The Tales We Forget: Peeling Back the Layers of New York's History
Image of modern Manhattan side by side with a computer rendering of the island as it probably looked in 1609

The image of modern Manhattan side by side with a computer rendering of the island as it probably looked in 1609 embodies how contemporary Indigenous lives are rooted in a deep history of this land yet continue to influence the vibrant state of New York.

Courtesy of Markley Boyer/The Mannahatta Project/Wildlife Conservation Society; Yann Arthus-Bertrand/CORBIS

The image of modern Manhattan side by side with a computer rendering of the island as it probably looked in 1609 embodies how contemporary Indigenous lives are rooted in a deep history of this land yet continue to influence the vibrant state of New York.

Courtesy of Markley Boyer/The Mannahatta Project/Wildlife Conservation Society; Yann Arthus-Bertrand/CORBIS

Illustration of Lenape (Delaware) family in 1650.

This Lenape (Delaware) family lived along the Delaware River, southwest of New York. Their belts, sashes and pouches are strung with wampum, valuable shell beads acquired by trade.

“Delaware Indian Family,” circa 1650, Thomas Campanius Holm. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, 1884

This Lenape (Delaware) family lived along the Delaware River, southwest of New York. Their belts, sashes and pouches are strung with wampum, valuable shell beads acquired by trade.

“Delaware Indian Family,” circa 1650, Thomas Campanius Holm. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, 1884

A 2009 reconciliation ceremony between Dutch and Lenape in front of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Gerrith Thompson-Ketcher (Delaware Nation) and Sofia Testa Licata, who is dressed in traditional Dutch clothing, hold hands during a 2009 Healing Turtle Island reconciliation ceremony held in front of the NMAI in New York. Organized by Intersections International and Collegiate Church, which was founded by the Dutch in 1628, the event included readings, prayers and a statement of healing.

Photo by Jasper Fakkert/Epoch Times

Gerrith Thompson-Ketcher (Delaware Nation) and Sofia Testa Licata, who is dressed in traditional Dutch clothing, hold hands during a 2009 Healing Turtle Island reconciliation ceremony held in front of the NMAI in New York. Organized by Intersections International and Collegiate Church, which was founded by the Dutch in 1628, the event included readings, prayers and a statement of healing.

Photo by Jasper Fakkert/Epoch Times

Dutch brass kettle, ax head and arrow point, circa 1600 to 1670.

The Dutch used to make brass objects such as this ax head and spear point not only to use but also to trade. Brass kettles (top) for cooking were often cut into pieces so the metal could be used in other ways. You can see these objects in the “Native New York” exhibition at NMAI in New York.

Kettle, 1750–1850, Mount Morris, New York, brass, 4.3” x 7.8” x 6.3”. 19/8644; Bottom left: Axe blade, circa 1550–1700, Cazenovia, New York, Iron, 3.1” x  6.3” x 1.8”. 19/1492; Bottom right: Arrow point, circa 1600–1670, Staten Island, New York, brass, 1” x 1.25” x .1”. 10/1738

Photo by NMAI Staff

The Dutch used to make brass objects such as this ax head and spear point not only to use but also to trade. Brass kettles (top) for cooking were often cut into pieces so the metal could be used in other ways. You can see these objects in the “Native New York” exhibition at NMAI in New York.

Kettle, 1750–1850, Mount Morris, New York, brass, 4.3” x 7.8” x 6.3”. 19/8644; Bottom left: Axe blade, circa 1550–1700, Cazenovia, New York, Iron, 3.1” x  6.3” x 1.8”. 19/1492; Bottom right: Arrow point, circa 1600–1670, Staten Island, New York, brass, 1” x 1.25” x .1”. 10/1738

Photo by NMAI Staff

The Lenape’s Exodus

While Europeans who came to this land have recorded their own versions of history, even the principal Indigenous inhabitants of what is now known as New York came from elsewhere and imposed their own histories on the landscape. The Algonquian-speaking Lenape—the first to greet Hudson in 1609 near what is now Sandy Hook in New Jersey—were part of a large migration from the West. According to tribal traditions preserved in the 18th century by the Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, they came from across the Mississippi River.

While crossing this Namoesi Sipu (River of Fish), they fought an intense war with outposts of what archaeologists now call the Mississippian culture. This tradition coincides with an archaeological record of violent encounters dating around A.D. 1200. A Lenape band split off in the journey and intermarried with a local group, eventually becoming the Mohicans of the upper Hudson River. They and other related northeastern tribes called the Lenape the “grandfather” tribe.

The Algonquian-speakers travelled more or less in tandem with their arch rivals and sometime allies, the Iroquoian-speaking Mengwes. Heckwelder, who lived with the Lenape for years and often uncritically takes their side, uses their unfriendly name for the people now known as the Five Nations. Linguistically similar, the Iroquoians settled in upstate New York and, after a period of destructive war, were united by great leaders into the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Iroquois). This impressive accomplishment has been dated to a period following A.D. 1400.

The Lenape people settled in the mid-Atlantic region, in places we know as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Their first continuous contact with Europeans probably began with Henry Hudson in 1609, unlike the tribes of the northern coast and the southeast, who had met them a century earlier. As the invasion splintered the Lenape and pushed them into exile, some groups became known as the Delaware Indians (after the river named for the English Lord De la Warre, whose name itself was derived from French.)

The main Lenape presence in New York Harbor was on the northwest corner of Staten Island and the New Jersey shore. This land-based geographic perspective would have been radically different from the Manhattan fixation of the European maritime powers. For the Lenape band that supposedly “sold” lower Manhattan to the Dutch, the land would have been of peripheral importance (whether or not either party had the linguistic ability or the inclination to explain the idea of a transfer in “fee simple.”) For the Dutch, the seaport had immense importance as a base not only for its upriver fur trade but for its expanding challenge to the Spanish and Portuguese empires in America. Fort Amsterdam, whose footprint is now the exact location of the New York Customs House, home of the NMAI in New York, supported Dutch privateering against Spanish fleets and the (temporary) Dutch conquest of Brazil.

Our understanding of early Dutch-Indian contact has been warped by this later focus on Manhattan as “The Island at the Center of the World,” as the title of a recent popular history puts it. Henry Hudson likely didn’t even realize that it was an island when he sailed upriver looking for a route to the Pacific or when he hurried back down river, dodging the arrows of the enemies he had made on his way up. The traders who followed in the “wild West” atmosphere of the next decade were more interested in the Mohican “main campfire” near present-day Albany. With easy access to the French on the St. Lawrence River in the North, these friendly people understood the fur trade and knew that Europeans could be useful allies against their Indian enemies. Here is where the Dutch located their first year-round encampment, Fort Orange.

Even the designation “Manhattan” was fluid at first. In a definitive 1630 account of the New World, the geographer and Dutch West Indies Company director Johannes de Laet used the name for the river later known as Hudson and for the tribe that straddled it. The earliest Dutch maps put the name Manhattan on the New Jersey bank or in the Bronx. The excellent historian Benjamin Schmidt recounts that it was the English who really anchored the name on the island. In missives to the Dutch colony, English officials refused to use the name New Netherland and addressed its leader Peter Stuyvesant as “General of the Dutch on the Manhattans,” to his extreme annoyance.

When the English conquered the colony in 1664, they moved quickly, in the words of one of the new occupiers, “to erase the name of New Netherland from the map.” Since the Crown transferred the colony to the Duke of York and Albany, his agent “thought fit to change some principal denominations of places, viz. New Netherland into York-shire; New Amsterdam into New-York, Fort-Amstel into Fort-James; Fort-Orange into Albany.” Schmidt emphasizes that the idea of “erasure” was at the forefront of the victor’s mind. A similar erasure affected Native tribes, and not just at the hands of Europeans.

Mohican friendship for Hudson and the Dutch didn’t save them from their mortal enemies, the Mohawks of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Dutch governors at Fort Orange even appear to have played the Native nations against each other. Competition for the fur trade erupted in open war in the 1620s, and the Mohawk pushed the Mohicans out of the upper Hudson River valley. About a century later the Mohicans and other Indian remnants took refuge in the praying town of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, an experimental joint settlement with English families. But after heavy Mohican losses in the American Revolution, the non-Indians took over Indian lands. The Native survivors wound up on a reservation in northern Wisconsin, where they became known as the “Stockbridge-Munsee Community.”

Tourist brochures for present-day Stockbridge are curiously silent about its Indian past, even forgetting that the world-famous Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards lived there as a missionary. With help from local sympathizers, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community has filled the gap with a detailed Walking Tour pamphlet. The tribe is also maintaining a cultural office in Massachusetts to reconnect with its homeland.

Two Distinct Paths

The Haudenosaunee have managed to hang on to their New York presence, often by the narrowest of margins. Today, they are aggressively reviving the memory of their history. The Onondaga Nation, one of six within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, followed the quadricentenary of Hudson’s arrival with their own 400-hundred-year celebration in 2013 of a treaty of friendship with the Dutch.

This peace conference at a hill south of Albany called Tawagonshi was said to be the basis for the famed Two-Row Wampum belt, or Gä•sweñta’, which displays two parallel rows of purple wampum, one representing distinct paths of the Dutch (or English) in their ships and the Haudenosaunee in their canoes. Some kill-joy scholars muttered, however, that the choice of that date was based on a parchment copy of the treaty that is almost certainly a forgery. A thorough article by the New Netherlands specialists Charles Gehring, William Starna and William Fenton charges that the document was forged in the 1950s by a New Yorker of Dutch descent named Lawrence Gwyn van Loon. When the New York State Museum refused to buy it, van Loon donated it to leaders of the Onondaga Nation. It has not been subjected to any forensic analysis.

The document itself has very serious problems, but a remarkable feature of the controversy is that recent European scholarship is tending to confirm, rather than refute, the Haudenosaunee oral traditions that surround it. Benjamin Schmidt sees a parallel to the Two-Row Wampum belt in the iconography of early Dutch maps, which indicate friendly trading by positioning a row of Indian canoes next to a row of Dutch ships. The eminent Dutch scholar Willem Frijhoff has unearthed a wealth of documentation about the early 17th-century Walloon trader Jacob Eelekins from a prominent merchant family of Rouen, France, who was widely identified by the Haudenosaunee as “a governor called Jacques.”

But the decisive word might come from Heckewelder himself, the defender of the Algonquian tribes. He accuses the Dutch of turning their backs on their Mohican and Lenape friends when the Mohawks offered them a greater advantage. The Dutch, he wrote in 1817, brokered a pan-tribal peace deal meant to favor the Haudenosaunee by effectively tricking the Lenape into disarming. This, he said, “according to the tradition of the Lenape, was transacted at a place, since called ‘Nordman’s Kill,’ a few miles from the spot where afterwards Albany was built, and but a short time after the Dutch had arrived at New York Island, probably between the years 1609 and 1620.”

This statement bolsters the case that something happened at Tawagonshi, but it points up another problem with the 2013 celebration. The festivities neglected to mention the Dutch relations with their other trading partners, such as the Lenape and the Mohicans. That would have been a sour note, reminding us that the Mohicans lost their lands and that the Lenape suffered horrendous massacres at Pavonia and Staten Island, not to mention the slaughters in Connecticut, during Kieft’s War of 1641–1645.

Such details get lost when the victors tell the tale. The “Native New York” exhibition gives the Indigenous people who influenced this state’s history an opportunity to restore the memory of their presence and their contribution.