The Native Inhabitants of Manhattan Part I

Manhattan in the Sixteenth Century

Describing the voyage of the Half-Moon, while exploring the river which now bears the name of its first European navigator, Juet, Hudson's mate, writes in his journal that, on the return voyage from the head waters of the stream which had been discovered, the vessel was anchored on the night of October 2, 1609,in the bay now known as Hoboken, and fixes the locality specifically by noting that it was upon "that side of the river that is called Manua-hata," where " there was a cliff that looked of the color of a white green." This cliff, which he supposed was composed of copper or silver ore, is near the " Elysian Fields," at Hoboken, and is a subject of study for mineralogists. The significance of the reference to it, however, is not that it more clearly defines the place of anchorage, but the more important fact, in this connection, that it fixes beyond all question either the precise object, or the district of country to which the original inhabitants gave the name, which, after passing through many changes in orthography, is now written " Manhattan," and is applied specifically to the island which throbs with the activities of the metropolis of the nation.

On that side of the river called Manna-hata " was taken by Hudson to Holland, and embraced the only name which had been given to him by the native inhabitants as that of any of the points which he had visited, and it was at once adopted as defining the bay and the harbor in which the Half-Moon anchored, and also as the name of the native inhabitants who resided in that vicinity, who, although improperly classified by it, will continue to bear on the pages of history, to the latest recorded time, the title of Manhattans.

Who were the Manhattans as embraced in this general classification? " With the Manhattans we include," says Van der Douck, "those who live in the neighboring places along the North River, on Long Island, and at the Neversinks." De Rasieres, writing in 1627 or 1628, says, referring to Long Island, " It is inhabited by the old Manhattans " (Manhatesen), and Block bears testimony in 1614 that he was fed and protected, after his vessel had been wrecked in the lower bay, " by the Manhattans " of Long Island. These statements show conclusively that the application of the name was made under the circumstances which have been stated, and was due to the absence of any other, being justifiable not only for that reason, but also on account of the similarity of dialect and the evidences which were apparent that the people were generically allied. The illusion, however, did not long continue. Under the inspiration of more intelligent examination. De Laet wrote: "On the east side, on the mainland, dwell the Manhattans; a bad race of savages, who have always been unfriendly to our people. On the west side are the Sanhikans, who are the deadly enemies of the Manhattans, and a much better people. They dwell along the bay, and in the interior." Later still it came to be known that there were no Manhattans that the chieftaincy or clan to which Wassenaer and De Laet had given the title as a last resort, defining them as living " on the mainland on the east side," bore the name of the Reckgawawancs, and that they were a sub-tribe or chieftaincy of the Siwanoys, " one of the seven tribes of the sea-coast," and one of the largest of the sub-divisions of the "Wapanachki, or " Men of the East," who were indeed a very different people from the Sanhikans, their neighbors on the west side of the Hudson River.

Notwithstanding the stern logic of facts, it is not an agreeable task to divest Manhattan Island of other claim to that title than that of adoption ; to break the glamour which enshrines the Manhattans, or destroy the fine interpretations which have been given to their presumed name ; yet it cannot longer be received as an historical fact that the name Manhattan is from or after the tribe of savages among whom the Dutch made their first settlement, nor can the interpretation be accepted that the name was from Menohhanet, in Mohican the equivalent of islands, or as defining " the people of the islands"; for both are incorrect. The Man-na-hata of Hudson did not refer to the east side of the river, nor to a people, but was and is a compound Algonquin descriptive term, than which there is none more pure, none more comprehensive, and none more appropriate to the object described. Divested of its coalescent it presents ma, as in Manitto, the Great Spirit, or, in a more modified sense, any object that is noble or that may command reverence; na, excellence, abundance, something surpassing; ata or ta, a beautiful scene, valley, or landscape, or, omitting the final a, at, an object near by. The significance of these root terms cannot be escaped. How charmed Hudson was when he gazed upon the primeval beauties of the landscape which enveloped his little ship, as it rocked on the ocean swells of the great river of the mountains, Juet did not attempt to conceal. Standing upon the deck of the Half -Moon, and gazing out upon the territory to which the term applied, well may he have exclaimed, " Manna-hata, the handsomest and pleasantest country that man can behold " ; and well may Verrazano have written of its people, " Manna-hata kings more beautiful in form and stature than can possibly be described."

But we may not dispense with the history of the period, or that of the people, during which the term Manhattans was presumed to embrace the native inhabitants who lived " in the neighboring places along the North River, on Long Island, and at the Neversinks," because it is necessarily a part of the early history of the Indians with whom the Dutch first came in contact, and reveals them in a light that cannot be so comprehensively stated in any other connection, for it must be acknowledged that to pass intelligent judgment on the aborigines of America, and especially on those to whom the Dutch gave the title of Manhattans, they must be taken as they were found, and not as they may have generally appeared after years of association with Europeans, and when they had become the victims of their cupidity, their inhumanity, and their vices. Verrazano, who sailed along the coast of North America in 1524, speaks of the natives whom he met in this vicinity as being " dressed out with the feathers of birds of various colors" "the finest-looking tribe and the handsomest in their costumes " of any that he had found on his voyage. In person, he says, they were of good proportions, of middle stature, broad across the breast, strong in the arms, and well-formed. Among those who came on board his vessel were " two kings more beautiful in form and stature than can possibly be described " ; one was perhaps forty
years old, and the other about twenty-four. "They were dressed," he continues, " in the following manner : the oldest had a deer-skin around his body, artificially wrought in damask figures, his head without covering ; his hair was tied back in various knots ; around his neck he wore a large chain ornamented with many stones of different colors. The young man was similar in his general appearance." In size, he says, " they exceed us, their complexion tawny, inclining to white, their faces sharp, their hair long and black, their eyes black and sharp, their expression mild and pleasant, greatly resembling the antique." The women, he says, were " of the same form and beauty, very graceful, of fine countenances and pleasing appearance in manners and modesty. They wore no clothing except a deer-skin ornamented like those of the men." Some had " very rich lynx-skins upon their arms, and various ornaments upon their heads, composed of braids of hair," which hung down upon their breasts upon each side. The older and the married people, both men and women, " wore many ornaments in their ears, hanging down in the oriental manner."

In disposition they were generous, giving away whatever they had ;of their wives they were careful, always leaving them in their boats when they came on shipboard, and their general deportment was such that with them, he says, " we formed a great friendship." Eighty-five years later, Hudson writes : " Many of the people came on board, some in mantles of feathers, and some in skins of divers sorts of good furs." The Dutch historians, Wassenaer, Van der Donck, and others, agree that the natives were generally well-limbed, slender around the waist, and broad-shouldered ; that they had black hair and eyes, and snow-white teeth, and resembled the Brazilians in color. The dress of the Indian belle was more attractive than any which civilized life has produced. Van der Donck writes : " The women wear a cloth around their bodies, fastened by a girdle which extends below their knees, and is as much as a petticoat ; but next to the body under this skirt they wear a dressed deer-skin coat, girt around the waist. The lower body of the skirt they ornament with great art, and nestle the same with stripes which are beautifully decorated with wampum. The wampum with which one of these skirts is decorated is frequently worth from one to three hundred guilders. They bind their hair behind in a club of about a hand long, in the form of a beaver's tail, over which they draw a square cap, which is frequently ornamented with wampum. When they desire to be fine they draw a headband around the forehead, which is also ornamented with wampum, etc. This band confines the hair smooth, and is fastened behind, over the club, for a beau's knot. Their head-dress forms a handsome and lively appearance. Around their necks they wear various ornaments, which are also decorated with wampum. Those they esteem as highly as our ladies do their pearl necklaces. They also wear hand bands or bracelets, curiously wrought and interwoven with wampum. Their breasts appear about half covered with an elegant wrought dress. They wear beautiful girdles, ornamented with their favorite wampum, and costly ornaments in their ears. Here and there they lay upon their faces black spots of paint. Elk-hide moccasins they wore before the Dutch came, and they too were richly ornamented." Shoes and stockings they obtained from the Dutch, and also bonnets.

Not only were they a people of taste and industry, but in morals they were quite the peers of their Dutch neighbors; indeed, had the Dutch, with all their boasted civilization and Christian principles, been the superiors of the untutored savages they would not have been dragged down to their level and destroyed by their vices. Chastity was an established principle with them. To be unchaste during wedlock was held to be very disgraceful. Foul and improper language was despised by them. Most of the diseases incident to females of the present day were unknown to them. So highly were the women esteemed that the Dutch made wives of them, and refused to leave them for females of their own country. Instances could be named where the blood of the boasted ancient Knickerbockers was enriched by that of those who were called Manhattans.

Their food, says one Dutch writer, was gross, "for they drank water, having no other beverage." They ate the flesh of all sorts of game and fish, and made bread of Indian meal and baked it in hot ashes ; they also made " a pap or porridge, called by some sapsis, by others dundare (literally boiled bread), in which they mixed beans of different colors, which they raised." The maize, from which their bread and sapsis were made, was raised by themselves, and was broken up or ground in rude mortars. Beavers' tails, the brains of fish, and their sapsis, ornamented with beans, were their state dishes and highest luxuries. They knew how to preserve meat and fish by smoking, and when hunting or while on a journey carried with them corn roasted whole. The occupations of the men were hunting, fishing, and war. The women made clothing of skins, prepared food, cultivated the fields of corn, beans, and squashes, and made mats. They were workers and faithful helpmates, and shared in the government of the nation, having rights granted to them which are not conceded to females in civilized countries.

They were a wealthy people. The treasure-chest of the savage world was in their keeping, in the inside little pillars of the conch-shells, which the sea cast up twice a year, and from the inside of the shell of the quahoug. The former was called wampum, signifying white, and the latter sucki, signifying black. The black was the most valuable. The shell of the quahoug was broken and about half an inch of the purple color of the inside chipped out, ground down into beads, bored with sharp stones, and strung upon the sinews of animals. The black was the gold, the white the silver, and as such formed the circulating medium of the country, for both the Indians and their European neighbors, the latter regulating its price by law and receiving it for both goods and taxes. Three purple or black beads, or six of white, were equal to a stiver among the Dutch, or a penny among the English. A single string of wampum of one fathom ruled as high as five shillings in New England, and is known in New Netherland to have reached as high as four guilders, or one dollar and sixty cents. Aside from its commercial value, it was used, as already stated, for the ornamentation of dresses, and when the strings were united they formed the broad wampum belts which figured in solemn public transactions. The Indians made it with their imperfect implements on the Matouwacka and Manacknong islands, where great banks of broken shells, the accumulation of ages, remain. When the patient and painstaking labor that was required to produce it in the quantities that were required is considered, the admission will be forced that these so-called savages were not mere idle vagabonds, but that they occupied a much higher plane than has been generally assigned to them. True, their industry and development brought upon them raids by the barbarians of the interior country, and compelled them to purchase peace by the payment of tribute ; but the many evidences of their primal genius and prosperity still remain.

Website: The History
Article Name: The Native Inhabitants of Manhattan Part I
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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