with Hannibal’s personality, marriage, relationships, and work ethic. She described Hannibal as “fat, lazy, dishonest, and cross eyed never drank.” Hannibal “married hit or miss and reigned over her little niggy-indians in contentment, now and then lifting her big wooden door latch to go for a few days work, returning at night to her cabin fire.”
The Floyd family often referenced Caroline’s ‘husbands’ in mocking tones. In a December 1851 letter to his father, Nicoll Floyd stated, “Caroline, queen of the Poospatuck, humbly implores that you will allow her husband (?) to cut wood for you this winter, as thereby she can get the money he would otherwise waste”. Through his inflection and punctuation, Floyd implied Caroline’s marriage was not legal and her title was not legitimate.
Hannibal did important cultural work through her position as a sunksquaw. Historian Bernice Guillaume defined sunksquaws as “female tribal leaders, traders, negotiators of land transfers, agricultural specialists, and so on” (1998). In precontact and early contact Algonquian societies, women held positions of authority within their communities. These women negotiated with English settlers over land sales and whaling rights in the seventeenth century. They held a vital role in land transactions, boundary line drawing, and community survival. John Strong argued that their authority may have developed out of “their role as collectors of medicinal and nutritional plants which were vital to the survival of the community. These women were custodians of a storehouse of knowledge about the ecosystem around them” (1998). Unkechaug women played a vital role in cultural memory, knowledge transmission, and cultural health.
While Turner insinuated Hannibal lacked the dedication to hard work, her descriptions prove the opposite. Hannibal sold foodstuffs for cash; Turner remembered she sold from her baskets “crabs, or such small fry as one of her husbands had scooped up from the Poospatuck creek or the bay beyond.” Turner also remembered Hannibal gathering plants, “a favorite memory is Caroline Hannibal slinking along through the pines and bushes, a bunch of wintergreens in her hand, after her gathering whortle berries or wood pinks as the season provided.” At Poospatuck, Hannibal – through the role of sunksquaw – helped facilitate cultural transmission and maintain a distinctly Unkechaug community consciousness. Sunksquaws appear in petitions and land documents into the 1800s and had a role in decision making.
Both Dolly Cuffee and Caroline Hannibal were vital players within their community. Both women did important work and advocated for themselves and their families. Turner’s memoir is an important resource. Reading her account against the grain allows up to grasp at the daily realities of life and labor for Native people in this time and place. Dolly Cuffee negotiated her role by working within the structures of colonialism to survive – she used relationships with white landowning families, she worked with the church, and practiced remarriage at the loss of a partner. As a result, Turner remembered her fondly. Caroline Hannibal, by contrast, drew upon Native institutions of authority to navigate her life at Poospatuck. Hannibal’s position as a sunksquaw may have accounted for much of the tension between her and the Floyd family. Her matriarchal position of authority directly conflicted with the Floyd patriarch’s grasp on the community. Caroline challenged the Anglo-American norms to which she was measured against, but never included in.
Bernice Forrest Guillaume, “Women’s Lives at the William Floyd Estate and the Poosepatuck Indian Reservation, 1800-Present” in Long Island Women Activists and Innovators (Interlaken, New York: Empire State Books, 1998)
Victor Ngonidashe Muzvidziwa, “Marriage as a Survival Strategy: The Case of Masvingo, Zimbabwe” Zombezia Vol XXVIII. No II. (2001).
John A. Strong, “The Role of Algonquian Women in Land Transactions on Eastern Long Island, 1639-1859” in Long Island Women Activists and Innovators (Interlaken, New York: Empire State Books, 1998
John Strong, The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 174.
Sarah “Sadie” Floyd Turner, Sunny Memories of Mastic, William Floyd Estate Archives; FIIS2054;
Photo of The William Floyd Estate in Mastic, New York, courtesy Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.