Lenape Sites in NYC
Before European colonization forever reshaped the land we stand on, NYC and the surrounding area was part of the Lenape nation. The Dutch “bought” the land in 1626—though the idea that any land was fairly bought from Indigenous peoples is extremely contentious. Many scholars, historians, and tribes agree that it was less of a purchase and more of a swindle.
The name “Manhattan” comes from the Lenape word manahatta, roughly meaning “hilly island.” Though the Lenape have been largely displaced from their ancestral lands, there is an active, federally recognized tribal government. “While the majority of our tribal citizens are still concentrated in southern New Jersey, many of our people now live throughout North America. Our tribe is a charter nation of the ‘Lenape Confederacy,’ which includes Lenape people from our larger extended family as far away as Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Texas, and Ontario,” reads a statement on the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe official website.
Only recently has NYC begun to formally acknowledge the original people who lived here—for example, the city hosted a pow wow in 2018, the first of its kind since the 1700’s. Several notable Indigenous sites remain accessible in the city, and it’s important for all NYC residents to be aware of the historic Lenape land we occupy every day.
Often called the oldest street in the city, The Bowery was a trade route for the Lenape long before European colonists showed up. The northern part of The Bowery was dedicated to agriculture, while the southern part led to Lenape meeting and storytelling locations. Known as Wickquasgeck Trail, this is one of several trails that have been incorporated into the NYC grid system. While the original trail has been replaced by concrete, The Bowery still lives on as one of the main nerves of the city.
The city’s oldest park, Bowling Green, was the site of council meetings for the Lenape. The infamous “purchase” of Manhattan by the Dutch allegedly took place here. This was the site that the Bowery led to, and it’s said that Broadway started here as well. It was also the site of a massacre in 1643, in which 110 Lenape were killed by colonists. Though the area is not preserved as an official cultural site, it became a public park in the 1730’s.
Though the rock itself had no significant purpose, it does mark this site as important cultural land for the Lenape. Located in Inwood Hill Park, the stone commemorates the area where many Lenape would live seasonally when fishing opportunities were more abundant. Many artifacts have been found at the sight, including tools, pottery, and weapons.
Another seasonal village, Governor’s Island was originally Paggnak, and had an abundance of oak, hickory, and chestnut trees. In fact, there were so many trees that the name Paggnak roughly translates to “nut island.” The waters surrounding the island were perfect for fishing several times a year, which is why the island became a Lenape destination. They would stay until the fish moved on, and then travel to other parts of what is now Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and the rest of New York. It was a significant Lenape site until 1637, when the Dutch confiscated the island.
Minetta Lane was originally called “Manetta” River, which roughly translates into “snake water.” The river was named for a mythological battle against an evil snake, the result of which left the river behind. Before the colonists came, the river was a popular fishing spot that fed into the swamp where Washington Square Park now sits. The river was destroyed and paved over as the city expanded north. It was one of the largest waterways in the city before its destruction. Minetta Lane loosely follows the river’s original path.
Formerly known as Kintecoying, Astor Place was the site of many Lenape meetings and storytelling spots. It was an important meeting place for three of the Lenape’s largest groups. The Lenape nation consists of several smaller groups, three of the largest being the Canarsie, Sapohannikan, and Manhattan peoples. Many powerful speeches and agreements were made here regarding the future of the Lenape nation. In 1870, after the Lenape had begun to be displaced, a Sioux Nation chief, Red Cloud, spoke here about the rights that had been stripped from the native population, advocating for a more equitable future for all displaced nations.
Named for the Canarsie group of the Lenape, Canarsie is a coastal neighborhood in eastern Brooklyn. The Canarsie made their home in nearly all of Brooklyn and Long Island, utilizing the coast and abundant wildlife to build a thriving life for themselves. The group was largely displaced from this area by 1667. By then, only three known Canarsie families were living in the area with the Dutch settlers, who had recently lost the land to the British in 1664.
Now an artistic neighborhood in Brooklyn, this area was named for Chief Gauwane of the Canarsie Lenape. One of the few places that sustained a thriving native population long after colonists arrived, this land was used for fishing and farming by the Lenape. Later native populations in this area weren’t necessarily of Lenape origins, for example, members of the Mohawk Nation traveled to this area to work on the Hell’s Gate Bridge and other projects, and lived in Gowanus until the 1960’s when gentrification of the area started to ramp up and displace residents. It was one of the largest native populations of NYC in the 1900’s.
Though they experienced loss of homeland and cultural erasure, the Lenape Nation remains an active tribe in the US. As of 2018, their native language, Munsee, was a critically endangered language with only two living fluent speakers.
The site that would eventually become New York City was an important meeting place for all the different groups who formed the nation. Places throughout NYC were important for fishing, trading, storytelling, leadership decisions—AKA, daily life. While many of these places have been completely physically transformed, these sites laid the groundwork for the city that we know today. Acknowledging these sites and the history of the Lenape is an important part of living, working, and visiting New York City.