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  • An "Indyan Called Nangenutch or Will":Indian Identity and Identification in a 1668 Long Island Rape Trial
  • Jason R. Sellers (bio)

ON MARCH 19, 1667/68, in the town of East Hampton on the southeastern tip of Long Island, Nangenutch, a Montauk Indian also known to the English as Will, met Mary and John Miller as he approached their home. A bound laborer delivering a bag of corn for grinding, Nangenutch accompanied Mary back to the house while John continued onward to visit a neighbor. Once inside "the Indian came and pulled her down into the floore, and pulled up her Coates, and stopped her mouth with his hand, and thrust her against a block, and being too strong for her, against her will hee committed the act of uncleannesse upon her body" amid her continued protests before eventually desisting. Fleeing her home, Mary encountered a neighbor, to whom she related the attack, and by the following day local magistrates had indicted Nangenutch and deposed Mary and two previous victims. They referred the case to a higher court, which examined Nangenutch on March 28. He largely confirmed Mary's account, and the case proceeded to trial the following month. Despite concluding unanimously that the defendant had not committed the capital crime of rape because he had not ejaculated, the court found him guilty of attempted rape, ordering him publicly whipped and sold into slavery in the Leeward Islands "that all Indyans may bee deterred to attempt the like." However, Nangenutch evaded his punishment by escaping his Manhattan jail and rejoining his natal community at Montauk. Frustrated by their inability to apprehend the fugitive as he occasionally appeared near East Hampton over the next two years, English officials issued orders barring him from entering the town and levied a fine on the Montaukett that was later used to extract land concessions from the struggling community.1

A rare instance of documented Indian sexual assault on an English woman, this episode provides a unique opportunity to consider the fate of Native individuals and communities forced to grapple with a shifting matrix of social relations as a succession of colonial regimes undermined Native [End Page 1] American economic independence, political and legal sovereignty, and cultural autonomy. As Nangenutch tried to negotiate the new colonial order, his attack was shaped by dramatic upheavals in the world around him. Moreover, the persistent ties between Nangenutch and his natal community and the consequences of his actions for the Montauketts as a whole reinforce the impression that his experience was indeed more than simply personal. By the late seventeenth century, the Montauketts—like other Natives in England's growing North American colonies—struggled to define the relationship between themselves and the newer colonial communities as they positioned themselves in a developing regional social landscape.2

None of these considerations excuse the violence Nangenutch inflicted on Mary and at least two previous victims, and it is certainly reasonable to view him as a sexual predator and serial offender. But to so simplify his story would be to dismiss—to borrow a phrase from Wendy Warren—a "life in need of reconstruction" and to neglect an opportunity to carefully consider the influence of complex forces on a historical actor. The result would caricature an individual who appears in the documentary record only in relation to this single incident and thus frame his historical experience entirely in European American legal terms that obscure other aspects of his fuller life. Ashley Glassburn Falzetti has argued that archival absences erase the complex identities and histories of Native individuals in order to explain and justify settler colonialism; Nangenutch's subsequent disappearance from the historical record reflects not just his individual erasure but also the diminished stature of the Montauketts on English Long Island. Nangenutch's case, then, offers a chance to examine rather than reproduce the historical forces that largely silenced Nangenutch himself and ultimately the Montaukett as well.3

The documentary record produced by English colonial authorities most transparently reflects their concerns about governing Indian subjects and English legal procedures and standards of evidence surrounding the crime of rape. A series of legal records details the sequence of events that spanned just...


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