NYC's First Apartment Dwellers: The Lenape Indians

By: Tony the Tour Guy

About the only thing that most of us have heard about the Native Americans who inhabited the New York City area was that they sold Manhattan to the Dutch for $24. Let's talk a bit about the fascinating people who lived in the area prior to European settlement.

Lenape means "men" or "people" in Munsee, the dialect spoken by the first New Yorkers, who called the area Lenapehoking, or "Place where the Lenape live." They were Algonquins, not Iroquois, as some of us were taught in grammar school. The Iroquois were further upstate, and they and the Lenape frequently fought. Estimates are that, at the time of the Dutch settlers' arrival, approximately 15,000 Indians lived in the area which we know call New York City, with another 30 to 50,000 residing in the larger area from Eastern Connecticut to Central New Jersey. They lived in small, loosely-formed groups based upon kinship, and did not form tribes in the way usually portrayed by Hollywood. Each group, headed by a sachem, typically occupied a series of campsites, to which they moved depending upon the seasons. During fishing season, for example, a group would be at its waterside site, where they would stay until autumn, when they would move further inland to harvest their crops.

The Lenape diet was rich and varied. They hunted deer, wild turkey and other game, and also harvested the abundant seafood in the harbor. When the Europeans arrived, they would write home about foot-long oysters and other marvelous shellfish which the Indians enjoyed. As they developed skill in agriculture, they began to grow corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and perhaps also tobacco. Their mobile lifestyle precluded making elaborate dwellings, or fashioning heavy tools. For shelter they relied upon longhouses, which were constructed by bending the trunks taken from small trees to create a series of arches, which served as the frame. Covered with bark, a longhouse would sometimes hold twelve families, making these structures the first New York apartment houses.

Although Lenape women enjoyed a fair amount of privileges, sex roles in their society were fairly rigid. The men did hunting and fishing, while the women tilled the fields and also did much of the construction. Families belonged to clans, each of which traced itself to a common female ancestor. When two or more clans came together they formed a phantry, which typically took for itself an animal name, such as Wolf. In terms of lineage, a child was considered a member of its mother's phantry.

The various campsites and planting fields which the Lenape used were linked by an extensive network of trails, many of which went on to become colonial roads and subsequently, modern streets. Kings Highway, Flatbush Avenue, Jamaica Avenue and Amboy Road all follow Lenape trails. When I research my walking tours I always look for streets which do not follow the modern grid pattern. Frequently I find that these thoroughfares followed old trails.

Unfortunately, there are no contemporary Lenape communities within New York City. However, many place names in and around town come from the names of the Lenape groups which settled there: Canarsie, Gowanas, Rockaway, Masapequa, Hackansack, Merrick, Raritan, etc.

Source: Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, GOTHAM, NY, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 5-13.