How New York Was Named
When it comes to memorialization, nothing beats a martyr—even when your culture has done the martyring. So it has seemed, anyway, in a nation where no fewer than twenty-six states—along with countless towns, sports teams, summer camps, and recreational vehicles—bear names meant to evoke those humans who came before. Between 1492 and the American Revolution, this continent’s indigenous populace declined from an estimated ten million to a tenth of that. One of the genocide’s lesser-known effects was linguistic. Perhaps a quarter of the earth’s languages in the fifteenth century, linguists say, were American. Lost to us now are millions of words, in thousands of tongues, that Natives used to describe the grasslands and gullies and peaks of the lands that they inhabited. And yet many settlers were keen on borrowing these words, even as they killed the people who coined them. Hundreds of proper names and place-words, or misconstruals thereof, were placed on old maps and remain on ours.
In New York, the first such word to be adopted by Europeans became the most famous one. In the fall of 1609, some weeks after Henry Hudson angled his ship through an inviting narrows, entered an expansive bay, and began exploring a broad river that would later be named for him, one of Hudson’s seamen wrote, in his log, that the river’s wooded east bank was known to the area’s natives as “Manna-hata.” These people, who spoke an Algonquian tongue called Munsee, had beat Hudson there by around a thousand years. Their forebears had left the Eurasian landmass some millennia earlier, striding over the Bering land bridge and gradually traversing the continent to reach its fecund eastern edge. They’d made their home in the deer-filled woods surrounding a sublime natural bay, whose depths teemed with fish and whose shallows breathed, at the start of the colonial era, with a billion oysters. In ensuing years, these people—along with their southerly cousins, who spoke a related but distinct Algonquian tongue, called Unami—came to be known as Delawares.
That colonial label came from the same English noble—Thomas West of Wherwell, the third Baron De La Warr—whose name the English also stuck on a big river and a small colony, by its mouth, that later became a state. Nowadays, descendants of those “Delawares” refer to themselves by their ancestors’ shared word for human being, Lenape. The fact that we don’t know why, exactly, the Lenape whom Hudson encountered called the river’s eastern shore Manna-hata is related to another fact: their home harbor’s virtues as an anchorage, which Hudson claimed for the Dutch East India Company, were as plain as the riches to be had from turning its beavers and foxes into “skins and peltries . . . and other commodities,” as Hudson wrote, to his sponsors in Amsterdam. Within three centuries of Hudson’s arrival, most of the Lenape were either dead or dispersed toward reservations in Ontario and Oklahoma, where their descendants remain.
In the Lenape’s absence, it was left to non-Native philologists to offer theories about the etymology of “Manhattan.” For much of the nineteenth century, the most accepted version seemed to be one offered by a scholar named John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder, at the 1822 meeting of the American Philosophical Society. Heckewelder, who was faulted by subsequent linguists for associating rather too many Lenape words with drinking alcohol, proposed that Manna-hata was actually a misrendering of Manahachtanienk—“island where we all became intoxicated.” A more sober translation, still popular, was presented by Heckewelder’s scholarly heir, William Wallace Tooker, in 1901: “island of hills.” In recent decades, fresh research by linguists, activists, and the Lenape themselves has yielded further theories. The most widely credited one comes from Albert Anthony, a fluent Munsee speaker and scholar in Canada, who suggested that Man-a-ha-tonh meant “place where we gather timber for bows and arrows.”
Whether or not these were the syllables that Hudson’s sailor heard (and other modern scholars argue that he may have heard Menating, or “island”), we’ll never know. But the land described did indeed have stands of hard hickory and ash, which were good for crafting weapons. And, in 1626, as the famous story would have it, some Dutch traders, led by Peter Minuit, convinced the Lenape to part with what would become the world’s most valuable island for pocket change. That tale required a Native-sounding place-name to work. “Manhattan” would do, and has.
Minuit’s deal may have struck him as a good bargain. But it wasn’t as advantageous as you’d be led to believe by tour guides, who often cite Minuit’s sum—twenty-four dollars—without noting that this number comes from a nineteenth-century historian’s rough calculation of what sixty Dutch guilders was worth in 1846. And the Lenape who accepted Minuit’s proposal didn’t think that they were getting a raw deal—and not merely because they may have been a band of Canarsees who didn’t live in Manhattan at all, and were thus pleased to return to their home village, on the other end of what’s now Brooklyn, with a haul of new axes and iron pots. In their culture, property rights were determined not by deed but by a concept similar to what lawyers now call usufruct: the right of a person or party to make productive use of another’s land. Whichever band of Lenape Minuit dealt with, the arrangement wouldn’t have struck them as permanent. In fact, Dutch colonial records are full of references to a continued Lenape presence on the island, whose new “owners” were induced, for many years after Minuit’s deal, to furnish further tribute.
The Lenape gradually grew familiar with purchase agreements, and deft at playing buyers off one another in order to gain a better price. Many managed to sell off their lands at a time of their liking, before moving, inland or upriver, to let the white people do what they wished. After New Amsterdam became New York, in 1664, and especially after the signing of the 1758 Treaty of Easton, which aimed to push all the area’s Indians west of the Alleghenies, holdouts grew rare; the Ramapo band of Lenape, whose descendants still live in the New Jersey mountains that share their name—Ramapo means “under the rock”—were more exception than rule. Waves of colonists arrived with sheeps, pigs, and the pathogens they’d acquired from living with both. The sheer force of numbers and germs succeeded in pushing all but a few Lenape (along with the Esopus and Wappingers and Mahicans, tribes in the Hudson Valley) from their ancestral homes. But, before they left, several of their words came to grace the old colony’s hinterlands, which now include the bedroom communities served by the Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.
Some of those names belonged to sachems who left their mark on colonial deeds (Katonah, Kensico). Others use Munsee words whose origins as place-names remain obscure. (Armonk means “place of dogs”; Ho-Ho-Kus could mean “little bottle gourd.”) In the eighteen-nineties, denizens of the Tuxedo Park Club, in the tony town of Tuxedo Park, in Orange County, cut the tails off their English-style dinner jackets to create the dark suits still worn by promgoers today. But, centuries earlier, the Munsee word ptukwsiituw (or “round foot”) referred to members of their Wolf Clan, who lived in the area. Ossining, in Westchester County, may now recall John Cheever’s fictions or Sing Sing prison; once, it was a Munsee word for “stony place.” On Long Island, several town names are borrowed from local bands of Lenape (Massapequa, Matinecock) or the Pequot-speaking peoples, farther east (Manhasset, Montaukett). One Algonquian-speaking tribe, the Shinnecock, won federal recognition in 2010. Now they’ve got their own piece of the Hamptons, and a permanent reservation there, to live on or monetize as they wish.
In the old Lenape homeland by the Hudson, near the marshes-and-malls landscape of what’s now the Meadowlands, not a few Native place-words were also bands of people: Passaic (“river flowing through a valley”); Hackensack (from the Unamie achkincheschakey, or “stream that discharges itself into another on the level ground”); Raritan (“point in a tidal river”). The home zone of the Raritans, in the early sixteen-hundreds, included a large island whose cultural ties joined it more closely, then as now, to New Jersey than to New York. Staten Island’s last unbought parcel was sold, in 1670, by a Raritan sachem named Pierwim. The Raritan name for the island—Aquehonga Manacknong, or “place of the bad woods”—didn’t stick. “Raritan” itself fared better: It still names New Jersey’s longest river, and also the bay that it drains into.
In the Bronx, “Mosholu” was perhaps a Munsee term for a stream that the English dubbed Tibbetts Brook, but whose burbling syllables, meaning “smooth stones,” now name a traffic-clogged parkway. To modern-day Brooklynites, Gowanus may be a polluted canal. But it was once a life-giving stream, whose Munsee name the Dutch adopted. Maspeth calls to mind Polish neighbors and warehouses; to its coiners, who by some sixth sense seem to have foreseen the Superfund status of nearby Newtown Creek, the name meant “bad water.” And a spate of Munsee names describe the squishy reed-lands ringing Jamaica Bay: Rockaway (from leekuwahkuy, meaning “sandy place”); Hassock (“marshy”); Neponsit (“place between the waters”). Munsee is also the source for Canarsie, which, centuries before it became known as the L train’s Brooklyn terminus, was the site of a Lenape village whose name perhaps meant “high grasses.”
There’s an implicit challenge in seeking to work backward from written “Indian words,” which are, in fact, only transliterated renderings of Native speech as it struck the ears of white men. This is why even leading experts often disagree about place-names’ meanings (and why those I’m citing here are, in many cases, no better than those experts’ best guesses). Early on, a few places in New York’s larger region received names whose provenance is clear. Connecticut, for example, is a Frenchman’s attempt at writing down the word that the Mohegan people used for the broad river flowing from Quebec to the Long Island Sound. (In the Mohegan language, it perhaps sounded more like quinetucket, or “beside the long, tidal river.”) Later, and out west, many place-namers seemed to embrace Indian words less as authentic expressions of place than as shorthand for wild beauty. Idaho was named, in the eighteen-sixties, by a frontiersman huckster who claimed to speak Shoshone. “Idaho” is not a Shoshone word; it just sounds like one.
But sound matters to romantics, and especially to that breed of romantic whose great love is America. New York’s best-known such figure, Walt Whitman, was a great lover of Indian names, and he explained why in “An American Primer.” “I was asking for something savage and luxuriant,” the poet wrote, “and behold here are the aboriginal names . . . They all fit!” He offered the ready example: “Mississippi!—the word winds with chutes—it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.” (Whitman didn’t note that the phrase “Mississippi River” is redundant: combining the Anishinaabe Algonquian term for “Great River” and the English generic, it means “Great River River.”) Over the span of Whitman’s life—years that included the forced removal of the East’s last tribes, along the Trail of Tears—many people seemed to agree that Native language paired well with the landscape. A hugely popular newspaper column, “Letters from Podunk,” made an Algonquian place-word synonymous with dull, out-of-the-way towns. By then, Americans also had a pantheon of chiefs whose courage in defending their people was apparently easier to admire in defeat. Many of those leaders’ names—Pontiac, Tecumseh, Seattle—became towns and cities, too.
In America’s biggest city, a push to commemorate the vanquished went so far as to see Congress furnish land, in 1911, for the purpose of building a National American Indian Memorial. The project, which would be situated on Staten Island, overlooking the entrance to New York Harbor, was the brainchild of the department-store magnate Rodman Wanamaker, who wanted to build a hundred-and-sixty-five-foot-tall statue of an Indian—taller than the Statue of Liberty—atop a museum.
His plan advanced far enough that President William Howard Taft travelled to the site, in 1913, to see the organizers break ground. But the First World War, and the discovery that Wanamaker didn’t have funds for construction, doomed the scheme. This was perhaps for the best, given the gargantuan cigar-store Indian at the plan’s heart. But it does mean that the city’s only official monuments to its indigenous people, today, remain a pair of markers that commemorate not New York’s first residents but their “sale” of Manhattan to the Dutch. One of these stands by the Battery, downtown. It was gifted to the city by the government of the Netherlands, in 1926, and includes a sculpture of Peter Minuit standing beside what appears to be a caricature of a Sioux brave in a feathered headdress. The other is a plaque in Inwood Hill Park, by the island’s northern tip, near caves said to have once been used by the Lenape. The plaque claims that Minuit’s capture of the island occurred there, at “the site of the principal Manhattan Indian village,” rather than a dozen miles to the south.
These memorials get a lot wrong. But what’s most offensive is the way that they’re predicated on commemorating what Wanamaker dubbed a “vanishing race”—on placing America’s first people wholly in the nation’s past. This is an insult to all their descendants, who haven’t vanished at all, but instead live modern lives shadowed by past violence. New York City may not be a place that most people associate with Amerindians, but it includes more of them—more than a hundred thousand, as of the last census—than any other U.S. city.
Nowadays, their presence is hailed loudly in powwows that bring Mohawk drummers and Abenaki elders to Inwood Hill Park each June, and to Randall’s Island, in the East River, each October, to sing songs and eat fry bread. But their imprint also has to do with the ways in which Native Americans, donning the uniforms of workaday life, have shaped today’s New York. Many of the city’s skyscrapers were built by the famous “Mohawks in High Steel,” who, starting in the nineteen-twenties, travelled here from reservations upstate, bringing a collective immunity to vertigo that made them the go-to workers on the tallest buildings. Those fearless Mohawks literally created the city. (Later, they would forge an enclave in Gowanus.) The city’s culture has also been shaped by figures ranging from Maria Tallchief, the Oklahoma-born Osage who became America’s first prima ballerina, in the nineteen-fifties, to La India, the Bronx-bred queen of Latin radio, whose name hails the indigenous past of her native Puerto Rico. In recent years, vital roles in the city’s economy have been filled by arrivals from still-indigenous sectors of the hemisphere: speakers of Aymara and Quechua, from the Andes; of Mixtec and Mayan, from Mexico; of Tzotzil and K’iche’, from Guatemala. And no less key has been the return to visibility—and to Manhattan—of New York’s own first people.
Since 2008, the Lenape Center of Manhattan has maintained an active office, under the aegis of the New York Foundation for the Arts, in the core of what its directors call Lenapehoking: the Lenape homeland. None of the directors live in New York; the center’s co-founder, Curtis Zunigha, resides on Delaware tribal land in Oklahoma. But the center has maintained an active role in the effort to get local academics and public agencies to append, to their papers and policies, the sort of “land-acknowledgement statements” that their peers have long used in Australia. In 2016, the son of a wealthy artist in the West Village (the part of Manhattan that the Lenape called Sapokanikan, or “tobacco field”) deeded a four-million-dollar town house to the tribe. (“This building is the trophy from major theft,” he said. “It disgusts me.”) On Staten Island, a part-Lenape woman named Margaret Boldeagle has won support from local officials in her quest to see Wanamaker’s monument finally erected, a century late and in different form, with a more evolved grasp of how America’s first peoples didn’t die out, after all. And in the windowless office of the Endangered Language Alliance, near Union Square, the island’s first tongue is stirring back to life.
Karen Hunter, who leads Lenape classes in the office, lives on the Delaware Nation reservation in Ontario. There, she’s known as the foremost student of a language whose last native speaker could die any day. When I attended her class, one pre-pandemic evening, she had made a twelve-hour drive, in her minivan, to teach. Among her students was a young woman in Doc Martens who said that she wanted to “decolonize my mind”; a gray-goateed man devoting his retirement to leading the Turkey Clan of Matinecock, in eastern Queens; and Ross Perlin, a linguist who specializes in the Himalaya. Hunter ran through some warmup sounds that we’d need to speak Lenape. She asked us to echo her words. “Nii noonjiyayi Lenapehoking,” she said. “I am from the Lenape homeland.” Some of us, repeating after her, sounded better than others. “Nii noonjiyayi Lenapehoking.” She smiled all the same.
This essay was drawn from “Names of New York: Discovering the City’s Past, Present, and Future Through Its Place-Names,” which is out this month from Pantheon.