Today's Reading

Fredericks placed the footprint for the fort on the spot that is now the old Custom House, just behind Bowling Green. Around it, he put the houses. But there was no room there for all those farms. So he did some exploring in the sticky summer heat (for which Manhattan remains famous) and discovered footpaths that the Indians used at the shore, right behind where he was planning the fort. (This is now the foot of Pearl Street, so named because of all those lovely oysters that once proliferated in the waters around New York.) One of the paths veered east through the woods along what is now Park Row and up to Chatham Square. It then turned north, parallel to the other branch, and continued into the wilderness. To the west of the path and surrounded by hills (where now stand the state supreme court and parts of Chinatown) was a huge freshwater pond, its surface in places covered with lily pads. Between the hills stretched flat, marshy terrain teeming with aquatic life: red-winged blackbirds, coots, herons, bullfrogs, beavers. Several streams undulated through the flat areas, flowing in and then out with the tides, and then draining into each of the great rivers on either side of Manhattan. Indians in canoes traversed the island via the streams, which provided them with shortcuts to the rivers. The rivers were in fact tidal estuaries and therefore consisted of saltwater, so the streams, too, were salty at high tide when they were running toward the pond. But by the time they flowed into it, they were running fresh. Sometimes, in spring or high tide, the marshy, wet terrain around the pond was completely flooded.

Between the western shore of the pond and the area's highest hill—it measured almost 110 feet high—Fredericks came across an Indian settlement called Werpoes. The word means "thicket"; thorn and berry bushes covered the surrounding hills. The inhabitants were the Manhates—one of the branches of the Lenape group—who lived in the southern part of the Hudson Valley. This was a wonderful spot, accessible to both rivers by canoe via streams that flowed to and from the pond (the one that emptied into the East River was later filled in and became the eponymous Canal Street). The pond provided the Manhates with drinking water and fish. In the flat area along its banks they grew the "three sisters": corn, beans, and squash. The crops were beautifully arranged, with the squash and its abundant green leaves in between the corn, which was planted on mounds of earth, and the beans climbing up the corn stalks, feeding nitrogen to the other two crops through its roots. The Dutch were soon calling the pond Kalck Hoek'—'"calcium hook," that is, hook as in "corner," after the oyster shells piled up around it. The name mutated into "Collect Pond" or "Collect," after English supplanted Dutch as New York's lingua franca. (Oysters were a big part of the Lenape diet; they also used the shells to make the wampum they used for currency.)

Imagine Fredericks's awe, walking along the path in the heat of summer and taking in this unspoiled land. Except for the sounds of nature—the bullfrogs croaking, the loons moaning to each other, the leaves rustling in the breeze—there was silence. He realized that he had found the perfect location for the farms—bouweries. He would place them along the footpath, six on each side.

The bouweries varied in area from about 50 to 200 acres. Fredericks designated the northernmost one—120 acres of forest in the middle of which St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery now stands on Second Avenue and Stuyvesant Street—for the company director. Fredericks considered the proximity of the Manhate settlement a real bonus: the native peoples, he thought, would help clear the forest and show the new farmers how to cultivate the land. Fredericks set to work. He had slaves and Indians widen the footpath to accommodate carts and animals. Trees were cut and the farms were carved out of the woods. The livestock that had been temporarily parked on Nut Island were then distributed among the farmers. As it was not the custom among the Dutch to fence their animals, cows, horses, sheep, and pigs—all animals the native people were seeing for the first time—were soon wandering into the nearby fields and eating up the crops that the Manhates had carefully planted. The white settlers were already upending the lives of the native people; and while the Manhates continued to use their old path to traverse the length of Manhattan, just as they had for thousands of years, it was no longer theirs. The Dutch used it as a public road, which they called the wagon road to Sapokanican, another Indian settlement along the Lenape path in what is now Greenwich Village. The section of the path they had widened with the Indians' sweat was being trampled with wooden carts and filled with the scat of those strange animals that were now devouring the corn and squash.

As Fredericks was overseeing the clearing of woods and the laying out of farms alongside the Lenape trail, Peter Minuit, who had succeeded Verhulst as the colony's director, bought Manhattan Island for sixty guilders' worth of goods. The year was 1626. The Dutch sources do not name the Indians who were involved in the transaction. They could have been the Manhates at Werpoes given that they were living nearby. Dutch documentation of the sale exists, although no actual deed was ever found. We don't know the Indians' version of these events, because they left no written records of it or anything else. But certainly the concept of humans owning land was alien to them. Probably the Indians saw Minuit's offering as the symbol of an agreement between the two peoples to share Manhattan, and doubtless they expected something in return.

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