The First Land Deal pt. 2

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      (This is the continuation of the story I started writing here)

      Adriaen Van Der Donck, the “purchaser,” was New Netherland’s best educated colonist.  He graduated with a degree in law from the University of Leiden in Holland.  He would have had every opportunity to make a fortune in the Netherlands, which was in the middle of its “golden age.”  Instead he opted for adventure in New Netherlands, the struggling colony set up by the Dutch West India Company in today’s New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.  He had spent his first years in America working in the Albany area, where he spent much time among the Mahican and Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee).  He studied their languages, customs, and social structure.  He would later write about them extensively in his book, “A Description of New Netherland” and it is clear from the nuance and detail in his writing that he understood and respected them.  He wrote that “wind, stream, bush, field, sea, beach, and riverside are open and free to everyone of every nation with which the Indians are not embroiled in open conflict.  All those are free to enjoy and move about such places as though they were born there.”  So, he clearly understood that the area’s Native people had different ideas about land ownership than Europeans.  In addition, he learned their customs associated with negotiation and deal-making.

      In the years immediately preceding Van Der Donck’s 1646 deal for the northwest Bronx, The Dutch West India Company’s local director, Willem Kieft, orchestrated a brutal and unpopular war against the Munsee (known as “Kieft’s War”).  To call it a war is almost a mischaracterization as it was more a series of massacres and revenge killings in which women and children were fair game on both sides of the conflict.  Van Der Donck’s knowledge of local customs played a role in ending this war.  When Willem Kieft set out to sign peace treaties with the Mahican and Mohawk (or Kanienkehaka) he did so without bringing the gifts or tribute that were the customary offering.  Van Der Donck recognized this and loaned the director a sufficient number of wampum beads to offer as a gift as negotiations commenced.  Thanks to Van Der Donck’s intervention, a peace treaty was signed and Kieft rewarded him with a land patent in today’s northwest Bronx and Yonkers.  In this way, it was Van Der Donck’s knowledge of local native cultures that made his “purchase” possible.

      There is no way to know how the local Munsee regarded Van Der Donck as a person.  But the fact that they were willing to work out a deal with him so soon after the horrors of Kieft’s War is perhaps indicative of respect.  In the three years after the war, the agreement with Van Der Donck was the only land agreement made between the Munsee and a colonist.  The Munsee were not eager to part with land after such a traumatic episode and yet they negotiated with him.

      So why not simply state that “Van der Donck purchased the land from the Munsee” as previous historians have done without any qualifications or further explanations?  After all, Van Der Donck would have known what the Munsee expected out of any deal and he likely negotiated in good faith.  And the 1666 Executive Council Minutes document that I referred to earlier states that the “Indian proprietors . . . received full satisfaction.”  There are a number of reasons include avoid characterizing this deal in any simple terms.  Not least of them is the fact that the word “purchase” meant something different to the colonists than it means to us today.

      Let’s imagine that an immigrant from Jamaica purchases a property in today’s Kingsbridge.  That property would then be owned exclusively by that individual.  However, when New Netherland colonists “purchased” land from Munsee people, it was understood that the deal would also represent a change in sovereignty.  The purchased land was now under Dutch control and jurisdiction.  When the fictional Jamaican immigrant purchases land in Kingsbridge, the land does not become Jamaican.  That’s a big difference with no real modern-day equivalent outside of contested areas (Palestinians selling land to Israelis in East Jerusalem is discussed in similar ways).

      But the main reason why “purchase” is a sketchy term when explaining this history to a contemporary reader is that in a modern-day land purchase agreement, the seller would not assume any right to continue to use or occupy the land being sold.  However, as I mentioned, both Van Der Donck and the Munsee parties would have likely assumed that the Munsee had a continued right to use the land to some extent–that they would be free to hunt, gather oysters, shelter on, and pass through the land.  It is impossible to know if this was written into the original deed given its disappearance but it would not surprise me if it had been.  Van Der Donck was trained as a lawyer and it would make sense that he would want to iron out all of the details in writing, perhaps including a clause granting the Munsee continued access to the land as something like an easement.  Such a clause appeared in a deed when the Dutch West India Company sought to buy Western Long Island from the Munsee sachem Mechowot in 1639.  The deed stipulated that “he, Mechowot, may be allowed, with his people and friends, to remain upon the aforesaid land, plant corn, fish, hunt and make a living there as well as they can, while he himself and his people place themselves under the protection of the said lords, who will grant to them all possible assistance and favor.“  Not exactly a straightforward “purchase” as we understand it today if the seller does not leave.  But even if an easement-like provision was not written into the deed, Van Der Donck would clearly have known that he would be sharing the land to some extent with the Munsee.  There could have been additional provisions in the deal, such as a guarantee of protection but there is no way of knowing.

      Another fact to consider is that when looking at a primary source document, such as the 1666 Executive Council Minutes, the perspective and motive of the writer should always be considered.  It was of course written from the perspective of a European who was probably not an expert on local native customs.  It refers to the Munsee as “proprietors” even though that word does not truly explain their relationship to the land.  It also uses the word “purchase” without providing any detail of the deal’s terms–only that they were “satisfied.”  So we do not know if the Munsee had ongoing expectations of additional payment or continued usage of the land beyond 1666.  While it provides crucial information, it also raises questions, particularly in light of the next document to appear in the record regarding this “purchase.”

      10 years after the 1666 document was entered into the record, “Claes ye Indyan” reappeared with other Munsee people and went before the Royal Governor with a complaint:

      There appeared Claes the Indyan with others before the Governour and Wickerscreeke Indyans etc.  They pretend not to bee paid for the Younckers Land.

      “Claes ye Indian,” whose name appears in the 1666 minutes as one of the Munsee, who were “satisfied” with the Van Der Donck deal showed up again in 1676 to express that they were not paid.  Who was “Claes ye Indian?”  Having already considered Van Der Donck’s history and perspective, let’s take a look at his counterpart, Claes, and what his people were dealing with at the time of the 1646 deal and beyond.

      (to be continued)

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