The Rarely Told Story of the Real Bay Ridge Natives

Generic Lenape Scene
Generic Lenape scene. Via Staten Island Advance

The first Native Americans settled in what’s now the New York area in 4500 BCE, smack dab in the Stone Age, when the Europeans were just beginning to figure out farming and the Chinese were domesticating rice. About six million people inhabited the planet; the Egyptians wouldn’t build the first of their great pyramids for another two thousand years. Other people had passed through New York thousands of years before that, hunting large game like bison and mastodons that had moved into the region as the last Ice Age began to recede, but they left behind “only flint spear points and heaps of bones as evidence of their presence,” Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace write in their door-stopping history, Gotham, and those hunters left when rising temperatures drove their quarry farther south. It was that second group of humans who stayed and built a civilization, gradually discovering weaponry, pottery and farming, which enabled their population to grow to as many as 15,000 people by the time the Europeans arrived in the early 16th century.

The Lenape occupied a liver-shaped territory that extended from present-day Delaware to the lower Hudson Valley. The tribe was divided into numerous local groupings; they called Long Island Paumanok, on whose western end lived the Canarsee, with subtribes that occupied numerous sites: Sassian, in present-day Red Hook; Gowanus, near present-day Gowanus; as well as other spots in the Navy Yard, Boerum Hill, Gravesend and Flatlands. The Canarsee that lived in what we now call Bay Ridge were the Nyack, whose name means “point of land.” The tribe first lived in what we now call Coney Island, then calling themselves the Narrioch. “Then the ‘r’ is converted to ‘y’ as they move inland,” Evan T. Pritchard, founder and director of the Center for Algonquin Culture, wrote in an email. It’s “more old school Lenape speech, still means ‘point of land.’ That was Bay Ridge.”

The Lenape left no written history, so much of what we know about them now, especially their early contact with Europeans, we know from the Europeans. (It’s worth bearing in mind these words, from the Ramapough Lunaape Nation website: “The written history of the native people in this area was always left to the non-native community to write, and with their ignorance of Lenape ways and language, their documentation was seldom accurate.”) The first of them was Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Florentine explorer who sailed the East Coast from Florida to Canada for the French king. “[W]e found a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills,” he wrote in a letter to King Francis I of France in 1524, the first written description of New York Harbor; “between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flowed out into the sea; and with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet, any laden ship could have passed from the sea into the river estuary.”

Since we were anchored off the coast and well sheltered, we did not want to run any risks without knowing anything about the river mouth. So we took the small boat up this river to land which we found densely populated. The people were almost the same as the others, dressed in birds’ feathers of various colors, and they came toward us joyfully, uttering loud cries of wonderment, and showing us the safest place to beach the boat. We went up this river [likely the Narrows] for about half a league, where we saw that it formed a beautiful lake [likely Upper New York Bay], about three leagues in circumference. About XXX of their small boats ran to and fro across the lake with innumerable people aboard who were crossing from one side to the other to see us. Suddenly, as often happens in sailing, a violent unfavorable wind blew in from the sea, and we were forced to return to the ship, leaving the land with much regret on account of its favorable conditions and beauty; we think it was not without some properties of value, since all the hills showed signs of minerals.

Painting of Henry Hudson's arrival from Native American point of view
Edward Moran’s “Sir Henry Hudson entering New York Bay, September 11, 1609, with Indian family watching on shore in foreground” (1898). Via Library of Congress

Over the next eight decades, the Europeans returned, but without much historical impact: just a few surveyors, bands of fur traders, perhaps some slave traders, maybe even a few marooned sailors. Then the English explorer Henry Hudson showed up in September 1609, trying to find a shortcut for the Dutch East India Company through the north to China. The best surviving record of this voyage of the Half Moon was written by Robert Juet, Hudson’s first mate who, two years later, historians believe, would lead the fatal mutiny against Hudson.

Unlike Verrazzano’s, Hudson’s trip to the area was fraught. On the 6th, while the ship was anchored off Sandy Hook, a team went out in a smaller boat and explored what’s now Kill van Kull, the narrow waterway separating New Jersey and Staten Island. “The Lands they told us were as pleasant with Grasse and Flowers, and goodly Trees, as ever they had seen,” Juet reports, “and very sweet smells came from them.” But then two canoes, carrying 26 men between them, set upon these reconnaissance sailors, and as rain fell and night arrived, one of Hudson’s men, John Colman, was killed by an arrow to the throat—the first murder in modern New York history; the rest of the men escaped, two of them wounded, and made it back to the Half Moon the next day to tell the tale. Colman was buried on land, possibly present-day Sandy Hook, which Hudson’s men named Colman’s Point. (It didn’t stick.)

The next few days were spent anchored off Staten Island and then trying to navigate around it, and on the 10th the ship likely arrived at the Narrows, which the crew found shallow and difficult to navigate. They anchored “and rode all night in soft Ozie ground. The banke is Sand”—perhaps the first written mention of Bay Ridge’s beaches, unless they were on the Staten Island side. The next day the ship made it up into the bay, where, like Verrazzano, Hudson was greeted by natives. “The people of the Countrey came aboard of us, making shew of love, and gave us Tobacco and Indian wheat and departed for that night; but we durst not trust them.” Colman had died only days earlier. From there the ship would explore the river that would later bear its captain’s name.

Hudson’s visit intrigued European fur traders, and as soon as 1610, independent businessmen had returned to the land Hudson had identified as Manna-hatta. In 1613, Adriaen Block sailed his Tyger up to lower Manhattan, where it caught fire and sank. (It was rediscovered in 1916 during subway construction, at the corner of then Greenwich and Dey streets; the shoreline had been extended with landfill.) By 1614 the Dutch East India Company set up a trading post south of present-day Albany, and by 1625, they established lower Manhattan as Fort Amsterdam, to protect the rest of New Netherland and its business dealings, mostly from the Spanish.

Map of NYC, 1639
Johannes Vingboons’s “Manhattan Situated on the North River,” from 1639. Bay Ridge is just a little up from the center, across from Staten Island. Via Library of Congress

During the 17th century, the Dutch continued to settle in and develop this New Netherlands colony, of which New Amsterdam was capital. The first approach by Europeans toward Bay Ridge was 1636, when Willem Adriaenszen Bennett and Jacques Bentyn bought 936 acres from about 28th to 60th streets “and back into the hills as far as the old Indian trail,” the Brooklyn Eagle explained in 1940, “which in those days ran along the present Sixth Avenue through Greenwood, through Sunset Park and along Eighth Avenue to Fort Hamilton.” (“Fort Hamilton Parkway was once a trail that led to the boat landing for Staten Island,” Pritchard writes in his book Native New Yorkers, “which continued on the other side of the Narrows.”)

As early as 1645, perhaps, Cornelis van Werckhoven, acting on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, gave the Nyack six coats, six kettles, six axes, six chisels, six small looking-glasses, twelve knives and twelve combs for all the land from either Gowanus or the border of the Bennett-Bentyn plot to Coney Island (old records are often fuzzy, old chronicles contradictory; the exact items are also often disagreed upon); this became the town of New Utrecht, one of the original six Dutch towns that eventually consolidated to produce Brooklyn, according to Jasper Danckaerts’s journal. Other accounts put the sale in 1652. (Werckhoven’s right-hand man, Jacques Cortelyou, later repurchased the land, after Werckhoven had died, likely to fend off his heirs; some accounts say the natives returned and demanded payment again.)

At first, the Nyack got along with the Dutch—relatively speaking—but the relationship became tenser as the 17th century progressed. “In April [1652], the directors warned [New Netherlands leader Peter] Stuyvesant of the dangers stemming from the Native belief that the Dutch authorities were not allowed to punish Indians for acts of violence, and suggested a military alliance with the New England colonies in case of a new Indian war, a possibility first raised in 1648,” Tom Arne Midtrød writes in The Memory of All Ancient Customs. “The negotiations with the English failed, but the Indians might have viewed such scheming with alarm. In early 1652, the Nayack Indians on western Long Island found rumors that Stuyvesant planned to attack them quite plausible.”

Reenactment in Brooklyn of Native American land sale
A 1937 reenactment at Erasmus high school of the sale of the school’s land from the Canarsee. Via Brooklyn Public Library

So it might make sense that 1652 is when the Dutch bought the land that became Bay Ridge from the Nyack. The tribal leaders might have felt pressured to leave before the situation escalated. According to Native American Netroots:

Mattano, the sachem [or leader] of the Nayack, under threat of Dutch attack, agreed in 1652 to sell tribal lands in Brooklyn, New York[,] to the Dutch. The conditions of the deed required that the Nayack “remove immediately from the land now occupied by them, called Naieck, and never to return to live in the district.” Following the sale most of the Nayack moved to Staten Island.

“The Nayack began to grow increasingly close to the Hackensacks and Tappans,” Midtrød writes. “This reorientation coincided with their relocation to Staten Island after the sale of the land at Nyack by Mattano and other leaders in 1652. Mattano was subsequently chief of Staten Island and Nyack. There were [sic] still an Indian settlement at Nyack in 1679, and Staten Islanders maintained claims to land on western Long Island at least until 1664, when two followers of Mattano sold land near Hell Gate.” The British had invaded New Amsterdam in 1664, conquering it and renaming it New York, which it would remain, excepting a brief period in 1673 when the Dutch briefly recpatured it and called the city New Orange. “Staten Island fell within the claims of the Tappans and the Hackensacks, and the islanders had land rights on the west bank of the Hudson. Hackensack leader Hans became chief of the Hackensacks, Tappans and Staten Islanders in 1669, a sign of the growing strength of this bloc, but he does not seem to have held this position for long.”

The Hackensack and Tappan tribes occupied contiguous land in northeastern New Jersey, along the Hackensack and Hudson rivers, just south of present-day Nyack, New York, around where the Nyack tribe relocated around 1670. “When, in 1670, Staten Island also passed out of Indian possession through the purchase, by Governor Frances Lovelace, of all the native rights, the Nyacks, together with all the other Staten Island savages, were compelled to seek fresh camping grounds west of the Hudson river,” according to a history on the Nyack Indian Foundation’s website. “Perhaps the Nyack braves with their families found a temporary abiding place on the flat land under the Hook Mountain (which in 1670 was still part of the public domain), and in that way, transferred their tribal appellation from Long Island to Nyack-on-the-Hudson.”

Map of NYC area Native American tribes
Map of NYC area Native American tribes. Via Wikipedia

But a few Nyack remained in the Fort Hamilton area at least as late as 1669. On September 30, Jasper Danckaerts visited the area near present-day Fort Hamilton army base (said to be 92nd Street and Seventh Avenue in a 1940 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article) and made a detailed record of the trip in his journal, translated by esteemed Brooklynite and Bay Ridge resident Henry C. Murphy, who first developed the land that became Owl’s Head park. Dackaerts and his companions met the local Indians who had sold the land to the Dutch, living on a small piece of it—not the best piece, which Jacques Cortelyou had kept for himself—renting it from him for twenty bushels of maize a year. (The paragraph breaks in the lengthy following quotation are mine.)

We went a part of the way through a wood and fine, new made land, and so along the shore to the west end of the island called Najack [Nyack; at the time, the Fort Hamilton area was marshland, and thus Danckaerts calls it an island]. As we proceeded along the shore, we found, among other curiosities, a highly marbled stone, very hard, in which we saw muscovy glass [Mica] lying in layers between the clefts, and how it was struck or cut out. We broke off a small piece with some difficulty, and picked out a little glass in the splits. Continuing onward from there, we came to the plantation of the Najack Indians, which was planted with maize, or Turkish wheat. We soon heard a noise of pounding, like thrashing, and went to the place whence it proceeded, and found there an old Indian woman busily employed beating Turkish beans out of the pods by means of a stick, which she did with astonishing force and dexterity. Gerrit inquired of her, in the Indian language, which he spoke perfectly well, how old she was, and she answered eighty years; at which we were still more astonished that so old a woman should still have so much strength and courage to work as she did.

We went from thence to her habitation, where we found the whole troop together, consisting of seven or eight families, and twenty or twenty-two persons, I should think. Their house was low and long, about sixty feet long and fourteen or fifteen feet wide. The bottom was earth, the sides and roof were made of reed and the bark of chestnut trees; the posts, or columns, were limbs of trees stuck in the ground, and all fastened together. The top, or ridge of the roof was open about half a foot wide, from one end to the other, in order to let the smoke escape, in place of a chimney. On the sides, or walls, of the house, the roof was so low that you could hardly stand under it. The entrances, or doors, which were at both ends, were so small and low that they had to stoop down and squeeze themselves to get through them. The doors were made of reed or flat bark. In the whole building there was no lime, stone, iron or lead.

They build their fire in the middle of the floor, according to the number of families which live in it, so that from one end to the other each of them boils its own pot, and eats when it likes, not only the families by themselves, but each Indian alone, according as he is hungry, at all hours, morning, noon and night. By each fire are the cooking utensils, consisting of a pot, a bowl, or calabash, and a spoon also made of a calabash. These are all that relate to cooking. They lie upon mats with their feet towards the fire, on each side of it. They do not sit much upon any thing raised up, but, for the most part, sit on the ground or squat on their ankles.

Native American Village in Manhattan
Native American Village in Manhattan

Their other household articles consists of a calabash of water, out of which they drink, a small basket in which to carry and keep their maize and small beans, and a knife. The implements are, for tillage, a small, sharp stone, and nothing more; for hunting, a gun and pouch for powder and lead ; for fishing, a canoe without mast or sail, and without a nail in any part of it, though it is sometimes full forty feet in length, fish hooks and lines, and scoops to paddle with in place of oars. I do not know whether there are not some others of a trifling nature.

All who live in one house are generally of one stock or descent, as father and mother with their offspring. Their bread is maize, pounded in a block by a stone, but not fine. This is mixed with water, and made into a cake, which they bake under the hot ashes. They gave us a small piece when we entered, and although the grains were not ripe, and it was half baked and coarse grains, we nevertheless had to eat it, or, at least, not throw it away before them, which they would have regarded as a great sin, or a great affront. We chewed a little of it with long teeth, and managed to hide it so they did not see it. We had also to drink out of their calabashes the water which was their drink, and which was very good.

We saw here the Indians who came on board the ship when we arrived. They were all very joyful at the visit of our Gerrit, who was an old acquaintance of theirs, and had heretofore long resided about there. We presented them with two jewsharps, which much pleased them, and they immediately commenced to play upon them, which they could do tolerably well. Some of their patroons (chiefs), some of whom spoke good Dutch, and are also their medicine-men and surgeons as well as their teachers, were busy making shoes of deer leather, which they understand how to make soft by continually working it in their hands. They had dogs, fowls and hogs, which they learn by degrees from the Europeans how to manage better.

They had, also, peach trees, which were well laden. Towards the last, we asked them for some peaches, and they answered, “Go and pick them,” which showed their politeness. However, in order not to offend them, we went off and pulled some. Although they are such a poor, miserable people, they are, nevertheless, licentious and proud, and given to knavery and scoffing. Seeing a very old woman among them, we inquired how old she was, when some young fellows, laughing and jeering, answered twenty years, while it was evident to us she was not less than an hundred. We observed here the manner in which they travel with their children, a woman having one which she carried on her back. The little thing clung tight around her neck like a cat, where it was kept secure by means of a piece of daffels, their usual garment. Its head, back and buttocks were entirely flat. How that happened to be so we will relate hereafter, as we now only make mention of what we saw.

I’ve heard a small monument on Fort Hamilton army base marks the site of a similar longhouse.

Canarsee tribe comic panel
Via Pseudo-Intellectualism

Fast forward 150 years. “The Canarsee Indians are at this time totally extinct,” Gabriel Furman wrote in his 1824 Notes Geographical and Historical, Relating to the Town of Brooklyn: “not a single member of that ill fated race is now in existence.” He relates a popular Dutch story that the colonists persuaded the Canarsee to withhold tribute payments to the Mohawks, who thereafter slaughtered the Canarsee whenever they found them; likely, this was a way of the Dutch deferring responsibility for the decimation of the tribe by making it a native problem, not a colonizer problem.

The Canarsee were likely not extinct, just reduced and pushed out to elsewhere. Gravesend Bay in New Utrecht/Brooklyn had been called “Nyack Bay” in the 17th century, but “the name of Nyack disappeared entirely from that section and was brought to this village on the Hudson,” according to Historical Record to the Close of the Nineteenth Century of Rockland County, New York. The Nyack remained in Brooklyn only in traces, with what they had left behind.

“On digging a few feet below the surface, at the Narrows, in Kings County, some years ago, more than a wagon load of Indian stone arrow-heads were discovered lying together, under circumstances calculated to induce the belief that a large manufactory of these articles once existed at this place,” according to 1845 notes, probably by Furman, appended to Daniel Denton’s 1670 A Brief Description of New York; “they were of all sizes, from one to six inches long, some perfect, others partly finished. There were also a number of blocks of the same kind of stone found in the rough state as when brought from the quarry; they had the appearance of ordinary flint, and were nearly as hard; not only arrow-heads, but axes and other articles of domestic use, were made from these stones.”

In the 1930s, during work at Sunset Park, “relics were unearthed at the old water pond by the WPA park crews during the construction of the new pool,” which, according to the Brooklyn Public Library, was a former village site of the Nyack. And a Brooklyn Eagle article from 1911 claims to have found graves on the Bliss Estate, or what’s now Owl’s Head Park. “Upon the property, facing the Shore Road, is a hillock that forms the highest point of the estate,” the paper reported. “This is known as Indian Mound, for here Indian relics and bones have been found.” The paper suggested the site for an Indian Monument, for which Congress had already set aside funds.

Bay Ridge had once before been the proposed site of an Indian monument: Rodman Wanamaker’s, which was meant to rival Lady Liberty in size and serve as a “suitable symbol of America at the entrance to the greatest harbor in the New World,” the Eagle reported in 1910. The first proposed site was Fort Lafayette, on a small island just off Fort Hamilton that was destroyed to build the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano Bridge, honoring in name the Italian explorer who entered the Narrows so many centuries before. Another was in Bay Ridge proper. “It has been suggested that the Indian statue should stand on the Shore Drive, just where it rounds the curve by the Narrows, which would give it a much more commanding situation than down on Fort Lafayette and it could be seen at a much greater distance. It is hoped that the Brooklyn Park Department will make an effort to secure this for the adornment of the Shore Drive and the Bay Ridge region before it is determined to place it elsewhere.”

It didn’t. The project was soon moved to Staten Island, at Fort Wadsworth, right across the Narrows, where it progressed as far as a groundbreaking, participated in by President Taft with an “Indian implement.” He was joined by more than thirty Native American chiefs, including one who’d fought Custer at Little Bighorn.

But the money dried up and interest waned, particularly with the outbreak of World War I. The project is mostly forgotten today—just like the people it was meant to honor.   

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Wanamaker's Proposed Staten Island Indian Monument
The planned Indian Monument on Staten Island. Via Untapped Cities