Debunking the Myth: Natives Never ‘Sold’ Manhattan!

“The squat clapboard house overlooking the Hudson River in the West Village might not seem like an obvious place for a Native American prayer center. Its graffiti-strewn facade faces the busy West Side Highway, with a city bus stop out front…The house’s ground floor now sits directly on Manhattan soil, said Jean-Louis Goldwater Bourgeois, 76, a wealthy activist who bought the property in 2006. He says he is essentially donating it back to its original owners: the Lenape Indians…Mr. Bourgeois said he had always been troubled by the well-known and not quite accurate legend that, four centuries ago, the Lenape sold Manhattan to Dutch settlers for the equivalent of $24 worth of goods.‘It’s quite offensive,’ he said. It’s a form of conquest.” C. Kilgannon, The New York Times

Jean-Louis Goldwater Bourgeois, right, wants to turn a house in the West Village into a prayer center. Anthony Jay Van Dunk, left, a former chief of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.Sam Hodgson NYT

Excerpt: Giving Back a ‘Stolen’ Property to the Original Manhattanites, By Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times

“Mr. Bourgeois pointed to a hole recently jackhammered through the thick concrete flooring of the house, which left black soil exposed underneath. You can actually touch Manhattan soil — the idea is to be in touch with Mother Earth, he said, adding that the plan was to remove the concrete and simply have a dirt floor. Anthony Jay Van Dunk, a former chief of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a tribe based in Mahwah, N.J., is Mr. Bourgeois’s choice to start a prayer house, or a Pahtamawiikan, as it is known in one of the languages spoken by the Lenape.

A hole in the house’s concrete floor exposes soil underneath. You can actually touch Manhattan soil — the idea is to be in touch with Mother Earth. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Mr. Van Dunk, 54, a Brooklyn woodworker who is active in Native American issues, pointed out that, if such a transaction had taken place, the Lenape might have meant it as a good-will exchange for sharing the land, and not as transferring ownership, especially because the tribe did not believe anyone could own land or water. The Lenape tried to embrace and share, Mr. Van Dunk said. And in return, they got everything taken, even their lives.

Mr. Bourgeois said he bought the squat clapboard house, at 392 West Street, in 2006 for $2.2 million. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Now, of course, Manhattan — whose name comes from the Lenape tongue, meaning roughly ‘the land of many hills’ — has been developed to the hilt into a center of global commerce…Mr. Bourgeois said that he bought the building, 392 West Street, in 2006 for $2.2 million, and that it had probably appreciated in value to about $4 million. With three floors and less than 3,000 square feet, it is one of the last wood-frame buildings along the Hudson waterfront.

Ramapough indians enter the powwow by john st john photography

Though some documentation describes the house as being built in the 1830s, Mr. Bourgeois said he believed it may actually date to the 1770s. Over the centuries, it has been home to a saloon, a gambling parlor, an oyster house and a pool hall, Mr. Bourgeois said, and in recent decades it housed bars. He said that when he bought it, there were peep show machines inside, which he had removed. He said he initially hoped to turn the house into a museum dedicated to clean water issues that would include a seven-story waterfall installation designed by his mother.

If Lapowinsa, the Lenape chief (seen here in a 1735 portrait by Gustavus Hesselius), were alive today, he could look forward to hanging out on Weehawken St. at the future Lenape West Village H.Q.

It would also have a waterless composting toilet restricted to people who ate only organic food. He admits now that the plan was ‘a bit too utopian. Mr. Bourgeois lives half a block from the house in an apartment filled with files and books related to his activism. He recently returned from several weeks in North Dakota protesting a proposed oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

The Ramapough-Lenape gathering is the bridge that guides us back to our bond to the earth. Photo Credit- Marire Longo

He said that he donated about $1 million to the campaign against the pipeline, and that he hoped the prayer house would be a way to celebrate and promote Native American ideals and political empowerment.”

Category: History