Ina Christina Millett Lugo, like many born and raised on Bermuda’s St. David’s Island, grew up believing she was descended from Native American war captives shipped from New England in the 1600s as slaves. She had no documents to prove it, only stories that had been passed down through generations.
“The way the story has been told, King Philip's wife and son were brought here,” said Lugo’s daughter Terlena Murphy, referring to Metacom, a 17th century Wampanoag tribal leader in New England who went on to adopt the English moniker.
“Mother and son were separated,” added Murphy, who chairs the St. David's Islanders and Native Community (SDINC). “The mother went to an area called Bailey's Bay, along Bermuda’s North Shore, and the son may have come to St. David's.”
As Harvard University historian Jill Lepore details in “The Name of War,” in June 1675, Metacom launched a war of resistance against English colonists in southeastern New England. Fourteen months into what came to be known as “King Philip’s War,” colonial soldiers hunting for Metacom captured his wife, Wootonekanuske, and their young son.
According to Lepore, Plymouth officials and clergy spent months debating what to do with the boy, who was only 9 years old. In the end, they sold him into foreign slavery. Lepore says there is no record of what happened to Wootonekanuske.
St. David’s Islanders, however, say mother and son were sent to Bermuda and that Wootonekanuske married an African slave, fathering a line that continues to this day.
Lugo also learned that Puritan colonists had shipped dozens of Pequot men to Bermuda at the end of the 1637 Pequot War.
In 1995, says Murphy, her mother traveled to New England to further research her roots. Cousin Stuart Hollis accompanied her on the trip.
“One day while they were walking in Massachusetts,” said Murphy, “they thought they were close to the Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation, but they weren’t.”
A car passed them on the road. The driver stopped to offer them a ride.
“I guess he was wondering, ‘Why are these two people who don't look like they're from here out walking?’” Murphy said.
The driver turned out to be David Weeden, historic preservation officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the son of Everett "Tall Oak" Weeden, an elder, activist and historian who is also Pequot.
“And as it turned out, Tall Oak had been looking for us for a long time, as well,” said Murphy.
Bermuda, once known as Somers Island, sits in the Atlantic Ocean about 1,000 kilometers east of North Carolina. A cluster of seven main islands — including the 202-hectare strip that is St. David’s — Bermuda was uninhabited until 1609, when a British ship landed on its coast.
In her 1999 book, “Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda,” Virginia Bernhard explains that the Virginia Company soon afterward sent several dozen English colonists to Bermuda to establish a permanent settlement.
In 1637, Bernhard writes, Massachusetts sent at least 80 Pequot War captives to Bermuda. Many were purchased by St. David’s colonists, and even more Native prisoners were sent to Bermuda at the end of King Philip’s War in the 1670s.
“As the years passed, these and other Indians on St. David’s formed families, sometimes mixing races, but still preserving stories of their ancient Indian origins, if not their tribal cultures, to pass down through generations into the 20th century,” Bernhard wrote.
Many Islanders today carry surnames that date back to a 1662 survey of Bermuda’s earliest landholders — Fox, Higgs and Tucker.
And many islanders trace their ancestry to Jacob Minors, portrayed in an 1879 history of Bermuda with the caption, “…a native Bermudian of strongly marked Indian features; reputed to be of Indian descent, and probably descending from one of the Pequot captives.”
Eighty-year-old St. Clair “Brinky” Tucker is one of the founding members of the St. David’s Island Indian Committee (SDIIC), as the SDINC was originally known. He is also the author of “St. David's Island, Bermuda: Its People, History and Culture.”
“My mother grew up on the Island,” Tucker said. “She told me that she was a Mohawk. She always said to me, ‘Don't forget, that's your heritage. You are part Indian.’”
Mohawk, according to both Murphy and Tucker, was the generic pejorative Bermudians used for St. David’s islanders.
St. David’s community was self-sustaining.
“The men were fishermen and farmers, and the women, apart from cooking and looking after the household, picked Easter lilies,” Tucker said, referring to a white flower that was once a major export crop. “They lived a very simple life and even developed their own way of speaking.”
Their Indian heritage, said Tucker, was something they spoke of only amongst themselves.
Science weighs in
Islanders’ claims of Native heritage got a boost in the 1960s when a team of World Health Organization dentists examining St. David’s schoolchildren found some of them had shovel-shaped incisors, a genetic mutation that occurred in China 30,000 years ago and spread with the ancestors of today’s Natives who crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska 14,000 years ago.
Before Europeans arrived in North America, all Natives had “spade teeth.” Today, dental anthropologists say they are an accurate indicator of Native ancestry.
In 2011, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania sampled DNA from 111 St. David's Islanders. That study, published in 2011, found two individuals with Native ancestry, but origins could not be determined.
Murphy reports an independent DNA test showed her to possess 6.24 percent Native DNA.
In July 2002, a delegation of Wampanoag, Pequot and Narragansett tribe members traveled to Bermuda to participate in a “Reconnection Indian Festival,” organized by original SDIIC members under Brinky’s leadership..
The group convened at a place called Dark Bottom, which Murphy said was a historic gathering place for St. David’s Native slaves. That event has evolved into a biannual pow wow.
“We burn a fire and, standing in a circle, we honor the ancestors, say prayers and thanks, and welcome our visitors,” Murphy said.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel their June 2020 gathering. Murphy said she is hopeful that by 2022, everyone will feel comfortable enough to travel again.