When Manahahtáanung Became European

Entering the New-York Historical Society from Central Park West, all visitors come upon a section of wampum belt and the kind of statement that in the last several years has become standard fare at cultural institutions.

The museum, New York’s oldest, “acknowledges the enduring relationships that existed and continue today between Indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands,” the statement says, as well as “the commitment made between Indigenous nations and Dutch settlers to promote peaceful relations based on mutual respect.”

However, a new installation, located off the main lobby just behind that text, contains an acknowledgment of a different and more provocative kind.

The exhibition, which opened on Friday and runs through July 14, is part of a bevy of upcoming commemorations of the first Dutch settlements of modern-day New York 400 years ago. It features the letter from a Dutch West India Company administrator, dated Nov. 5, 1626, announcing the notorious “purchase” of Manhattan from Native Americans for 60 guilders — an amount translated in the 19th century to an infamous $24.

Next to the letter, posted to the wall, is a statement signed by three chiefs of contemporary communities of the Lenape, whose ancestors inhabited Manhattan when the Dutch arrived. Their statement refutes the sale. Addressed to an unnamed ancestor, it asks, “Who could have known that a Dutch colonizer’s written words and 60 guilders would bring 400 years of devastation, disease, war, forced removal, oppression, murder, division, suicide, and generational trauma for your Lenape people?”

It adds, “We, your surviving Lenape families, have decided that letter does not define us. That letter does not remove our connection to the land and waters of Manahahtáanung.”

The author Russell Shorto believed there should be Lenape participation as he curated the installation, “New York Before New York: The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam.”

“I felt that in this day and age, we should hear their side of the story,” Shorto said.

Brent Stonefish, a Lenape language coordinator for a community in Ontario, Canada, helped organize the letter, which is signed by the chiefs of the Ramapough Munsee Lenape Nation in New Jersey; the Munsee-Delaware Nation in Ontario; and the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, also in New Jersey. Other Lenape communities reside in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

“At the end of our statement, it says, ‘íiyach ktaphina,’ which means ‘We are still here,’” Stonefish said. “We’re not something of the past. We do continue to exist and thrive in communities across Turtle Island,” an Indigenous name for North America.

“The diaspora and displacement of our people has had a great impact on us,” Stonefish added, “and we want to connect to our homelands, which Manhattan sits on.”

Daniel K. Richter, a professor emeritus of American history at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied Native American history, said that an equivalent installation just a few decades ago most likely would not have included such a statement. Rather, he said, such curatorial decisions are the legacy of civil rights movements, from the 1960s to the 2010s, that have prompted broader reckonings with American history.

“The message isn’t new,” Richter said, “but the importance we give now to the Native voices is something we’ve learned over the last few years.”

For an earlier commemoration of New Amsterdam’s founding, he added, “the real story would have been the glorious beginnings of the wonderful state of New York. That is a narrative that in much of today’s United States no longer resonates the way it once did.”

In addition to the letter of 1626 — from the Dutch National Archive in The Hague — the installation is centered around the exhibition title’s eponymous plan.

The Castello Plan, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy, is a watercolor map of New Amsterdam painted around 1660 in Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboons, based on the surveying of Jacques Cortelyou. (It is no coincidence that the Brooklyn bar The Castello Plan is on Cortelyou Road.)

The Castello Plan depicts the settlement of New Amsterdam as it existed at its peak, just a few years before it was taken over by the English and renamed. It stretches from the southern tip of Manhattan to the northern wall whose path is now traced, of course, by Wall Street. Landmarks include Fort Amsterdam, on whose footprint today sits the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House; a canal that was later filled in to become Broad Street; and a former Lenape trail that turned into the southernmost blocks of Broadway.

The opposite wall of the exhibit features several artifacts, including a slice of the pear tree planted by the New Netherland director-general Peter Stuyvesant at his farm in the modern-day East Village, as well as three mini-profiles of members of communities often written out of the dominant narrative: Dorothea Angola, an enslaved woman later granted freedom; Sewekanamo, a leader of the Esopus tribe who negotiated with Stuyvesant; and Asser Levy, a prominent figure in New Amsterdam’s small Jewish community.

Shorto’s interest in the period was piqued years ago while living in the East Village, near the former site of Stuyvesant’s farm. He would take his toddler, Anna, on his walks to St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, at 2nd Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan, where she would run around the cemetery among the gravestones and markers — one of which belongs to Stuyvesant.

Shorto’s best-selling “The Island at the Center of the World” (2004) traces the early days of European settlement of the island on its way to global influence, which in Shorto’s telling has much to do with its strategic location for trading at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson River.

The Dutch “purchase” of Manhattan — the museum’s official materials use those quotation marks — is as misunderstood by the present-day public as it would have been by the Native Americans at the time, according to Shorto. There was probably a deed attached, although if so it has been lost. But the Lenape — who likely would have gone by another name, such as the Muncie or the Delaware — would have understood the agreement as a defensive alliance and an acknowledgment of the right to habitation. As for the 60 guilders, the Lenape would have seen that not as the price for the land, but gifts to seal the deal.

“The Dutch were pretty savvy in understanding the Native people did not have a European style of property transfer,” Shorto said.

“It’s the first one — the first deal they entered into,” he added, “which says something about the primacy they felt this had.”

The desire to involve the Lenape arose partly out of Shorto’s sense that, for all the rage of land acknowledgments, not enough people appreciate that Native communities are not in the past. Even a recent history, he said, described the last Lenape’s dying in the 19th century.

“That used to be the mentality of how historians approached this,” he said. “But there are thousands of people who have this as their identity.”

For Stonefish, the recognition is long overdue. “We’re at the 400-year mark,” he said. “Let’s see what that relationship is going to look like going forward.”

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