A federal holiday since 1937, following a 19th-Century tradition established in San Francisco, Columbus Day designates the explorer’s 1492 “discovery of America”, as well as a celebration Italian-American heritage. Noted in the diaries of Columbus, when he arrived in the New World--where over the course of four voyages,he landed in the Bahamas, Cuba, "Hispaniola" (current-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Trinidad, and Panama--on his arrival, he encountered local inhabitants.
Who were these people? Millions of Native Americans (the estimate is 7-10 million) lived in North America when Columbus reached its shores. They arrived in North America from a land bridge across the Bering Strait more than 12,000 years ago. Some have suggested even earlier dates for the arrival of inhabitants in the Americas. So too, many scholars have noted that Columbus likely was not the first European to arrive in the Americas. Leif Erikson arrived in Newfoundland in 1,000 A.D., and it is thought that Chinese Admiral Zheng Ha sailed around the world 70 years before Columbus.
These days, there’s greater awareness of those who were living here when Europeans began exploring the Americas, and the tragic legacy of European conquest of the Americas for native peoples, including violence and genocide. Efforts are afoot to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
What is the legacy of indigenous cultures in the New York City area? When Henry Hudson sailed up the river that is now his namesake in 1609, “people appeared….dressed in skins, peaceable, and with an air of dignity, offering corn bread and green tobacco.” (R. Shorto p. 32). At the time, there were likely about 15,000 native inhabitants in the area, mainly the Lenape people, a dozen or so groups living in seasonal campsites between eastern Connecticut and Central New Jersey and part of the broader Delaware people. To the west were the Raritans of Staten Island, the Hackensacks of New Jersey, and the Tappans of northern New Jersey. Farther North were the Mahicans and the Mohawks, and to the west of the Mohawk region other tribes of the Iroquois: Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, as well as dozens of other tribes throughout North America.(E. Borrows and M.Wallace p. 5).
Archeologists have identified 80 Lenape habitation sites in New York’s five boroughs, over two dozen planning fields, and an intricate network of paths and trails. Current-day Broadway was a primary Lenape trail along Manhattan’s “hilly spine from what is now Battery Park in the South to Inwood in the north". Where the trail passed current-day Greenwich Village, it intersected another trail that led west to a fishing and planting site on the Hudson River near what is now Gansevoort Street. Northern Manhattan was a particularly thriving area, with many settlements, fishing camps, and planting fields. (Burrows and Wallace p.6).
The legacy of America’s indigenous people persists, with the biggest population of any city living in New York: nearly 41,300 according to the 2000 Census.
Columbus Day offers an opportunity to consider the significant history and legacy of indigenous people in what is now New York City.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.