For thousands of years before the Europeans arrived, people told stories in Hartford.
"For people who lack writing, memory becomes all important," wrote historian Howard S. Russell in 1980. "The ancestry of the family on both sides for several generations; their deeds in hunting and war; the complicated habits of animals, birds, plants and weather - these took no study lamp or pen to learn. Indian children absorbed them from their elders on the trail, around the wigwam fire."
The Native American community at the confluence of the Park River and the Connecticut, where Hartford was to be, was called Suckiaug. Though Europeans knew these Indians, part of the Algonkian tribes of Southern New England, they didn't record their words. We have to rely on later spokesmen of nearby tribes, such as the Mohegan, for a sample of the kind of story that might have been told here in those times.
This is a tale from Mohegan wise woman Fidelia Fielding, collected by anthropologist Frank G. Speck about a century ago, which came to her from a century before that:
"Nonnuh, my grandmother's grandmother, saw the little men when she was a child. She was coming down the Yantic River in a canoe with her father and mother. There they were, the muhkeahweesug, the little men, running on the shore. A pine woods came down to the water there, and she could see them through the trees. But her mother told Nonnuh, `Don't look at those little men. They will point their fingers at you, then you cannot see them.' So she turned her head away. There were not many of them.
"And the little men would come to your house, so they used to say, asking for something to eat. You must always give them what they wanted, for if you didn't, they would point at you, then, when you couldn't see them, they would take what they wanted. That is what the old people told the children about the little men."
The Indian languages could unite various syllables of different words to form one new word. John W. DeForest, in "A History of the Indians of Connecticut," published in Hartford in 1852, described this process:
"A Delaware girl, playing with a dog, might give utterance to her pleasure or admiration by exclaiming `Kuligatschis,' that is, `thy pretty little paw.' The word would be compound from k, thou or thy; wulit, pretty; witchgat, paw; and the diminutive schis; so that four distinct and perfect words would be melted into another, equally perfect, which would contain only a part of their sounds, but the whole of their meaning."
Roger Williams, the Puritan rebel and founder of Rhode Island, wrote a "Key to the Language of America" in 1643. In it he paraphrased a story about the fire god, or manitou, of the Narragansett:
"Surely fire must be a God, or Divine Power, that out of a stone will arise a sparke and when a poore naked Indian is ready to starve with cold in the House, and especially in the woods, often saves his life, doth dress all our Food for us, and if it be angry will burne the House about us, yea if a spark fall into the drie wood, burns up the Country."
When the English arrived, Williams wrote, the Indians admired written literature as a deity. "There is a generall Custome amongst them, at the apprehension of any excellency in Men, Women, Birds Beasts, Fish &c. to cry out Manitóo, that is, it is a God ... and therefore when they talke amongst themselves of the English ships, and great buildings, of the plowing of their Fields, and especially of Books and Letters, they will end thus: Manittôwock They Are Gods."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times