Compared to our knowledge of western Native American tribes, our knowledge of those who once inhabited the eastern Unites States is minimal. Settlers and traders were more interested in the tribes' furs and land than in recording their ways of life (Salomon 1982). The Hudson River region in particular has a rich history of Native American tribes. From the Mahicans and Lenapes to Henry Hudson, their stories are important in order to fully understand the rich history of the Hudson River. What we do know of these tribes we know from the narratives of explorers, settlers, missionaries, and travelers from the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries. Other facts come from early deeds and other public records, as well as many artifacts found along the Hudson River (Salomon 1982).
There are few landmarks remaining due to the settlement and development of the region. However, one monument, Spook Rock, still stands today and is located in Rockland County, New York. Spook Rock is a split and broken ledge on top of a high, natural mound of rocks. Originally it was, by one account, a large cave filled with stones under what appeared to be a large round fireplace. It was the most sacred place for the Munsee tribe, a holy place and shrine for the spirit force which manifested itself nature (Salomon 1982). The importance of Spook Rock lies in its location near the junction of Native American trails in the east. There was an established trade route between the North and South that led to the Hudson River crossings. These trails and routes were constantly used by traders, hunters, and warriors. The tribes which used them the most were the Lenni-Lenape, Mahican, and Iroquois tribes.
In 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river which would eventually be named after him, there were about ten thousand natives living on either side. The Hudson Valley tribes were part of the Algonquin confederacy, consisting of the Delaware, the Mahican, and the Wappinger tribes. The Mahicans held the land on the east bank, from the north of Albany to the sea, including Long Island and eastern Connecticut. On the west bank, they occupied territory from the Catskills to schenectedy where the Mowhawk territories began. The Wappingers held land east of the Hudson River. South of the catskills were the Minsis, or Munsees, a tribe of the Lenni-Lenapes. The many similarities of these tribes provide much confusion for scholars trying to determine what bands belonged to what tribes (Ruttenber 1971).
The Mahicans, also known as the Mohegans, were comprised of several tribes including the Soquatuck, the Horicans, the Pennacooks, the Nipmunks, the Abenaquis, and the Nawaas. These tribes named the great river on which they travelled the Mahicanituck. Their seat of government was where Albany is today and was called Pempotowwuthut-Muhhecanneuw, which means "fire place of the Muhheakunnik nation." Their government was a democracy and a leader, a sachem, was chosen by the nation and assisted by elected counselors. Other important positions of the nation included a hero who demonstrated bravery, an owl who had a great memory and a strong speaking voice, and a runner who carried messages. The Mahicans had enemies to the west, the Mohawks who were part of the Iroquois nation, and their villages were often invaded (Ruttenber 1971).
The Lenni-Lenape, also known as the Delawares, were based in what is now Philadelphia. They were the largest of the three Algonquin speaking tribes. "Delaware" comes from the name of the river near which many of the tribes lived and Lenni-Lenape means "true men" (Salomon 1982). Their government's foundation relied on the concensus of those in positions of power and the liberty of its people.
This nation was divided into three tribes: the Unami, which means "turtle," the Uchlato, which means "turkey," and the Minsi, which means "wolf." Each individual tribe had its own chief and counselors and no action could be taken during peace time without the unanimous consent of all of the counselors. Chiefs presided over quarrels and offered good advice. If a chief did not follow these guidelines, he was disposed (Ruttenber 1971).
The Wappinger tribe shared a similar way of life with the Delaware. The Wappinger traded both to their northern neighbors, the Mahicans, and to their southern neighbors, the Delawares (Ruttenber 1971).
Henry Hudson described the Algonquins in the following way: "They were clothed in mantles of feathers and robes of fur, the women clothed in hemp, red copper tobacco pipes, and other things of copper they did wear around their necks." They lived along the river in long houses called "wigwams," which were made of bended saplings covered with the bark of the tulip tree. The river deeply impacted their villages and they developed many different ways of using the land by the river. They devised water drainage systems and developed methods of agriculture to prevent sediment deposition and erosion. They consumed a diet of fish and game which they supplemented with the corn, beans, and squash they planted. They also grew staple crops and collected maple syrup (Rutterber 1971).
Spiritually, the Algonquins believed in Manitou, the "great spirit," who was considered the supreme being and lived in everything. The water, the trees, animals, and the moon and the stars were all attributed to, and attributes of, the great spirit. Special ceremonies were held to pay homage to Manitou. One such ceremony was called the "Big House" and was thought to benefit all people, avert natural disaster, and maintain tribal unity. Indeed, these tribes were never divided as a result of secular versus non-secular controversies because, for them, all was spiritual (Salomon 1982).
Culture and life was based on each tribe's individual beliefs, yet there was not much variation in beliefs from one tribe to another except, perhaps, for the warfare in which the Mahicans were often engaged with the Mowhawks over hunting rights. There were also warriors who roamed the area armed with weapons such as spears, tomahawks, clubs, and bows and arrows. Overall, however, the Algonquins lived in cooperation and community, and all three tribes traded goods with one another including sea shells from the Atlantic called "wampum," which were usually used to guarantee promises or agreements. Other objects such as shell beads, copper, and corn were traded all over the Hudson Highlands until the Europeans put an end to this amiable way of life (Salomon 1971).
Henry Hudson's first meeting with the Native Americans was characteristic of the animosity that would overshadow future relations between natives of the river valley and the Europeans. Hudson's men distrusted the natives immediately and fighting ensued. Competition for land became fierce as the Dutch began to settle the Hudson Valley and, by the end of the 1600s, much of the tribes were destroyed by war and by the small pox the Europeans introduced into the region. Sadly, the native Americans were forced west, and by the eighteenth century there were so few natives in the Hudson region that their villages were no longer noted on maps (Ruttenber 1971). Within a mere one hundred years, English and Dutch settlers robbed the Native Americans of their homeland, the Hudson River, their religion, and their esthetic way of life (Salomon 1982).
Ruttenbur, Edward, M. History of the Indian Tribes of the Hudson River. Port Wash., NY. Kennikat Press, 1971.
Salomon, Julian, H. Indians of the Lower Hudson Region. Historical Society of Rockland County. New York City, NY, 1982
The River's Wildlife
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Battery Park City