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What’s Lost in a Name: The Bowery and the Lost Mohican Trail

Typically our “What’s in a Name?” series looks into the name of a building or a place and what’s behind the name as we know it. But today we are going to look into the history that has been lost when streets have been named to represent their colonial past. We will look into the lost name of the Mohican Trail and the often erased history of the Native people who helped make this land inhabitable for the Dutch.

New York Trails. Stevens, Benjamin Franklin, Great Britain War Office, 1782. Courtesy of David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

There has been documented history of the Algonquin people in New York and New Jersey as early as 1,000 B.C.E. The Algonquins are early ancestors of the Lenape. Lenape refers to the group of native people of the territories of eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Lower New York, and eastern Delaware. The Lenape had a sort of “clan” to go with each territory, and some of these territories would eventually form the Lenape Confederacy. The Confederacy was made up of the Unami of central New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania, the Unalatchigo of lower New Jersey, and the Munsee of Lower New York. The Munsee who inhabited the island of Manahatta used it as a home, a place for hunting and gathering, and eventually as trading posts, and for agricultural farming.

Manhattan island with Longhouses in the Back, Courtesy of the NYPL.

What we know today as the Bowery, which connects into 4th Avenue and eventually Broadway, was once the Mohican Trail, also referred to as the Wickquasgeck trail. The trail connects from the bottom of Manhattan all the way north to what is now Montreal into Mohican territory. The Mohicans were another member of the Algonquin tribe who inhabited New York in the upper Hudson region. It is because of this connection that the trail is named after them. 

Northern Reaches of the Mohican Trail. By Evan T. Pritchard, sourced from Native New Yorkers.

The Bowery was officially designated as the name of New York City’s oldest and widest street on August 23, 1813. It had been known as the Bowery for quite some time, as the Dutch had been allocating the land surrounding it as farms or bouweries. The most notable of these boweries were those belonging to Peter Stuyvesant, who held two boweries on the land. The influence of this tyrannical ruler on the area can still be seen today. The Dutch laid their boweries around the Mohican Trail as it had been well laid out by the Lenape and became the new settlement’s main thoroughfare. This trail, which ran along the highest ridge of the island, became not only essential to the lives of the Lenape, but also to the history that would unfold along its path. 

Sheep drive and rural farmland on the Bowery, 1831. Courtesy of the NYPL.

At the foot of the trail at the meeting point of the two rivers, the East River and Hudson River was the home of the Kapsee chief. A large elm tree stood where the trail started. This was a sacred spot for traditions including council meetings and storytellings. The trail as you moved north passed farmlands settled by Lenape, which would eventually become the dutch boweries. The Lenape grew crops here, making sure to leave the land fallow after every rotation to ensure good healthy soil and crops. In the mid-1600s, further north along the trail there was a connection to the Sapohannikan Trail. This trail connected to the trading fort of the Sapohannikan commuters at what is now Gansevoort Street. Going back to the Mohican Trail and continuing North to 28th Street you would have found a trading post of furs and pelts. This “Great White Way” was lined with birch trees and was eventually renamed, Broadway. As the trail connected as far North as what is now Montreal, the trail offered a connection to other regions and other clans and trading posts. 

Purchase of the Island of Manhattan, Peter Minuit 1626. Courtesy of NYPL.

The trail also witnessed two crucial changes for the Island of Manhattan. On May 24, 1626, Peter Minuit reportedly established Fort Amsterdam on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, and the fabled purchase of the Island of Manhattan for “60 Gilders” took place at the foot of the great elm tree which stood at the start of the Mohican Trail. Despite the story, generally, we accept that the Lenape did not sell the land because they did not believe it was theirs to sell. They, however, did have every intention of sharing the land with the Dutch and showing them how to work with it. The Dutch had other intentions and kicked the Caransie Lenape out of lower Manhattan. On June 26, 1626, a ship carrying eleven enslaved people arrived on the shore. Upon their arrival, they were sent to work to build Fort Amsterdam at the foot of the Mohican Trail. 

The Bowery, 1900. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Bowery went on to see rapid development and a great deal of New York history, including waves of different immigrant groups and flowering of cultural activity, from opera to punk and everything in between. But the Bowery’s origins as a trail and thoroughfare, as well as an important meeting ground for different peoples and critical activities, dates back to long before the arrival of Europeans, who intentionally or not built upon a tradition that far preceded them. 

5 responses to “What’s Lost in a Name: The Bowery and the Lost Mohican Trail

  1. Is there any way you might be able to supply a link to a more detailed/expandable pdf of the map of the Hudson River Valley tribes included in this article?
    This is a very useful resource, never seen before. Thnx.

  2. I tried clicking on both the map and the caption just underneath – but there is no link active: is the link for an expandable map somewhere in the text? Thnx.

  3. Sarah, most interesting post. Your research is impressive and the links are great. Is your reference (just above the last photo, from 1900) to “Caransie Lenape” a typo? I have read about the Canarsie – is this “Canarsie Lenape”?

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