Monday, February 27, 2012

The Golden Age of Hudson Valley Brickmaking, 1: An Industry Is Born


In the first decade of the 20th century, the Hudson Valley was the largest brick-producing region in the world.
The Hudson Valley produced more than a billion bricks a year, accounting for 10% of total U.S. brick production.
By the turn of the present century, the last surviving brickyard closed, and the once mighty molded-brick industry of the Hudson Valley was no more.
 This is the story of that now-forgotten chapter of local history.

Brickmaking Comes to the New World
Babylonians and Egyptians made bricks, the oldest manufactured building material, as early as 4000 B.C. For centuries, bricks were sun-dried. Around 1000 B.C. someone discovered that they could be hardened by fire. Since then, every civilization has burnt bricks.
Dutch and English colonists brought with them the brickmaking skills of the mother country. Small deposits of clay were everywhere in the new land, and it was not unusual for bricks to be made at building sites.
In the construction of the John Jay homestead in Katonah, for example, bricks were made from clay dug and burned at the site. At the Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton, demonstrations of how molded bricks were made in Colonial times are occasionally given.
The father of Hudson Valley commercial brickmaking was an Englishman with brickmaking experience, James Wood. Arriving in Westchester in 1801 at age 28, he set up a brickyard at Sing Sing and then at George's Island. Upon learning of vast clay deposits on the opposite shore, he crossed over to Haverstraw, where he leased land and established a brickyard.
With its more abundant supplies of clay, the west bank of the Hudson eventually surpassed the east bank in production. Nevertheless, for 75 years after 1850 a busy brickmaking industry flourished in Westchester in the area between Croton and Peekskill.

A City’s Need for Bricks
During the first half of the 19th century, New York grew faster than any other American city to become the principal metropolis of the nation. By mid-century its population was more than a half-million inhabitants.
Fires were the dreaded hazard in cities, where closely packed houses were constructed of wood, and fireplaces were used for cooking and heating.
Small fires inevitably spread to become conflagrations of disastrous proportions involving whole sections of a city.
In 1835, the need for an adequate supply of water in New York was underscored when the city suffered one of the worst disasters in its history. The great fire of December 17th wiped out many buildings that had survived an earlier fire of 1776 when the British seized the city during the Revolution.
Before the conflagration was extinguished, it leveled 20 blocks, destroyed 674 buildings, 530 of which were warehouses or housed commercial establishments. Estimates of property loss ranged between twenty and forty million dollars. Some 1500 merchants were ruined, and nearly all of the city's fire insurance companies went bankrupt.
An adequate supply of water was one solution to the city’s fire problem. Actual construction of the Croton Aqueduct would not begin until two years late, in the midst of the financial panic of 1837
Some 55 million locally-manufactured bricks would be consumed in building this engineering marvel. But five years would elapse before water would begin to flow to the city.
Another solution to New York's increased threat of fire was to erect fire-resistant buildings--and to construct them of brick.

Early Westchester Brickyards
One early brickyard was between Verplanck Point and Montrose Point, at Green's Cove, named for Isaac Green, a settler from Vermont. In 1833 or 1834, Green began to manufacture bricks on land leased from Joshua T. Jones.
In 1837, William A. Underhill began making bricks on land owned by his father, Robert Underhill, on Croton Point.
Extensive deposits of clay and sand were discovered on Verplanck Point, and it became the center of the early brickmaking industry in Cortlandt. An early brickyard operator was William Bleakley, former town supervisor of Cortlandt and later sheriff of Westchester County.
According to the N.Y. State Census of 1855, 37 brickyards employing more than a thousand workers were operating in the town of Cortlandt. The only other brickyard in Westchester was located near Sing Sing in the town of Mount Pleasant and employed 16 men.
One legacy of the intensive brickmaking on Verplanck Point is the community of Verplanck itself. Still remarkably intact, it is a veritable architectural museum. Its brick public buildings and modest brick homes and row houses in simplified Greek Revival style are seemingly frozen in time.
In 1836, John Henry and nine other investors purchased Verplanck Point with the intention of establishing a village to rival Peekskill. Theirs was an ambitious plan for small lots along 37 numbered streets and six named avenues (Water, Hudson, Highland, Broadway, Westchester, and Union).
The expected population never materialized, however, and only eleven streets and four avenues were cut through. In 1866, Henry sold much of his land to the Hudson River Brick Manufacturing Company. Initially, this company did not engage in brick manufacture but leased land to others.

Brickmaking in 1884
Because brickmaking was an unglamorous industry requiring comparatively little capital or equipment, few records have survived. We get a glimpse of its extent in Cortlandt in 1884 from J. Thomas Scharf's two-volume Westchester County history.
On Verplanck Point ten brickyards employed 425 men and manufactured 400,000 bricks daily. Frank A. Timoney leased three yards and employed 150 men. Patrick King also operated three yards employing 125 men. Adam Fisher's yard (50 men, Thomas Vaughey's yard (25 men) and John Morton's two yards (75 men) were all leased.
One of Morton's yards manufactured what was described as "Croton front brick," priced at $10-12 a thousand. The other made "common brick," priced at $6 a thousand.
At Green's Cove, between Verplanck Point and Montrose Point, were the brickyards of Cyrus Travis, then the town supervisor of Cortlandt, and O'Brien & McConnon, each employing 50 men.
On Montrose Point was the brickyard of James D. Avery, with 30 men. Farther south were two brickyards operated by Orrin Frost with 100 men. On George's Island were three leased brickyards, employing 130 men. Two were operated by Tompkins & Bellefeuille and the third by Edward Bellefeuille.
At Crugers, John Peach Cruger owned two brickyards employing 70 men; one was leased to Adam Fisher.
Croton Landing had two brickyards. The northern, smaller yard was operated by Schuyler Hamilton of Ossining and employed 30 men. To the south was the yard of the George D. Arthur Company, owned by Francis Larkin and Marcus L. Cobb, both of Ossining, with 50 men.
Croton Point had two yards--one made 60,000 Croton front bricks a day and another turned out enameled bricks for tiling and wainscoting.

Westchester Brick Brands
Early brickmakers occasionally scratched their initials in their bricks, but by the 1880's templates were used to enable uniform marks to be made. Eventually, rectangular wooden plates were fixed inside the molds at the bottom. These produced an indentation in each brick called a "frog" in which brickyards' names or initials appeared in raised relief.
The frog not only yielded a lighter brick but also conserved raw material. It also made for a better bond between bricks laid with mortar. Builders soon recognized brands whose quality was consistent and bought such bricks.
Most Westchester brands are easily identifiable by their names, but some initials can pose a problem. Verplanck yards: CC (Charles Carman); K&L (King and Lynch); O&McC (O'Brien & McConnon); PO (Patrick O'Brien). Crugers yards: LHL (L.H. Lynch); L&O (Lynch &  O'Brien). Croton and Croton Point yards: CPB Co (Croton Point Brick Company); EF (Eugene Frost); JM (John Morton); WAU (W.A. Underhill).
Bricks of the Anchor Brick Company of Croton were distinguishable by an anchor embossed in the frog. Some W.A. Underhill bricks displayed the letters IXL ("I excel").
Despite their size and weight, and the difficulty of exhibiting them, collectors eagerly seek examples of brick brands. The Brick Museum in Haverstraw, N.Y., has exhibits tracing the history of brickmaking in the Hudson Valley, and is well worth a visit.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Marinus Willett: The Rest of the Story


Last week we explored Marinus Willett’s early life and his remarkable expulsion of raiding British forces from Peekskill in March of 1777.
Following his victory at Peekskill, Marinus Willett and his 3rd New York Regiment were transferred to strategic Fort Stanwix, guarding German settlements in the Mohawk Valley.
Besieged by a superior force led by British Lt. Col. Barry St.Leger, the fort’s garrison showed its defiance by hastily sewing together a battle flag. The camlet cloak seized by Willett at Peekskill supplied the material for the blue field of the pennant flown over the fort.
While St. Leger was attacking the relief column of militia Gen. Nicholas Herkimer attempting to reach Fort Stanwix, Willett led a small force from the fort and raided St. Leger’s lightly guarded camps, seizing equipment and supplies and carrying them back to Fort Stanwix.
As second in command at Fort Stanwix, Willett later responded to St. Leger’s demand for its surrender. He told the major who brought the ultimatum that it was "a degrading message for a British officer to send and a less than reputable message for another British officer to carry."
Willett followed his defiance with another remarkable feat. Accompanied by militia lieutenant Levi Stockwell, a resourceful hunter and woodsman, he slipped from the fort and through the lines of the besieging British and Indians.
Each man was armed only with a spontoon, a wooden shaft about eight feet long with a sharp blade at one end. To conceal their tracks, they walked in streams. Lighting no fires, they ate only the cheese and hardtack they carried.
After covering the 50 miles to Fort Dayton in two days, they learned that a relief force commanded by adventurous and unpredictable Gen. Benedict Arnold had already been dispatched to raise the siege of Fort Stanwix.
For Willett's repeated acts of bravery, Congress later presented him with "an elegant sword," now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Worn out by incessant fighting, Willett retired on New Year's Day in 1781, but soon accepted Gov. George Clinton's appeal to return to the Mohawk Valley to repulse continuing Tory and Indian attacks.
Following the Revolution, estates of Tories confiscated by the Commissioners of Forfeitures were sold at ridiculously low prices. Marinus Willett bought a large tract formerly owned by the DeLancey family in an area called Corlear's Hook overlooking the busy East River.
Willett built a two-story mansion with small wings at each end as a home for himself and his wife. Surrounded by spacious grounds containing gardens, it was famous for luscious pears and delicious melons. He called the estate Cedar Grove.
Willett's estate, which would later became part of the teeming Lower East Side, is today the site of public housing projects. Two street names--Willett Streetand Sheriff Street--were the only reminders of his presence there.

An Enlightened View of Indians
Taking advantage of Willett’s experience with Indian adversaries in the Mohawk Valley, President Washington sent Marinus Willett as his personal representative in 1790 to negotiate with the Creek Nation, a powerful Indian tribe in Georgia and Alabama. So successful was his diplomacy, he returned to New York escorting Alexander McGillivray, the tribe's wily half-breed chief, and a delegation of sub-chiefs.
After a succession of festivities, including a reception by President Washington and Governor Clinton, the Creeks signed a peace treaty. Willett's signature appears on this historic document as a witness.
Because Indian tribes north of the Ohio River were actively resisting the inroads of settlers, to take advantage of Willett's knowledge of Indians, George Washington appointed him a brigadier general in 1792 to conduct a campaign on the Ohio frontier.
In a little-known letter to Washington demonstrating how astute he was about Indian affairs. Willett thanked the President for the honor, but declined to attack the Indians.
"It has been my uniform opinion that the United States ought to avoid an Indian war. I have generally conceived this to be our wisest policy. The reasons alleged in support of the present Indian war have never brought conviction to my mind.
"From my knowledge and experience of these people, I am clear that it is not a difficult thing to preserve peace with them. That there are bad men among them and that these will at times do acts which deserve punishment is very clear. But I hold that to go to war is not the proper way to punish them.
"Though they are not free from chicanery and intrigue, yet if their vanity is properly humored, and they are dealt justly by, it is no difficult matter to come to terms with them. The intercourse I have had with these people, the treatment I have myself received from them, and which I have known others to receive, makes me an advocate for them. To fight with them would be the last thing I should desire."
If others in government had shared Willet’s enlightened attitudes, the entire course of this nation's relations with Indian tribes might have been different.

Family Matters
We get an indication of the mores of the period from Willett’s marital history and a scandal that erupted in 1781. While stationed at Fort Plain, four miles west of Canajoharie, the tall and handsome Willett met Elizabeth Seeber, an attractive woman living apart from her husband.
Separated from his wife and still mourning the untimely death of his son, a Continental soldier, three years before, Willett began a liaison with Mrs. Seeber that set tongues to wagging.
In the course of time, Mrs. Seeber gave birth to a boy, who was named Marinus W. Seeber. Willett made no secret of his paternity, providing child support and money for the youth's education. Years later, now a grown man, his son returned to Fort Plain as a teacher of dancing.
Illegitimacy was then a label one carried forever, and townspeople made life uncomfortable for him. An innocent victim of wagging tongues, Marinus W. Seeber left for parts unknown and disappeared from the pages of history.
Willett's wife of 33 years, Mary Pearsee, died at Cedar Grove in 1793. He lost no time in becoming enamored of Susannah Vardill, a beautiful widow who had already buried two husbands.
She was described as "the reigning toast of New York society." They were married on October 3, 1793, three months to the day after his first wife's death. The "toast" soon lost its zest for him, and the marriage became an unhappy one. Willett discovered that he had gotten more than he bargained for.
His new wife turned out to be a vixen and a spitfire. Susannah loved to gossip--even about her husband--and the marriage eventually soured. Mrs. Willett filed for divorce in 1799.
Marinus Willett next lost his heart to Margaret Bancker, the young daughter of Willett's friends, Christopher and Mary Smith Bancker. Willett was 59; she was 24. Despite the disparity in their ages, they married. This third marriage for Willett produced four children--three sons and a daughter. One son became a physician, another a minister, and the third a lawyer.

In Politics and Out
Willett was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati formed by officers of the Continental Army. To counter their aristocratic pretensions, the Tammany Society was organized. Willett became one of its leaders.
An ardent foe of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, he cast his lot with the anti-Federalists, joining Gov. George Clinton and Aaron Burr in unsuccessfully opposing New York's ratification of the new national constitution.
Willett was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1784 but resigned to become sheriff of the city and county of New York.
In 1807, he was appointed mayor of New York City to succeed DeWitt Clinton, and served until 1808. [For the first 150 years of the city's existence, mayors were appointed.] Four years later, Clinton defeated Willett for the post of lieutenant governor.
In or out of office, Willett was always in the public eye. During the darkest days of the War of 1812, he gave a rousing patriotic speech to a large crowd assembled in City Hall Park. In 1824, he was named a presidential elector in the bitter election that made John Quincy Adams president.
Marinus Willett died in his home at Cedar Grove on August 22, 1830, three weeks past his 90th birthday. Coincidentally, this was the anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Fort Stanwix 53 years before.
The entire city mourned his passing. His immense funeral procession, including military units and the Common Council, wound through streets lined with grieving spectators from Corlear’s Hook to Trinity Church at Wall Street and Broadway.
After the funeral ceremony conducted by the light of flickering torches his body was placed in the family vault at the southwest corner of the churchyard. A cannon at the Battery solemnly boomed 90 times at one-minute intervals to mark his 90 years of life. He reposes in the same churchyard with his arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton, buried there in 1804 after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
Time and the elements have badly eroded Marinus Willett's name on the red Connecticut sandstone slab covering the Willett vault, making it almost unreadable. A more permanent plaque erected in 1969 by the Sons of the American Revolution can be found nearby.
Yet, in Westchester Marinus Willett still waits to be memorialized. A plaque or some other tangible expression of Peekskill's gratitude to him would be a good start.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Marinus Willett, Forgotten Savior of Peekskill


No Peekskill street bears his name.
No statue of him graces any Peekskill park.
No memorial plaque commemorating his stunning exploits during the Revolution can be found anywhere in Peekskill.
He was Lt. Col. Marinus Willett, an outstanding soldier whose determined action saved Peekskill from destruction at the hands of the British. Yet he is hardly remembered by the community he delivered from the enemy.

Meet Marinus Willett
Marinus Willett was born on July 31, 1740, in Jamaica, Long Island. Originally called Rustdorp by the Dutch, when the Brutish took over in 1664 they named it Jameco, after the Lenape word for beaver. The tenth of thirteen children and one of the six sons of Aletta Clowes and Edward Willett, Marinus was named for a great uncle, Marinus Van Varick.
Later genealogical research casts doubt on the claim made in the 19th century that he was the great-grandson of Thomas Willett, first mayor of New York in 1665. This lineage was never claimed by Marinus Willett.
Little is known about his childhood, except that he worked as a cabinet maker. At the age of 18, he gained military experience as a lieutenant in the French and Indian War by taking part in attacks on French-held Forts Ticonderoga and Frontenac.
In the years before the Revolution, Willett was a fervent and effective member of the Sons of Liberty. Like other secret societies, it was formed to protest the series of onerous acts passed by the British to extract more taxes from the colonies.
After the news of the armed rebellion at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 reached New York, the British decided to evacuate the city. On June 6th, seeing a British detachment taking five wagonloads of muskets to the docks, Willett dashed into the street, grabbed the bridle of the lead horse and stopped the column.
An unruly crowd gathered, and Willett--by now an accomplished rabble-rouser--stirred them up. He announced to the astonished British that they could only leave the city with the personal weapons they carried. The spare guns would have to remain, and remain they did. Willett even persuaded one of the British soldiers to join the American cause.
In 1892, a plaque commemorating this event was placed by the Sons of the Revolution at the northwest corner of Broad and Beaver streets. It contains a representation of old Broad Streetand Federal Hall and a medallion head of Marinus Willett.
Two months after the seizure of the British weapons, Willett became a captain in Col. Alexander McDougall's First New York militia regiment and took part in the misguided and abortive invasion of Canada.
An obvious key objective of British forces during the war, Peekskill guarded the southern gate to the Hudson Highlands, a natural mountainous barrier. Part of the Appalachian mountain chain, the Highlands commanded a vital avenue of communication--the crucial waterway known as the North River, today called the Hudson to honor its discoverer.
Travel back in time with me to the spring of 1777. British forces had wintered comfortably in New York City and now occupy Westchester as far north as Dobbs Ferry.

    Marinus Willett in a 1791 oil painting by portrait artist Ralph Earle.
Owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Above the Croton River, American forces are in control. In between is the so-called "Neutral Ground." Raided by marauding Tory forces called "skinners," who steal cattle from farmers to sell to the British in New York City, the region is defended by patriot militia and irregulars called "cowboys."
Brig. Gen. William Heath, nominally in command of the Eastern Department at Peekskill, is on leave and visiting his home in Massachusetts. Commanding Continental forces in the Highlands and headquartered at Peekskill is Scottish-born Alexander, now a Brigadier General.
McDougall, 46, a wealthy merchant and dedicated patriot, had been a member and later a leader of the Sons of Liberty. He wrote and had printed an anonymous broadside, To the Betrayed Inhabitants, protesting provincial payments for housing and provisions for British troops under the Quartering Acts. Accused of libel, he refused to post bail and was held in jail for five months. Public demonstrations became so frequent his release was ordered by Governor Tryon.
McDougall fought delaying actions in 1776 against the British at Brooklyn Heights and White Plains. [In one of those peculiar alterations that occur in street names, MacDougal Streetin New York's Greenwich Village was later named for him.]
In command at Fort Independence on Roa Hook (opposite the present entrance to Camp Smith) is Lt. Col. Marinus Willett, 36, who spends every available moment drilling his New York militia troops of the Third Continental Regiment.
At Peekskill, McDougall's forces erect redoubts and barracks in a military complex on a series of three hills lying south of the present Bear Mountain State Parkway

The British Attack Peekskill
On Sunday, March 23, 1777, an attack force consisting of the British frigate H.M.S. Brune, four transports and other naval support craft appears in the Hudson off Peekskill. About 500 British troops and four light cannons served by sailors are landed unopposed in Lent's Cove, between Charles Point and Indian Point.
Their mission is to destroy the Continental encampment and any wharves, warehouses, buildings, equipment or supplies useful to the American cause.
General McDougall decides that his Peekskill garrison is too small to attack the superior British force. A defeat at the hands of the enemy would open the Highlands and jeopardize the weapons and supplies stored at Continental Village and Fishkill.
McDougall prudently withdraws his troops to the north of Peekskill. The retreating Americans burn one of the barracks on Fort Hill, thus denying it to the attacking British. For the same reason, they burn a mill on McGregory Creek and several warehouses near the waterfront.
The British set up their four field pieces on Drum Hill and fire on Peekskill. Nathaniel Brown, a Continental soldier retreating before the British, stops to drink from a spring and is killed by fragments from a British cannonball. The spring near which he is standing is located on Division Street, north of the junction with Highland Avenue. It will hereafter be known as the Soldier's Spring. General McDougall sends an urgent message to Lt. Col. Willett on Roa Hook telling him to leave the fort in charge of a subordinate and to meet him at Bald Hill (north of the present Van Cortlandtville) with a detachment of troops. After the hanging of British spy Edmund Palmer in August of 1777, the hill will acquire the sinister name it bears to this day: Gallows Hill.

Colonel Willett Reports
At about three in the afternoon, Marinus Willett and 80 soldiers join McDougall on Bald Hill. Quickly taking in the situation, Willett spots British troops on a hill to the south of Peekskill Hollow Creek (the site of the present Cortlandt town hall), where they have set fire to a house. He immediately proposes to attack them by circling to their rear and asks McDougall to make a feint to the left to distract attention from his flanking movement.
Initially uncomfortable with this plan, McDougall prefers to wait for Dutchess County militia reinforcements expected the next day. Willett pesters the reluctant commander, who finally gives him permission to execute his plan.
Aggressively ordering his troops forward, Willett moves them through a gully with guns "at trail" to avoid detection. After being delayed by two fences at which they are subjected to enemy musket fire, in a loud voice Willett gives the order, “Fix bayonets and charge!”
On hearing that chilling command, the British troops, busy reloading their muskets, fall back to the Post Road
. Confusion reigns in the gathering darkness. Unfamiliar with the terrain, the entire British force is soon in disorderly retreat back to their boats, leaving behind the baggage and supplies that had been landed with their expedition. One abandoned item, a blue cloak made of camlet (a mixture of silk and wool) will have special significance for Marinus Willett.
Willett's decisiveness and the unflinching determination of his well-drilled troops undoubtedly saved Peekskill from the fate of other rebel towns struck in lightning raids.
Burning was a common British retaliatory tactic as punishment for communities storing grain and supplies for rebel forces. The previous autumn, they had burned White Plains after the battle there. One month after their attack on Peekskill, Danbury in Connecticut will be raided, and homes, warehouses and provisions destroyed. Later in 1777, the British will attack and burn the upriver town of Kingston, temporarily serving as New York’s capital because an attack on Albany was anticipated.
Two years later, the same fiery fate awaits the Connecticut towns of Groton, New Haven, East Haven, Fairfield and Green's Farms. New London will be savagely torched in 1781.
Peekskill will be overrun twice by the British—first in the fall of 1777 to guard their flank in the attack on Forts Clinton and Montgomery near Bear Mountain, and again in the summer and fall of 1779 during their campaign to capture Stony Point and Verplanck Point.
On each of these occasions, the enemy's troops will remain longer and wreak greater havoc than before. By then, Willett and his troops will be long gone. One likes to think the outcome of these subsequent attacks would have been different had Marinus Willett still been in Peekskill.

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Monday, February 06, 2012

The First Americans, 2: An Inevitable Clash of Cultures


The arrival of Europeans in the New World resulted in almost immediate exploitation of native Americans.
Columbus's first contacts were with the gentle and innocent Taino Indians on the island of San Salvador.
 "They should make good and intelligent servants," was his initial impression, conveyed in letters to his royal Spanish patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella.
Although Columbus maintained he had seen "no better people" in the world, his admiration did not deter him from chaining and shipping hundreds of Taino men and women back to Spain. Rapacious Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English slavers who came later piously justified their actions on the grounds that Indians were "idolators" and "heathens."

Grossly Undercounted
As recently as sixty years ago estimates of the size of the Indian population north of the Rio Grande at the time of Columbus's first landfall placed it at between one million and a million and a half. Demographers now recognize that these figures were grossly in error.
The indigenous population of America and Canada at the end of the fifteenth century is now believed to have numbered between twelve and fifteen million. In the three contiguous continents, North, Central and South America, the total Indian population is believed to have been an astonishing one hundred million.
Columbus brought alcohol, not uncommon baggage for conquerors. According to Herodotus, the ancient Greeks always introduced drink to the lands they colonized.
Columbus also carried a more sinister cargo: a pandemic of the contagious diseases of the Old World. Lacking previous exposure, within a few generations the Indian population of the Americas was decimated.
Epidemics of smallpox, measles, cholera, typhoid, and dysentery swept through whole tribes like wildfire on the prairie. Ironically, recent studies have confirmed that the crewmen on Columbus’s ships returned to Europe with a disease, syphilis, acquired in the New World, which spread with equal rapidity. Some observers consider the exchange an inadvertent but exquisite form of payback.
By the time of the 1910 federal Census, only a scant 210,000 Indians could be found and counted in the United States. There is small comfort in the knowledge that American Indians now number more than 2.8 million.
What Scottish poet Robert Burns called "man's inhumanity to man" still "makes countless thousands mourn." The relentless genocide of North American Indians is now being repeated in the Brazilian rain forest. And for the same reasons: A desperate lust for gold and for land.
Despite their lack of civilization, the Indians' gentle use of the world around them was remarkably sophisticated and forward-looking. Land was an abstract commodity--much like air or fire or water--something there to be freely used by the group.
Not understanding the European concept of "title" or ownership of land by individuals, they were at a disadvantage in making treaties. Under pressure of immigration and westward expansion, whites abrogated such treaties almost as soon as they were made.
Possessions and authority among Indians often passed through a female line of descent. In contrast to the Old World practice of hereditary rule, leadership of clans and tribes was based on ability or proficiency. Decisions bearing on tribal policy were reached by unanimous consent--not mere majority agreement--at public meetings attended both by men and women.

Native Languages
Some four hundred identifiable tribal cultures flourished north of the Rio Grande in the fifteenth century. We shall probably never know the number of different languages spoken in the Americas, most of them now lost or in the process of disappearing as older native speakers die,. Scholars estimate these to have numbered around 2,200, many with local or regional variations.
Native American languages have a practical side. During World War II Marine Corps
Navajo language talkers confounded Japanese code breakers in the Pacific. Similarly, U.S. Army Cherokee speakers confused the Germans opposing the landings at Omaha Beach in Normandy.
Every native language that disappears takes with it clues to philosophies, histories and irreplaceable environmental wisdom accumulated over many millennia. More than half of the remaining 140 native languages may fall silent unless organized action is taken to teach them. In the U.S., nine centers now offer immersion language courses to young tribal members.
Native language distribution gives tantalizing clues to early migrations. For example, the tribes in the lower Hudson Valley all spoke an Algonquian language--but an Algonquian tongue was spoken as far west as Montana by the Blackfoot and by the Cree in subarctic Canada. Sioux was spoken in the Great Plains by the proud tribe of that name, but it was also the language in what are now Virginia and the Carolinas.

Indian Contributions
Indians made important contributions to the world's food supply, including corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes, manioc, peanuts, squash, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, avocados, and dozens of other vegetables and herbs. Indian societies were well acquainted with plant medicines.
Before 1492, 40 percent of the modern world's medicinal drugs were being used in America to treat illnesses. Among these remedies were coca (cocaine, as a pain-killer), curare (a muscle relaxant), cinchona bark (quinine, for treating malaria), cascara sagrada (a laxative), datura (a pain-reliever), and ephedra (relief from allergies and asthma).
Indians ritually identified themselves with the animals they hunted. Common to Indian life was shamanism, an animalistic religion of Asiatic origin in which mediation between the visible and the spirit world is performed by shamans. Shamanist practices have been documented in cultures as diverse as Iron Age Ireland, pagan Scandinavia, classical Greece, and ice-bound Siberia.
Sometimes described as "medicine men," the shamans' powers went beyond treating the sick. In the Americas, they ranged from soothsayers, magicians and hypnotists to trained priests who presided over formal rituals and entire cults. Interestingly, the growth of consciousness-raising New Age movements in the 1980s fostered new interest in shamanism.
Like the philosophers Montaigne and Rousseau, it is easy to sentimentalize Indians as "noble savages." Far from being idyllic, their existence was harsh. The average life span barely exceeded 35 years; infant mortality was high. Evidence from graves reveals that diseases like arthritis and tuberculosis were common, and tooth decay was a problem.
Our modern world owes much to Indians, far beyond the woodcraft skills taught in summer camps and the foolish names applied to professional baseball and football teams. We are still in the process of learning truths they knew instinctively in their reverence for nature--that the land and its resources are not only for our use but must be preserved for generations to come.
In addition to the communality of land and possessions, belief in the freedom and dignity of the individual was common to many Indian societies. With patient research and a measure of good luck, we may yet learn the secret of the Indians' relationship with nature, and their basic sense of equality and respect for human rights.

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