The Podunk were an indigenous people who spoke an Algonquian language and lived primarily in what is now known as Hartford County, Connecticut, United States. English colonists adopted use of a Nipmuc dialect word for the territory of this people.
Podunk is of Algonquian origin, meaning "where you sink in mire", or a boggy place, in the Nipmuc dialect. The Podunk people called their homeplace Nowashe, "between rivers." This people lived in territory near the mouth of the Park River at its confluence with the Connecticut River. The Dutch called these waterways the Little River and Great River, respectively. The Dutch indicated their territory on an early 17th-century map with the term Nowass, likely a transliteration of the Algonquian word.
Like other Woodland peoples, the Podunk built their summer lodges near the river. They fished for shad and salmon, and lampreys in their season. The men hunted deer and bear, as well as small game. The women cultivated and processed varieties of maize and beans, as well as drying the meats and preparing skins. They used the furs of otter, mink, and beaver for clothing, and used other hides to cover their wigwams. In winter they moved to inland camp sites. As part of their winter diet, they ate dried venison and bear meat. Numerous of their tools and artifacts, and other archeological evidence, has been found along the rivers and in the highlands.
The Podunk tribe had three bands: the Namferoke (in Podunk, "fishing place"), who lived near the present-day village of Warehouse Point; the Hockanum (Podunk, "a hook", or "hook shaped"), led by Tantonimo, who lived near what developed as the village known as Hockanum; and the Scanticook (Nipmuc, "at the river fork"), who lived on the north bank of the Scantic River near the section called Weymouth. Their leader was called Foxen (or Poxen). Foxen/Poxen witnessed land deeds in 1640. He became the great councilor of the Mohegan ("wolf people"), and his name appears repeatedly in early records.
English colonists entered the Connecticut River valley around 1631; it was inhabited by peoples they called the River Tribes. After the English began to settle in this area, the General Court reserved much of the land to the Podunk as their traditional territory. In the Winter of 1635, the Podunk kept alive the ill-prepared settlers at Hartford with their gifts of "malt, and acorns, and grains." During this time, the Podunk were governed by two sachems, Waginacut and Arramamet.
Prior to the English-Narragansett war, the Podunk seemed to have had a peaceful relationship with colonists. Until about 1675 they lived in close proximity. However, the English restricted the Podunk in many ways. Smiths were not to work for the Podunk, and none but licensed traders were to buy their corn, beaver, venison, or timber. The English forbade any trade in arms, horses, dogs, or boats, or in "dangerous" supplies, such as cider or alcohol.
The Podunk were forbidden to enter English houses or handle the weapons of the settlers, nor were they to bring their own guns into the towns. If found in the English colony at night, they were at risk of arrest by a guard, or of being shot if they had a conflict. The Podunk were not allowed to harbor outsiders in their villages. In 1653 the English ordered them to give up their arms to prove their loyalty.
In 1657, a dispute between the Podunks and both the Mohegans and Tunxis surrounding the murder of a "Connecticut sagamore," seems to have led to the outbreak of a war against Uncas, sachem of the Mohegans, where the Podunks were aided by the Pocumtucks.
In 1659, Thomas Burnham (1617–1688) purchased the tract of land now covered by the towns of South Windsor and East Hartford from Tantinomo. "Fort Hill" is probably the fort to which "one-eyed" Tantinomo withdrew at the time of his quarrel with chiefs Oncas and Sequassen in 1665, when the English unsuccessfully attempted arbitration between them.
The Podunk suffered high rates of mortality from infectious endemic diseases carried by the colonists. Together with disruption caused by colonial pressures, their numbers dropped dramatically. By 1736, the remnants of the Podunk had amalgamated with others to form the Schaghticoke tribe. They disappeared from the historic record and are considered extinct as a tribe.
In the early 21st century, the former Podunk land is included in the towns of East Hartford, East Windsor, South Windsor, Manchester, part of Ellington, Vernon, Bolton, Marlborough and Glastonbury. According to a late 19th-century history, the region north of the Hockanum River was generally known as Podunk in colonial times; that south of the river, as Hockanum.
A neck of land, a projection or bulge in the land, was called a Podunk or Pautunk. "Pautage" means a neck, where the land juts out and seems to connect with Podunk, which probably means where the land juts out and people dwell. The prefix "paut" means poddy, pouting, or bulging, while the suffix "age" [aki] means land. "Pautapaug" and "Potapaug" mean a bulging in the bay, cove, or pond where there is standing water. "Paug" means bay or bog. "Pautipaug" was said to mean where you sink in mire, but here it is the suffix "paug", which means mire or bog not "pod" or "paut". The name Podunk does not have a bog element in it and ends with a suffix that means dwelling place or "danak". Another example is Poodhumsk, which means projecting rock.
- "Historical Sketches: Native Americans of Quinnehtukqut". Quinnehtukqut Nipmuc News. January 1999. Retrieved 2007-09-21.
- Goodwin, Joseph Olcott (1879). East Hartford: Its History and Traditions. Hartford, Connecticut: Case, Lockwood, and Brainard Co.