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Native Americans First View Whites From The Shore

June 2024
7min read

New York Indians Discover Dutchmen

Whenever Indians and Europeans met, the process of discovery was usually reciprocal.

In hindsight, these first encounters were asymmetrically momentous events, presaging catastrophic consequences for the native peoples of North America. Europeans wrote accounts of these meetings; Indians did not. Nevertheless, memories of such meetings passed from generation to generation within the tribes. Some traditions recalled dreams, premonitions, and prophecies that foretold the coming of powerful strangers, stories no doubt retold with increasing bitterness as Europeans kept coming.

In some accounts people looked from the shore and thought the awesome approaching ships were giant white seabirds or floating islands. The hairy men onboard had firearms, armor, and metal goods. But, contrary to what European explorers frequently asserted, there is little evidence that Indians regarded them as gods. Early Europeans lacked the power and dominance they would later amass, and they did not always seem to pose an immediate threat. They relied on Indian guides, Indian foods, and Indian technology (birch-bark canoes, for instance) to travel inland. To native eyes, their pale skins made them look sickly.

Henry Hudson and his Dutch crew met people who were probably from the Munsee branch of the Delaware or Lenni Lenape at Manhattan in 1609, and they met Mahican farther up the Hudson. The Moravian missionary John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckwelder (1743–1823), who lived for many years among Delaware and Mahican displaced into Ohio, recorded a native account of the meeting in 1765, in which Hudson features as a figure dressed in red. Heckwelder kept journals and wrote about native life, most notably his Account of the History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania (1819). By the time he transcribed this tradition sometime in the 1760s, the Indians knew all too well the consequences of meeting Europeans who peddled alcohol, infected them with new diseases, waged war against them, denigrated their cultures, and stole their lands.


The following account of the first arrival of Europeans at York Island, is verbatim as it was related to me by aged and respected Delawares, Momeys, and Mahicaanni, (otherwise called Mohigans, Mahicanders,) near forty years ago. It is copies from notes and manuscripts taken on the spot. They say:

A long time ago, when there was no such thing known to the Indians as people with a white skin , (their expression,) some Indians who had been out a-fishing, and where the sea widens, espied at a great distance something remarkably large swimming, or floating on the water, and such as they had never seen before. They immediately returning to the shore apprised their countrymen of what they had seen, and pressed them to go out with them and discover what it might be. These together hurried out, and saw to their great surprise the phenomenon, but could not agree what it might be; some concluding it either to be an uncommon large fish, or other animal, while others were of opinion it must be some very large house. It was at length agreed among those who were spectators, that as this phenomenon moved towards the land, whether or not it was an animal, or anything that had life in it, it would be well to inform all the Indians on the inhabited islands of what they had seen, and put them on their guard. Accordingly, they sent runners and watermen off to carry the news to their scattered chiefs, that these might send off in every direction for the warriors to come in. These arriving in numbers, and themselves viewing the strange appearance, and that it was actually moving towards them, (the entrance of the river or bay,) concluded it to be a large canoe or house, in which the great Mannitto (great or Supreme Being) himself was, and that he probably was coming to visit them. By this time the chiefs of the different tribes were assembled on York Island, and were counseling (or deliberating) on the manner they should receive their Mannitto on his arrival. Every step had been taken to be well provided with a plenty of meat for a sacrifice; the women were required to prepare the best of victuals; idols or images were examined and put in order; and a grand dance was supposed not only to be an agreeable entertainment for the Mannitto, but might, with the addition of a sacrifice, contribute towards appeasing him, in case he was angry with them. The conjurors were also set to work, to determine what the meaning of this phenomenon was, and what the result would be. Both to these, and to the chiefs and wise men of the nation, men, women, and children wre looking up for advice and protection. Between hope and fear, and in confusion, a dance commenced. While in this situation fresh runners arrive declaring it a house of various colours, and crowded with living creatures. It now appears to be certain that it is the great Mannitto bringing them some kind of game, such as they had not before; but other runners soon after arriving, declare it a large house of various colours, full of people, yet of quite a different colour than they (the Indians) are of; that they were also dressed in a different manner from them, and that one in particular appeared altogether red, which must be the Mannitto himself. They are soon hailed from the vessel, though in a language they do not understand; yet they shout (or yell) in their way. Many are for running off to the woods, but are pressed by others to stay, in order not to give offence to their visiters, who could find them out, and might destroy them. The house (or large canoe, as some will have it,) stops, and a smaller canoe comes ashore with the red man and some others in it; some stay by this canoe to guard it. The chiefs and wise men (or councilors) had composed a large circle, unto which the red-clothed man with two others approach. He salutes them with friendly countenance, both as to the colour of the skin (or these whites) as also to their manner of dress, yet most as to the habit of him who wore the red clothes, which shone with something they could not account for. He must be the great Mannitto (Supreme Being,) they thing, but why should he have a white skin ? A large hockhack [Their word for gourd, bottle, decanter.] is brought forward by one of the (supposed) Mannitto’s servants and from this a substance is poured out into a small cap (or glass) and handed to the Mannitto. The (expected) Mannitto drinks; has the glass filled again, and hands it to the chief next to him to drink. The chief receives the glass, but only smelleth at it, and passes it on to the next chief, who does the same. The glass thus passes through the circle without the contents being tasted by any one; and is upon the point of being returned again to the red-clothed man, when one of their number, a spirited man and great warrior jumps up—harangues the assembly on the impropriety of returning the glass with the contents in it; that the same was handed them by the Mannitto in order that they should drink it, as he himself had done before them; that this would please him; but to return what he had given to them might provoke him, and be the cause of their being destroyed by him. And that, since he believe it for the good of the nation that the contents offered them should be drank, and as no one was willing to drink it he would , let the consequence be what it would; and that it was better for one man to die, than a whole nation to be destroyed. He then took the glass and bidding the assembly a farewell, drank it off . Every eye was fixed on their resolute companion to see what an effect this would have upon him, and he soon beginning to stagger about, and at lost dropping to the ground, they bemoan him. He falls into a sleep, and they view him as expiring. He awakes again, jumps up, and declares that he never felt himself before so happy as after he had drank the cup. Wishes for more. His wish is granted; and the whole assembly soon join him, and become intoxicated. [The Delawares call this place (New-York Island) Mannahattanink or Mannahachtanink to this day. They have frequently told me that it derived its name from this general intoxication , and that the word comprehended the same as to say, the island or place of general intoxication . The Mahicanni, (otherwise called Mohiggans by the English, and Mahicanders by the Low Dutch,) call this place by the same name as the Delawares do; yet think it is owing or given in consequence of a kind of wood which grew there, and of which the Indians used to make their bows and arrows. This wood the latter (Mohiccani) call “gawaak.” The universal name the Monseys have for New-York, is Laaphawachking , which is interpreted, the place of stringing beads (wampum). They say this name was given in consequence of beads being here distributed among them by the Europeans; and that after the European vessel had returned, wherever one looked, one would see the Indians employed in stringing the beads or wampum the whites had given them.]

After this general intoxication had ceased, (during which time the whites had confined themselves to their vessel,) the man with the red clothes returned again to them, and distributed presents among them, to wit, beads, axes, hoes, stockings &c. They say that they had become familiar to each other, and were made to understand by signs; that they now would return home, but would visit them next year again, when they would bring them more presents, and stay with them awhile; but that, as they could not live without eating, they should then want a little land of them to sow some seeds in order to raise herbs to put in their broth. That the vessel arrived the season following, and they were much rejoiced at seeing each other; but that the whites laughed at them (the Indians,) seeing they knew not the use of the axes, hoes, &c., they had given them, they having had these hanging to their breasts as ornaments; and the stockings they had made use of as tobacco pouches. The whites now put handles (or helves) in the former, and cut trees down before their eyes, and dug the ground, and showed them the use of the stockings. Here (say they) a general laughter ensued among them (the Indians), that they had remained for so long a time ignorant of the use of so valuable implements; and had borne with the weight of such heavy metal hanging to their necks for such a length of time. They took every white man they saw for a Mannitto, yet inferior and attendant to the supreme Mannitto, to wit, to the one which wore the red and laced clothes. Familiarity daily increasing between them and the whites, the latter now proposed to stay with them, asking them only for so much land as the hide of a bullock would cover (or encompass,) which hide was brought forward and spread on the ground before them. That they readily granted this request; whereupon the whites took a knife, and beginning at one place on this hide, cut it up into a rope not thicker than the finger of a little child, so that by the time this hide was cut up there was a great heap. That this rope was drawn out to a great distance, and then brought round again, so that both ends might meet. That they carefully avoided its breaking, and that upon the whole it encompassed are large piece of ground. That they (the Indians) were surprised at the superior wit of the whites, but did not wish to contend with them about a little land, as they had enough. That they and the whites lived for a long time contentedly together, although these asked from time to time more land of them; and proceeding higher up the Mahicanittuk (Hudson river), they believed they would soon want all their country, and which at this time was already the case.

[Here ends the relation.]


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