Quashawam was born around the year 1640 in Montauk Village, the central settlement of the Montaukett people of eastern Long Island. Her father, Wyandanch, was the sachem, or leader, of the Montaukett.
During Quashawam’s childhood, the Montaukett, Shinnecock, Niantic, English, Dutch, and others competed for control of eastern Long Island, which made life in the area very unstable. Wyandanch made an alliance with the English, and in return, the English named him the alliance chief for all Native communities on eastern Long Island. Not every sachem accepted Wyandach’s oversight, but with the might of well-armed English settlers behind him, he had a lot of authority. Quashawam grew up watching her father balance these complex relationships.
In 1653, Montauk Village was raided by the Niantic, a tribe from Rhode Island that wanted the Montaukett to pay them tribute. Thirty men were killed in the raid, and Quashawam was taken prisoner. Wyandanch called on the English for help, and together they forced the Niantic to return Quashawam for a ransom payment. This episode showed her firsthand how important it was to have powerful allies.
Wyandanch died in 1659. Quashawam’s younger brother was named sachem in his place, but he was too young to lead. Wyandanch’s widow and an Englishman acted as leaders for him, but the Montaukett lost some of their authority with neighboring tribes during this time. Both the widow and the son died during a 1662 smallpox outbreak, leaving Quashawam as Wyandanch’s only heir. She was named the sunksquaw, or female sachem, of the Montaukett.
As sunksquaw, Quashawam worked hard to re-establish the Montaukett as the most powerful tribe in eastern Long Island. In January of 1664, she appears to have sent two representatives to meet with the Dutch leader Peter Stuyvesant. The envoys asked Stuyvesant to support Quashawam in a land dispute with English colonists. By asking the Dutch to get involved, she was trying to create a situation where two of the forces trying to control the region, in this case the Dutch and English, would have to fight with each other instead of trying to control her. If the Dutch and English were occupied in fighting each other, Quashawam could manipulate both sides to get the best outcome for her people. As a sign of her goodwill, she warned Peter Stuyvesant that the English were planning to invade his colony. Unfortunately, Stuyvesant was not interested in working with Quashawam. The Dutch government did not even mention her name in their record of the meeting, referring to her only as “the savage woman.”
Quashawam did not let the Dutch dismissal slow her down. She was already in talks with the English and the Shinnecock on a different treaty, which she signed within a month of her outreach to the Dutch. In this agreement, the Shinnecock recognized Quashawam as their leader, and promised to support her if members of her own tribe tried to overthrow her rule. Once again, Quashawam pitted two powers against each other to neutralize a threat. In return, Quashawam agreed to represent Shinnecock interests in her dealings with the English, and to protect them from neighboring rivals. She also outlined a list of successors who would become sachem if she died. This kind of succession planning was not typical for Native communities in the Long Island region, but would have made Quashawam’s English allies very happy, because it would ensure stability if she died suddenly. Quashawam’s agreement with the English and Shinnecock reveals that she was a master politician and diplomat.
Quashawam’s agreement with the English and Shinnecock reveals that she was a master politician and diplomat.
On the same day the Shinnecock agreement was signed, Quashawam named an Englishman as her representative in all land sales and transactions moving forward. At first glance, this seems to be an enormous loss of power for Quashawam. But by choosing an Englishman as her representative, she made it possible for her people to settle future land disputes in the English courts, something they could not have done before. Quashawam was creating a scenario where she could use the tools of the colonists against them.
Quashawam’s last major act as sunksquaw secured the short-term safety of her people. In September 1664, the English took over New Netherland (the very invasion Quashawam had tried to warn them about!). In the fall of 1665, Quashawam met with the new governor of New York to settle a land disagreement she was having with local English settlers. In this negotiation, Quashawam got the governor to officially recognize the boundaries of Montaukett land. He also decreed that English colonists should pay the Montaukett for the right to graze their cattle on Montaukett lands. These two concessions protected the Montaukett from the English farmers who were spreading out from the town of Southampton.
Quashawam died shortly after this final victory, probably during a 1666 smallpox outbreak. But in her short time as sunksquaw, she demonstrated how a smart and clever Native leader could manipulate competing powers to improve their status and the security of their community.