Indigenous People

Early 17th century Dutch maps of the Hudson River Valley show an Indian village, whose inhabitants were part of the Mohegan Tribe, named “Sint Sinck.” That phrase translates to “stone upon stone” and refers to the extensive beds of limestone found in the southern part of the village.

In 1685, the Sint Sincks sold their land to Frederick Philipse who incorporated it into his land holdings known as the Manor of Philipsburg. The Manor comprised of about 165,000 acres and extended from Spuyten Duyvil Creek at the tip of Manhattan on the south to the Croton River just north of the Village of Ossining. The land was leased to tenant farmers of Dutch, French, and English origin.

From Westchester Magazine, “Hudson Valley’s Tribal History” David Levine, June 2016:

“In present-day Westchester County, the native presence goes back at least 7,000 years, according to archeologists who uncovered on Croton Point the oldest oyster-shell middens found on the North Atlantic Coast. Croton, in fact, is named for the Indian sachem Kenoten (“wild wind”). The Wickquasgeck, another clan, occupied the western reaches of the county, centered around Dobbs Ferry. In the 1600s, the Kitchawanks, members of the Wappinger family, built and lived in a large, fortified village on the high flat at the neck of Croton Point, one of the most ancient and imposing fortresses south of the Hudson Highlands. They called their fortress Navish.  (A marsh, which the natives called Senasqua, separates the Point from Croton Neck; you can find a plaque there at the spot where the Dutch signed a peace treaty with the Kitchawanks.)

“The Native Americans who lived in the Hudson Valley just before and at the time of European contact were agriculturalists,” says Joseph Diamond, a professor of archaeology at SUNY New Paltz. “They grew corn, beans, and various species of squash, and gathered plant foods such as hickory, nuts, butternuts, walnuts, acorns, and chestnuts, and various berries to supplement their diet.”

Corn, beans, and squash, in fact, were so central to native diets, the crops were known by the Iroquois as “the Three Sisters.” That interdependence required rather advanced horticultural skills. “There is a conception that the Algonquians were not sophisticated farmers like the Iroquois. I think that is not the case,” says Dr. John P. Hart, director of the Research & Collections Division at the New York State Museum in Albany. “To grow successfully, you have to understand how crops respond to soils, water, and rainfall, any type of unusual weather. When growing the three crops together, you have to understand how they interact with one another. If you have, say, 100 acres, that’s a lot of plants, so you have to understand what you are doing to have a successful harvest. And they had no plows, no metal tools—it was all hand labor, and they were very successful at it.”

They were also meat-eaters, hunting bear, elk, white-tailed deer, rabbits, squirrels, turkey, river otter, raccoons, and woodchucks, as well as various waterfowl. “Archaeological sites in the Hudson Valley have also produced evidence of fishing for most freshwater species, and, during the spring, they caught sturgeon, striped bass, shad, and herring, and probably dried, smoked, or roasted them,” Diamond says. Oyster beds found near the riverbanks provided abundant nourishment as well. In the spring, they tapped maple trees for syrup and sugar. After a hunt or harvest, the meat, vegetables, and berries were dried, the fish was smoked, and the bounty was stored in pits dug deep into the ground and lined with grass or bark. “They were producing enough food for large surpluses in case of crop failure for any reason,” Hart says.

They lived in several different kinds of houses, which they called wigwams, made of bent saplings covered with animal hides or tree bark, with a hole in the roof to vent smoke from fire pits. The homes could be circular, square, or oval, and some were rectangular longhouses. Several families from the same clan might live in a longhouse, each family getting their own section. “One of the longest in the Hudson Valley is 110 feet by 29 feet,” Diamond says of a longhouse inhabited by the Esopus Indians that was found by archaeologists in Marbletown (Ulster County). It contained European trade items from the Dutch, and many Native American items such as broken pots, smoking pipes, stone projectile points, knives, scrapers, and woodworking tools.

While the men traveled to hunt, fish, or fight, the women were generally in charge of the home, raising the children, and tending the gardens. But they were hardly subservient. “Contrary to American ‘squaw’ stereotypes of Native American women, the Lenape female had recognized authority roles within the family and the village community, comparing favorably in position to women in European society of the day,” Laurence M. Hauptman, professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz, writes in “The Native Americans: A History of the First Residents of New Paltz and Environs.”

Winter was domestic time. The natives carved containers and utensils; made or repaired their hunting, trapping, and fishing gear; fashioned new baskets and pottery; and made clothing, which they decorated with porcupine quills, shells, and other items from nature.

“Winter was also the time of teaching,” according to Dorothy Davids, author of A Brief History of the Mohican Nation, Stockbridge-Munsee Band. The storytellers passed on the stories of “how life came to be, how the earth was created, how the people learned to sing, the story of the drums and rattles, and what the stars could teach them.” They also learned how to live with their extended families in peace, respectfulness, and shared responsibility.

Ceremony was central to their existence. They had a ceremony whenever something needed “paying attention to,” Davids writes, such as the planting of the corn, beans, and squash, and the harvest. “They practiced several kinds of burial,” Diamond says, “including secondary burial, which is a common form of mortuary treatment around the world that involves a second ceremony several months to a year later.”

In all, the native peoples of the Hudson Valley at the time of European contact were more than just eking out a living, more than just surviving. “They were living complex lives, like we do,” Hart says. As Dorothy Davids writes, “It was a rich life.”

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