Native American Long Island

Native American Long Island

Before the Dutch began referring to the region as “Lange Eylandt,” Long Island had several indigenous names: Sewanhacky, Paumanok, Lenapehoking. It was the ancestral home of Native American communities whose lives were profoundly disrupted by the incursion of European settlers in the 1600s. Explore the stories below to learn more.

“Indians at the East End of the Isle”

Negotiations and the Special Commission on Indian Affairs

As a prominent Long Islander, William Wells served as an intermediary in numerous trials of transitions. In 1666, New York’s first English governor, Richard Nicolls, requested Wells establish and oversee a “Special Commission on Indian Affairs.” The commission was responsible for hearing and resolving land disputes between the English and American Indians on the East End. The establishment of the commission reveals the continuing conflict between Europeans and local American Indian groups and the attempts of Long Island’s new English government to diffuse tensions in the region. 

The Indian tribes of Long Island, circa 1934 

Designed, compiled and lithographed by Victor G. Becker 


Brooklyn Historical Society

The arrival of Englishmen on Long Island in the mid-1600s kicked off decades of diplomatic negotiations between them and local indigenous communities like the Montaukett on Long Island’s South Fork. Negotiated exchanges of land and goods opened the door to European settlement on Long Island and initially provided Native American communities with the protection of a powerful ally.  As the first century of contact drew to a close, though, disagreements and misunderstandings arose more frequently, requiring government intervention.

Land deed for property near Smithtown between Wyandanch and Lion Gardiner, 1659 

Smith families papers (ARC .244)

Brooklyn Historical Society

From 1666 to 1674, Well’s Special Commission on Indian Affairs heard testimony and issued decisions on disputes between “Christians and Indians” largely relating to land sales, border disputes, and accusations of trespassing and property damage. The Duke’s Laws, the legal system established in 1665 by Governor Nicolls and his council (including Wells), included nine ordinances relating specifically to Indians, intended to help mediate conflicts before they turned violent. American Indians were understandably reluctant to solve problems within this foreign system, one which undoubtedly skewed heavily in favor of the English. 

Mention of the special commission disappears from colonial records in the mid-1670s, when it was likely absorbed into the larger colonial court system. As the 1600s drew to a close, Long Island’s American Indian population shrank dramatically, decimated by outbreaks of diseases. Those who survived saw their rights curtailed and ancestral lands shrink and, by the late 1800s, real estate developers eager to turn Long Island’s East End into a suburban retreat for New York’s wealthy.

Guide map of Wompenanit, Hither Hills, and Hither Woods, 

belonging to Frank Sherman Benson and Mary Benson at Montauk, L.I., 1905


Brooklyn Historical Society

“We set off for Long Island”

Witnessing Tragedy in Early Breukelen

When they crossed the East River in 1639, Anthony Van Salee and his family were among the first European settlers to establish permanent homes on Long Island, New Amsterdam’s neighboring frontier. The first purchase of land in western Long Island had taken place just three years earlier, by Dutch West India Company officer Jacob Van Corlaer. 

More people followed. The Dutch government approved the incorporation of several towns: Gravesend (1645), Breucklen (Brooklyn, 1646), Flatlands (1647), Flatbush (1651), New Utrecht (1657), and Bushwick (1660). Van Salee’s land eventually fell near the two most southernmost villages, Gravesend and New Utrecht.

New York, 1809

I. Luffman Strand


Brooklyn Historical Society

The lands that individuals like Van Salee claimed as their own were not unoccupied. Long Island was part of the territory of the Lenni Lenape, American Indian communities who called the island Sewanhacky and lived along its waterways. Little information survives today about Lenape life in the 1600s. Limited archaeological evidence and European accounts, which must be scrutinized with a critical eye for bias, provide few details about their lives.

View of New York from the North (near Fulton Ferry), 1679

Jasper Danchaerts


Brooklyn Historical Society

Dutch Labadist priest Jasper Danckaerts visited New York and Long Island in 1679, part of an extensive journey across North America in search of a potential location to establish his religious sect. He kept a detailed dairy of the trip, beginning from the moment of his departure from Holland, at 4 a.m. During the journey across the Atlantic, Danckaerts became acquainted with some New York residents, including Gerrit Cornellissen Van Duyn, who made introductions for Danckaerts in Manhattan and Long Island when they arrived in September 1679.

Bentwood Box, 17th century or later


Brooklyn Historical Society

Invited into an American Indian longhouse, Danckaerts recorded with interest details of the building’s structure and the family dynamics and meals. His accounts also include glimpses into the misunderstandings that had devastated the Lenape population by the end of the century. Danckaerts noted conflicting understandings about land ownership between Van Duyn’s brother-in-law and the local Lenape from whom he had purchased “the whole of Najack.” Jacques Cortelyou, Van Dun’s brother-in-law, considered himself the sole owner of this land. His indigenous neighbors continued working certain farm plots, a sign to them that the land was communal. On a visit to a neighboring Indian settlement, Danckaerts saw many children sick with smallpox, “the most prevalent disease in these parts, and of which many have died.” We know now that the Lenape did understand the power of land purchase, but they did not realize the reach of English and Dutch power and their control over these land deals.

American Indian woman with fish, 1689

Jasper Danckaerts


Brooklyn Historical Society

By 1684, mere years after Danckaerts’ visit to the region, the last of American Indian land in Brooklyn had been “transferred” to European settlers by American Indian sachems. Loss of land, European diseases, and warfare decimated the American Indian population by the late 1600s, reducing it to perhaps one-thirtieth of what it had been in the 1630s.

Christianity and Race on Long Island

Samuel Buell and Samson Occum

The Reverend Samuel Buell encouraged ongoing efforts to convert local American Indian tribes to Christianity. This brought him into contact with one of eighteenth-century Long Island’s most complex religious leaders, Samson Occum (17231792), a Mohegan Indian Christian convert. 

Early historians described Occum as “a heathen reformed,” an example of what they believed to be the civilizing powers of Christianity on the country’s American Indian population. Today, historians view Occum as a man caught between two worlds. While he voluntarily converted to Christianity and became a preacher, Occum was also a tribal leader and a vocal advocate for the rights of American Indians, who then faced systematic dispossession of their ancestral lands throughout the Northeast. 


Seen through Occum’s eyes, eighteenth-century Suffolk County history becomes a story of religion and community, and a window into the history of racial differences in America. 

The Reverend Mr. Samson Occum, 1768
Henry Parker, London (publisher)
The British Museum

Samson Occum was born in Connecticut in 1723 into a Mohegan Indian community. For centuries, Christian missionaries had attempted to convert the Mohegans, to mixed results. Beginning in the mid-1600s, tribal leaders sought alliances with local English authorities to secure their peoples’ safety. These political negotiations sometimes required that preachers be allowed to spread Christian teachings, as did the 1673 contract in the BHS collection between the Mohegan tribal leader Sachem Uncas and Mr. James Fitch, minister of Norwich. While European preachers sought to “civilize” through Christianity, religion may have appealed to American Indians like Occum for the negotiating power it provided.

Contract between Uncas, sachem of the Mohegans, and James Fitch, minister of Norwich, 1673
Mid-Atlantic Early Manuscripts collection (1972.002)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Like Samuel Buell, Occum was swept up in the fervor of the Great Awakening as a teenager. Occum’s conversion and desire to learn brought him to the attention of Eleazar Wheelock, a Yale-educated minister who became Occum’s mentor and oversaw his education in English, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, in addition to ministerial studies. 

In 1749, Occum began the first of his ministries among American Indian tribes, which over the next few decades would include Montaukett, Lenape, Oneida, and Iroquois peoples. Wheelock arranged for groups like the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge to pay Occum, but he received far less than a white itinerant preacher would have. This injustice influenced Buell to recommend Occum’s ordination into the Long Island Presbytery in 1759, a position that provided Occum with a more stable source of financial support.

A Sermon preached at East-Hampton…at the Ordination of Mr. Samson Occum, 1761
BX7233.B7982 E8 1761
Brooklyn Historical Society

Unlike many of his American Indian contemporaries, Occum received a formal education that enabled him to leave an extensive written record of his life. Occum did not see converting as embracing “civilization” but rather as utilizing a platform through which he could achieve some measure of equity with his white neighbors. Embracing Christianity connected Occum to powerful men like Buell, with whom Occum could attempt to negotiate on behalf of his people. 


Years of mistreatment fueled Occum’s disillusionment with the religious establishment, which through its actions reasserted time and again that Occum would never truly be their equal because of his race. In the 1770s, Occum organized a Pan-Indian settlement called Brothertown in upstate New York, where he and many of Long Island’s surviving American Indians immigrated. Occum’s faith allowed him to transform his community, but perhaps not in the way his white mentors had envisioned. 

“Did anyone ever suspect that Indians still lurked on Brooklyn Heights?”

The Erasure of Brooklyn’s American Indian History and Culture

“Did anyone ever suspect that Indians still lurked on Brooklyn Heights?” Brooklyn Eagle Magazine writer Lillian Sabine posed this question in 1930 in a feature article about the seated Indian show figure now in the BHS collection. Sabine’s article honored the sculpture as a neighborhood landmark. Reading the article today, however, casual racism in comments like the one above one stick out sharply, evidence of a deep-seated racial bias in America towards American Indians, one borne from the long exploitative process of American expansion.

“The Neighborhood Indian Passes On”
Lillian Sabine
Brooklyn Eagle Magazine, March 30, 1930

With his dignified, stoic appearance, BHS’s seated Indian sculpture is a classic representation of the “noble savage,” a popular literary hero figure who accepted his fate—extinction—with grace at the advance of modern civilization. In the 1800s, stereotypes like the “noble savage” perpetuated the idea that America’s indigenous communities were a “vanishing race,” their slow disappearance leaving settlers free to inherit the United States. This romantic narrative concealed the reality of the involuntary and violent displacement of American Indian communities from their homelands throughout the country’s history, including the Lenape, who for centuries called the region now known as Brooklyn, home. 

The Lenape were multiple, distinct, seminomadic communities who lived throughout western Long Island, New Jersey, southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware. In the 1630s, when European incursion began into what is today Brooklyn, settlers arranged land purchases with the Lenape, arrangements understood differently by the individuals involved. Subsequent conflicts led to warfare, and the introduction of European diseases like smallpox decimated Lenape communities. Those who survived eventually fled their ancestral homeland, which they called Lenapehoking.

Joon Vingboom’s map 1639, 1916
Edward Van Winkle
NYC-1639 (19–?).Fl
Brooklyn Historical Society

Despite the fact that the reality was considerably more complex, by the mid-1800s, Brooklyn historian Gabriel Furman felt confident enough to write that the Lenape “are at this time totally extinct; not a single member of that ill-rated race is now in existence.” The Lenape were not extinct. They were displaced, surviving members forced farther West from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Today, the descendants of the dispossessed Lenape live as far afield as Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada, but their connection to Lenapehoking remains strong.

The Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds, and Places of Kings County, 1946
James A. Kelly
B B-1946.Fl
Brooklyn Historical Society

The physical reminders of American Indians living in Brooklyn have largely been swallowed today by the European settlements that grew on top of the “villages, paths, and ponds” of the Lenape. That difficult history should be acknowledged, as should the significant role that artifacts like this sculpture played in erasing the history of American Indian displacement and oppression.

The Myth of “Simpler Times”

Coming to Grips with Difficult Histories

Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society) became home to the Montague Street show figure in 1930, when local residents—anxious about the city’s rapid growth—decided it needed to be preserved as a symbol of a “simpler time” in Brooklyn. For years, the show figure was displayed prominently in the society’s main lobby and occasionally used in museum displays about local American Indian life.

Interior view of the Tile Lobby inside the Long Island Historical Society, after 1930

Ernest Tanare


Brooklyn Historical Society

The show figure eventually became synonymous with LIHS’s public identity. It was featured on institutional branding, and in the 1980s, the museum’s store was even named “the Seated Indian Gift Shop.” Looking back, the insensitivity of these early decisions is plain, missteps perpetuated by the complexity of this historical artifact. It is a beautifully carved piece of American folk art. It was an advertising tool from 1862 to 1930 when it was on display in Montague Street. It was also an agent of oppression.

Marking Stamp, before 1985


Brooklyn Historical Society

This sculpture perpetuated racist stereotypes of “noble savages” and concealed the violence and injustices that had been wrought upon American Indian communities from the 1600s to the present. By acknowledging this final truth, BHS also preserves the legacy of the Lenape communities who called New York home for centuries and whose descendants today still live throughout the United States and Canada.