A Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College Project

Category: Precolonial

Land Ownership Part 2

Before the neighborhood we know as Flatbush was named, the Dutch had to find reasons and methods for acquiring ownership of the land. Land ownership was not a concept that the Indian peoples recognized. However, arriving Europeans often approached and purchased land from tribal chiefs, who were not authorized to sell land on behalf of the other Indians. As a result, land purchases would create conflicts between Europeans and the natives while colonial courts usually ruled in the colonists’ favor.[i] Eventually, many natives were either pushed out or forced to accept unfair trades for the land they lived and farmed on. The first documented land purchases by the Dutch were made in the 1660s, including at New Lots in 1667, and other land purchases continued until the late 1700s.[ii]

As the Dutch took control, their farms spread out through Flatbush and Flatlands, taking advantage of the fertile land the Indians had once worked. At what is now the intersection of Clarendon Road and Ralph Avenue in the East Flatbush area, an interesting settlement took shape along an old Indian trail called Mill Lane.[iii] The Wyckoff farm (or Wyckoff House), currently a museum dedicated to the oldest house in New York State, was built in 1652.[iv]

[i] David Walbert. “Who Owns the Land?” Learn North Carolina. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-colonial/2027 (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[ii] Thomas M. Strong, The History of the Town of Flatbush in Kings County, Long-Island (New York: T.R. Mercein, Jr., 1842), 27.

[iii] Van Wyck, . Keskachauge, or The First White Settlement on Long Island, 4.

[iv] “History.” The Wyckoff House. http://wyckoffmuseum.org/about/history (Accessed April 20, 2015).

Population Decline and War

Cliff Matias on the Tragedy of Native Americans

I don’t think often New Yorkers recognize or are cognizant of the fact that the indigenous people that once called this city home no longer exist. They’re a people. So I think when we look at like Indians, or when we say the term Indians, people – it’s easy to throw everyone into one sum. -Cliff Matias

The Lenape population had severely declined by the 1630s because of diseases of European origin such as smallpox, typhus, measles, and diphtheria. Mohawks and Mohicans were also hostile toward the Lenapes, being that they were a rival for the fur trade, and led raids against them in 1628.[i] In addition, Europeans depleted resources such as crops and lumber, and more violence erupted since the natives were introduced to alcohol and advanced weapons such as guns. It is important to note that although trade brought goods that made life easier for the Lenapes, other goods also caused their demise.

Kieft’s War against the Indians almost cost the collapse of the colony. It turned out to be devastating for the Native Americans living in Brooklyn, including the Flatbush-Flatlands area. Many colonists were dissatisfied with William Kieft, the governor of New Netherland from 1637 to 1647, and his narcissistic governing policies. He drove the fledgling colony into war when he demanded payment from the Lenape Indians on the grounds that the West India Company provided them “protection” from other tribes (though this was hardly true). When the Lenapes refused, Kieft used military intervention, leading to a bloody war in 1643 with eleven major Lenape groups. Hundreds of Lenapes were killed and many others taken as prisoners before the war ended in 1645.[ii]

Conflicts with other powerful tribes also posed a major hazard to the Native Americans who lived in the Flatbush area. The Canarsie and Rockaway tribes also fought each other. The Canarsie tribe was attacked by Indians from both sides of the North River (the southernmost part of the Hudson River), and the leadership of the tribe succumbed to the sachem of the Rockaway tribe.

[i] Ruth Gudinas, “Origin & Early Mohican History.” Mohican Nation. http://www.mohican-nsn.gov/Departments/Library-Museum/Mohican_History/origin-and-early.htm (Accessed April 20, 2015).

[ii] Walter Giersbach, “Governor Kieft’s Personal War.” Military History Online. http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/indianwars/articles/kieftswar.aspx (Accessed April 22, 2015).

Europeans Purchase Land Part I

1909 Drawing of the Manhattan Purchase

1909 Drawing of the Manhattan Purchase

In 1626, a band of Canarsie Indians had traveled to Manhattan and stumbled upon Peter Minuit, who made a deal with the Indians and purchased, infamously, the entire island for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars – a large part of which was distributed as wampum. Ironically, the land did not belong to the Canarsies. The earliest surviving written record of the Manhattan purchase is from 1626 by Peter Schaghen, who noted that the men aboard the Arms of Amsterdam ship traded 60 guilders for the island as well as receiving offerings of fur pelts from the Native Americans.[i]

[i] Peter Schagen Letter, November 7, 1626, http://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/history-and-heritage/more-historical-fun/dutch-treats/peter-schagen-letter/..


First Encounters with Europeans and Trade

In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano first encountered the Lenape off the coast of Sandy Hook. Soon after, more Europeans began to enter the natives’ lands. It was exploited for its abundance of fish, lumber, and furs, leaving the Lenape to struggle for their own natural resources. [i]

By 1600, many Native Americans, including the Lenapes, traded beaver pelts and other animal skins with Europeans. In return, the European traders offered goods like blankets, kitchen utensils, guns, and alcohol that

Fur Trade

Fur Trade

eventually displaced the Indians’ way of life.[ii] However, by the mid-1620s, the supply of Lenape pelts had significantly decreased from over-trapping and Europeans turned to the rival Mohicans for more fur trade.

Meanwhile, the population of Dutch colonists grew slowly, since “all lands but those at Canarsie…had been assigned to individual owners.”[iii]

[i] “The Europeans Arrive,” Lenape Lifeways. www.lenapelifeways.org/lenape4.htm#European (Accessed April 26, 2015).

[ii] Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace,Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). 21.

[iii] Black, “Jamaica Bay: A History.”

About the Lenape – kinship, gender roles, lifestyle

Interview with Cliff Matias about the Lenape/Delaware Indians


lenape mapThey were part of the Lenape nation, often referred to as the Delaware Indians, who lived in “Lenapehoking” (Land of the Lenape). Those who lived above the Raritan River and the Delaware Water Gap would speak a different dialect than those to the south.[i] Despite the difference in language, their cultures remained similar.

Mother and Daughter, Lenape Indians 1915

Mother and Daughter, Lenape Indians 1915

Kinship played an important role in the Lenape lifestyle. They would often live in groups of 25 to 50 people that could grow to become villages of two hundred to three hundred. All the land belonged to the community and property was shared. Every ten to twelve years, villages would move to a new location due to expended resources.

The Lenape had different clans, which determined who a mother’s children could marry. Sons of one of the three clans, wolf, turtle, and turkey, could not marry women of the same clan. To govern the clans and villages, chiefs or sachems were chosen to lead the community in rituals. Chiefs were also often trustworthy, had strong communication skills, and could easily make sensible decisions. War leaders on the other hand had to gain their power through bravery in battles. Once a leader, they had the power to lead raids as they pleased.



Tasks in the community were often split by gender. Women often worked to plant, harvest, and gather crops. Corn, beans, and squash or “The Three Sisters” were the most important. Women would be trained to make pots out of clay, weave, and make hides for clothing and shelter. Men were delegated to do more of the physical labor. They would clear land, build houses (wigwams) and dugout canoes, and hunt.[ii]

Most members of a family had basic medicinal knowledge to cure more common ailments. “Nentpikes” were herbalists who would cure diseases and heal wounds using natural remedies. “Meteinu” were herbalists that could also use witchcraft to cure sickness and keep evil spirits away. The Lenape also had a “pimewakan” or a sweat lodge in which one could enter for “ritual, cleaning, and curing all manner of sickness.[iii]

[i] “Who were the Lenape?” Lenape Lifeways

[ii] “Sharing the Work,” Lenape Lifeways, http://www.lenapelifeways.org/lenape1.htm#sharing (Accessed April 27, 2015).

[iii] “Beliefs and Rituals,” Lenape Lifeways, www.lenapelifeways.org/lenape3.htm (Accessed April 27, 2015).


Introduction – Flatbush/Flatlands and Keskachauge

The general area of what we know today as Flatbush and Flatlands was comprised of three flats, or open areas of land, that Native Americans called Keskachauge and the Dutch colonists came to know as Nieuw Amersfoort. The Dutch established Flatlands, the first white settlement on Long Island, and Flatbush or Midwout. Before that, these lands were home to the principal Indian tribe in Brooklyn: the Keskachauge[i]. The name of their tribe is believed to come from a large, formal, and public Native American meeting called Keesaqunnamun, which celebrated the harvest and often included food, religious observation, and sports.[ii] The Keskachauge are also known as the Canarsie Indians, and were part of a larger confederation called the Lenape. ­They inhabited the land that is now eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, northern Delaware, and southeastern New York (in Brooklyn).[iii] Native Americans usually referred to themselves by their small tribe names, like the Canarsie and Rockaways. The Canarsie Indians lived in all of modern-day Brooklyn and part of Jamaica in Queens. The Rockaway Indians inhabited the eastern shore of Jamaica Bay.[iv]

They were part of the Lenape nation, often referred to as the Delaware Indians, who lived in “Lenapehoking” (Land of the Lenape). Those who lived above the Raritan River and the Delaware Water Gap would speak a different dialect than those to the south.[v] Despite the difference in language, their cultures remained similar.

[i] Frederick Van Wyck, Keskachauge, or The First White Settlement on Long Island (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924). ix.

[ii] Van Wyck, Keskachauge, or The First White Settlement on Long Island, 7.

[iii] “Who were the Lenape?” Lenape Lifeways. www.lenapelifeways.com/Lenape1.htm (Accessed April 26, 2015).

[iv] Frederick R. Black, “Jamaica Bay: A History,” Gateway National Recreation Area. http://www.npshistory.com/publications/gate/jamaica-bay-hrs.pdf (Accessed April 20, 2015).

[v] “Who were the Lenape?” Lenape Lifeways

Introduction to Native Americans of Brooklyn

Interview with Cliff Matias about Native American Music

Nieuw Amersfoort prior to the 17th century was a large constituent of what many now call Brooklyn. Named by the Dutch, It covered the areas now known as Flatbush and Flatlands. It was inhabited first by the Canarsie or Keskachauge Indians, part of a larger Native American confederacy called the Lenape. As the Europeans made their way to the Western Hemisphere, they traded and exchanged goods with the natives and in the process brought their cultures, traditions, and a few diseases. This led to many conflicts and eventually the decline of the native population.

Jasmine Lee
Farzana Ruzehaji
Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College
Class of 2018

Reminders of the Lenape Today

The tragedy of the Lenape, like many other Native Americans, is that they’re so often misrepresented in American media and professional sports. Their traditional regalia, practices, and culture are insensitively manipulated in television shows and sports team names. As a result, many misinformed Americans develop faulty understandings of the natives’ way of life.[i]

A few reminders of the Lenape legacy in Brooklyn remain. There is a Lenape Playground along Avenue U in Marine Park, not far from the creek where the Lenape Indians fished.

Name of playground on Avenue U near East 38th Street is a reminder that Native Americans once fished the nearby creek.

Name of playground on Avenue U near East 38th Street is a reminder that Native Americans once fished the nearby creek.

The Gowanus Canal derives its name from a sachem of the Canarsie tribe, Gouwane, who lived and fished along the creek.[ii] In addition, Manhattan is a word from the Delaware language. Flatbush Avenue was part of major Native American trail, whose name is derived from the open geography of the area when the Native Americans lived there. Other neighborhood names derived from Lenape tribes are Massapequa near Oyster Bay in southeastern Nassau County, New York; Hackensack, New Jersey and Rockaway.[iii]

[i] Interview by author with Cliff Matias, February 2, 2015.

[ii] The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, “Gowanus Canal History,” http://www.gowanuscanal.org/history.html (Accessed April 22, 2015).

[iii] Anne-Marie Cantwelland Diana diZerega Wal, Unearthing Gotham (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

Europeans Neglect of Natives

Thomas Morris Strong, a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in Flatbush, wrote an early history of Flatbush that contained very little information about Native Americans. He did mention that “of late, some few farms have been purchased, and Flatbush property is now in the market.” He did not mention, however, that many of these lands were forcefully purchased from Native Americans. He also says that the book documents the “genealogy of most of the older families of Flatbush,” which should but does not include Native Americans.[i] The only times they are mentioned are as “Indian proprietors,” when land and farm purchases are made and in border disputes such as that of Flatbush and Brooklyn in 1678.[ii] This shows that Native Americans had little or no social involvement with European immigrants, and that it was limited to dealings with the land.

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Strong, The History of the Town of Flatbush in Kings County, Long-Island, 11.

Native Americans Move Out

By 1758, 200 of the 300 remaining Lenape Indians were placed in a reservation known as Brotherton covering about 3,000 acres, under the instruction of Reverend David Brainerd, a Moravian missionary from Scotland.[i] The first federal census in 1790 did not include any Native Americans, although it should be noted that “the Federal censuses never provided any classification for Indians,” according to James Revey, director of the New Jersey Indian Office.

By 1802, most of the Lenapes moved away or joined a tribe in New Stockbridge, Oneida County, N.Y.

By 1750, the Lenape had lost almost 90 percent of their people due to smallpox and other epidemics such as measles, mumps and scarlet fever, and constant wars. The remaining villages later left Lenapehoking and moved west. A majority settled in present day Oklahoma and Canada where communities can be found today.[ii]

[i] Burrows and Wallace, , Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Page number??

[ii] “The Lenape Today.” Lenape Lifeways. www.lenapelifeways.org/lenape4.htm#Today (Accessed April 27, 2015).