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Remembering the Original New Yorkers

Lenape men preparing soil for cultivation. Reprinted from The Lenapes by R. S. Grumet and F. W. Porter, 1989, New York, Chelsea House.
Lenape men preparing soil for cultivation. Reprinted from The Lenapes by R. S. Grumet and F. W. Porter, 1989, New York, Chelsea House.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we thought that we should share a brief history of the original New Yorkers, the Lenape.

When the Dutch arrived in New York in 1624, there were approximately 15,000 Lenape Indians living on Manhatta, translated as “the island of many hills.” It was later renamed by the Dutch “Manhattan.”

Although there is little documentation about the Lenape, it is believed that they began to occupy Manhattan over 6,500 years ago. A large portion of historians’ work concerning the Lenape comes from inference with historical anecdotes, archaeological evidence and interviews with modern Lenape.

Greenwich Village was once a Lenape Village called “Sapokanik”, meaning Tobacco field or the Land of Tobacco growth. In addition to tobacco farms, the area was also an active trading settlement and a canoe landing and docking area for Native Americans. Corresponding to the entire physical environment of Manhatta, the typography of Sapokanik was especially diverse and fertile, composed of mainly marshland closer to the southwestern estuaries, sand hills where Astor place is today, and even oak hickory forests closer inland. To see more of Manhattan’s ecological history, see here.

From the Lowest East Side History Project.
From the Lowest East Side History Project.

The Lenape seasonally occupied the southwest region of the Village, due in part to the Minetta Creek, a stream that exists underground today, and can be traced by the existing Minetta Street in the West Village. The Minetta benefited the livelihood of those in Sapokanik because it was surrounded by flat land, lined with fertile marsh and provided easy access for fishing, especially oysters and trout.

There are several debates among modern archeologists and historians whether the Lenape preferred local plants and seafood over the Mesoamerican crops, such as corn, squash and beans based from trade. However, seafood and Mesoamerican crops were a part of the Sapokanik village food culture. The Lenape practiced multicropping more inland, where they grew their crops together, traditionally known as the “Three Sisters Garden” and harvested their crops from late summer until the first fall frost. Due to the physical geography of the land, only small game was hunted in lower Manhattan, such as fish and beavers.

Although the Lenape traveled in small groups around Manhatta in response to the change of seasons and survival needs, there was still a strong sense of community throughout the settlements. The Lenape identity was based on where individuals lived, and kinship, and they held a spiritual relationship with their land.

It is believed that when the Dutch settlers first arrived, they lived peacefully with the Lenape, but by the mid-1600s, the Lenape were dying from European diseases and were further pushed out by the colonists. By 1700, it is estimated that only 200 Lenape remained in Manhattan.

So as we celebrate our mutual Thanksgiving tomorrow, let us take a moment to remember the original New Yorkers and commit to preserving their legacy and history as it was on the island of many hills.

Want more early Greenwich Village History? Take a look at GVSHP’s History of the Neighborhood.

4 responses to “Remembering the Original New Yorkers

  1. It is said, that the First Nation Natives that originally received 60 guilder from the Dutch settlers were Canarsie Natives. “Canarsie” namesake remains in the small inlet in Brooklyn, the last stop on the LL line.4336

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