The Dutch Among the Natives

American Indian-Dutch Relations, 1609–1664

"Their language, which is the first thing to be employed with them, methinks is entirely peculiar. Many of our common people call it an easy language, which is soon learned, but I am of a contrary opinion." Rev. Jonas Michaëlius, 1628.

"I am making a vocabulary of the Mahakuaas' [Mohawk] language, and it costs me great pains to learn it, so as to be able to speak and preach in it fluently. There is no Christian here who understands the language thoroughly." Domine Megapolensis, 1644. 

"Their languages are very diverse and differ as much from one another as Dutch, French, Greek, and Latin." Adriaen van der Donck, 1655.

Click map to enlarge 

The languages that perplexed these Dutchmen were of two families: Eastern Algonquian and Northern Iroquoian. Many Native communities in the region, some of whose names were recorded by arriving Europeans while others were not, spoke an Eastern Algonquian language or dialect. Outside the boundaries of New Netherland were numerous central New England groups known as the Northern Indians, and to their north, the New England and St. Lawrence Algonquians. Within the boundaries of  New Netherland, beginning in the immediate vicinity of Fort Orange, were the Mahicans, speaking a language of the same name. Farther down the Hudson Valley to Manhattan, in northern New Jersey, northeastern Pennsylvania, and on western Long Island, were Munsee-speakers—the Esopus, Wappingers, Minisinks, Tappans, Raritans, Canarses, Rockaways, and others. In the middle stretch of the Housatonic Valley were the Wampanoo-speaking Weantinocks, while nearest Long Island Sound and on eastern Long Island were speakers of Quiripi-Unquachog. In southern coastal New England were found the Mohegans, Pequots, Wampanoags, and Narragansetts, that like the rest, spoke Eastern Algonquian languages. For the Dutch in New Netherland, the Mohawks, speakers of a Northern Iroquoian language, were of critical importance as their confederates to the west—the Oneidas, Onondagas, and others—would carry furs to Fort Orange through their homeland.

Why Not Lenape?

The word "Lenape," used to identify the Native people of Manhattan and Greater New York, appears with some frequency in the popular literature in addition to school curricula, museum programming, news stories, and most recently, concert opera. Even so, the application of this term to what were in fact Munsee-speakers--local communities of Munsee Indians--resident in the region is in error. (The Munsee-speakers are now also correctly included among the "Delaware Indians," a term applied to them and the closely related Unami-speakers collectively.)

At the time Munsee-speakers were in New York, from before the arrival of Henry Hudson into the nineteenth century, they referred to themselves by their local band affiliations. There was no known socially inclusive or political cover term. The Munsee form of "Lenape," which is correctly "Lunáapeew," means "Indian" for modern speakers, and for some also "Delaware Indian," but was additionally used in the plural for "human beings, people" in the nineteenth century. The Unami word "Lenape," "the people" (plural), which the Oklahoma Delawares today use for themselves, was already in use by their ancestors in Kansas in the 1830s. In the past Unami was spoken in central and southern New Jersey and farther west and south.

It is therefore a mistake to assume that because the Oklahoma Delawares call themselves "Lenape," all "Delaware Indians" are Lenape. And to close the circle, neither is it appropriate to apply the term "Leni-Lenape" or any of its variants. It is rejected as redundant by present-day speakers. The Indians who lived on Manhattan and its environs were Munsees.

Information source: Ives Goddard, Senior Linguist Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.


About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More


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