Staten Island is the least populated part of America’s most crowded city, hence its self-pitying nickname: “the forgotten borough.” But when it comes to its Native American past, perhaps it is really the forgetting borough. There are no indigenous place names currently used on the island, which makes it unique among all counties in the greater New York City area.
This erasure may be evidence of the island’s contested past, as the colonists who bought it were eager to see the natives go. Dutch and English settlers spent 40 years trying to seize it. Unsurprisingly, the messy history of its purchase is overshadowed by legends of the more celebrated island to the north. But here the oddball borough has Manhattan beat, as there is a more compelling story to tell of how Staten Island was bought and sold.
From land papers, we know that Indians most often called the island Aquehonga Manacknong, a name that likely meant “the place of bad woods.” (The name also suggests the borough’s inferiority complex goes back a long time.) In keeping with the place’s characteristic amnesia, we don’t even know what the island’s native residents called themselves, besides the generic term lenape or “people.”
The native communities on the island were politically linked with the Hackensack, Tappan, Raritan, Manhattan, and Rockaway peoples. But no colonist recorded a proper name for just the islanders. One acceptable but broad term for the people of Aquehonga Manacknong is Munsee, which is an umbrella term for the dialects spoken near the lower Hudson. Today, descendants of these first peoples also identify under the even broader ethnic terms Lenape or Delaware.
The Dutch, who began colonizing the region in the 1620s, admired the hilly mass that guarded one of the best natural harbors on the continent. They named it after the Staten-Generaal, the assembly that united the seven Dutch provinces and was the highest sovereign body in their monarchless republic. Although the Dutch made an initial purchase of the island in 1630, they did not get around to making a permanent settlement there until 1639. The early European buildings were abandoned in local wars that broke out in 1641, then again in 1655. Though natives signed a second deed to the island in 1657, it was annulled months later when the Dutch purchasers failed to deliver the goods promised for the land.
The final 1670 deed now rests several miles from the actual island, in a small cache of Staten Island papers at the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West. It is an unusual source that challenges our tendency to see deeds as merely evidence of Indians’ capitulation to European rule. While the document reveals a painful eviction, it also shows colonists reconciling their legal practices with native traditions in peculiar ways.
Before getting to the text, it helps to consider the larger history of Indian land sales, starting with the tale of Dutchmen buying Manhattan for a mere $24 worth of trinkets. There is a grain of truth in this apocryphal story. A 1626 document reported that Pieter Minuit offered the Manhattan people 60 guilders of unspecified goods as compensation for the Dutch West India Co.’s initial occupation of the island in either 1624 or 1625. It’s incorrect to call this thinly documented exchange a “sale,” when it was almost certainly a short-term agreement, at best, just a “lease.” The famous $24 “price” is also wrong: First calculated by a historian in 1846, the figure then made its way into schoolbooks where it lived on, untouched by inflation, for well over a century. Historians Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace reported that the original 60 guilders would equal $669.42 in 1999, or $948.76 in today’s dollars. But these numbers don’t really matter: The Dutch ended up renegotiating the “sale” years later.
The legend of Manhattan’s purchase persists because it makes an irresistible origin story for the capital of capitalism. It tells us that the Big Apple was the home of predatory business deals from its very start. Whether seen gleefully or cynically, this smug little story assures us that Westerners were crafty while the indigenes were naive—hence its long life as a hacky punch line.
Americans generally take Native American history more seriously today, but we haven’t retired all our simple myths about Indians and land. Many make the common assumption that Indians did not believe territory could be sold while colonists obviously did. It is true that natives and Europeans had drastically different uses for land, and mutual misunderstandings about real estate transactions were common. But when repeated uncritically, the idea that indigenes were incapable of imagining territory as property is a crude caricature of natives’ diverse cultural beliefs that erases thousands of years of actual indigenous land use.
In fact, Indians across the continent transformed the natural world to their liking, marked extensive territorial boundaries, and consecrated their lands with their buried dead. And many native leaders agreed with colonists that at least some tracts (especially those without sacred significance) could be bounded, transferred, or leased. As early as 1643, the English colonist Roger Williams pointed out that his Narragansett neighbors were “very exact and punctuall in the bounds of their Lands … I have knowne them make bargaine and sale amongst themselves for a small piece, or quantity of Ground.” He argued that anyone who denied this fact was advancing the “sinfull opinion among many that Christians have right to Heathens Lands.”
Another widely held belief is that most deeds were the products of outright trickery or intimidation. This is an uncontestable fact: Land agents often drew up fraudulent papers, lied about their deeds’ terms, and tried to garner the signatures of intoxicated or unauthorized sellers. But sometimes the real swindle came from lopsided economics and demographics. There was an inherent imbalance when hunting-and-farming, gift-centered societies that were suffering devastating population losses from disease did business with growing colonial societies connected to a global web of trade that gave them a much broader selection of technology and wares. When we calculate prices in European currency, we erase the native perspective on what they were actually being paid. And there was always the looming specter of violence. Although colonists seldom made explicit threats when orchestrating land exchanges, and the text of deeds typically championed peaceful coexistence, there remained the possibility of illegal incursions or bloodshed if the papers were not signed.
The 1670 Staten Island deed and the minutes of negotiations show in detail how these transfers worked. Though the papers document the eviction of native peoples, they also are evidence of a 40-year process of contestation and of more than a week of face-to-face negotiations. In the years before the deed was written, colonists had been hounding the islanders to renegotiate the twice-voided sale. The foreign population was booming while indigenous communities were shrinking. English colonists had evicted Dutch officials in 1664 and were now looking to establish clear title to the best lands near Manhattan. The Munsees found colonists to be bad neighbors because the Europeans’ free-roaming livestock trampled native cornfields. Looking to resolve Indian complaints and satisfy colonial land hunger, New York Gov. Francis Lovelace invited the island’s chiefs, or sachems, to work out a full sale that spring.
Talks commenced on April 7, 1670, a day later than planned, as “Windy Weather” kept the first native parties from crossing the bay. The negotiations began haltingly, as not all of the five leading sachems of Staten Island were present, so another two days went by while the full delegation took shape. These kinds of delays were a common feature of frontier negotiations and often frustrated colonists. To the newcomers, natives’ insistence on prolonged deliberation and gradual consensus in all public affairs could seem tedious while Indian leaders complained that their colonial counterparts lacked patience.
In the initial meeting, the new English leaders produced previous deeds from the Dutch archives to support their side of the negotiations. In doing so, they made an offensive mistake when they “demanded” if the present sachems “have heard of the names in the Dutch Records” and began reading from a list of older Indian signatories.” Perhaps just then a chill went over the proceedings while the islanders exchanged pained looks, for the Indians answered, “some they remember, but they are dead, so [the sachems] doe not love to heare of them.” In reading the names out loud, the colonists had accidentally broken the Munsee taboo against speaking of names of the deceased. Still, the sachems were willing to forgive the transgression and work out a sale, provided that “a Present shall bee made them some-what extraordinary for their Satisfaction.”
Native and colonial officials met several times over the next six days, working out the details of this gift. The initial offer of clothing, tools, and munitions was deemed not extraordinary enough. And the offer did not include wampum, the sacred shell beads that functioned as a cross-cultural currency and were highly valued as decorative jewelry and a symbolic gift by Indians. The Munsee delegation returned with a request for 600 fathoms of the beads, the colonists counter-offered only half that; finally they all settled on 400 fathoms. (Each fathom could contain between 180 and 300 individual wampum beads, meaning the entire exchange contained between 72,000 and 120,000 beads.) While wampum’s value in European coins had been declining for decades, this was still a substantial sum. In a similar back-and-forth, the Indians convinced the colonists to triple the amount of clothing offered and significantly increased the gifts of guns, lead, powder, hoes, and knives.
On April 13, the colonists drew up the deed. The resulting document—three buff-colored parchment pages, covered in fine calligraphic writing, and bearing the colony’s red wax seal—was far longer than most land papers. Its first curious feature appeared on the signature page. Four additional names were offset from the names of colonial officials, while a notation to the side identified these signatories as “4 Youths.”
These were apparently the teenage sons of council members and the previous governor, Richard Nicolls. No minutes indicate why exactly the young men were asked to sign this text, but the practice of bringing in the next generation to witness agreements had some precedent. Just three days earlier, Gov. Lovelace had signed an agreement with an Esopus Indian sachem from farther up the river, who had brought along “his young Son and another young Indyan” to “sett their hands” on an older peace treaty, and the governor “admonished” the Esopus sachems “to Continue the same Custome yearely.” Though the English were insisting upon these annual meetings, the practice fit rather well with Native American diplomatic customs, which favored the regular renewal of previous agreements.
A similar clause appeared on the 1670 Staten Island deed. In an addendum on the final page, several sachems agreed that they “shall once every Yeare upon the First Day of May yearely after their Surrender repaire to this Forte to Acknowledg their Sale of the said Staten Island to ye Governour or his Successors to continue a mutual friendship betweene them.” Even more extraordinary was another short memorandum written two days after the original signing, on the back of the first page:
Memorand. That the young Indyans not being present at the Insealing & delivery of the within written Deed, It was againe delivered & acknowledged before them whose Names are underwritten as witnesses April the 15th 1670
The marke of X Pewowahone about 5 yeares old a boy
The marke X of Rokoques about 6 yeares old a Girle
The marke of X Shinguinnemo about 12 Yeares old, a Girle
The marke of X Mahquadus about 15 yeares old, a young Man
The marke X of Asheharewes about 20 Yeares old, a young man
The X’s mark the actual pen strokes. The signatures of Pewowahone and Rokoques, the kindergarten-aged boy and girl, are so dark they can be seen on the other side of the thick page. It seems the children, perhaps having their hands directed by an adult, moved the pen so slowly that excess ink bled through. All the young signers’ marks are but twisted lines, their meanings unclear. By contrast, the marks of native adults on many other deeds were recognizable pictures of animals, weapons, and people.
It is a strange thing to see the writing of small children—and a half-dozen adolescents—on a momentous legal document. And it is even more mystifying that no one at the time noted who decided to call children as witnesses and why. Yet as unusual as these actions were, there are some likely reasons both parties would want to involve their young. For colonists frustrated at having to buy the same piece of land three times in 40 years, the marks of those four colonial boys and five Munsee youths might prevent any further Indian claims from surfacing later. But even if we assume that including native children signatories was a colonial idea meant to protect their property, the act served native interests as well. No Indians wanted to repeat the upsetting moment of the previous week, when colonists spoke the names of the dead. The 5- and 6-year-olds who marked the treaty might be alive to discuss the agreement for decades into the future.
Moreover, Munsee people had long been dedicated to teaching their little ones about politics and history. More than two decades earlier, in the midst of the horrific Dutch-Indian war known as Kieft’s War, sachems who left a failed peace negotiation made it clear that this moment would live on. While criticizing the New Netherland director Willem Kieft, some Munsees remarked that if Kieft had only given them enough wampum and other condolence gifts, the colonial massacres of their people might have been forgiven and “would never again be spoken of.” But the director was so stingy that “the infant upon the small [cradle] board would remember” the Dutch atrocities. The same principle seemed to be at work among the Staten Island Indians. Neither Pewowahone nor Rokoques would easily forget the childhood memory of signing that parchment.
While the deed demanded that the Munsees cede the island, native people were never completely evicted from the lower Hudson. The islanders would join their relatives on the mainland and Long Island, and their descendants continued live in the vicinity of New York City for another century. Gradually, the colonial advance forced most Munsee people to the west—the majority now belongs to a scattered archipelago of tribal nations stretching from Oklahoma to Ontario.
Still, some have returned to the islands their ancestors once left reluctantly. The Ramapough Lunaape Nation, a state-recognized tribe in New Jersey, has particularly close ties to these shores. According to Chief Dwaine Perry, 300 tribal members live on Staten Island. And these Munsees have no shortage of indigenous neighbors. Though only a small percent of New York City’s population, the 111,000-plus American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the five boroughs constitute the largest such concentration in the whole country. Only one U.S. reservation—the massive Navajo Nation—is home to more Indians than Gotham.
Most of the indigenous folks in New York are not Munsee, but their collective presence contradicts any simple narratives of disappearance and doom. Indeed, the National Museum of the American Indian’s Manhattan branch stands partially within the footprint of the fort that once loomed at the island’s tip. In other words, at the very site where the Staten Island papers and so many others were signed, there is now an institution celebrating indigenous survival.
In offering a glimpse of how the actual process of dispossession played out in New York centuries ago, the deed to Aquehonga Manacknong offers us a haunting picture of a whole community on the verge of becoming refugees. The document was not just about realty; it was about relationships. Its story reveals the many tensions and obligations between natives and newcomers, between parents and children, between the living and the dead. Seemingly unrelated matters like the taboo of speaking of the deceased or the ways Munsee parents taught their children history were crucial to forging the agreement. And in its peculiarities, the deed shows that the people who left Staten Island were not defeated dupes but active negotiators looking for the best outcome in a dire situation. It’s a page out of the forgotten borough’s past well worth remembering.