The History of Native American Tribes in and Around Lewisboro
By Jacqueline Dzaluk
There is no one voice to speak on behalf of the peoples who inhabited this region prior to the arrival of the Europeans. When Henry Hudson sailed up the river once known as the Muhheacantuk (“waters that are never still”) in 1609, it was the beginning of the end of an era reaching back to prehistoric times. Since the retreat of the last of the Laurentian glaciers, approximately 11,000 years ago, this land was the homeland of the Indigenous people whose ancestors once hunted the mastodon. They created a rich culture with intricate social networks and a mixed economy of fishing, farming, and trade. They established villages and camps in the woodlands and across the waterways of the region. While the Indigenous peoples had a continued presence in Westchester until the beginning of the 19th century, their way of life was compromised much earlier. In the end, the majority of Indians in this area were extirpated by diseases and massacres, or pushed north and eventually west in the diaspora. Today, some descendants of the original Native inhabitants of the region live in Oklahoma, Ontario, and Wisconsin.
Most histories documenting life in 17th and 18th-century Westchester are told from the perspective of English and Dutch settlers. This region was one of the earliest settled in America, and among the first to displace the majority of Native peoples. As the numbers of Native inhabitants declined with their tribes decimated and lands appropriated, they often reconsolidated under different names. This led to many different tribal names used at different periods of time. In addition, few artifacts have been retrieved, in part, because white people often found that the Indian settlements and villages were in the most desirable spots and subsequently built over them. And, as the Native Americans had no written language, what has been reported and documented is often filtered through the histories and perspectives of the newly arrived settlers.
Say Their Name. Traces of the Native Peoples
Part of the Native American Land Acknowledgement movement is to identify the tribes that inhabited these lands and considered them their homelands. According to the research done by Evan Pritchard, four tribes lived in the approximate area that is now Lewisboro, They were the Kitchawank, Saugatuck, Siwanoy and Wecquasgeek peoples. Within these tribes, there were sub-tribes such as the Tankitates,Toquam, and Ramapo among others. They got along peacefully, maintained ties through marriage, trade, and regular peace councils. In the 17th century, all the tribes of Westchester were known collectively as the Wappingers Confederacy.
But what about the Algonquin? The term “Algonquin” was invented by the French to identify a specific tribe they encountered in Canada. Since that time, this word has been applied to all the northeastern tribes who shared a common language family. The tribes of the eastern Hudson River valley shared a dialect known as Muncee. The Muncee are closely related to the Mahican, who inhabited the lands from the Hudson highlands north. Today, their descendants live as members of the federally recognized tribe of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin. The Indians further south, from New York City to Pennsylvania and Delaware, are known as the Lenape or Delaware. Their language is Unami and they are considered close kin to the Muncee.
Clear reminders of the Indian presence here in Westchester are the many place names around us. Waccabuc is derived from words that mean “water place.” Kitchawan means “great tributary.” Rippawam has been translated as “rocky cliff.” Muscoot probably derives from “maskatew” meaning river. Chief Katonah (1680-1740) was sachem (or sagamore, another term for a chief) whose territory spanned what is now Bedford and all the way east into Connecticut. His wife was named Cantitoe, but was also known as Mustato.
It was not unusual for Native people to have more than one name or to adopt another name at different points in their lives. Names were considered powerful. People adopted new names when they became leaders, or underwent profound spiritual experiences, or when important political or economic ties were established. And they might take on the name of a defeated enemy in order to acquire their power. According to historian Robert Grumet, the Indians of the lower Hudson River valley would change their names and affiliations as they moved.
Other traces remain as well, but have been forgotten over the passage of time. While the Indians traveled frequently by water, they commonly used trails as well. The one we all use today, Route 22, was an ancient trail, called the Common Path, and it went all the way north to Canada. An even more famous Native American trail in Manhattan ran north to south, snaking through swamps and brush. The “Wickquasheck,” first expanded by the Dutch who called it “High Street,” was later widened by the British who christened it “Broadway.” Today the National Museum of the American Indian is located at its foot, at 1 Bowling Green.
By the time the first settlers arrived, the Native tribes had developed a culture and society rich in tradition. Not only did they hunt and fish, but they also practiced agriculture on a much larger scale, relative to what one might imagine. Early observers noted that there were cornfields as far as the eye could see. According to the detailed journal of Henry Hudson, visitors to Indian settlements noted large buildings of wood with arched roofs. These buildings were filled with beans and corn from the previous years’ harvests—enough to fill three boats, plus all that was still in the field. The development of agriculture suggested that the tribes settled in specific areas and were less migratory than when they were solely hunters and gatherers. The benefits of this development were that excess food could be stored for winter, ensuring a steady supply of nutrition throughout the year.
Axes and controlled burns were used to clear the woodlands; tools made of wood, bone, and shells were used to cultivate the soil. Men cleared the land and women tended to the growing, harvesting, and storage of crops. Corn, squash, and climbing beans were the primary crops of the Indigenous peoples of North America, having made their way north to New York from Central America. From this, we know with certainty that people and ideas traveled far and wide. Today, we know that these plants, the “three sisters” as they are often called, are remarkably synergistic. They were planted in mounds, sometimes fertilized with the bones of a fish. First, the corn was planted; next, the beans, which would climb up the corn stalks, using them as a trellis; lastly, the squash, which would shade and crowd out weeds. Not only did this combination of plants enrich the soil and prevent erosion, the plants themselves were nutritious and ensured a balanced diet year-round as food was dried and stored. Of course, other crops, such as pumpkins and gourds, were planted, as was tobacco, which was used in ceremonies.
Farming meant that housing was built to be more permanent. Indian villages were a collection of many such homes surrounded by a stockade fence. According to accounts, there could be twenty to thirty houses inside. A river was generally located to one side, and a field, where crops grew, on the other. Wigwams were built of tree saplings covered with animal hides and bark shingles with a single hole in the middle for smoke to escape from the fire. They could be any shape. Families were known to share one, with each family getting its own section. These were not just shelters but a place where food and domestic implements, such as baskets, pottery, garments, and blankets, were stored. According to Dorothy Davis, the author of A Brief History of the Mohican Nation, in winter, stories were told and traditions were passed on. Stories included, “How life came to be,” “how the earth was created,” “how people learned to sing,” and “the stories of the drums and rattles.” Song and ceremony were intrinsic to the fabric of daily life and the rhythms of the season. Winter was also time to make and repair the tools of everyday life such as baskets, pottery, trays, and fishing gear, as well as clothing decorated with shells and other items found in nature.
Some of what has been passed down about culture and dress comes from the observations of the earliest Dutch historians, who detailed their findings. In terms of dress and appearance Natives were described as tall, slim waisted and broad chested with snow-white teeth. Their clothing was described as sumptuous with the women’s, in particular. surpassing “any of those that civilized life has produced.” Deerskins and intricately decorated skirts and headbands were laden with strips of wampum. Bracelets, necklaces, and ornate earrings were worn as well. Men’s clothing consisted of a deerskin topped with a great mantle of feathers. Elk hide moccasins were also richly decorated.
Within the Native culture, family ties were matrilineal, which means that descent and inheritance passed through the mother. When a girl was ready to marry, she would wear a veil and the interested young man’s family would bear gifts to negotiate with the bride’s family. Ceremonies were simple. Only a chief or a very powerful man would have more than one wife, with them all living together. Widows and widowers could decide for themselves whether or not to remarry. Chastity and modesty were valued more in the Native society than in the European one, according to accounts, and foul language not tolerated. Women had important roles; they were considered students of the stars, for example. They were said to know every star and constellation and where it was in the night sky throughout the year. They mastered the names of the major constellations, thereby creating a calendar, a map, and a clock. In this way, they were trusted to know when it was time to plant and harvest, how long to mourn a beloved, and when to have specific celebrations.
The 17th Century
Early contact between the Europeans and Natives was initially met with great curiosity on both sides, little formal conflict, and a mutual interest in trade. Soon, however, a number of factors come into play, which resulted in tragedy for the Native peoples of this region. The settlers brought diseases with them to which the Natives had no natural immunity. Smallpox came in successive waves throughout the 1620s, as well as malaria, influenza, measles, and bubonic plague. Histories from the time noted that entire villages were wiped out. Hunting in the forest for wild game was an intrinsic part of Indian culture and survival, but as the Dutch presence expanded with farms and clearings, there was less area for these activities. Dutch cattle and pigs grazed upon Indian cornfields destroying crops. The pressure on fur trading, due to the strong demand, resulted in so much hunting that the area became entirely trapped out within a matter of decades. The introduction of alcohol to the Native peoples caused widespread illness and addiction. Some intermarried. It was not unusual for a Dutch man to take an Indian wife “and retain them, refusing to leave them for woman of their own country.” It is interesting to imagine how many old New York families with Dutch ancestry are linked to the original Native inhabitants of the Hudson Valley region.
During the first half of the 17th century, tensions escalated culminating in what has been called Keift’s War (or the Wappinger War). This is a watershed moment in the story of the Muncee and Lenape peoples of the New York and New Jersey Region. Willem Keift was the governor of New Netherlands, which, at this point, was still a young and small colony of Dutch whose primary focus was trade with the Indians. A series of events, reprisals, and ultimately crushing massacres contributed to the disastrous outcome. Due to the poor financial straits of the colony, Keift had the idea of taxing the Native people. A Dutch colonist reported Kieft’s exchange with the Indians who replied, “Kieft must be a very mean fellow to come to live in this country without being invited by them, and now wish to compel them to give him their corn for nothing.” Kieft’s taxation plan created explosive tensions with Native Americans up and down the Hudson. Add to this the Dutch practice of allowing their livestock to graze freely, which resulted in their eating the crops of the Indians, destroying their harvest. In turn, the offending animals were killed and eaten by Indians. The struggle for survival was real and loss of crops and livestock could have catastrophic effects, resulting in famine. The local tribes were increasingly boxed out of hunting in traditional territories due to fraudulent and misleading land sales and treaties, which they understood to include use of the land and peaceful coexistence rather than outright sales. The turning point came in 1643 when a number of colonists sided with Kieft and shifted their objective to attack the Indians as enemies.
At one point, Keift ordered an attack upon the Indian tribes killing 120. This managed to unite the Algonquins of the area including tribes that were traditional adversaries. A series of attacks and reprisals took place over a five-year period exhausting the Dutch and killing as many as 1600 Indians. The most infamous event of this time has been called the Pound Ridge massacre or the massacre of the Weckquesgeeks (The actual location is in doubt and a point of contention among experts.) According to the “History of the Indian Tribes of Hudson’s River,” Captain John Underhill, who was then engaged in wars against the Indians in New England, took up the task of killing them here in Westchester, under the command of Keift. Underhill learned of a large pow wow celebrating a winter festival and approached the Indian village at midnight, under a full moon as bright as day. The Indians were awake and on guard. A battle ensued. Ultimately, their homes were set on fire, and rather than dying at the hands of the enemy, many preferred to perish by fire. The Dutch perpetrators, ignoring their own brutality, praised the Natives for their stoicism, a stereotype that persists to this day: “What was most wonderful is that, amongst this vast collection of men, women and children, not one was heard to cry or scream.” Between 500 and 700 individuals were massacred that night. By April, the Indians solicited peace, which was formalized in a treaty. Keift was recalled to Amsterdam for thrusting the colony into a perilous war. He died in a shipwreck and was replaced by the better known Peter Stuyvesant.
By the end of the 17th century, it is believed that fewer than 500 Indians remained in this region. Chief Katonah and other Westchester Indians sold the bulk of their lands to English allies. They often moved north and west. Historian Robert Grumet notes that in the summer months many traveled back to their homelands renewing family ties, visiting family graves, selling homemade brooms, baskets, and fur. Some chose to die here, close to their ancestors. As the 18th century wore on, visits were fewer, and, as elders passed away, their children and grandchildren were victims of increasing suspicion and aggression on the part of English settlers.
The last days in Westchester
The Nimhan family was one of the most prominent in Westchester in the latter half of the 19th century. Daniel Nimhan (1726-1778) was the last sachem of the Munsee (Wappinger, Pompton, River Indians, or Stockbridge Indians are other names that have been used for this band). He served as a diplomat representing his people in a quest to maintain their homelands in Westchester. A land claim against the Philipses, a wealthy English family, questioning their rights to Wappinger lands was made in courts of New York. The deed was in fact fraudulent. But, not surprisingly, the court ruled in favor of the Philipses. The Wappingers, dispossessed of their land, made their way to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where many of the Indians from this area had resettled. Undeterred, Nimham and three other chiefs from Stockbridge along with their wives travelled to England to make their case to the Lords of the Trade. This body concluded that there was indeed fraud and abuse; however, back in New York, the governor and council decided that the legal title “was only a secondary concern. Returning the land to the Indians would set an adverse precedent regarding other similar disputes.”
As a result, the Nimhams became strong supporters of George Washington against the British. Daniel Nimhan’s son, Abraham, was appointed head of the Stockbridge militia by Washington. The militia was made up of a coalition of Mohicans, Muncie, and other local tribes. They served at Valley Forge and later under Lafayette. Early on, Daniel acted as an emissary on behalf of the continental army, traveling to Canada and the Ohio valley to elicit support for the revolutionaries. Ultimately, in 1778, he joined the Stockbridge Indian Company stationed in White Plains. They patrolled the area south to the Bronx and collected intelligence. Some three English commanders set a trap using the combined strength of 500 English and Hessian soldiers. The 60 members of the Indian company fell into the trap, which was located in what today is known as Van Cortlandt Park. They were annihilated. While Washington celebrated the contributions and valiant fighting spirit of all the Indians who supported the revolution, they did not share in the rewards. White soldiers were awarded bounty lands for their service and the Indians were not.
Reconstructing the movements of the Native peoples away from their homelands during the 17th and 18th century is a difficult task due to incomplete records and the many trails and stops along the way to their final places of settlement. Some tribes were extinguished completely, others merged and intermarried. Some wanted to move west to river valleys where they could reconstruct their way of life, far from the white settlers. But as settlers moved into these Indian spaces, they were continually pushed out. Ultimately, many of the descendants of the survivors live in Ontario, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. The Stockbridge Muncee band has its own reservation in Wisconsin. While there are no tribal organizations in the area, in recent years, there has been an intertribal pow wow in Carmel, open to all, replete with songs, stories, dancing, and more, in honor of Daniel Nimham. Locally and nationally, there is an Indigenous Land Acknowledgment movement underway, which is asking us all to reckon with the legacies of colonial violence against and displacement of Indigenous peoples, while supporting Native sovereignty and leadership in preventing the environmental degradation in our midst.
Please direct any comments and feedback to Jackie Dzaluk at email@example.com.
Many Trails: Indians of the Lower Hudson Valley . Catalog of Museum Exhibition in Katonah, NY 1993. There are five articles by different scholars in this catalog.
“Old Indian Trail Called Route 22” New York Times. 8/21/1983
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Baker, Jordan. Keifts War Against Native People: A Primer, Www.Thenewyorkalmanack.com
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Bruegl, Heather .Webinar. https://youtu.be/VuAL3yP31dI . She is the director of Education at the Forge Project . Formerly director of Cultural Affairs at the Stockbridge Muncie Community.
Davis, Dorothy. Brief History of the Mohican Nation Stockbridge-Munsee Band. 2004. Published by the Stockbridge-Munsee Historical Committee, Bowler . WI
Grumet, Robert Steven. “Children of the Muhheahkkinnuck: A low River Indian History”postdoctoral fellow at the History of the American Indian Chicago, Ill. 1983. From the catalog named above.
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“Origin and Early History,” Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Band of Mohican Indians website, accessed 9/4/2021, https://www.mohican.com/?url=origin-early-history
Pritchard, Evan. The Four Tribes of Lewisboro and their Relationship to the Land. Evan Pritchard. Center for Algonquin Culture. 2021. Article prepared by author for the Lewisboro Land Trust.
Ruttenber, Edward. History of the Indian tribes of Hudson’s River. 1827 ALBANY NY. Available online, free. Detailed account of many facets of Indian life
Website of the Stockbridge-Muncee Band of Mahican Indians. https://www.mohican.com
Malloy, Maureen. “A critical bibliography on North American Indians:k-12”. Anthropology Outreach Smithsonian Institute. https://www.academia.edu/30136738/A_Critical_Bibliography_on_North_American_Indians_for_K_12?email_work_card=view-paper
Mittten, Lisa. “ I’is for Inclusion: the portrayal of Native Americans in books for young people”. Program of the subcommittee to the American Indian Library association. https://www.academia.edu/764896/Iis_for_Inclusion_the_portrayal_of_native_Americans_in_books_for_young_people?pls=RWLSOqZkRGl