December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
The Indians who sold Manhattan were bilked, all right, but they didn’t mind—the land wasn’t theirs anyway
By now it is probably too late to do anything about it, but the unsettling fact remains that the so-called sale of Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1626 was a totally illegal deal; a group of Brooklyn Indians perpetrated the swindle, and they had no more right to sell Manhattan Island than the present mayor of White Plains would have to declare war on France.By now it is probably too late to do anything about it, but the unsettling fact remains that the so-called sale of Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1626 was a totally illegal deal; a group of Brooklyn Indians perpetrated the swindle, and they had no more right to sell Manhattan Island than the present mayor of White Plains would have to declare war on France. When the Manhattan Indians found out about it they were understandably furious, but by that time the Dutch had too strong a foothold to be dislodged—by the Indians, at any rate—and the eventual arrival of one-way avenues and the Hamburg Heaven Crystal Room was only a matter of time.
To understand how this was brought about, it is important to know something about the local Indians of the period. They were all, or almost all, of Algonquian origin; those who later became known as the Manhattans were actually Weckquaesgeeks, who belonged to the Wappinger Confederation. Their main village was Nappeckamack, on the site of what is now Yonkers, and they had a fort called Nipinichsen, on the north bank of Spuyten Duyvil. They lived in little clusters of igloo-like bark huts, along the east bank of the Hudson River and the Westchester shore of Long Island Sound, and they used Manhattan (“the island of hills”) for their hunting and fishing stations.
A path ran up the center of the wooded, craggy island, and its twenty five miles or so of water front were dotted with small camps, from which the Indians conducted their food-gathering expeditions. The fishing was more rewarding than it is now; aside from the periodic runs of shad, there were sturgeon and flatfish in considerable numbers, and there were massive oyster and clam beds all along the shore line. The squaws would shuck the oysters and dry them on sticks in the sun, and it must be assumed that ptomaine poisoning was either unknown to these Indians or else it was a way of life. At any rate, their discovered shell piles are many, and their burial mounds comparatively few. In addition to all these delicacies, every now and then a whale would get stranded on a sand bar down in the Narrows, and the braves would take out after it in their dugout canoes.
By general consent, the Weckquaesgeeks (and it is easy to see why the Dutch decided to call them Manhattans) occupied the northern three quarters of the island, and the Canarsees, who were members of the Montauk, or Long Island, branch of the Algonquians, had only the southern tip, plus all of what is now Brooklyn. But there was enough fish and game for all, and nobody bothered very much about boundaries. The game was fairly spectacular; there were deer, bears, wolves, porcupines, beaver, otter, moose, wildcats, grouse, and turkey, and there were even case when an occasional bison would wander in from the west, just in time to find himself transformed into a buffalo robe.
In consequence of all this largess, the Indians were happy with their lot. They were well fixed for food and clothing (in addition to the fish and game, they grew corn, beans, pumpkins, and tobacco, which rounded out their diet with the proper epicurean touch), and their only real worries were the occasional and unexplained epidemics that decimated their numbers, and the periodic raids that the upstate Mohawks made to collect overdue tribute. It was the Mohawks, as a matter of fact, who later all but wiped out the Canarsees, in an act of unconscious retributive justice.
All the tribes of the area shared a common belief in a world after death, ruled over by a single Great Spirit, or Manitou, and their heaven was a precise place—it lay off to the southwest, possibly where Trenton, New Jersey, is now. It was a place where game was even more plentiful than in real life, and a great deal more plentiful than at the present moment, if the figures from Trenton authorities are at all accurate. About four times a year the Indians had dances, either for spring planting, or harvest, or thanksgiving, or the like, and they always made a big to-do when they set off on a hunting expedition. Their life was, in short, all that the out-of-door enthusiasts would have us believe is good and true in Nature.
The men wore their hair in a scalp lock that formed a brush from the forehead to the nape of the neck, the side hair usually being burnt off with hot rocks, and although they sometimes put feathers in their hair, they never used the Sioux-type war bonnet. They decorated their laces and upper bodies with stripes of red, yellow, and black, and, in order to ward off both mosquitoes and sunburn, they smeared themselves with either fish oil, eagle fat, or bear grease. To get to leeward of a Weckquaesgeek Indian on a hot day, even—or especially—if he was in a friendly mood, was an experience in itself.
Their relations with the white men were, initially, good. The Indians were agreeable, in their way, and their main reaction to the coming of the white men was one of excited interest, like schoolchildren who have been joined by a newcomer with three ears. As far as anyone knows, the Florentine explorer Verrazano was the first to see Manhattan and its natives, in 1524, but no significant contact with the Indians is recorded until 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river in search of a passage to the Orient. Unfortunately, a crewman of the Half Moon named John Coleman was fatally punctured by the Indians, more out of curiosity than anger on their part, and in the subsequent incidents between the natives and Hudson’s men, a few Indians were killed.
There was, in fact, what amounted to a pitched battle off Fort Nipinichsen, when the Half Moon ’s cannon and the muskets of her crew did severe damage to the braves on the shore and in the canoes. But, everything considered, the relations were not too bad, and the Indians were quite impressed by the knives, kettles, awls, and blankets that Hudson’s men traded for their furs. As far as they were concerned, a little bloodshed every now and then was inevitable, and the materials the fur traders brought made up for a great deal.
In the next fifteen years, more and more fur traders arrived on Manhattan, some of them even setting up storehouses on the southern tip of the island, and in all that time their dealings with the Indians were friendly. In 1625 the first livestock arrived—103 sheep, cows, horses, and pigs—and they were the first such animals the Indians had ever seen. Almost every Indian family had its dogs, but beyond that the only animals they knew were wild, and the savages were overcome by not only the sight of the animals but also their byproducts, such as milk, cheese, bacon, ham, and mutton.
From the Indians’ point of view, something new and interesting was happening every day (their first view of the Dutch wooden shoes, for instance, was the cause for no end of giggling and general merriment), and since the Dutch were under strict orders to be as nice to the natives as possible, the untoward incidents were reduced to an absolute minimum. In passing, it is of interest to note that the rate of seduction of the Indian maidens was so small as to be practically negligible. Either they were afraid of their own menfolk, or the Dutch were unusually clumsy—or the eagle fat might possibly have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, there was little or no sexual scuffling between the natives and the colonists.
Then, on May 4, 1626, Peter Minuit, sent by the Dutch West India Company to be the formal director-general of New Netherland, arrived on the Sea-mew. The Dutch knew that the French and the British, the latter with flanking colonies at Plymouth and Jamestown, would not be particularly pleased at the establishment of a Dutch colony in the area, and they also knew that they didn’t have the strength to resist armed intervention by either nation. Consequently, they resolved to make their purchase of Manhattan as legal as possible, hoping that if the Indians appeared to back up their claim, the British or French might hesitate before starting any trouble. With this in mind, Minuit was instructed to make a legal purchase of the entire island, and he therefore did what seemed like the logical thing: he asked the first Indians he saw to ask their to come and hold council.
These Indians were, of course, a band of Canarsees who had set up a little village called Werpoes by a pond near what is now Worth Street, and their chief was a genial opportunist named Seyseys. When Seyseys learned that not only would Minuit give him valuable merchandise in exchange for the title to the island of Manhattan, but also that Minuit didn’t know that the Weckquaesgeeks controlled its whole upper three quarters or more, he gladly volunteered to take his few people away, and let the Dutchmen hunt and fish and build things to their hearts’ content. There is some reason to believe that Seyseys wasn’t quite sure what it meant to sell land-the land was, after all, Mother Earth to the Indians, and they felt you could no more sell it outright than you could sell the sky-but he wasn’t one to quible over small points; he took the sixty guilders’ worth ∗∗ The sixty guilders has popularly been supposed to have been worth about $24, but some authorities claim that, considering the times and the flexible rates of exchange, it was probably nearer $2,000. At any rate, it was all found money as far as Seyseys was concerned. of knives, axes, clothing, and beads (and possibly rum), and went chortling back to Brooklyn. The Canarsees set up another village named Werpoes, to replace the one they had left behind, and everybody settled down and was happy.
Everybody was happy, that is, except the Weckquaesgeeks. At first they had no idea that their land had been sold out from under them, but then more and more Dutch farmers began to arrive, and their unfenced cattle wandered off across the Indians’ land, eating their corn and trampling their crops, and when the Indians complained, they were given a few trinkets in payment and told it was too bad, but the land was no longer theirs. It was then there was absolutely nothing they could do. Even if they had wanted to make a fight about it, the Dutch had guns and they didn’t, and the only thing the Indians could do was sullenly try to make the best of an impossible situation.
Matters might have continued at a slow boil for some time, if it hadn’t been that a few of the Dutch violated all the standing orders and began to trade liquor and guns to the Indians in exchange for furs. They found that the Indians, being unaccustomed to liquor, were pushovers for aquick bargain after about one drink; the thing the Dutch didn’t realize was the fact that an Indian with a hangover, a gun, and a burning sense of injustice was as dangerous as a platoon of dragoons, The mere sight of a red-eyed, dry-mouthed Indian, with a gun in his shaking hand and bits of dirt and grass clinging to his coating of days-old eagle fat, should have been enough to warn them to be careful-but it wasn’t.
Inevitably, trouble developed; massacres were perpetrated by both sides, but as often as not it was the Dutch who were the aggressors. (In one spectacular display of perfidy they slaughtere a whole group of Weckquaesgeeks who had come to them for protection against the marauding Mohawks, and mangled them so badly that at first it looked like the work of other Indians. As a result, by 1664, when the British fleet slipped in and quietly took New Amsterdam, there were very few Indians left on the island, and those who remained didn’t really care about anything. They had succumbed not only to various kinds of diseases and to the white men but, more disastrously, they had been done in by the Mohawks from up one river, and by the Canarsees from across another.
It should be a lesson to us all.