Living in Two Worlds

In the late 17th and 18th century, the Wangunk village consisted of two parcels of land on the eastern side of the Connecticut River in what was then East Middletown (present-day Portland), Connecticut, as well as scattered plots in Wangunk Meadow and Deer Island in the middle of the bend in the river.  One fifty acre lot was called Indian Hill and hugged the shore across from Deer Island.  To the east, the other was called Meeting House Hill, originally consisting of 279 acres.  These they owned in common.  Middletown colonists desired to develop both parcels, Indian Hill as a place for shipbuilding and Meeting House Hill for colonial expansion. 

In 1755, believing that most of the Wangunks were either dead or dispersed elsewhere, colonists began to pressure one of the remaining tribal elders, Cushoy, to agree to a sale of tribal land.  Being old, lame, and riddled by debt, Cushoy seemed poised to submit.  However, a number of Wangunk rallied together to contest Cushoy’s right to sell.  One such person was Richard or Dick Ranney, who lived 50 miles away at Newtown in Fairfield County.  In a petition to the General Assembly in 1757, Ranney asserted his claim to the land by being the “only son of one of the daughters of Dr. Robbin,” one of the original Native proprietors of the land, and requested his share of the land so that he could “enter upon, enjoy and improve the same in the English manner.”   Three years later, a committee appointed to look into the matter reported back to the legislature that Ranney was not only qualified but appeared to be “the most deserving Person of any of said Claimants” and proposed that ten acres be set off from the Meeting House Lot for him, his heirs, and assigns to cultivate and improve. 

If the Middletown colonists believed that few Wangunks would care about the land transactions, they were mistaken.  They misread Native community and ignored the cultural ties that bind those communities together.  Richard Ranney represents some of the many New England tribal members who managed to survive as the European settler population increased around them.  Living away from their ancestral homeland because of work, circumstance, or choice, they nonetheless maintained significant ties to their family communities, enough that when a crisis arose, they could return and respond. 

Thus, Ranney, like them, lived in two worlds.  He wrote that he had been raised entirely among the English and learned to read and write English.  Having been taught the joiners’ trade, he associated himself with and dwelt among the English at Newtown.  He was baptized and professed the Christian faith, “in which he humbly hopes by divine assistance to live & die.”  Being thus educated, he proposed to live and behave “according to the English customs and manners, and in all things to be subject to the laws of Connecticut . . . that he may to the utmost of his ability be a useful member of society and contribute as well to his own, as to the public weal.” He may have been the same Richard Ranney that enlisted in the 7th Company of the First Regiment in 1758 under the direction of Captain Timothy Hierlehey of Middletown during the French and Indian War.  If that is accurate, it indicates that Ranney had, in fact, moved back to the Middletown area, a solider of the British American army, yet, at the same time, a member of the Wangunk community.

The map of the Wangunk reservation and Richard Ranney’s memorial is from the Connecticut State Library‘s Connecticut Archives, Indians Series.  To view the Wangunk materials in the Yale Indian Papers Project collection, click here for access.   

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