[This article, written by Indian artifact hunter Stephan R. Woll, is dedicated to the memory of John (Jack) B. Niflot, Town of Fremont Councilman and Basket Historical Society President who died at his home on June 2.]
This is a story about a group of native people who called themselves “Muncee” that once lived in the Upper Delaware River Valley in Sullivan County. It is the story about an acculturated group of native people that lived among the early European settlers who could speak their language, wore the same clothing, used their tools and basically did the same things. They were friends and neighbors that would fight to save the valley together, but unfortunately, very little is written about them. Why? The story I am about to tell may answer part of that question.
Some 20 years ago, while I was searching a small field along the Delaware River, I happened to make a unique discovery at the place known by local folks as the “Old Dump.” I noticed at that time what covered its surface did give the impression as a sort of old dumping ground. There were mostly broken items—glass, plates, cups—and bits were scattered between the harvested corn stubble.
I have been collecting native-made artifacts ever since I was 12 years old. Currently at the ripe old age of 63, I’m still at it, and over those many years of searching, I saw quite a few spots that I guess you would call some “old dump” and just passed them by. What possessed me to be drawn to this particular place, I can’t explain, but for some reason I was, and a very unique discovery was made, with an interesting future result of that visit.
To begin with, there is always a basis of truth in local legends. These stories have to originate somewhere, and the dump is a good example, because these same stories and legends handed down through the years gradually will change from what they were intended to express into something completely different. That “old dump” was actually a part of the original occupation site (settlement) of the Muncee Delaware Indians during the Colonial period in the valley, called “Cushetunk.”
When I study places such as this one, I always ask permission. So I contacted the landowner to show him what I was finding, and we met in Callicoon along with his grandson, who later commented, “Grandpa, maybe Steve will find some swords and guns.” Hearing that, we both laughed and I received the permission.
Thus began the 20-year process of surface collecting from that site, which produced thousands and thousands of bits and pieces mainly of broken glass, plates, cups, jugs, clay tobacco pipes, buttons, bullets, scraps and more scraps. After each trip I would separate the samples I found into lots—for example, clay jug pieces and so on—and, of course, finally (as some of these neat stories go), one day I happened to notice something unusual on the edges of some of the broken glass. There were chip marks present, the same chipping marks that are found on stone artifacts. It was at that time that I realized all the broken glass wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be. For instance, some were recycles into projectile points, scrapers, knives, punches and ornaments. This led me to examine and re-examine the rest of the materials over and over again. The research was long-term, slow, frustrating, nerve-wracking, disappointing at times, rewarding at others. The final result of all this work was to be able to add a chapter to the unwritten history of the Muncees here in the upper Delaware River Valley from the bits and pieces they left behind.