Before Van Cortlandts, there were the Munsee

It didn’t all start with just Irish immigrants and some well-to-do aristocrats


The history of Riverdale and Kingsbridge often seems to start in the 1600s with the arrival of the prestigious Van Cortlandt family.

They bought up large tracts of land, including what is now Van Cortlandt Park. It joins a shared history that includes the now-buried King’s Bridge, and the later-arriving Irish immigrants bringing a strong Catholic influence still evident in the schools and churches that dot the neighborhood.

Despite their names plastered all over the park and other New York neighborhoods, the Van Cortlands weren’t the ones doing the hard work. Enslaved people built the manor, cleared land for Albany Post Road, and likely built the King’s Bridge. Some are buried in Van Cortlandt Park, near the Putnam Trail.

All that work was done in Lenapehoking — Lenape land, which spread from modern-day New Jersey through parts of Delaware and Pennsylvania, and, infamously, Manhatta — later called Manhattan. The people who lived in this part of the Bronx spoke the Munsee dialect.

Duped sellers

The “sale” of the island is one of the best-known histories. It’s commemorated in a sculpture in lower Manhattan and taught in schools — Lenape leaders met with Dutch colonists and gave up their rights to the land.

“That is a concept that is inappropriate,” said Curtis Zunigha, resources cultural director for the Delaware Tribe of Indians and co-director of the Lenape Center. 

“That the Lenape just said, ‘Here, buy all of this land, we’ll take a few trinkets and axes and copper plates, and we’ll get in our wagons and go.’ It was not like that at all.”

About a decade after that “sale,” a similar deal was struck in the Bronx. Adraein Van der Donck had been put in charge of land north of Manhattan, in what is now the Bronx and Yonkers — land where Lenape people still lived. Van der Donck allegedly struck a deal with  Claes de Wilt — also known as Towachkak  — to sell the land, Kingsbridge Historical Society president Nick Dembowski said.

But the concept of selling the land was “anathema” to the Lenape, Dembowski said. They wouldn’t have intended for it to be the modern understanding of a land sale.

“The idea was an exchange of gifts for the purpose of shared occupancy in peace and brotherhood for the purpose of engaging in trade and commerce,” Zunigha said. “And it was the clash of cultures and the clash of cultural values ended up with the Lenape being in the position of being on the short end of the stick, as they say. And it was simply because they didn’t understand it, and then they were overwhelmed with military might and the sheer number of colonizers.”

The deed for this part of the Bronx, Dembowski said, has been lost — it’s not known exactly what was agreed to. Claes returned in 1701 to say the Munsee had not received appropriate compensation, and Jacobus Van Cortlandt “paid” in fabric and some money. That exchange seemed to mark the end of the Lenape claim as Van Cortlandt understood it.

The Lenape didn’t leave all at once, or all together, Zunigha said. Some left and settled in Indiana and Ohio, only to be forced out once again under Andrew Jackson.

Now, there are two federally recognized tribes in Ontario, and three in the United States. The Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Zunigha lives and works; the Delaware Nation in Anadarko, Oklahoma; and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin. 

In New Jersey, the state government recognizes the Ramapough Lenape Nation, but not federal officials.

“It’s a very broad and complex diaspora, and that’s why you’re seeing all these different groups and different locations,” Zunigha said. “It’s because we were forced to move, and we didn’t go in one group. In spite of all of that — the genocide, the erasure, we have survived.”

Peeking at the past to realize the future

While it’s nearly impossible to track exactly what happened to the Munsee Lenape who left what’s now Riverdale, Spuyten Duyvil and Kingsbridge, their history is clearly marked.

In the late 1800s, a man named J.B. James snuck onto Vannie’s Parade Grounds, suspecting they contained native burial sites — and they did.

James documented more than a dozen skeletons at the site, running along Broadway in front of the Van Cortlandt Manor. He also found the remains of fireplaces and pottery. According to a 1935 piece he wrote in the Riverdale News, remains of shells and a child’s skeleton also were found on the grounds of the Horace Mann School.

“Some of the artifacts are preserved in the Museum of the American Indian downtown,” Dembowski said. “What happened to the actual human remains is a total mystery to me — it’s not documented, as far as I know.”

At the time, the perception of Native Americans by the colonists may not have been very positive, he said, with news of violent wars being fought in the west.

“It’s part of the erasure,” Zunigha said. “Indians didn’t have nice big fancy cemeteries with stone monuments and engraved headstones and all of that kind of stuff. What is extremely important to understand is that the belief is the spirit power of these ancestors is still there, in their final resting place. And when you dig that up, you toss those bones off to the side, you have defiled these ancestors’ spiritual journey. 

“For Christian, Eurocentric people, that concept is inconsequential.”

It became so common that, 30 years ago, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which mandates museums, state agencies and local governments to properly identify and report remains, and transfer them to the custody of modern tribes and ancestors so they can be properly buried. 

The Delaware Tribe of Indians consults with the project, Zunigha said, and they’ve traveled as far as Ellis Island when construction workers found remains.

“We were involved in the repatriation and reburial of these remains so we could put these ancestors back on their spirit journey,” he said. “That’s how sacred of an endeavor that is for us, that we had to fight for the right for our ancestors’ bones are not tossed aside or sitting in cardboard boxes in museums and universities to be studied by white anthropologists.”

The park isn’t the only site of important discoveries. Construction still yields shells, bones, and other artifacts in the Bronx. Dembowski paid a visit to one man who found shells and arrowheads in his yard. But it’s unlikely anyone would be able to access construction sites. 

And finding remains hasn’t stopped anyone from developing the land and building on top.

Land recognition — and acknowledging that modern life exists on stolen land — is a start, Zunigha said, but it can quickly become something that happens at the beginning of a meeting or service with no further action.

“I want to be able to feel welcome to come back to the homeland from which my ancestors were pushed off, and to be able to come back to the homeland and feel welcome,” Zunigha said. 

“I want to not only feel welcome in our homeland, but I want to have a place at the table. I’m using it as a metaphor. I want to have a place at the table of power.”

CORRECTIONClaes de Wilt, a Lenape Native American leader also known as Towachkak, contested sale of this part of the Bronx in 1701. A story in the Oct. 29 edition had a wrong date, and also misidentified de Wilt/Towachkak.