Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Far From Home: The Lenape Indians' Trail of Tears


On May 11, 1647, 55-year-old Petrus Stuyvesant stomped ashore at New Amsterdam on a wooden leg decorated with incised bands of silver. Only three years before, while attacking the Spanish-held Caribbean island of St. Martin, he had lost his right leg to a cannonball. Adriaen Van der Donck, a young lawyer and witness to his arrival, described him as “Peacock like, with great state and pomposity.”

The Princess Amelia, the ship on which the hot-tempered new governor of New Netherland arrived, would later return to the Netherlands carrying Willem Kieft, the man Stuyvesant was replacing. Wrecked off the Welsh coast, she carried the unpopular Kieft to his death.

Large areas of the colony Stuyvesant had inherited had already been carved from the original Dutch lands—Connecticut and New Haven. As one of his first actions following the creation of a municipal charter for New Amsterdam in 1653, Stuyvesant would endorse the decision “to surround the greater part of the City with a high stockade and a small breastwork.”

Along the northern edge of the settlement, a palisade consisting of stout oak logs 12 feet long, six inches in diameter and “sharpened at the upper end” were sunk three feet into the ground. This ambitious structure would give the name to Wall Street. Contrary to popular belief, it was erected not to defend against Indians, but against the English threat from New England.

New Amsterdam, capital of New Netherland, was a mess. Stuyvesant later reported to the directors of the Dutch West India Company that Kieft's "land-destroying and people-expelling wars with the cruel barbarians" had ruined the colony. Settlers abandoned farms on the frontier, entire villages were destroyed and many colonists gave up and headed elsewhere. Some 700 people, afraid to return to outlying homes, huddled in makeshift dwellings near the settlement’s fort.

The Dutch West India Company was under the impression that the bitter enmity caused by Governor Kieft's ruthless killing of Indians had been calmed with the treaty signed at Teller's Point (Croton Point) in 1645. They couldn't have been more mistaken. Sporadic Indian attacks continued. Stuyvesant, under orders not to provoke another devastating war, tried to placate the Indians.

The Peach War
On September 15, 1655, a fleet of 64 canoes landed at New Amsterdam and about 500 armed Indians attacked the settlement. They broke down doors, smashed furniture, ransacked homes and threatened the terrified occupants. Finding barrels of beer and brandy, they drank themselves into a stupor. Stuyvesant and his entire army were absent. They had sailed down the Jersey coast, rounded Cape May to attack Swedish forts along the Delaware River. Established along the lower Delaware by former Dutch West India Company director Peter Minuit in 1638, colonies of Swedes and Finns were diverting the local fur trade away from the Dutch.

This was the first act of Indian retaliation in what would be known as the Peach War. A prominent citizen and former West India Company soldier, Hendrick van Dyck, had caught an Indian woman stealing peaches from his orchard and had shot her.

Before the Peach War was over, Dutch settlements at Pavonia (Jersey City) and Staten Island were laid waste. Indians murdered fifty colonists and carried off into captivity more than a hundred more, mostly women and children. Twenty-five farms were burned, and 600 head of cattle and 12,000 bushels of grain were destroyed. Too weak to take military action, the Dutch paid ransom to the Indians for the captives. The Peach War dragged on inconclusively until 1657, with the ransoming of the last of the Dutch prisoners.

The Esopus Wars
When Dutch settlements expanded north of the Hudson Highlands, a series of bloody conflicts erupted between them and a Delaware tribe, the Esopus. These clashes became known as the Esopus Wars. Thanks to treaties they had made with the Dutch, most of the Indians of Westchester managed to avoid becoming involved. To lessen the risk of the Westchester Indians being drawn into the conflict, in the summer of 1663, Stuyvesant moved the Wiechquaeskeck, Kitchawanck, Sint Sinck and Keskistkonck tribes to the northern end of Manhattan Island near Spuyten Duyvil.

The British Take Over
In May of 1664, a treaty finally ended the Esopus Wars, leaving the Dutch exhausted once again. British King Charles II, recognizing island of Manhattan was the key to the Hudson River and the untapped fur trade of the west, made a gift of the vast stretch of land between Maine and Delaware to his brother, James, the Duke of York, who would later rule as James II. Less than four months later, New Netherland easily fell to an English squadron of four gunships and 450 men commanded by Colonel Richard Nicolls. With a fort that was weak, few men and supplies, and a populace on the brink of rebellion over the shortsighted policies of the Dutch West India Company, Stuyvesant had no choice but to surrender.

The English moved quickly to set up an alliance with the Iroquois. Called the Covenant Chain, its purpose was to use the fierce Indian tribe as a buffer, protecting the newly named colony of New York from the French in Canada.

By the early decades of the 18th century, most of the remaining Indian lands in the Hudson Valley had been sold to the English. The Hudson Valley had long since been trapped out. Lenapes of the lower Hudson Valley were forced to travel as far as the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes in search of pelts. Many returned empty-handed from such expeditions. Some never returned, having been killed by Mohawk, Seneca, Mohican or Susquehannock Indians who resented intrusions into their fur-rich lands.

This may be a good place to stop this account to clarify Indian names. The Mahican and Mohegan tribes are frequently confused. The names refer to two very distinct Algonquian tribes in two different and widely separated locations. Mahicans inhabited the upper Hudson Valley in New York, and Mohegans lived in the Thames River Valley in eastern Connecticut.

Popular novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, was partly responsible for the mix-up. Cooper lived in Cooperstown, New York, and the setting of his story was the upper Hudson Valley. He could only have been writing about the Mahicans of that area. Unfortunately, "Mohican," the spelling variation of the Mahican tribal name chosen by Cooper, and his use of Uncas--the name of an important Mohegan sachem in Connecticut--only added to the confusion.

The Mahican homeland was on both sides of the upper Hudson River, from the Catskill Mountains north to Lake Champlain. On the other hand, Uncas and the Mohegans occupied the upper portion of the Thames River valley in Connecticut, which empties into Long Island Sound at New London. The Pequots, a closely associated tribe, lived nearer the coast. Despite the presence of a hamlet named Mohegan Lake in Westchester County, there were no Mohegans in Westchester nor anywhere near it.

No conspiracy existed among colonial governments to obliterate Indians or their culture. Acquisition of Indian lands had been driven by the oldest of motives: greed. Facing chronic problems resulting from friction between Indians and a growing, expanding population of newcomers, colonial leaders decided that civilizing the natives was the only practical solution. They would encourage them to settle down as farmers.

New Jersey established the first Indian reservation on the North American continent. In 1758, the colony purchased 3,044 acres of land for a reservation called Brotherton at the present village of Indian Mills in Burlington County. The following year, about a hundred Indians, mainly Lenapes, moved to the reservation.

Waiting for them were comfortable homes, a log meeting house, general store and gristmill. Although they accepted the fruits of European technology, the Indians clung desperately to their native lifestyles. Confining Indians to small tracts of land conflicted with their concept of freedom and mobility. Indian men considered it demeaning to become farmers. Indian women traditionally cultivated the fields, while the men hunted and fished. The Indian population on the Brotherton Reservation dwindled.

The Exodus Begins
For many Indians in the Hudson Valley, the solution to settler encroachment was to move west to unspoiled forests rich in game and to land that had not been disturbed by the plow. The Susquehanna and Ohio River valleys beckoned. Here it was almost like old times again--but not for long. Colonial America was expanding. No matter where the Indians moved, it was only a matter of time before white settlers would begin to pour in.

Delawares who moved to Pennsylvania and later to Ohio found that German-speaking pastors of the Moravian Church had established mission houses for them. The Indians found haven in Moravian missions and were converted to Christianity. Housed in log cabins, Indian converts ate well, and learned agriculture and other useful skills. They were encouraged to abandon their primitive way of life and live in peace and harmony.

Ignoring the westward movement and reversing direction, a large group traveled east. They converged on a new mission settlement for displaced Oneida Indians at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Some Mahicans who remained behind in New York also became Christians and were baptized, taking biblical names like Aaron, Jacob, John and Joseph while retaining Indian last names.

During the Revolutionary War, Stockbridge Indians enlisted in the Continental Army. They hoped a new government--if it should become a reality--would look more favorably on Indian problems. On August 31, 1778, American troops were posted near the present northern boundary of New York City. With them was a company of 40 or 50 Stockbridge Indians under their chief, Daniel Nimham. The Indians were south of what is now McLean Avenue, the Americans north of it.

While the Stockbridge Indians attacked a British force advancing from the east, a second British force struck the Indians from the south. Before they could reload their muskets, a third column, mounted dragoons under infamous Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton descended on them. Pursued by the British, the Indians retreated into an open field at the northeast corner of today's Van Cortlandt Park.

Outnumbered and lacking bayonets, the Indians mounted a valiant but doomed defense. A bronze plaque erected by the Bronx Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution marks the site and memorializes Chief Nimham and 17 Stockbridge Indians, noting that they "gave their lives for liberty." The exact number of killed and wounded may never be known.

Migration to Canada
Other Indians, notably the Iroquois and their dependent tribes, including some Delawares, fought on the side of the British during the Revolution. To punish them, the new American government confiscated their lands. Because the British owed a debt to their former Indian allies, the Canadian government set aside land for them in Ontario along the Grand River. Known as the Six Nations Reserve, this reservation is today and is home to Mohawks and other tribes, including some who identify themselves as Delawares. Nearby are two smaller Canadian reservations that include Delawares among their populations. One is called Moraviantown, and the other is at a hamlet called Muncy Town.

Reconstructing the movements of Delaware bands is not easy. Famine, disease and alcoholism took their toll, and bands went out of existence. Some Lenapes quietly moved to Seneca villages along the Allegheny and Genesee rivers of western New York, where traces of them can be found to this day. Others headed to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Homesick for their former lands, from time to time Indians would return to the Hudson Valley to visit ancestral gravesites or even to die. Strangers now in a changed land, they would trade furs they had trapped in their new homeland, or peddle homemade baskets and brooms from door to door.

The Stockbridge Indians remained in Massachusetts until 1788, when they joined Oneida Indians in central New York at a town they named New Stockbridge. Other Indians arrived, including Delawares from the Brotherton Reservation in New Jersey. Now calling themselves Munsees, from the name of their dialect, they traveled farther west again with their Oneida hosts to Indiana, and on to Wisconsin in 1822. Although the Munsees had remained only briefly along the White River in Indiana, their stay is recalled in the name of the present city of Muncie.

Moving Farther West
On the eastern shore of Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago they established a town they again named New Stockbridge. In 1856, refusing a government offer of land even farther away in Minnesota, the Stockbridge band moved again to a home on 40,000-acre reservation purchased by the government from an Algonquian tribe, the Menominee Indians, near Bowler, Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin tribal group now call themselves the Stockbridge Munsees and operates a comprehensive health care center, a residential facility, and a family recreation and fitness center. For tribal parents who work, it offers children's day-care services. Their secret? A highly successful gambling casino on the reservation pays for these.

Other Delawares found their way to Kansas and from there to the Indian Territory, which woild become the present state of Oklahoma in 1907. The tribe now numbers about 10,00 members and makes its headquarters at Bartlesville, Oklahoma. A small group of separately organized Delawares (called "the Absentees") are located in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on lands they jointly control with the Wichita and Caddo tribes. Interestingly, there are no Indian reservations in Oklahoma.

The story of our treatment of Indians over the years is a sad chronicle. Four hundred years after Europeans first strong-armed their way into their homeland, American Indians as a whole remain economically the poorest, the least employed, the unhealthiest, the lowest in education and income level, and the worst housed ethnic group in America. For our disgraceful treatment of these proud people, we should all be ashamed.

The Delaware Indian Research Center
Readers interested in learning more about the Delawares, or Lenapes, should visit a valuable local resource and repository of information, the Delaware Indian Research Center at the Trailside Nature Museum in the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. A large library of books, tapes and photographs, as well as a collection of local Delaware artifacts is available here for viewing and study. The museum is maintained by Westchester County's Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation (Tel.: 914/864-7322). The entrance to the park, Westchester's largest, is near the intersection of Routes 35 and 121 in Cross River.

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