We have previously looked at the Lenape legacy in our area, including the native trails the Dutch and English followed, and the myths of Minetta Creek. This is if course just a tiny portion of the long and deep indigenous history of our neighborhoods, which is expansive, important, and often overlooked. One reason is that it was all but wiped from the landscape during the Dutch and English colonial eras.
Therefore recovering that indigenous history requires some effort, as there are virtually no written records of it and no extant built remnants. One historian who has sought to recover this information is Dr. Eric W. Sanderson, a Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who wrote Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, the cover of which is shown above. Along with this book, Dr. Sanderson created an interactive map project which allows you to zoom in on a block and see the proximity to a Lenape settlement and trails. The map also showcases the populations of species within the blocks. Let’s zoom in on a block in our neighborhoods and see what it looked like in 1609.
The square block bounded by Hudson, Greenwich, West 12th, and Jane Streets is not far from the original shoreline of Manhattan. It was within 135 meters (442 ft) of a Lenape settlement and 90 meters (295 ft) of a Lenape trail. This settlement positioned the Lenape close to the shoreline, not far from trails, and close to the intersection of Kintecoying, the “crossroads of the three nations.” This settlement also situated the Lenape in great hunting and gathering position.
The tribes camped here could hunt White-Tailed Deer, American Black Duck, and Wild Turkey, among other animals. The vegetation available was the Virginia strawberry, a summer grape, and mountain laurel (used for medicinal purposes). This block and its surroundings was also home to snapping turtles, water snakes, sharp-shinned hawks, red-tailed hawks, deer mice, and beavers. The surrounding ecological environment included red maples, black cherry, and American chestnut trees.
The Lenape’s hunting and gathering practices in this were based solely on subsistence and necessity. Both women and men engaged in hunting. They used a practice called ‘fire surround’ in which they surrounded an animal, trapped it, and killed it as quickly as possible. By settling in areas such as the block we explored near West 12th and Jane Streets, the Lenape gave themselves access to many different species to hunt, therefore never overhunting one particular type of animal. Ironically, in the early 20th century, many European Americans, including conservationists, took issue with this practice; they saw no sport in the indigenous people’s way of hunting, and sought to keep them out of National Parks created around their homes. This ignored that indigenous people were hunting for food, not sport.
This is just one of the insights the Welikia map (meaning “my good home” in the Lenape language) implicitly or explicitly offers, and why it is so fascinating to explore. When walking the streets of Manhattan today, surrounded by towering skyscrapers, we can forget that this was once an incredibly diverse ecological landscape. The island had indigenous plants, trees, wolves, and bears (there is a record of an American Black Bear being shot on Maiden Lane in 1630.) According to Dr. Sanderson, Manhattan’s density of biodiversity at one point rivaled the great National Parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains.