The Native Inhabitants of Manhattan Part II

The houses which they occupied were, for the most part, built after one plan, differing only in length, according to the number of families embraced in the clan. They were formed by long, slender hickory saplings set in the ground, in a straight line of two rows, as far asunder as they intended the width to be, and continued as far as they intended the length to be. The poles were then bent towards each other at the top in the form of an arch and secured together, giving the appearance of a garden arbor. Split poles were lathed up the sides and roof, and over this was bark, lapped on the ends and edges, which was kept in place by withes to the lathing. A hole was left in the roof for smoke to escape, and a single door of entrance was provided. Rarely exceeding twenty feet in width, these houses were sometimes a hundred and eighty yards long. From sixteen to eighteen families occupied one house, according to its size. A single fire in the center served them all, although each family occupied at night its particular division and mats. The modern " flat" houses that tower up fourteen stories are, of course, an improvement upon these rude structures (as seen in the illustration on another page), but are little more than the Indian plan of building elevated. A number of these houses together formed a village, and these villages were usually situated on the side of a steep, high hill, near a stream of water, or on a level plain on the crown of a hill, and were enclosed with a strong stockade, which was constructed by laying on the ground large logs of wood for a foundation, on both sides of which oak palisades were set in the ground, the upper ends of which crossed each other and were joined together. The villages so stockaded were called castles and were the winter retreats of families of the same sub-tribe or chieftaincy, the nomadic members of which found the open forests or the seaside more congenial in the summer season, where they made huts for temporary occupancy, caught fish, and cultivated maize and beans and squashes for winter use.

Their weapons of war were the spear, the bow and arrows, the war-club, and the stone hatchet, and in combat they protected themselves with a Square shield made of tough leather. A snake-skin tied around the head, from the center of which projected the tail of a bear or a wolf, or a feather, indicating the totem or tribe to which they belonged, and a face not recognizable from the variety of colors in which it was painted, was their uniform. Some of their arrows were of elegant construction and tipped with copper, and when shot with power would pass through the body of a deer as certainly as the bullet from the rifle. The more common arrows were tipped with flint, as well as their spears, and required no little patience and skill in their construction. Armed and painted and on the war-path they were formidable indeed, while their war-cry, " Woach, Woach, Ha, Ha, Hach Woach ! " aroused a terror which the first settlers were not ashamed to confess.

Not only were they a skilful people, as shown in their manufacture of wampum and of their implements of war and pipes, surprising the Dutch that " in so great a want of iron implements " they were " able to carve the stone," but they had at least an elementary knowledge of the arts. " They know how to prepare a coloring," writes Van der Donck, " wherein they dye their hair a beautiful scarlet, which excites our astonishment and curiosity. The color is so well fixed that rain, sun, and wind will not change it. Although they do not appear to possess any particular art in this matter, still such beautiful red was never dyed in the Netherlands with any material known to us. The colored articles have been examined by many of our best dyers, who admire the color, and admit that they cannot imitate the same, and remark that a proper knowledge of the art would be of great importance in their profession." The colors which they made were red, blue, green, brown, white, black, yellow, etc., which, the same writer says, were " mostly made of stone, which they prepared by pounding, rubbing, and grinding. To describe perfectly and truly how they prepare all these paints and colors is out of my power."

They were not skilled in the practice of medicines, notwithstanding the general belief on that subject. They knew how to cure wounds and hurts, and treated simple diseases successfully. Their general health was due more to their habits than to a knowledge of remedies. Their principal medical treatment was the sweating-bath. These baths were literally earthen ovens into which the patient crept, and around which heated stones were placed to raise the temperature. When the patient had remained under perspiration for a certain time he was taken out and immersed suddenly in cold water, a process which served to cure, or certainly to cause death. The oil which they obtained from beavers was used in many forms and for many purposes. It was a specific for dizziness, for rheumatism, for lameness, for apoplexy, for toothache, for weak eyes, for gout, and for almost all ailments. It was the calomel of Indian allopathic practice, and the Dutch took to it, and attached great value to it. The use of certain herbs and plants, which the Indians employed as remedies, also became familiar to the Dutch, and was transmitted by them to the English, one of which was a cathartic from butternut-bark. Blood-letting was unknown to them. Living natural and well-ordered lives, there were none among them who were cross-eyed, blind, hunch-backed, or deformed; all were well-fashioned, strong in constitution and body, well-proportioned, and without blemish, and the scientific treatments of more advanced civilization would have found little or no employment among them.

Politically their form of government was an absolute democracy, and unanimity the only recognized expression of the popular will. Law and justice, as civilized nations understand them, were to them unknown, yet both they had in a degree suited to their necessities. Assaults, murders, and other acts regarded as criminal offenses by all nations, were so regarded by them, but the execution of punishment was vested in the injured family, who were constituted judges as well as executioners, and who could grant pardons and accept atonements. The rights of property they understood and respected ; and half their wars were retaliatory, for the taking of their territory without making just and proper compensation. Their customs were their unwritten laws, more effective than those that fill the tomes of civilized nations, because taught to the people from infancy, and woven into every condition and necessity of their being.

The ruling chieftaincies, or sub-tribal organizations, had representation in the council chamber of the tribe to which they were totemic ally attached, and these totemic tribes were in turn represented in national councils. Each chieftaincy or sub-tribe had its chief, and each chief his counselors, the latter composed either of experienced warriors or aged fathers of families. In times of peace nothing could be done without the consent of the council unanimously expressed. The councils were conducted with the gravest demeanor and the most impressive dignity. No stranger could visit them without a sensation of respect. The chiefs were required to keep good order, and to decide in all quarrels and disputes ; but they had no power to command, compel, or punish ; their only mode of government was persuasion and exhortation, and in departing from that mode they were deposed by the simple form of forsaking them. The constant restraint which they were under in these respects made them the most courteous, affable, and hospitable of men. Tribal rulership was similarly constituted, with the exception that the counselors were from among the chiefs of the sub-tribes, while national councils were a duplication of the tribal, except that they were composed of representatives selected by the counselors and chiefs of tribes. In times of war the power of the civil government was suspended, but the chief could not declare war without the consent of his captains, and the captains could not begin hostilities except by unanimous consent. The king or sagamore of the nation was a king both with and without power ; a sovereign whose rule was perpetuated only through the love of his people ; a monarch the most polished, the most liberal, the poorest of his race, one who ruled by permission, who received no salary, who was not permitted to own the cabin in which he lived or the land he cultivated, who could receive no presents that did not become the property of the nation, yet whose larder and treasure-chest were never empty.

Tribes and chieftaincies among them were especially marked by totemic emblems. Totems were rude but distinct armorial bearings or family symbols, denoting original consanguinity, and were universally respected. They were painted upon the person of the Indian, and again on the gable end of his cabin, " some in black, others in red." The wandering savage appealed to his totem, and was entitled to the hospitality of the wigwam which bore the corresponding emblem. The Leuni Lenapes had three totemic tribes : the Turtle, or Unami ; the Turkey, or Unalachto: and the Wolf, or Minsi. The Mahicans had three : the Bear, the Wolf, and the Turtle. The Turtle and the Turkey tribes occupied the sea-coast and the southwestern and the Turkey tribes occupied the sea-coast and the southwestern shore of the Hudson. The Wappiugers bore the totem of the Wolf, and the Mahicans proper that of the Bear, by virtue of which they were entitled to the office of chief sachem, or king of the nation. The paintings of these totemic emblems were not only rude, but, in the form in which they have been preserved, those of the signatures which they made to deeds for lands were exceedingly so ; yet they would compare favorably with the characters which were employed to verify the signatures of very many of their more civilized neighbors.

Their religion fully recognized the existence of God, who dwelt beyond the stars, and a life immortal in which they expected to renew the associations of earth. But with them, as with many Christians of the present day practically, God had less to do with the world than the devil, who was the chief object of their fears and the source of their earthly hopes. No expeditions of hunting, fishing, or war were undertaken unless the devil was first consulted, and to him they offered the first-fruits of the chase or of victory. To him their appeals were made through monstrous fires, around which they danced and subjected themselves to strange contortions, and into which they cast their costly robes of wampum and their prized ornaments, and received their answer in good or bad omens. The blaze of the fires at these conjurations early excited the attention of the Dutch and won for their devotees the title of Sanhikans, fire- workers, or worshipers of Satan. They were startling in their effect so startling, indeed, that the Hollanders, and other Europeans who attended them, became so greatly influenced by them that their observance was ultimately forbidden within the limit of one hundred miles of Christian occupation.

There were remarkable conjurers among them, who could cause "ice to appear in a bowl of fair water in the heat of summer," which, adds the narrator, " was doubtless done by the agility of Satan." For the spiritual they cared nothing, but directed their study principally to the physical, " closely observing the seasons." Their women were the most experienced star-gazers ; scarce one of them who could not name them all, give the time of their rising and setting, and their position, in language of their own. Taurus they described as the horned head of a big wild animal inhabiting the distant country, but not theirs; that when it rose in a certain part of the heavens then it was the season for planting. The first moon following that at the end of February was greatly honored by them. They watched it with devotion, and greeted its appearance with a festival ; it was their new year, and they collected together at their chief village or castle, and reveled in their way with wild game or fish, and drank clear river water to their fill, " without," the narrator says, " being intoxicated." The new August moon was the occasion of a festival in honor of the harvest. The firmament was to them an open book, wherein they read the laws for their physical well-being, the dial-plate by which they marked their years.

Such were the people who were grouped, without tribal classification, under Hudson's compound geographical term Manna-hata, as the Manhattans. But, as already stated, it was an erroneous classification, founded on similarity in dialect, discovered first by the Dutch themselves, as noted by De Laet, that " on the east side, on the mainland, dwell the Manhattans," and as shown by subsequent tribal analyzation. " The finest-looking tribe, and the handsomest in their costumes," that were met by Verrazano in 1524 were the Matouwacks of Long Island, or the Montauks, as more modernly known ; those who were met by Hudson in Newark Bay in 1609, " clothed in mantles of feathers and robes of fur," were Raritans, who spread through the valley of the Raritan. Both of these enlarged chieftaincies were sub-tribes of the Unami, or Turtle Tribe, of the Lenni Lenapes, or " Original People," whose national council-fire was lighted at Philadelphia, and both were divided into numerous family groups or clans, the Carnarsees, the Rockaways, the Merikokes, the Marsapeagues, the Matinecocks, the Nessaquakes, the Setaukets, the Corchaugs, the Maiihassets, the Secatogues, the Patchogues, and the Shinecocks being embraced in the jurisdiction of the Montauks, while the Raritans are said to have been divided in two sachemdoms and twenty chieftaincies. They were the Sanhikans, or fire-workers, of Dutch history, but removed from the valley at an early period in consequence of floods which destroyed their corn. Wyandance was sachem of the Montauks when Block built his ship among them in 1614, and may have been the young king described by Verrazano in 1524. The Hackinsacks, when Hudson anchored in their jurisdiction at Hoboken, were ruled by their grand old sachem Oritany, who had a following of three hundred warriors, and held his council-fire at Gamoenapa. They were all a peaceful people from Montauk to the Highlands of the Hudson, as their totem sufficiently indicates, though suffering much from the wars of others, and in the wars that were forced upon them, until they became extinct, under the conditions involved in the contact of themselves and their kindred with an opposing civilization. " On the east side upon the mainland," De Laet locates the " Manatthanes." He subsequently writes more specifically : " On the right or eastern bank of the river from its mouth dwell the Manhattae or Manatthanes, a fierce nation and hostile to our people, from whom nevertheless they purchased the island or point of land which is separated from the main by Helle-gat, and where they laid the foundations of a city called New Amsterdam." There is, however, no more trace here of a people bearing the name of "Manhattas or Manatthanes,"

He subsequently writes more specifically : " On the right or eastern bank of the river from its mouth dwell the Manhattae or
Manatthanes, a fierce nation and hostile to our people, from whom nevertheless they purchased the island or point of land which is separated from the main by Helle-gat, and where they laid the foundations of a city called New Amsterdam." There is, however, no more trace here of a people bearing the name of "Manhattas or Manatthanes," except as a title which was conferred by others, than there is of such a people on the west side of the river, or on Long Island. In the record of the wars and treaties with them, and in their deeds transferring title to lands, their tribal and sub-tribal names appear distinctly and conclusively. Daniel Nimham, " a native Indian and acknowledged sachem or king" of the Wappingers, or Wapanachki, is on record by affidavit made October 13, 1730, that " the tribe of the Wappinoes," of which he was king, " were the ancient inhabitants of the eastern shore of Hudson's river from the city of New York to about the middle of Beekman's patent" (Dutchess County), and that, with the Mahicondas or Mahicans, " they constituted one nation." Confirmed as this affidavit is by all anterior facts of record, it must be accepted as definitely determining the question to which it relates. True, the possibility exists that at some period unrecorded perhaps before the glacial era of North America there was a people known as the Manhattae ; that they were overrun and absorbed by the Wapanachki, and left behind them a traditionary name ; but it is with the facts of history, and not with theories based on shadowy foundations, that we have to do in this chapter.

The Mahican nation which were seated upon the eastern side of the Hudson, and to which river they gave their name, the " Mahicanituck," were recognized among Indian tribes as a family of the "Wapanachki, or "Men of the East," and as "the oldest sons of their grandfather," the Lenni Lenapes, or the "Original People." Generically, they were classed as Algonquins, as were also the tribes on the western side of the river, and spoke the same language, but in a radically different dialect. The clans with whom they were in more immediate contact the Unamis of Long Island and the New Jersey coasts crossed this dialect with that of their neighbors and formed that by which they were classified as Manhattans, but the fact that they were a different people the Dutch were not slow to recognize. Bearing the totem of the bear and the wolf ; equal in courage, equal in numbers, equal in the advantages of obtaining firearms from the Dutch at Albany, and in their treaty alliances with both the Dutch Albany, and in their treaty alliances with both the Dutch and the English governments, they marched unsubdued by their rivals of the Iroquois confederacy, even while recoiling from and crumbling under the touch of European civilization, and crowned their decay by efficient service in behalf of the liberties of a people from whose ancestors they had suffered all their woes.

Hudson met the sub-tribal representatives of the Wapanachki in the bay of New- York, as he did those of other nations who gathered around his ship, and received their presents and evidences of goodwill. While suspicious of them all and withholding himself from too immediate contact with them, he nevertheless detained two of their young men on board, intending to take them to Europe with him. It was unfortunate that he did so, for when the Half -Moon reached the highlands at West Point, they escaped from a port, swam ashore, and " laughed him to scorn." On his return voyage, and near the place where they made their escape, he detected an Indian in a canoe pilfering from his cabin windows. He was shot, and the goods recovered, while the hand of one of his companions, who seized Hudson's boat and sought to overturn it, was cut off and he was drowned. These occurrences were a breach of Indian laws ; the kidnapping of the young men being especially so regarded. When the Half-Moon reached the Spuyten Duyvel, one of the savages who had escaped came out to meet the betrayer of his confidence, accompanied by several companions. They were driven off, only to be succeeded by two canoes full of men armed with bows and arrows, of whom two or three were killed. Then " above a hundred of them came to a point of land " to continue the attack, and two of them were killed. " Yet they manned off another canoe with nine or ten men in it," of whom one was killed and the canoe shot through, and while the savages were struggling in the water three or four more of them were killed. Finally escaping from those whom he had enraged, Hudson anchored in Hoboken Bay, where we met him at the opening of this chapter, " on that side of the river that is called Manna-hata."

Website: The History
Article Name: The Native Inhabitants of Manhattan Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Memorial History of the City of New York from its first Settlement to the year 1892 edited by James Grant Wilson; Copyright by the New York History Company; printed at the DeVinne Press. (1892)
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