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The Lenape Myths that Explain Their Land: Minetta Creek

Minetta Creek, which ran through what is today Greenwich Village, drew the Native American Lenape to its fertile lands. The Lenape cared for this land, and their myths and legends tell the story of how the land — eventually taken by Dutch and English, and later given to freed African-American slaves — came to be. The myth of Minetta Creek, and the spirit of Manetta behind it, bear particular resonance for our neighborhood.

1865 Viele map, Minetta Creek, Courtesy of NYPL

The Lenape seasonally occupied the southwest region of the Village, due in part to the existence of Minetta Creek, a stream that exists underground today, and partly follows the existing Minetta Street in the West Village. The Minetta creek offered a water supply to those in the Sapokanikan Village, and was surrounded by flat land, lined with fertile marsh, and provided easy access for fishing and oyster harvesting.

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

Manetta Creek, called Minetta by the Dutch, means “evil spirit” or “snake water” in the Munsee Language. The legend of Manetta comes from a snake that terrorized humanity since the dawn of time. When Manetta would wreak havoc on civilization, it would be impossible to get anything done. Any effort people made to go about their normal life was pointless. Then, the hero of many Native legends, Nanabush (who goes by many other names, including Nanabozho, Micmac, and Glooskabee), conquered the snake. He banished it beneath the surface, leaving only the remnants of the snake-shaped creek. 

E. W. Deming depiction of Nanabozho chasing the spirit of Mischief, 1900, Courtesy of The American Museum Journal

Between 1808 and 1828, the creek was covered over, not only leaving the snake Manetta banished, but putting the snake-shaped creek beneath the surface of city streets. In the 1960s, owners of tenement buildings along Minetta Street noted strange activity in their basements, including black water rising up from the ground below them. Some believed this was the Manette Spirit returning. 

Depiction of the “snake-shaped” creek, 1865 Topographical Map, Courtesy of David Rumsey

Whether the Manetta was the Lenape’s version of the “devil” in Manhattan, an origin story for how the Creek came to be, or an explanation for all things bad that prevent us from doing work, one thing is certain: this particular creek’s history runs deep. And OTD waters still run under the streets of our neighborhood.

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