From the peak of the grassy hill behind these gates, Sowheag, leader of the Wangunks, could see for miles, observing the round-topped wigwams of his people in small settlements on both sides of the Connecticut River. The Wangunks called this area Mattabeseck, and here they grew corn, beans and sunflowers, fished and hunted deer and smaller game.
About 1639, Sowheag and his people built a fortification on this hill, perhaps as a defense against other Native American peoples, perhaps also as a caution against English settlers who were moving steadily into Connecticut. Already, large numbers of Native Americans had died from diseases like smallpox, which the Europeans had brought.
But it seems that within a few years Sowheag agreed to sell much of his people's land to the colony of Connecticut. The Wangunks kept for themselves two large tracts of land; one piece that ran from this hill north into what is now the Newfield section of Middletown, and another parcel across the river (now Portland). English settlers began arriving in Mattabeseck by 1650, laying out their homelots on what is now Main Street. For two decades, the two communities coexisted relatively peacefully. But when hostilities erupted between white colonists and Native Americans in other parts of New England, Middletown's English families became uneasy
that the Wangunks would reclaim their lands. Accordingly, in 1673 they officially purchased from the Wangunks land already designated as Middletown again establishing two "reservations" for the Wangunks to inhabit.
Over the next century, many of the Wangunks left the area. As their numbers dwindled and their former way of life became impossible, many Wangunks sold to the colonists individual plots of their ancestral lands. By 1770, colonists had purchased all of the Wangunks' reserved lands. A handful of Wangunks remained here, many of them marrying into local African-American families; today some of their descendants still live in the community.
"Mamoosan's Tree," a huge sycamore in the Newfield section of Middletown, was named after Mamoosan, a Wangunk who, like many of his contemporaries, sold his inherited land to the English and left Middletown in the 1740s. Every autumn, tradition held, Mamoosan sheltered inside this tree when he returned to visit the graves of his ancestors. The old sycamore stood until about 1850.
Courtesy the Middlesex County Historical Society
Indian Hill Cemetery
Perhaps the most scenic spot in Middletown, Indian Hill Cemetery opened in 1850 as part of the America Beautiful movement which promoted rural environments and serene landscaping for public places, particularly cemeteries.
With its exceptional views and harmonious plantings, Indian Hill became the cemetery of choice for Middletown's elite in the late 19th century. Yet Indian Hill also reflected the city's diversity, containing the graves of immigrants from Ireland, Russia, Poland, Italy, and Sweden, as well as an unmarked "potter's field" for the indigent. In 1867, a wealthy local woman Mrs. Frances Russell, had an elegant brownstone chapel erected in memory of her husband.
The cemetery's intriguing gravestones and striking views still attract locals and visitors who walk, jog, and picnic on Indian Hill's handsome grounds centuries after the Wangunks made it their home.
Above: The elaborate tombs of the wealthy Alsop, Chauncey, and Mutter families crown the peak of Indian Hill while a simple stone marker (Top left) for "Little Johnny" is all that's left to remember a child buried in the city plot in 1870.
Top right: Dinosaur footprints mark the 1882 brownstone monument of Dr. Joseph Barratt, a local scientist who claimed the footprints were those of a prehistoric four-toed man.