Friends of Wertheim

National Wildlife Refuge



The Friends of Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge (FOW) is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the enduring protection, management and appreciation of Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge and its environs. 

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Post 1: Carmans River Geologic History

Did you know that Carmans River is approximately 14,000 years old?  It was formed by a glacier thousands of years ago. The story starts with the Atlantic Coastal Plain -- that area of the continental shelf that is above water, including Long Island.  It is composed of Cretaceous and Tertiary period sedimentary rock that was deposited as the land sank and the Atlantic Ocean expanded, starting about 119 million years ago. 

During the Pleistocene Epoch (a mere 15,000 years ago), the glacier -- the Wisconsinan Stage of the Laurentide ice sheet -- that covered the area to a depth of 1¼ miles had some rivers running underneath.  The big rivers, like the Hudson River, created valleys that still exist in the continental shelf.  Smaller rivers, like Carmans River, began as ice melt under the glacier. When it finally retreated about 10,000 years ago, the land it had pushed down rebounded, and it left behind the geology we know today.  (Y.W. Isachsen, E. Landing, J.M. Lauber, L.V. Rickard, and W.B. Rogers, eds. Geology of New York : A Simplified Account. Albany, NY: New York State Museum/Geological Survey, 1991.)


Specifically, the glacier left behind a number of moraines.  Moraines are piles of unsorted glacial drift deposited along the margin of a glacier -- heaps of glacial clay, sand, gravel, and boulders that the glacier had scraped off of upstate New York and Connecticut and pushed along, and then left behind when it retreated.  Long Island’s shape has often been compared to a fish.  In the image below, you can see the Ronkonkoma moraine runs along the “spine” of the island, and then out along the “tail” of the South Fork.  It is the terminal moraine of the glacier -- the farthest point the glacier reached. The Harbor Hill moraine runs along Long Island’s north shore and out into the ocean as the North Fork and Plum Island. It was formed during the glacier’s retreat, and its outwash forms the northern portion of Long Island.




Title: “Glacial Moraines and Inter-Morainal Basins,” in Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan page 50, by Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, 1996.

Carmans River is the only river on Long Island to cut through the Ronkonkoma moraine.  It runs through the moraine and down through the outwash plain.  According to the Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan (pdf):


The Carmans River flows south through a gap in the Ronkonkoma moraine from its headwaters located in the area of Artist Lake in Middle Island.... Farther south, the rate of discharge of groundwater to the river increases as it traverses the outwash plain, and by the time the river reaches the boundary of the CPB [Central Pine Barrens] at Route 27, some 12 miles south of its starting point, the average flow rate has increased to about 35 mgd [millions of gallons per day]. The southernmost 3 miles of the river are tidal, where it gains an estimated additional 11.5 mgd of groundwater, bringing the total freshwater discharge into Bellport Bay at the mouth of the river to 46.5 mgd. (Warren et al., 1968). 


The image below was made by Dr. Gilbert Hanson by assembling digital elevation model (.dem) files downloaded from the Cornell University Geospatial Information Repository (CUGIR).  It shows the area between C and D, C’ and D’ in the map above. The Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge lies entirely within the Carmans River valley.




Title: Carmans River Valley, by Gilbert Hanson.

The upper portion of the river valley is actually created by several different outwash channels that joined up between Middle Island and Yaphank.  They are broad and flat-bottomed, and are older than the lower stream.  That portion is “believed to mark an intermediate outwash deposit laid down later than the Rokonkoma moraine but earlier than the Harbor Hill moraine and the outwash from ice along it.” (Myron L. Fuller, The Geology of Long Island, USGS, Washington, D.C., 1914)






Annelies Kamran

Carmans River Pre-Recorded History

Ecology Pre-European Colonization

After the glaciers receded about 12,000 years ago, the land around Carmans River came to life rapidly, as both plants and animals moved to take advantage of the new ground.  It is likely that the first vegetation in the area was tundra and spruce-fir, as it was still very cold and wet.  This initial period was interrupted by a few thousand years of warmer and drier climate, which probably saw the introduction of pitch pine, oaks, and other drought and poor soil tolerant vegetation such as heath.  The return to “normal” brought a trend toward pitch pine, tree oak, dwarf pine, and scrub oak. Pitch pine, in particular, has evolved to make use of fire in its life cycle: the pine cones can only be opened by extreme heat. 

The Native Americans of the Late Woodland era actively managed forests in order to burn off underbrush and deadwood that made hunting difficult, to improve soil fertility for crops, and also to promote particular kinds of growth that were good for game species.  However, there is considerable uncertainty today about the extent and distribution of pre-European species.  This is because the land has been used so intensively since then that several waves of succession may have taken place and native succession species may have gown and been replaced.  Thus what we might see today as “natural” does not necessarily equal “original.”  (For example, one tree from this time that barely survives is the American chestnut, due to a horrific blight)


Prior to European arrival, the Native Americans in the area of Carmans River “relied on a broad-based hunter-gatherer subsistence strategy that varied among coastal, riverine and upland areas,” according to Glenn Motzkin and David R. Foster (pdf).  The fish and shellfish of the ocean, bay, and river would have been supplemented with game mammals and birds as well as nuts, berries, edible plants, and more processed foods such as acorn flour and cattail rootstock flour.  They would also have had gardens in season, growing things like corn, beans, and squash.




American Chestnut Nuts with Burrs and Leaves, by Timothy Van Vliet, 2004. Wikimedia Commons.


Unkechaug Nation

The Unkechaug community or band who lived on the banks of Carmans River were Delaware Algonquian speakers most likely within the dialect associated with the Mohegan tribe, which also included the Montauk and the Shinnecock.   Note: “Algonquian” is a language group; “Algonquin” is a specific language in that group spoken by the Algonquin people of Quebec and Ontario. “Poospatuck” is the place name of the area (meaning “where the waters meet”) that is the reservation on which many members of the Unkechaug now live.

Historian John Strong explains in the Hudson Valley Review: “Tribes are much larger than bands and are unified by age and gender associations that cross lineage and clan affiliations.  One crucial difference between a band and a tribe is that tribal societies are ideological groups that have a distinctive name that is usually invested with deeply felt emotional symbolism, while bands have an informal collective identity rooted in clan or kinship relations.” 

Because Long Island’s groups did not have either large-scale agriculture or sedentary settlements until after Europeans came, it seems most correct to refer to the societies as bands, although this term does not do justice to the dynamic fluidity of villages and family groups that would fuse and separate according to the season.  More rigid structures were forced as a result of contact with the Dutch and English, who insisted on stricter governance of both behavior and land.  However, as Strong also notes, this allowed these groups to retain their identities amid the onslaught of immigrants.

While there are no extant images of their life, there are some that come fairly close.  This image is of an Algonquian village in North Carolina after Europeans arrived.  John White, the man who painted it, was a Virginia colonial governor in Elizabethan times. But he is more famous as a watercolorist of note.  According to Benjamin Breen in The Public Domain Review, “White ... had a remarkable ability for “zooming out” from a scene to create an imagined isometric perspective.  His painting of an Algonquian village stands out as one of the most detailed depictions of indigenous American village life to survive from the sixteenth century.   As the detail of the dancing circle in the lower right of this image suggests, White seems to have had a particular interest in Algonquian religious ceremonies.”







Village of the Secotan Indians in North Carolina, by John White in 1585. British Museum, London. 

-- Annelies Kamran

Carmans River in Colonial History

The arrival of Europeans changed many elements of life on the river.  The Native Americans called it the Connetquot or Connecticut, meaning “long river;” the settlers called it the East Connecticut, the West being today’s Connetquot River.   Europeans brought with them entirely alien plant and animal life, as well as strange notions of land ownership rather than stewardship.  As a result, both the human societies and the ecosystems had to adapt to and incorporate each other.

Figure 1: Map from 1797

This 1797 map from the Post Morrow Foundation’s collection shows the inlet that opened in 1772 and the shaded areas indicate the location of valuable salt hay grass for harvest or meadowland for cow pasture.  Horses and cows are just two of the non-native imports to the area.

Local historian Martin van Lith has made a study of the land titles going as far back as possible.  On a presentation on the subject of land, he wrote that Narcomac Meadows, an area south of what is now called Indian Landing on the east side of the river, was in 1657 the first piece of land on the river to be “sold” to white settlers in Setauket:

Because Tobaccus, the local sachem residing at the main Unkechaug village along Unkechaug Creek (first creek east of today’s Smith Point bridge) was unhappy that the settlers paid Wyandanch (grand sachem living in Montauk) for the meadow lands along Carmans River and Mastic Beach and didn’t include him, the settlers decided to also go through the same sale & deed signing/payment with Tobaccus. This happened in 1675 and became known as the “New Purchase” (the old purchase being the land west of Carmans in 1664).

It is interesting to note that because the Unkechaugs didn’t fully understand land ownership/selling confusion continued until William Tangier Smith arrived in 1691. The Unkechaugs often sold the same piece of land to different settlers causing problems. Tangier Smith settled all these disputes by buying everybody out as well as buying the remaining ~100 square miles from Tobaccus.

Colonel William “Tangier” Smith must have been quite a character.  He got his nickname from his posting as mayor of the city of Tangier in what is now Morocco, and once owned most of Brookhaven as a royal patent from Governor Benjamin Fletcher (who is himself known for using piracy to boost both his and the colony’s fortunes). In the map, 1-3 are The Manor of St. George from the 1693 patent, 1 is Setauket on the north shore of Long Island, 2 is Mastic on the south shore, and 3 is Longwood in the mmiddle.  4 is part of the manor added in 1697, and 5 is the Moriches patent that was not part of the Manor.  (Smith also owned the bay bottom and Fire Island west to Blue Point and east to the Southampton Town Line.)

The Smith family, along with that of signer of the Declaration of Independence William Floyd, would have an indelible impact on the area around Carmans River.  These families of landed gentry had such a strong grip on land ownership around the river that the area was not sold off piecemeal and developed as other rivers in the region would be. Furthermore, because these families had large profitable estates, they required labor, which was supplied by the Unkechaug community at Poospatuck. 

As historian John Strong notes in The Unkechaug Indians of eastern Long Island : a history, in the wake of the population crash caused by the introduction of smallpox and other deadly diseases, the labor pattern of indenture to Europeans emerged.  The large Smith and Floyd estates had strong relationships with the Unkechaug that kept the community intact even while they actively worked to undermine their land claims.  This also enabled the Unkechaug to create other local jobs:

The Indians also established economic relationships with the small landholders and merchants in Brookhaven.  Many men from Poospatuck worked as hunting and fishing guides, as whalers, as free laborers, and as indentured servants on farms throughout the Town of Brookhaven.  Unkechaug women sold their handmade baskets, wooden kitchen implements, and herbal remedies in the markets.




Figure 2: Map of Smith Royal Patent 

Strong points out that while the Native Americans and Africans of this time may have been erased from the record and from consciousness by generations of white historians’ bias they were very definitely present and vital parts of the wider society.  (It is also important to remember that this neighborhood was not “pure” in any sense of the term—people with mixed heritage have been an element of society since Europeans and Africans arrived in the Americas.) 

In this photo by Fredrick Kost, circa 1905 at the end of Beaver Dam Road, a man unloads salt hay from a boat on Carmans River and stacks it on a horse-drawn cart, or vice versa (photo courtesy of the Post Morrow Foundation).  Salt marsh meadows were precious to the early settlers because it was land that they didn’t have to clear and cultivate to provide grazing for their cattle. Spartina patens or salt hay grass was also used for insulation in housing and for ice houses in which winter ice was stacked and perishable food was stored.

Overharvesting salt hay could endanger the health of the river, and thus of the humans that depended on it for food, as the grasses provided vital habitat to crustaceans, mollusks, and birds.  The salt meadows also provided organic nutrients for the river, and buffered the area from storm surges and pollution.  In later years, the Town of Brookhaven Town declared the second Tuesday in September as “Marshing Day” to regulate this activity.

Figure 3: Harvesting Salt Hay

-- Annelies Kamran

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