Scientific evidence shows a Native American presence in the area for 10,000 years. But Mohegan oral history begins with creation, when the Great Spirit created the earth.
The earliest clans of the Delaware Tribe included the Wolf clan, or Mohegans, who settled in upstate New York. After migrating to Connecticut this group became today’s Mohegan Tribe.
At the time of European contact, the Mohegan and Pequot were a unified tribal entity living in the lower Connecticut region, but the Mohegan gradually became independent.
They were under Pequot rule briefly in the 1630s until European colonists defeated the Pequot in 1637 during the Pequot War. Under the leadership of Uncas, a sachem, the Mohegan became a separate tribe before the turn of the 18th century.
As a nearly landless people, the Mohegan gradually lost their tribal status. In 1978, Chief Rolling Cloud Hamilton petitioned for federal recognition of the Mohegan.
Descendants of his and another band of Mohegan people are independent of the federally recognized nation and still seeking recognition.
In 1994 a majority group gained federal recognition as the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut.
The Mohegan Indian Tribe was historically based in central southern Connecticut.
While originally part of the Pequot people, it gradually became independent and served as allies of English colonists in the Pequot War of 1637, which broke the power of that formerly dominant tribe in the region.
In reward, the English gave Pequot captives to the Mohegan.
In 1933 John E. Hamilton, (Chief Rolling Cloud), was appointed Grand Sachem for Life by his mother, Alice Storey, through the traditional selection process of chiefs based on heredity.
She was a direct descendant of Uncas, the great 17th-century leader of the Mohegan Nation, and of Tamaquashad, Grand Sachem of the Pequot Nation.
In Mohegan tradition, the position of tribal leadership called Grand Sachem had always been hereditary through the maternal line.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who lived to the age of 106 in 2005, served for years as the Tribe’s medicine woman and unofficial historian. She had become an anthropologist and worked for a decade with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Returning to Connecticut, she operated her family’s tribal Tantaquidgeon Museum for more than 50 years, beginning in 1947. It was one of the first museums to be owned and operated by Native Americans.
John Hamilton was a key figure among Native American leaders initiating late twentieth century land claims suits.
Tribes in the Northeast had long interaction with European Americans, which had resulted in many of them becoming nearly landless. Settlement of land claims suits in the late 20th and 21st centuries was related to federal recognition for a number of Indian nations, particularly for the so-called “state tribes.”
These were tribes along the East Coast who had been recognized by the English Crown long before individual colonial or state governments had been established.
But, as the Native people lost their traditional lands and were not assigned reservations, they did not maintain their sovereign legal status associated with federal recognition.
In the 1960s, during a period of rising activism among Native Americans, Hamilton filed a number of land claims authorized by the “Council of Descendants of Mohegan Indians.” The group had some 300 members at the time.
In 1970 the Montville faction of the Mohegans expressed its dissatisfaction with Hamilton’s land-claims litigation.
They wanted a change in direction. When the Hamilton supporters left the meeting, the remainder elected Courtland Fowler as their new leader. Notes of that Council meeting referred to Hamilton as Sachem.
The group led by John Hamilton worked with the attorney Jerome Griner in federal land claims through the 1970s. The Fowler faction opposed this.
In addition, a Kent, Connecticut property owners’ organization, with native and non-native members, opposed the Hamilton land claims and the petition for federal recognition, as the people were worried about effects on their properties.
The last living native speaker of the Mohegan language, Fidelia “Flying Bird” A. Hoscott Fielding, died in 1908. Her niece, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, worked to preserve the language.
Since 2012, the Mohegan Tribe has established a project to revive its language and establish new generations of native speakers.
Although similar in name, the Mohegan are a different tribe from the Mahican, who were another branch in the Algonquian language family. The latter were historically based along the upper Hudson River in present-day eastern New York.
In the United States, both tribes have been referred to in various historic documents by the spelling “Mohican”, based on a mistake in translation. But, the Dutch colonist Adriaen Block, one of the first Europeans to record the names of both tribes, distinguished between the “Morhicans” and the “Mahicans, Mahikanders, Mohicans, or Maikens.”
In addition, some people confuse the Mohegan with Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), but they are a different language and ethnic group.
They were historically based west of the Hudson River, dominating the Mohawk River Valley and larger area. Most now live on reservations in Canada, as they were allies of the British during the American Revolutionary War and forced to cede their lands afterward.
Most descendants of the Mohegan tribe, by contrast, have continued to live in New England, and particularly Connecticut, since the colonial era.
In 1994, they gained federal recognition and a reservation in the settlement of a major land claims case, in their traditional territory of south central Connecticut.