16th Century: Manhattan Before New York


By the time Europeans appeared on the scene, a mere five hundred years ago, what is now New York City had as many as fifteen thousand inhabitants—estimates vary widely—with perhaps another thirty to fifty thousand in the adjacent parts of New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester County, and Long Island. Most spoke Munsee, a dialect of the Delaware language in which their name for themselves was Lenape— “Men” or “People.”

Nothing made it harder for Europeans to see the link between the Lenapes and their environment than the fact that kinship—not class—was the basis of their society. Private ownership of land and the hierarchical relations of domination and exploitation familiar in Europe were unknown in Lenapehoking…..More perplexing still, kinship in Lenape society was traced matrilineally. Families at each location were grouped into clans that traced their descent from a single female ancestor; phratries, or combinations of two or more clans, were identified by animal signs, usually “wolf,” “turtle,” and “turkey.” Children belonged by definition to their mother’s phratry: if she was a turtle, they were turtles. Land was assigned to clans, and the family units that comprised them, for their use only: they did not “own” it as Europeans understood the word and had no authority to dispose of it by sale, gift, or bequest. If the land “belonged” to anyone, it belonged to the inhabitants collectively.

—Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (1998)

Image found here.

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