Native New Yorkers
The First New Yorkers

The Lower Hudson bioregion has been inhabited by people for at least 12,000 years. A number of Paleoindian sites have been excavated in Staten Island, Long Island, southern New Jersey, the upper Delaware Valley, and the Lower Hudson. There may well have been earlier coastal settlements, but any evidence would have been submerged by the advancing sea. At that time, New York City was located on a flood plain about seventy miles from the coast. Artifacts unearthed in a number of sites suggest that these ancient New Yorkers were skilled hunters, fishers, and gatherers who efficiently exploited the rich plant and animal resources of the region.

Woolly mammoths dominated the plain, joined by herds of deer, caribou, elk, and musk oxen. Mastodons browsed in patches of pine forest and spruce swamps, and moose and giant beaver frequented glacial lakes and bogs. These herbivores were the prey of such carnivores as the timber wolf, dire wolf, bob-cat, cougar, lynx, and giant short-faced bear – and of course the omnivorous human hunter.

By 10,000 years ago, at the close of the ice age, the mega-fauna went extinct, possibly due to the combined stresses of over-hunting by humans and environmental change associated with post-glacial climate change. Those animals that survived the global extinction, including herds of caribou and elk, shifted northward with their habitats. A few Paleoindian bands probably pursued the herds, while others remained and adapted to a changing world.

By eight thousand years ago, a rising sea drowned river mouths and created estuaries. Rivers accumulated silt and formed oxbows, and glacial lakes turned into marshes. Hunter-gatherers began exploiting more localized food sources on river flood plains, staying longer and returning annually to favored sites. In the Mid-Atlantic region, coastal plains peoples set up “base camps” along river mouths and tidewater streams. Ward’s Point, on the southern tip of Staten Island not far from Port Mobil, was one such base camp. Now designated a National Historic Landmark, this site was continuously occupied by American Indians until the 1700s. It may have begun its life as a seasonal hunter’s camp, but over the millennia it grew into a major settlement.

Judging from the great size of the oysters found in shell middens (heaps of discarded shells) of this period, people were apparently harvesting and consuming these for the first time. Shell middens have been found at Tottenville, Staten Island; Tuckerton, New Jersey; and Washington Heights and Inwood Park on the northern tip of Manhattan. The existence of thick shell middens indicates a more sedentary lifeway.

Land of the Lenape

According to their creation myth, the Lenapes believed that in ancient times, there was no earth, only a vast realm of water below and sky above. The first people lived above the sky, for they could not live on water. One day, the sky opened up, and through the hole fell a beautiful young woman and a tree. Two swans swam over to her, gently lifted her onto their backs, and took her to the Great Turtle. Turtle called all animals to a council, and when they had gathered in a circle, he told them of the Woman Fallen from the Sky, and of the tree with earth on its roots. He commanded them to bring up the tree from the water, and plant it on his great back, so that the woman could live there. After two unsuccessful attempts by Otter and Beaver to retrieve the tree, Muskrat dove down and stayed down for a very long time. When he surfaced, he came up with the tree and a mouthful of earth which he spit out onto Turtle’s back. There the tree grew, bending down one of its branches to root in the earth, and from this branch sprang forth the first man who together with the woman would bring forth the future generations of people on Turtle Island.

The people encountered by the Europeans in the 1600s called themselves the Lenapes, which loosely translates as “the common people.” They called their homeland Lenapehoking, a swath of land that stretched from the Lower Hudson region to Delaware Bay, including portions of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Among Algonquins – Indians of diverse tribes who are united by a common root language – the Lenapes are “the Grandfathers,” the first Algonquin-speaking people from whom all others are descended.

The people that settled in the New York City region were the Munsee, so-named because of the particular Algonquian dialect they spoke. The Shawnee-Minisink site in the Delaware River Gap, which is the historic heart of Lenape lands, has been dated to between nine thousand and thirteen thousand years ago. It is thought that they migrated into the New York City region around three thousand years ago. The Lenape called the Delaware river
Lenapewihitak – River of the Lenapes. Because of their association with the Delaware River, the Lenapes were named by Euro-Americans the Delaware, after Sir Thomas West, baron de la Warr, who governed the English colony of Virginia in the early 1600s.

Despite regional variations in language and customs, the Lenape were united by a complex system of kinship that traced their lineage back to common ancestors. At the time of European contact, they numbered around 20,000, divided into roughly twenty autonomous groups, closely interconnected through clan membership, which was traced through the mother. The
Raritan lived on Staten Island and central New Jersey north to the Raritan river valley. The Haverstraw lived on the west bank of the Hudson, and had kinship ties with the Hackensack and Tappan of New Jersey. The Wiechquaeskeck lived on the east bank of the Hudson in the southern portion of the Bronx and Westchester, with ties to the Siwanoy on the north shore of Long Island Sound, including Pelham Bay. The Nayack lived on the east shore of the Narrows, with ties to the Hackensack. The Massapequa, Merrick, and Rockaway lived on western Long Island; the Matinecock lived on the north shore of Long Island from Queens to Suffolk County; and the Canarsee and Marechkawieck lived in what is now Brooklyn. Clan lands and dwellings were “owned,” or held in trust for the clan, by the women as heads of households. Marriage often served as a means of maintaining bonds between different communities who shared the same land resources. The concept of shared land use was fundamental to Lenape society – and utterly foreign to the European system of land tenure. The ascendancy of the European system in North America would prove devastating to the Lenapes, whose communal identity was rooted in a land of fluid natural boundaries.

Lenape Lifeways

Agriculture

We know from Contact-era accounts as well as the Lenapes’ own oral traditions that the Munsee of the 1600s practiced small-scale farming, growing the revered “three sisters” crops of maize, beans, and squash. Henry Hudson described an Indian house “which contained a great quantity of maize, and beans of last year’s growth, and there lay near the house for the purpose of drying enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields.”

Although both men and women prepared the planting fields, women were the primary cultivators, just as they had been (and continued to be) the main wild plant gatherers. Indeed, the Corn Spirit is feminine:
Kahesana Xaskwim, or Mother Corn. Only the growing of tobacco was reserved for men and elder women (past menopause).

Hunting-Fishing-Gathering

As they had for millennia, the people continued to hunt, fish, and gather wild foods as the mainstay of their diet.

Men stalked deer and bear year round. In fall, however, hunting parties of as many as two to three hundred – women as well as men – organized deer drives. They hunted deer by first setting fire to a portion of the forest (a “fire surround”), and then driving them into traps or snares. Men took fowl with nets or arrows, and caught fish with lances, hooks, drag nets, and weirs. Both men and women took part in fishing and shellfish gathering.

Food-gathering, like food-growing, was always timed to the seasons. Year round, the foragers—always women—knew where to find nutritious tubers. In summer, they searched for the little vine of the ground nut (Apios Americana) growing along woodland streams to gather their walnut-sized tubers. In fall, they sought out the fat arrowhead-shaped leaves of Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia), poking out of the mud along pond edges, to harvest the plant’s potato-like tubers called water nuts. In winter, if the ground was not frozen, they dug Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), potato-sized tubers of wild sunflowers that grew abundantly in the fields. In the woodlands of early spring, women harvested the corms of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens), dried them, and ground them into a cocoa-like flour. They also picked field greens like wild leeks and onions, which were plentiful in spring. In summer, along the shores and in fields, they gathered beach plums, wild grapes, and berries such as blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, serviceberries and elderberries. In fall, they collected nuts such as chestnuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, and acorns.

Herbal Medicine

Nature was not only their pantry but their pharmacy. Their knowledge of “green medicine” was extensive, the purview of a few who were called to the healing profession by a dream. Collecting of medicinal plants had to be done with respect for proper rituals or the remedies would not be effective. According to ethnobotanist and Native American Barrie Kavasch, plants are viewed in American Indian cosmology as part of the “sacred circle” of life. An individual falls ill when he or she is out of balance, and the healer’s art is to restore the balance not only through the administering of healing botanicals, but through an approach that involves ceremony, ritual, dreamwork, and respect for the healing power of nature.

Lenape Cosmology

The Lenape Creator God –
Kishelamakank – lives in the twelfth tier of the universe. When a person dies, their soul must travel twelve days to reach this tier. To govern the earth, Kishelamakank created the manito’wak (spirits), which included the Earth Mother (Kukna), Corn Mother (Kahesana Xaskwim), and the Keeper of the Game (Misinkhalikan, also known as Mesingw, Masked Being). Everything in nature possesses maneto, and if offended, the maneto can cause mischief. To placate the spirits, the Lenape performed such seasonal rituals as the “sacrifice of the first fruits,” whereby the fat of the first buck killed was offered to the Keeper of the Game. Similarly, burnt offerings of corn were made to the spirits of the deer and bear, of bear meat to the corn spirit, and of fish-shaped bread to the fish spirit. Tobacco (ksha’te) was used extensively in spiritual rituals; tobacco smoke would be offered to the crops at planting time, to the game animals before the hunt, to the forest before entering for the purposes of hunting and gathering – all to ensure a bountiful outcome and to offer thanks. Failure to perform these rituals was thought to bring terrible consequences.

In the early twentieth century, Elkhair of Oklahoma (a Lenape descendant) recounted his version of the legend of the Masked Being to anthropologist Mark Harrington:

The Masked Being first revealed himself to three abandoned boys in the woods. He showed them his faraway home in the mountains above the earth, and before returning he gave the boys courage and strength to endure. Later, in a time of great crisis for the Lenape people, he reappeared and instructed the boys, now grown to manhood, to carve his face in wood – the effigy of Mesingw – and paint it red on the right side and black on the left. He promised to give the mask power so that it would do whatever was asked of it; and when a man wore his mask in a sacred ceremony, the Mesingw promised to be there, living among the people.

The Big House religion emerged in the 1800s as a spiritual revival among Lenapes to sustain them during their diaspora, when they were forcibly removed from their traditional homeland. In a ceremonial dance performed every year, Mesing’w was represented by an effigy face painted half red and half black. His representative, clad in a bearskin robe, wore the mask, and shook a turtle-shell rattle as he sang a vision song and danced. For twelve days, the people offered prayers and thanks in the Big House, burning cedar smoke for purification. The Big House religion declined when the U.S. government privatized tribal lands and abolished tribal government at the turn of the twentieth century. The last ceremony was held in 1924.

What Happened to the Lenapes?

Between 1600 and 1700, the Lenapes were decimated by diseases and wars. Numbering up to 20,000 prior to European Contact, by 1700 their numbers were reduced to 3000 at most. Smallpox, malaria, measles, bubonic plague, and other diseases imported by the white man took a terrible toll. Compounding the death toll exacted by killer epidemics were ongoing wars with the Lenapes’ enemies the Iroquois to the north and the Dutch to the south. Both together caused many to lose faith in traditional healing practices. With the loss of their elders who had been the historians and keepers of tradition, their culture unraveled. As the Europeans pushed their land claims further and further into the American wilderness, the weakened and demoralized Lenapes finally relinquished any claim to their traditional homeland. The loss of the homeland, Lenapehoking, must have been a devastating blow, for their identity as a people had been bound up with the land for thousands of years. They now became exiles and wanderers, dependent upon the hospitality – and subject to the hostility – of other tribes. With the severing of their ancient bond to the land, the source of their visions dried up. In the words of a Delaware in the early nineteenth century, “No one can have visions because the earth is no longer clean.”

By 1760, most Delawares (as they came to be known) had moved to Ohio. For a detailed account of the series of removes westward and northward undertaken by the Lenapes through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Robert Grumet's book on the Lenapes.

The Lenapes Today

However fragmented and dispersed the Lenapes became, their culture and identity persists. Today, the Delaware number about 10,000. They reside within the Cherokee Nation, and are mainly concentrated in Oklahama; Moraviantown and Munsee in Ontario, Canada; and Brotherton, Wisconsin. Perhaps twenty speakers of the old language remain, but that may change as there has been a recent revival of interest in the old tongue, as well as an attempt to restore religious songs, dances, and ceremonies.

Reading List

Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall.
Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.
Cantwell and Wall,
Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Past. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.
Grumet, Robert.
The Lenapes. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1989.
Grumet, Robert.
Place Names in New York City. Heye Foundation, Museum of the City of New York, 1981.
Hitakonanu’laxk (Tree Beard).
The Grandfathers Speak: Native American Folk Tales of the Lenape People. New York: Interlaken Books, 1994.
Kavasch, Barrie.
Native American Earth Sense: Herbaria of Ethnobotany and Ethnomycology. Ed. Alberto C. Meloni. Washington, Ct.: Birdstone Publishers, the Institute of American Indian Studies, 1996.
Kraft, Herbert C.
The Lenape: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography. Newark, New Jersey: New Jersey Historical Society, 1986.
Trigger, Bruce, ed.
The Handbook of the North American Indian. Vol. 15: The Northeast. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian, 1987.

Lenape links

www.lenapelifeways.org (Lenape Lifeways Educational Programs)
Lenape sites in Manhattan. courtesy Robert Grumet
Siwanoy wigwam, Pelham Bay Park
Shorakkopoch Rock, site of Lenape village at Inwood Hill Park, and supposedly the site where Manhattan was sold to the Dutch.
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