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Amplifying Underrepresented Voices of the Hudson River Valley: The Myth of the Purchase of Manhattan

Many of us know that the original people in the lower estuary region are the Lenape, who refer to the river as Muhheacanituk, loosely translated as “the river that flows both ways”, which can describe the tidal movement of the (now known) Hudson River.

What many of us might not know is the perspective of the Lenape when Manhattan island was “bought” by Dutch settlers. In many history textbooks, as well as plaques throughout Manhattan, Peter Minuit is highlighted for his famous “purchase of Manhattan island in 1626 for trinkets and beads then worth 60 guilders”. This is a narrative that dismisses the complexity of displacement caused by colonizers. 

CURB’s recent visit from Curtis Zunigha, co-director of the Lenape Center, shared that the Lenape view the land and sky as an interconnected web that cannot be reduced to a geometric plot on a sheet of paper. Hundreds of years ago, land as a disjointed commodity was not understood by the Lenape people.

Curtis, often citing his own essay in Lenapehoking: An Anthology”, shared that native communities did accept gifts from the Dutch for access to the land. They did not, however, view the agreement “permanent” or “restrictive”, assuming per native cultural norms that they would still have access to their land. The Dutch, to further the point that they were staying and “owned” the land, continued to build a fortress and a wall to keep native people out (what is known today as Wall Street).

Further evidence that the purchase of Manhattan was weaponized gift-giving include the written records (or lack thereof). Many historical deeds were signed by tribal leaders, often men, that had no authority to sell land since Lenape society was matriarchal; any decisions relating to land or farming were made by women. The deeds were in Dutch, in which the Lenape could not read nor speak, so would not have been able to reduce or abstract Mother Earth as a commodity. Although there were other “sales” that Lenape tribal leaders were forced to sign, several scholars have shared that no formal deed or bill of sale from Native people to the Dutch has ever been presented for the purchase of Manhattan. The only apparent document, now held at The Hague in the Netherlands, is a letter that states Manhattan was sold, but lacks the date of sale and the Native tribe who “sold” the island.

CURB would like to thank Curtis and the Lenape Center for sharing an abbreviated history of his people, their diaspora across the U.S, and the Lenape contemporary profile.