Connecticut's Overseer System
In 1650 the General Court of Connecticut promulgated a series of laws designed to treat the Indians in its jurisdiction as separate and foreign communities. The legislation prohibited non-Natives from living with Indians, encouraged Christian education, set penalties for criminal behavior and regulated Indian trade. More significantly, however, it also appointed Native leaders to police each Indian community living near English settlements.1 Understandably, these appointees had difficulties in enforcing what, to many Natives, were foreign rules. Moreover, the colony seldom followed Indian custom in selecting the appointees, and the Native communities often ignored them completely.
The establishment of an informal and irregular overseer system began in the late 17th Century when tribes would use advisors as mediators and advocates to the General Court and as legal representatives before local Connecticut tribunals. In 1661 the Court appointed two colonists, Lt. James Avery and James Morgan, “to councill and advice those Pequots in the township of New London as occasion may call for.”2 Early overseers, or trustees, were selected by the tribe and confirmed in their office by the General Court, and later the General Assembly, for indefinite periods.
In the early 19th century, the advisory role of the overseers took on a new dimension with the passage of the Revision of the General Statutes of 1821 as required by the new state constitution. In that year Connecticut's Legislature passed an act requiring that an overseer be appointed to each Connecticut tribe by the county court in which each tribe resided. These men would “have the care and management of [Indian] lands, and shall see that they are husbanded for the best interest of the Indians, and applied to their use and benefit."3 Furthermore, the act provided for an annual accounting, failure of which -- or from general neglect of duty -- could lead to the overseer’s dismissal and loss of a security bond.
This new system of supervision reflected the prevailing, though incorrect, perception of White America that Indians as a whole were wasteful, lazy, and immoral—all uncivilized characteristics that rendered impossible any measure of self-sufficiency.
Moreover, instead of being advisory, the overseer’s responsibilities incorporated several aspects of traditional conservatorship law and obligations similar to those charged with providing for the general poor and idle of a town. As a consequence, Connecticut, and its sister states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, treated Native people living in tribal relations as involuntary wards of the state. Native people had no legal control over their property. They couldn't make a sale of their lands, nor could they make any binding contracts.
Instead throughout the 19th Century and up until the middle of the 20th Century, these functions would be controlled by the State. Overseers managed reservation land—renting and selling lots—investing the profits for tribal use, in many cases, for the benefit of the neediest.
Overseers were mostly local men. Some of them, like William Williams, the Pequot and Mohegan overseer, were distinguished lawyers with established practices, others capable community farmers, businessmen, politicians, or military figures like Isaac Avery and George Ayer.
The office of overseer was not always easy, nor was it well rewarded. Some overseers performed their duties responsibly. There are examples of them seeking justice for the communities they represented. For example, protesting the taking by the heirs of John Winthrop, Jr., of five hundred acres of reservation land, James Avery, the Pequot overseer in 1722, tenaciously sought redress on behalf of the tribe despite the indifference and sometimes antagonistic action on the part of the General Assembly.4
On the other hand, other overseers were neglectful, wasteful, nasty, petty, and self-serving. Williams Apes, in An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man, was blunter in his assessment:
those men who are Agents, many of them are unfaithful, and care not whether the Indians live or die; they are much imposed upon by their neighbors who have no principle. They would think it no crime to go upon Indian lands and cut and carry off their most valuable timber, or any thing else they chose; and I doubt not but they think it clear gain.5
Tribes often petitioned for the removal of such overseers. Occasionally, their efforts succeed, after many years of petitioning or the overseer resigned the office on his own, as did the Eastern Pequot's guardian, Ezra Hewitt.
In 1835, the New London County Court read the petition of George Ayer, a later Pequot overseer, who explained that he had been persuaded to take the position against his better judgment, that he had a family dependent on him, "that time with him ought to be money," and that upon taking over his responsibilities, he found the affairs of the tribe in a state of chaos requiring him to spend considerable time and effort to rectify the conditions.6
Ayer recognized that for him, "his time would have been more advantageously spent in attending to his domestic affairs than in receiving the full amount charged--that he faithfully discharged the duties of his office without fear or favor--that there were sacrifices of time and property in addition to the services charged by having more or less of the tribe almost daily at his house."7 As one commentator has put it, the office of overseer was "an onerous task with little reward and considerable heartache."8
While this may be true, one can only imagine what little reward and considerable heartache Connecticut's Indian communities endured under an onerous burden of the overseer system that lasted until the late 20th Century. With the exception of minor changes in the appointing authority and reporting requirements, the position and powers of the overseer remained substantially unchanged9 until 1935, when Connecticut abolished the familiar overseership authority and vested control in the Park and Forest Commission, a state agency, thus ending local non-Native control over Indian communities.
Six years later in 1941, responsibilities were given to Connecticut's Welfare Department. However, instilling the mistrust of another generation of Native people, abuses of the system persisted under the agency as it treated Indians with an attitude of indifference, deciding who was an Indian and who was not, who could live on the reservation and who could not.
By the early 1970s, control over Indian reservations in Connecticut was transferred to the State's Department of Environmental Protection and the newly formed Connecticut Indian Affairs Council. By the end of the century, two of Connecticut's tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan, have since received federal acknowledgement, removing their land from state oversight.
- 1. Conn. Code of Laws, 529-533 (1650).
- 2. State of Connecticut, Legislative Task Force on Indian Affairs, Report to the General Assembly, 1989 at 3.
- 3. Stat. Laws Conn. Title 50, 278-279 (1821).
- 4. John Deforest, History of the Indians of Connecticut (Hartford, CT: Wm. Jas. Hamersley, 1851), 425-426.
- 5. William Apes, An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man, in Barry O'Connell, ed., On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 155.
- 6. Jack Campisi, "The Emergence of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, 1637-1975," in Laurence Hauptman and James Wherry, eds., The Pequots of Southern New England (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 130.
- 7. Campisi, 130.
- 8. Campisi, 131.
- 9. An 1866 revision substituted the Superior Court for the County Court as the reporting authority. Rev. Conn. Stat. Title 33, 522-524 (1866). In 1875, the General Assembly required the overseer to file additional copies of his financial accounts with the selectmen of the town in which the reservation was located as well as with the Secretary of State. Rev. Conn. Stat. Chap. 2, 5-6 (1875).