First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York

First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York

by Robert S. Grumet


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A concise history of the Indians said to have sold Manhattan for $24

The Indian sale of Manhattan is one of the world's most cherished legends. Few people know that the Indians who made the fabled sale were Munsees whose ancestral homeland lay between the lower Hudson and upper Delaware river valleys. The story of the Munsee people has long lain unnoticed in broader histories of the Delaware Nation.

First Manhattans, a concise and lively distillation of the author's comprehensive The Munsee Indians, resurrects the lost history of this forgotten people, from their earliest contacts with Europeans to their final expulsion just before the American Revolution. Anthropologist Robert S. Grumet rescues from obscurity Mattano, Tackapousha, Mamanuchqua, and other Munsee sachems whose influence on Dutch and British settlers helped shape the course of early American history in the mid-Atlantic heartland. He looks past the legendary sale of Manhattan to show for the first time how Munsee leaders forestalled land-hungry colonists by selling small tracts whose vaguely worded and bounded titles kept courts busy—and settlers out—for more than 150 years.

Ravaged by disease, war, and alcohol, the Munsees finally emigrated to reservations in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Ontario, where most of their descendants still live today. With the four hundredth anniversary of Hudson's voyage to the river that bears his name, this book shows how Indians and settlers struggled, through land deals and other transactions, to reconcile cultural ideals with political realities. It offers a wide audience access to the most authoritative treatment of the Munsee experience—one that restores this people to their place in history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

As the story goes, canny Dutch traders purchased Manhattan for a pittance and established a world commercial capital. For the Munsee Indians, however, the 1624 transaction was merely the first of a long string of bad deals that ceded ancestral lands, resources, and eventually most of the cultural life of indigenous peoples in the greater New York area. Grumet, an anthropologist, meticulously reconstructs the creeping progress of European settlement, offering a definitive account of how the Munsees endured "affronts and abuses and held on to what they could." It's an admirable historical reconstruction, but rarely a lively one. Most of the narrative is based on colonial records that give little sense of the cultures that were in such fundamental conflict. While "nakedly manipulative deed deals done at the time were cynically dipped in drink and deceit," little context is conveyed in the author's prose. The 150 years of displacement and disfranchisement has a less dramatic historical context than other episodes in the history of European settlement of North America, but the Munsees met their fate early, and this account revives a vital part of New York history that would otherwise be consigned to obscurity. (June)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806141633
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 588,523
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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First Manhattans

A Brief History of the Munsee Indians

By Robert S. Grumet


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8298-8


CONTACT, 1524–1640

Munsees knew nothing of the people beyond the ocean or of the challenges their coming would present when Giovanni da Verrazano first sailed into New York Harbor. Verrazano hove into the bay one blustery day in early March 1524, piloting his ship through the Narrows separating Brooklyn from Staten Island. Beyond, in the upper harbor, he saw people "clothed with feathers of birds of various colors." He described the harbor as "a beautiful lake with a circuit of about three leagues; over which [Indians] went to and fro in thirty of their little boats, with innumerable people who passed from one shore to the other in order to meet us." A rising breeze blew his ship back out to sea before he had a chance to speak with anyone.

Bits of news describing other visits by seaborne strangers probably made their way to the lands around New York Harbor in the decades that followed. Reports of French voyages up the St. Lawrence River in 1535 and 1542 almost certainly made their way south along the Lake Champlain–Hudson River corridor linking Canada to the Mid-Atlantic coast. Messengers probably also brought word of the founding of the Spanish mission of Ajacán on the James River in present- day Virginia in 1570 and destroyed a year later by local Indians. Indians living around the harbor may also have seen or met Englishmen who began sailing along Mid-Atlantic shores following the disappearance of their Roanoke Colony in North Carolina in 1585. And they almost certainly knew that some Englishmen had built a small fort they christened Jamestown even closer to home on the Virginia coast in 1607. Sustained direct contact, however, did not begin along the bay until a few years after Hudson sailed his ship, de Halve Maen (Half Moon), from the harbor into what he called the River of the Mountains, what we now call the Hudson, in 1609.

Starting in 1614, the Dutch government commissioned a series of private merchant companies to raid Spanish shipping and to trade for furs with Indians. The new companies, in turn, began granting licenses to independent free traders, allowing them to make voyages to what shortly became known as New Netherland. Few records document these initial voyages. What was written was terse and almost wholly devoted to matters of trade and navigation, using only the broadest terms to describe the local inhabitants.

This incurious attitude did not matter much so long as contacts were infrequent, brief, and conducted over ships' rails or on sandy shores. Most of the writers of these logs and diaries were neither ready penmen nor much interested in guiding potential rivals to favored trading spots. Because of this, little can be gleaned from their writings. This silence does not mean that nothing happened, nor that what did happen was entirely peaceful. Log entries record that, on occasion, Indians attacked voyagers, while sailors stole from, kidnapped, and killed Indians. Even Hudson's voyage was marred by violence that claimed the lives of several Indians and one member of his crew.

Despite this, both Hudson and one of his ship's officers, Robert Juet, recorded the first Munsee word documented in European chronicles: "Manhattan," penned in the forms "Manahata" and "Manahatin." Other Munsee words soon appeared on maps drawn by the free traders who were next to arrive. These men initially limited themselves to a shipborne commerce carried on in open bay and river waters, at safe anchorages. Only later, in 1614, did traders build their first permanent settlement in the region, a tiny outpost christened Fort Nassau in present- day Albany. Indians doing business with visiting Dutchmen wanted implements of iron and copper, including pots, pans, knives, awls, and axes. Those intending to fashion or repair their own tools and implements also accepted sheets of scrap metal. Woven wool, flax, and cotton textiles traded in bolt rolls; cut into sections called blankets; or tailored into shirts, coats, and other apparel were also desirable, as were glass beads, mirrors, and vermilion. In return, the Indians offered beaver and other pelts and gave the visitors food, fresh water, information, and supplies.

The era of free-trading ventures commanded by captains whose word was law did not last long. In their place came men employed by a group of influential merchant-investors who formed themselves into the Dutch West India Company in 1621. The company started up just as the Twelve Year Truce with Spain ended. Like its counterparts, the already-established Dutch East India Company and the English Virginia Company (chartered by King James I in 1606), the Dutch West India Company was expected to challenge Spanish dominance on the Atlantic and funnel booty and trade goods back to the mother country. The Dutch West India Company's outposts in West Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and New Netherland were intended to be self-governing profit centers. They were also depots used to supply and shelter Dutch privateers and warships sailing against Spain and other hostile powers.

Manhattan was the first place formally purchased by the company in Munsee country. From the start, Manhattan was more than just a place- name. In his Nieuwe Wereldt (New World), a promotional pamphlet first published in 1624, a company director named Johannes de Laet presented the first account referring to Manhattans as a people. De Laet himself never visited New Netherland. Staying at home in Holland, he based his account of goings- on at Manhattan on voyagers' accounts. Writing about the Hudson River, "called by some the Manhattes River," he observed that "on the east side, upon the main land, dwell the Manatthans, a bad race of Indians, who have always been very obstinate and unfriendly toward our countrymen." De Laet reflected the general Dutch attitude toward the people of the bay, who had been tagged with a bad reputation after warriors there retaliated for the killing of several of their people by attacking the Halve Maen's crew.

Few documents—and, significantly, no deed or bill of sale—chronicle the purchase of Manhattan. In the 1633 edition of his pamphlet, De Laet noted that "our people have bought from [the Manatthans] the island separated from the rest of the land by the Hellgate." The best known evidence of this Indian sale is a letter from a company agent notifying the Dutch government of the safe arrival of the ship Arms of Amsterdam from New Netherland on November 5, 1626. In it, the agent dryly observes that company officials "purchased the island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of sixty guilders; it is eleven thousand morgens [twenty- two thousand acres] in size." Only afterward did another early pamphleteer who never set foot on New Netherland, a man named Nicolaes Janszoon van Wassenaer, write that the company established its newly purchased settlement among "a nation called Manates."

The identity of the Indians who sold the island is not known. The few extant references subsequently mentioning Manhattan Indians by name indicate that they evidently did not immediately leave their island or its surrounding hinterland after the sale. In 1628, then-resident company secretary de Rasiere may have been writing about those Indians in a passage describing development opportunities on Manhattan Island. He noted that "up the river the east side is high, full of trees, and in some places there is a little good land, where formerly many people have dwelt, but who for the most part have died or been driven away."

De Rasiere went on to note that the Manhattan nation consisted of several communities: "the old Manhatesen are about 200 to 300 strong, women and men, under different chiefs, whom they call Sackimas." In 1655, a settler named Adriaen van der Donck listed Manhattan among the four Indian languages spoken in New Netherland. Van der Donck described what he thought was the extent and composition of this language community, writing, "with the Manhattans, we include those who live in the neighboring places along the North River, on Long Island, and at the Neversink."

No document specifically identifies a particular individual as a Manhattan Indian. This does not mean that a person identified by name in colonial records cannot be linked with Manhattans. An affidavit written on February 14, 1652, talks about "Manhattan Indians of New Netherland, living at Nayack, a place on Long Island directly opposite Staten Island." Other documents penned around the same time identify a man named Mattano as the sachem of both Nayack and Staten Island.

Mattano belonged to a particularly influential lineage (figure 3), several of whose more prominent members were sachems along the borderlands between Northern Unami– and Munsee- speaking communities stretching from the Falls of the Delaware (at present- day Trenton, New Jersey) to Raritan Bay. Mattano, his relatives, and their descendants figure prominently in accounts of later land sales and conflicts. A genealogical reconstruction of prominent members of this lineage reveals that Mattano could claim rights to lands extending from the western end of Long Island across the Narrows through Staten Island to the Raritan and Navesink country and beyond. This reconstruction linking the Manhattans of Nayack with Mattano and his kin also represents the first documentary link in a genealogical chain that joins members of present- day Munsee- descended communities with ancestral Manhattan Indians.

It seems clear that Manhattan country embraced more than the island at its center. People speaking languages belonging to Van der Donck's Manhattan speech community also lived along both banks of the lower Hudson River estuary as well as on the western end of Long Island. Although early records preserve Indian names like Suanhacky, which applied to all of Long Island, there is no surviving general term that collectively identifies Munsee- speaking people living on the island's western end. Records instead document names of individual communities like Rockaway, Massapequa, and Matinecock. All were situated on good pieces of well- watered upland close to fertile planting fields and seasonally available resources.

Other polities belonging to Van der Donck's Manhattan language community had territories centered on places like Wiechquaesgeck in the present- day Westchester County community of Dobbs Ferry, New York, and Hackensack, on the river of the same name in nearby New Jersey. It is not known if people living in these and nearby towns considered themselves Manhattans. The Dutch did not begin carefully linking particular communities or locations with Native people identified by personal names until after they began systematically buying land from Indians in 1630. Increasing amounts of information soon began to flow into New Amsterdam as land sales and other business contacts with local Indians became more frequent.

News tended to travel faster and farther whenever violence flared. Dutch writers ground out an unprecedented volume of paperwork in 1628 after Mohawks killed the commander and several members of the garrison at Fort Orange (built in 1624 to replace Fort Nassau), who had joined a Mahican expedition on its way to attack Mohawk towns. Another Dutch commander, at Fort Hope in today's Hartford, Connecticut, brought on another considerable round of word-smithing when he murdered a visiting Pequot sachem a few years later. Surviving documents show that company officials were strategic in their responses. Refusing to pile one mistake on top of another by retaliating, they swallowed their pride and quickly restored peace in both places. In so doing, they managed to avoid the interminable fighting that devastated Indian and colonial communities in Virginia between 1610 and 1646 and to sidestep the brief but vicious war that ended in the defeat, dispersal, and near destruction of the Pequot nation in nearby New England in 1637.

In 1630, Dutch settlers began offering Indians in and around Munsee country goods in exchange for handwritten marks made on sheets of paper—deeds that to the Dutch signaled absolute transfers of title and ownership. What they meant to the Indians we will never know. Earlier agreements, like the 1626 Manhattan purchase, were probably informal accommodations sealed with gift exchanges and handshakes or their equivalent. Indians probably regarded these deals as temporary arrangements that could be renewed or cancelled by either party at any time.

The situation changed in 1629 after the Dutch West India Company passed an act allowing directors to set up largely self- governing estates of their own. The new law gave investors willing to use their own capital to buy Indian land and settle fifty colonists on it the right to establish what the Dutch called a patroonship. Similar in concept to English manors, patroonships conferred rights of limited self-government to private landowners known as patroons ("patrons" or "masters"). Around this time the company also began issuing permits to private persons wishing to purchase lands directly from the Indians. This established three interest groups competing for Indian territory in New Netherland: the Dutch West India Company, the patroons, and private purchasers acting alone or banding together in syndicates.

On July 12, 1630, agents for a prospective patroon named Michiel Pauw made the first land purchase from Indians in Munsee country to be formalized with a deed. It was followed by several others. These documents, signed by the first sachems in the region identified by name in Dutch records, gave Pauw title to Staten Island, the Bayonne Peninsula, and present- day Jersey City. Pauw, who never visited his estate in New Netherland, named the new patroonship Pavonia after himself. The venture did not prosper. Unable to attract a sufficient number of settlers to the place, he sold his land rights to the Dutch West India Company in 1635.

Patroons went through the trouble of obtaining deeds from Indians in order to secure their estates against the possibility that the company might later make competing claims. Sachems soon accommodated other colonists, placing their marks next to their names on six deeds conveying lands in and around present-day Brooklyn to private purchasers between 1636 and 1637. New Netherland director Wouter Van Twiller obtained three of these deeds (including one for Governor's Island) as a private citizen before being recalled to Holland in 1637 to answer charges that he was improperly profiting from his position.

Van Twiller's replacement, Willem Kieftt, obtained the first Dutch West India Company deed to land near Manhattan, this one in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, on August 1, 1638. During the following year, he would obtain for the company one tract of land in the southwest corner of the Bronx and another taking in the whole of western Long Island. The latter deed's wording guaranteed Indians the right to continue occupying their land. This suggests that it was more like a promissory note protecting the company's right to land being eyed by New Englanders than an outright purchase. Ambiguities surrounding the wording of this deed would make it a major bone of contention between Indians and colonists for generations to come.


CONFLICT, 1640–1645

Although hindsight shows that the first seeds of discord had been sown early, relations between Indians and colonists were generally amicable, at least superficially, during the first decade and a half of intensive colonial settlement on and around Manhattan. Signs of serious tension appeared only after English settlers moving west from New England began approaching Indians to purchase lands on the still-unsurveyed eastern border of New Netherland. New Englanders began looking to acquire land beyond the borders of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut during the late 1630s. In late March 1638, for example, Connecticut government emissaries met near Norwalk with a gathering of "old [Indian] men and captains from about Milford to Hudson River" to talk about extending their colony's authority over their lands. They told the assembled sachems that they had been sent to establish a protectorate over "the Indians along the coast from Quilipioke [Quinnipiac; today's New Haven] to the Manhatoes." After consulting among themselves, the sachems reached consensus and agreed to place themselves, their people, and their lands under Connecticut protection.

Within two years, English colonists from Connecticut were purchasing their first tracts of land from Indians around Norwalk. News of these purchases alarmed kieft and his council in New Amsterdam. On April 19, 1640, kieft dispatched his second-in-command, Cornelis van Tienhoven, to the Norwalk Archipelago with an order "to purchase the adjacent lands there; to set up the arms of the Lords States- General; to take the Indians under our protection, and to prevent any other nation from committing any usurpation on our limits and encroaching further on our territory."


Excerpted from First Manhattans by Robert S. Grumet. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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