he Lower Hudson bioregion has been inhabited by people for at least 12,000 years. A number of Paleoindian sites have been excavated in Staten Island, Long Island, southern New Jersey, the upper Delaware Valley, and the Lower Hudson. There may well have been earlier coastal settlements, but any evidence would have been submerged by the advancing sea.
The earliest known inhabitants of Brooklyn were a group of several organized bands of Algonquin people with shared cultural and linguistic customs known as the Lenape. The Algonquins called their home Lenapehoking, roughly the area around and between the Delaware and lower Hudson Rivers. This encompassed what are now known as New Jersey; eastern Pennsylvania around the Delaware and Lehigh valleys; the north shore of Delaware; and much of southeastern New York, particularly the lower Hudson Valley and Upper New York Bay. Among other Algonquian peoples, the Lenape were considered the “grandfathers” from whom all the other Algonquian peoples originated. Consequently, in inter-tribal councils, the Lenape were given respect as one would to elders.
For thousands of years, the Lenape Indians, comprising approximately one hundred different tribes, lived between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean and from Tennessee to Canada. Among the more famous Algonquin tribes living in the New York area were the Delaware and the Mohicans. The Lenape spoke two related languages in the Algonquian subfamily, collectively known as the Delaware languages: Unami and Munsee.
Lenape society was organized into clans determined by matrilineal descent. Territory was collective, but divided by clan. At the time of European contact, the Lenape practiced large-scale agriculture, mostly companion planting, their primary crops being the “Three Sisters.” They also practiced hunting and the harvesting of seafood. They were primarily sedentary, moving to different established campsites by season.
Lenni Lenape as seen in a contemporary woodcut.
Metoac is the collective name for the group of Native Americans settlements roughly east of what is now the Nassau County line. The Long Island tribes lived fairly prosperous lives. They were hunters and fishermen, but some of them were farmers who raised beans and corn. Game was rather plentiful on the Island at that time and included deer, bear, raccoon, turkey, quail, partridge, goose and duck. Seafood was also plentiful where fresh water met salt water, many Lenape campsites could be found at such inlets- where the natives caught crabs, clams, scallops, lobster, and many kinds of fish including herring, bass and bluefish. The Lenape were expert fishermen, equally adept with bows and arrows or simple hook/string methods of catching fish.
According to early accounts recorded by the first European settlers, Lenape houses in the area were dome-shaped structures from 10 to 20 feet in diameter, covered with grass. Clay covered openings at the tops of the dwellings prevented them from burning when fires were lit inside: the vents allowed smoke and heat to escape. The primary medium of exchange among the Lenape was wampum, ornamental groupings of cylindrical purple and white beads drilled from shells strung on the sinews of small animals or attached to the inner bark of elm trees. Wampum was prized by the Indians and used by the Europeans as currency in exchange for beaver pelts.
The Long Island Lenape contained thirteen small tribes which were part of the Delaware people. The tribes included the Canarsee, Rockaway, Merrick, Massapequa, Secateg, Unkechag, Shinneconk, Montack, Manhanset, Corchaug, Setauket, Nissequong, and Matinecock. They called Long Island Seaawanhacy (or Land of Shells). The tribe that lived in Brooklyn, on the western-most part of the Island, were known the “Canarsee” whose territory extended over most of Kings County and parts of Jamaica, including the neighborhood of Canarsie. There was also a small tribe of the Nyack Indians near the Narrows.
There are several theories which suggest how the Lenape obtained the name “Canarsee.” One theory was that the Indians often took the names of animals, birds, or natural objects. Because of Jamaica Bay and other water inlets and passages, the marshland was always filled with ducks, turkeys, geese, pigeons, venison, and clams. With the coming of the French trappers, hunters, and fur traders, the word “Canarde” meaning “duck” was used to describe the land. It is therefore believed that the name “Canarsee” came from the French work “canarde.”
A Native American name for Long Island is Paumanok, meaning “The Island that Pays Tribute”. More powerful tribes in the surrounding areas forced the relatively peaceful Long Islanders to give tributes and payment to avoid attacks. This name, by the way, is among many others recorded in historical accounts under different spellings- partly because the Indians did not write and early colonists were not particularly good spellers. The old Dutch inhabitants had a tradition, that the Canarsee Indians were subject to the Mohawks, as all the Iroquois were called, and paid them an annual tribute of dried clams and wampum. When the Dutch settled here, they persuaded the Canarsees to keep back the tribute; in consequence of which a party of the Mohawks came down and killed their tributaries.
The Lenape connection to Canarsie persists with the Canarsie High School football team, who are known as the “Chiefs” although the titular head of a Lenape tribe was typically called a Satchem or Sagamore.
The first Europeans to set eyes on Brooklyn was the crew of the Dolphin, captained by Florence came Giovanni da Verrazano a Florentine navigator of repute who was in the service of the King of France. Sailing into New York Bay in 1524 , he encountered the Lenape and observed what he deemed to be a large lake, which was in fact the entrance to the Hudson River. Verazzano did not linger: in 1528, during his third voyage to North America, after exploring Florida, the Bahamas and the Lesser Antilles, Verrazzano was killed and eaten by the native Carib inhabitants.
In 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up the estuary of the river that initially was called the “North River” or “Mauritius” and now carries his name. Hudson sailed into the upper bay and began a journey up what is now known as the Hudson River. Over the next ten days his ship ascended the river, reaching a point about where the present-day capital of Albany is located.
European settlement of Brooklyn began with the Dutch and was initially tangential to their main settlement on the island of Manhattan (New Amsterdam), part of their colony of New Netherlands. The States General, Holland’s governing body, licensed the New Netherlands Company in 1614, taking in an area from New York State on the St. Lawrence River south to the Delaware River. New Netherlands was the sole possession of a commercial monopoly of the The West India Company and was not a colony of Holland.
While the English embarked on a search for theological utopia, the Dutch immigrated for one purpose: to make money. The first European settlement within the present limits of Brooklyn was made in Wallabout, site of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard and countless hipsters, by several families of French-speaking Walloons in the early 1630s, having arrived in New Netherland in the previous decade from Holland. Settlement of the area began with the purchase from the Canarsee Indians for some 335 acres of land, but these early Wallabout settlers waited at least a decade before relocating full-time to the area, until conflicts with the tribes had been resolved.
In 1636 Dutch farmers took up residence along the shore of Gowanus Bay. That year Jacques Bentyn and William Adrianese Bennett also purchased from the Indians a tract of land in Brooklyn, extending from the vicinity of 28th street, along Gowanus Cove and the bay, to the New Utrecht line. This formerly composed part of a powerful Indian Sachemdom that bore the Indian name of Matowcas.
Also at that time, a handful of New Amsterdam residents bought large tracts of farmland in an area of western Long Island in which the soil was unusually fertile. Nieuw Amersfort—the first Dutch settlement on Long Island—was built at present day neighborhood of Flatlands, on Jamaica Bay, site of the Indian village of Keskaechqueren. The abundant supply of wampum in the area led to the selection of Keskaechqueren as the earliest permanent European settlement on Long Island.
Manatus Map (click to enlarge)
The Manatus Map is an 1639 map that is the earliest portrayal of Manhattan and its environs. The map may have been drawn by Johannes Vingboons, cartographer to the Prince of Nassau for the West India Company of Holland. This map, possibly done to encourage Dutch settlement, depicts plantations and small farms. These widely dispersed settlements are keyed by number in the lower right-hand corner to a list of land occupants. The list of references includes a grist mill, two sawmills and “Quarters of the Blacks, the Company’s Slaves.” Also delineated are a few roads represented by dashed lines and four Indian villages situated in what is now Brooklyn. Although a bit confusing, since South is actually oriented East on the map, it clearly shows Lenape longhouses in the marshlands of Red Hook (Sassian) and Wallabout Bay, Bay Ridge (Nayack or Wichquawanck) and at the head of the Gowanus swamplands.
Dutch relations with the Indians began benevolently. A director of the West India Company, Johannes de Laet, wrote that the Lenape were friendly people if they were treated well. Governor Willem Verhulst was also instructed from Holland to treat them with “honesty, faithfulness and sincerity” and to respect their land claims. However a series of bad business dealings in several of the trading posts located in present day Connecticut quickly soured relations.
Kieft’s War, also known as the Wappinger War (1643–1645), was fought between settlers to the nascent colony of New Netherland and the native Lenape population. Twenty tribes ultimately consolidated in the fight against the Dutch: Hackensack, Haverstraw, Munsee, Navasink, Raritan and Tappan from New Jersey; Wecquaesgeek, Sintsink, Kitchawank, Nochpeem, Siwanoy, Tankiteke, and Wappinger from east of the Hudson; and Canarsee, Manhattan, Rockaway, Matinecock, Massapequa, Secatoag, and Merrick on Long Island.
Named after Willem Kieft, the fifth governor of New Netherlands the Brooklyn manifestation followed an unsuccessful expedition against the Raritans on Staten Island and included an attack by 1,500 natives on New Netherland, where they killed many, including Anne Hutchinson, the notable dissident preacher. They destroyed villages and farms, the work of two decades of settlement. In retaliation the English and Dutch combined strategically to decimate the Canarsee, Merrick and Massapequa villages on the western end of Long Island. Governor Kieft hired the English mercenary and veteran of the recent Pequot War, John Underhill, for 25,000 guilders. Underhill brought with him two companies of 120 to 150 volunteers and Mohegan scouts. Underhill’s company proceeded to kill over 120 Indian men, women and children where they lived near today’s town of Massapequa.
“No one can have visions because the earth is no longer clean.”
After some 500 Indians were killed on Long Island, the governor declared a day of thanksgiving.
A vestige of Kieft’s War was the stout, fortified construction of many of the Dutch homesteads, including the Old Stone House in the Park Slope neighborhood, which was to play a pivotal role in the defense of Brooklyn during the Battle of Long Island.
Trouble with the Dutch was only one of the factors which eventually drove the Indians from Long Island. Another was a smallpox epidemic in 1658, which reportedly killed two-thirds of the tribes in the area. The population of all the Long Island tribes in 1600 was estimated at 10,000. The effects of warfare and sickness reduced this population to 500 by the year 1659. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Lenape on Long Island were few and far between, perhaps not totaling 200 in all of New Amsterdam.
Moreover, the influx of white settlers and the resulting expansion of farmland drove animals away, and the Indians who were hunters migrated to the mainland in pursuit of game. They now became exiles and wanderers, dependent upon the hospitality – and subject to the hostility – of other tribes. With the severing of their ancient bond to the land, the source of their visions and insights dried up. In the words of a Delaware in the early nineteenth century, “No one can have visions because the earth is no longer clean.”
- “A History of the City of Brooklyn.” by Henry Reed Stiles. (ca.1870)
- “Notes, Geographic and Otherwise, Relating to the Town of Brooklyn in Kings County on Long-Island.” by Gabriel Furman (1824)
- “A History of Brooklyn and Kings County.” S.M. Ostrander, (1894)