Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Lenape: Westchester's First Inhabitants


Half of our nation’s fifty states bear names of Indian origin, as do uncounted thousands of individual towns, rivers and landscape features. Sad to say, the names the Indians left us and the few mute artifacts to be seen in museum collections are our only links to Westchester’s early inhabitants. It is important to remember that because Indians had no written language, spellings of tribe names may vary, being governed by the orthography of the transliterator’s language--Dutch, English, Swedish or French.

The first Indians Henry Hudson encountered in 1609 were the Navasinks who occupied the Atlantic Highlands below Sandy Hook. Living in the valley of the Raritan River and the southwestern part of Staten Island were the Raritans. The closest neighbors of New Amsterdam were the Hackinsacks who inhabited the west bank of the Hudson in what is now Jersey City and Bayonne. To their north, near the present New York-New Jersey state line, were the Tappans. North of them were the Haverstraws.

Fellow Algonquian speakers and occasional enemies on the east side of the river were the Rechgawawancks. Also called the Manhattans, they were the southernmost of the Wappinger bands that occupied most of the island of Manhattan and the western half of the Bronx. Because of their proximity to the Dutch settlements, unfortunately, they would be the first to be displaced.

One of the most important bands in Westchester, the Wiechquaeskecks, controlled the area between the Hudson and Bronx rivers. English settlers later called them the Wicker's Creek, or Westchester Indians. The Sint Sincks lived in the area south of the Croton River that would later become the incorporated village of Sing Sing. Unhappy with the name's association with the infamous prison, the village changed its name to Ossining in 1901.

Farther north in Westchester were the Kitchawancks, with villages at Croton Point and Peekskill. The Nochpeem occupied Putnam and lower Dutchess counties. Occupying the eastern section of the Hudson Highlands was a Wapppinger tribe sometimes called the Highland Indians.

Along the Westchester shore of Long Island Sound between Hell Gate and Norwalk were the Siwanoys. Straddling the present New York-Connecticut boundary, were the Tankitekes, sometimes called the Pachamis, after the name of their sachem, Pacham.

Canarsees, Rockaways, Matinecocks, Merricks, Massapequas, Shinnecocks, Manhassets, and Montauks occupied Long Island, all lending their names to communities there.

These individual tribes were all part of linguistically related groups. They called themselves “Lenape,” meaning "true men" or "real men." Their land was Lenapehoking--"where the Lenape live." It included the lower Hudson Valley and western Long Island, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. They spoke an Algonquian language. In the lower Hudson Valley, the Dutch--and later the English--referred to them collectively as the "River Indians."

To their north were the fierce Algonquian-speaking Mahicans, who would descend on the Lenapes regularly and exact tribute. Still farther north, west of Albany, were the dreaded Mohawks, members of the Iroquois-speaking Five Nations. They, too, would occasionally raid to the south, exacting tribute from both the Mahicans and the Lenapes.

Neighboring tribes called the Lenape "the grandfathers" because they had occupied their lands for so long. The Iroquois contemptuously called them "women" because they had no political institutions for organizing their scattered families and bands into effective units for battle.

The Lenape were the only large and important tribe to be known by an English name: the Delawares. Along with the river, the bay and the state, they took their name from Lord De La Warr--Sir Thomas West, governor of the Virginia colony at Jamestown.

The White Man Cometh
Indian cultures were already ancient and well established when the first Europeans arrived on these shores. The newcomers called the indigenous inhabitants “savages.” They did not know it but they had stumbled upon a complex and cosmopolitan native way of life--a society in which descent passed through the female line, Indian families and kinship groups, sometimes called clans, held property and land in common. Living in scattered, semi-permanent villages, they supported themselves by a mixed economy of hunting, fishing, farming and foraging.

Their villages were not villages as we understand the word, but a succession of seasonal campsites, reoccupied and abandoned. During the spring and summer, a band could be found near riverbanks or seashores, fishing and clamming. Nearby, they cultivated corn, the staple of the Indian diet, also beans, sweet potatoes, squash, melons, cucumbers and tobacco. In winter, the Indian communities would often break up, with family groups moving inland to find game and firewood.

War chiefs led in conflicts with other tribes or groups, and brought spoils, captives and glory. Guiding civil affairs by consensus, hereditary chiefs were called sachems or sagamores. Sachems worked with councils of lesser chiefs, usually chosen because of age and experience, exploits in war or service to the community.

Kinship--traced through the female line of descent--was the basis of their society. A sachem could only be succeeded by a brother or a son of a sister of the previous sachem. Although women performed much of the manual labor of the tribe, they actually wielded considerable power in communal affairs.

The Tribe
The tribe has been considered the major unit within linguistic groups. Recent research, however, reveals that its role in Indian society was exaggerated. Tribal divisions were less significant than the smaller village communities or bands composing them. For individuals, the primary unit of society, other than the family and clan, was the band. Bands included from 50 to 300 members living in one or more villages.

To the Indians, land was not a commodity to be bought and sold. They saw it as a product of nature put there for their use. The right to such use could pass from one generation to another, but when a family or an individual ceased to use the land, such rights ceased to exist. According to Indian interpretation, exchanges of land for gifts were merely conveyances of residence and subsistence rights for as long as the parties were agreeable. Demands for the return of lands resulted in grumbling by whites. Settlers coined a new term, "Indian giver"--but these disputes often arose because the Indians saw that the lands were not being used.

The Indians' migratory habits, seasonal living sites, primitive tools and few possessions, combined with their lack of domesticated animals, and haphazard planting of fields appeared to be an uncivilized, inferior way of life. Nor could Europeans understand the Indians’ classless and stateless society, matrilineal kinship, and disinterest in commerce.

Dutch Views of the Indians
The Dutch saw all Indians as savages and called them "die Wilden." The English compared them to the "wild Irish," who seasonally migrated with their sheep and cattle. Europeans saw no reason why Indians living in so bountiful a land should not have become civilized and wealthy. It was easy to conclude that they had no right to be there at all, and to want them gone.

Despite the hardships of their primitive life, Indians did not appear to suffer. "It is somewhat strange," one Dutch observer recorded, "that among these most barbarous people, there are few or none cross-eyed, blind, crippled, lame, hunchbacked or limping. All are well-fashioned people, strong and sound of body, well-fed, without blemish." Another Dutch writer recorded, "There are among them no simpletons, lunatics or madmen, as among us."

Intruding on the idyllic Indian world, the Dutch who settled New Netherland brought a completely different set of values centered on commerce. The Indians had access to a major economic resource: animal pelts. The Dutch especially sought beaver skins. These brought a high price in Europe, where they could be converted into hats, coats and other articles of apparel.

Traders were initially welcomed by Indians for the goods they carried and because they sought no land. Even farmers were tolerated at first because there was more than enough land to go around. Large tracts were sold for a song.

Appointed by the Dutch West India Company as director general, or governor, of New Netherland, in May or June of 1626, Peter Minuit "purchased" the 22 square miles of Manhattan Island for 60 guilders in trade goods. Nineteenth-century historian Edmund O’Callaghan later calculated this to be the equivalent of 24 dollars. In either currency. it has to be regarded as the greatest real estate coup of all time. No bill of sale or deed has survived. When Minuit and five colonists bought Staten Island on August 10, 1626, the local sachems received "Some Diffles (duffel. a coarse woolen cloth), Kittles (kettles), Axes, Hoes, Wampum, Drilling Awls, Jew's Harps, and diverse other wares." These were probably the same kind of trade goods for which they had obtained Manhattan.

The Price of Westchester
Westchester County was another incredible bargain. Starting in 1639, Indians traded their Westchester lands for goods in a series of about 25 separate conveyances These included more than 300 knives, 185 hatchets, adzes and axes, 141 hoes, 67 guns, 227 pounds of gunpowder, 130 bars of lead, three melting ladles and five bullet molds.

Besides the enumerated hardware, there were such domestic articles as 182 coats, more than 300 yards of duffel cloth, 113 shirts, 92 pairs of stockings, 87 blankets, 10 "corals or beads," 117 iron or brass kettles, 76 earthenware or stone jugs, 12 firesteels (for starting a fire with flint), 20 spoons, a thousand fishhooks, 220 needles and 120 awls. Awls were prized because they could be used to manufacture wampum.

Among miscellaneous items were 130 clay pipes, ten bells, ten Jew’s harps, a few rolls of tobacco and 32 tobacco boxes, 25 half-vats of strong beer, 16 ankers (162 gallons) of rum and 1,800 yards of wampum.

The monetary value of these items has been estimated at $4,750--not counting the wampum, made of drilled-out cylinders of shell. This sum works out to be about ten dollars and four yards of wampum per square mile. Wampum had no fixed value and was only a token of good faith to seal an agreement. Coastal tribes along Long Island Sound eventually monopolized manufacture of wampum made from the quahog shells that were abundant there.

The Beginning of the End
Unanticipated by the Indians were the white man's insatiable appetite for land and the diseases he brought to which they had no resistance. As the newcomers bought more land, the areas available for planting, hunting and fishing by the Indians became smaller. Close contact with whites brought disease: smallpox, influenza, measles, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria and typhus. Between 1633 and 1691, no fewer that seven devastating epidemics swept through the Indians of the lower Hudson Valley.

The goods the Indians received in exchange for pelts or land brought dramatic changes in their way of life. Guns and ammunition improved their ability to hunt, but diminished the importance of traditional knowledge and skills. Iron farming tools, knives, axes and even kettles and other cooking utensils simplified women's domestic chores. And alcohol--to which the Indians were unaccustomed--wrought havoc in behavior and tribal discipline.

As early as 1624, excessive drinking had destroyed the authority of one sachem, who "comes forward to beg a draught of brandy with the rest." The inexorable downward spiral of Westchester's Indians had begun. As evanescent as wood smoke, the Indians’ unique folklore, knowledge of plant medicines and the unwritten grammar and vocabularies of their ancient languages are gone forever, never to be retrieved. We call this the march of civilization.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series. The next article will examine the officially sanctioned Indian genocide that became known as "Governor Kieft's War."

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