Portrait of Nathan J. Cuffee, c. 1900. (Image from the Long Island Indian Collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society Library Archives. Copyright © Suffolk County Historical Society. All rights reserved.)
Nathan J. Cuffee (1854-1912), a Montauk Indian who had been active in tribal affairs, was born to Louise Cotton Cuffee, a Narragansett, and Jason Cuffee, a Montaukett. Nathan’s son, the Rev. Aaron Cuffee, was a member of the Eastville band of the Sag Harbor Montauks. Nathan, who was blind, authored a book with Lydia Jocelyn, the wife of a Sioux missionary, whom he probably met when he lived in Eastville and was head of the Committee on Tribal Rights during the court struggle for the lands at Montauk. A mix of folklore, myth, and historical fiction titled Lords of the Soil (1903), the novel conveys a story about the early life of the Montauketts and their relations with the early English settlers.
The book's authors were an unusual pair, drawn together by their shared interest in the historical relationship between Native Americans and European settlers. Jocelyn, 70 years old at the time of their collaboration, had lived for many years on a Sioux reservation and was an experienced author. Nathan Cuffee, twenty years younger than his co-author, was deeply involved in a court battle to reclaim the tribal lands at Montauk preempted in the 1880s by a group of powerful developers. According to John Strong, Nathan was probably the source for the novel’s historical settings and descriptions of native customs, making the work of interest to students of Long Island history.
In 1900, Nathan Cuffee testified before a Senate subcommittee about the loss of Shinnecock and Montauk land to the corporations involved in building the Long Island Rail Road. A year after Lords of the Soil was published, Cuffee and a small group of Montauks won a legal victory when an act of the state legislature enabled the Montauks to sue the railroad in state court. However, the court battle ended in 1917, a few years after Nathan’s death, with a decision for the railroad.
Suggested Readings: Nathan J. Cuffee and Lydia Jocelyn, Lords of the Soil (Boston: C. M. Clarke, 1905); John A. Strong, “Lost and Found,” Long Island Historical Journal, 3(2), Spring 1991: 253-58.
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