A House in Dispute

JOGWar, employment at sea, and westward emigration had a significant impact on the demographics of many late eighteenth to early nineteenth century reservation communities in New England.  With the population of adult males much reduced, Indian women were often left to manage their households with assistance from extended families or through remarriage. The economics, politics, and social arrangements of earlier generations brought Native people in frequent contact with African Americans and,  by the end of the eighteenth century, marriages between Indian women and African American men had become commonplace, and so too were mixed-race families.   And while marriages such as these made for more diverse communities of color, to be sure, sometimes they led to tribal controversy over issues of identity, membership, inheritance and land rights.

Such was the case of James Orris Guy, a man of color, who, in 1822, married a Western Pequot woman named Thankful Charles. Based on a February1835 petition to the Connecticut General Assembly, it seems that the land controversy that Guy found himself embroiled in had more to do with finances than with the color of his skin.   According to Guy,

…he was entitled to the use and improvement of a certain tract of the Indian lands in said Groton containing about seven acres together with such other interest as might appertain to his said wife in the Indian property and concerns during their intermarriage. …..That soon after said intermarriage the memorialist built a house upon the land, and occupied the same together with the lands, contiguous…

The documentary record confirms that while living as husband and wife, James and Thankful received benefits from tribal funds and that in 1824 the couple built a house on the parcel set aside for their use.  Unfortunately, by about 1830, the marriage had dissolved for all intents and purposes.  Guy described in his memorial how “Thankful became unsteady and dissipated and absconded, and eloped with another man.”   James Guy, however, remained on the Western Pequot reservation, at least for a short time, in the house they had built together, ostensibly managing the small homestead after Thankful’s departure.



Whether initiated by the Tribe or its overseer, Guy eventually moved from the reservation to the Town of Norwich, leaving behind the home and farm he helped to build.  Given the number of other non-natives, both and black and white, living on and working Western Pequot land, either through intermarriages or leases, it’s unlikely that the impetus for Guy’s removal was associated with his color. Rather, in accordance with tribal custom, his residency rights on the reservation ended with the de facto dissolution of his marriage.

What is more, by the 1820s the State of Connecticut had begun to exert considerable control over tribal resources including many aspects of land tenure.  This included the leasing of houses, pastures, woodlots and tillage on the reservation to non-Pequots, the revenue from which was used to offset other tribal expenses.  Whether Guy was given the option to lease the property that he had formerly enjoyed free of charge is unknown.

In his petition, James Guy sought compensation for improvements made to the property during his nearly decade long tenure there.  He complained of the fact that, although still legally responsible for any debt Thankful might incur, he no longer received any benefit from the tribal funds, nor could he recover his considerable investment in the reservation property.  By his own estimate he had “expended hundreds of dollars on account thereof in improvements” to the property.

Ultimately, the petition of James Guy amounted to little because five short months after its initial filing, a jury of inquest was called to Norwich to examine his lifeless body.  Although upwards of sixty years old, his death was considered sudden and untimely. The twelve men that made up the jury of inquest determined that he died of “Bleeding at the Lungs or some cause unknown.”  With his death so ended the controversy surrounding his property.  Shortly thereafter, the house was repaired and leased out, for the benefit of the tribe, to a neighboring non-native.   His former reservation home continued to be referred to in official records as the “James Guy house and lot”.

To view the petition of James Guy, click here.  The inquest over his death is provided here.  The former is from the Connecticut Historical Society and the latter held at the Connecticut State Library, New London County Superior Court Records.  The image of the house comes from Grace Denison Wheeler’s Historic Homes of Stonington, (Salem, MA, Newcomb & Gauss, printers, 1903), p.62.

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