Archive | September, 2014

Yonkers (Part One)

20 Sep

From the present to the past.  Why not?  In thinking about our changing city (and maybe getting a little down about it) I feel like it’s important to remember that’s it’s always been changing.  And what change was bigger, in the scheme of things, than its actual creation.  I mean it wasn’t that long ago that all this shit was woods and streams and marshes – insanity!  And sure, I want to talk about Yonkers today, not New York City itself, but Yonkers alone is in fact the fourth largest city in the state (after NYC, Buffalo, and Rochester) so still, we’re talking about something urban and man made (though wasn’t isn’t around here?).  And it turns out it’s connected to old Francis Doughty too (remember him?  Of course you don’t! hehe) and you know I like nothing better than running down a tangent (well, except maybe writing things in parentheses).  So let’s run it down!

Francis Doughty, as I’m sure you don’t recall, led the brief settlement of Maspeth, Queens, in 1642, before being driven out by Indians just one year later.  That Indian attack was likely a small part of the ongoing conflict known as Kieft’s War – aka the Wappinger War – that ran from 1643 to 1645.  As the name suggests the war was started by Willem Kieft, the Director General of New Netherlands (and the man who had granted Francis Doughty his land in Queens to begin with).  Kieft, who was in charge from 1638 to 1647, followed a string of unsuccessful Director Generals of the Dutch West India Company’s fledgling colony, and he proved himself no exception.  His war was started when he ordered a surprise attack on the Wiechquaesgeck and Hackensack Indians encamped in Pavonia (today’s Jersey City) for allegedly harboring the killers of some Dutch settlers, an attack that quickly turned into a full scale massacre.  Not that Kieft was particularly displeased by that; the heads of some of the Indian victims were brought back to New Amsterdam for display and the soldiers thanked and rewarded.  The carnage caused the the majority of Indian tribes in the whole of the lower Hudson Valley to band together and attack the Dutch in turn, throughout their territory.  It was a disaster for the colony – though a worse disaster for the Indians in the end (are you surprised?); they lost some 1,600 lives in the conflict.  Still the effects on the Dutch and their interests were so pronounced that it directly led to Kieft’s recall a few years later.

But first he had to bring the war to a close, something mainly credited to the merciless tactics of one John Underhill.  Underhill was a New Englander, famed for his brutality during the Pequot War of 1637, and he brought his hard-drinking, short-tempered style to New Netherlands to help them win their own conflict with the natives.  He succeeded – hence the 1,600 Indian casualties (some 500-700 occurring at the hand of his militia).  When time came to negotiate peace with the tribes however Kieft needed the help of someone a little less murderous than Underhill and so he turned to a fellow Dutchman, Adriaen van der Donck.  van der Donck was still fairly new to the colony, having arrived in 1641, but in those 4 years he’d been a tireless explorer, and booster, of the territory, learning the local Indian language and eventually writing a book extolling the virtues of this new world.  Knowing the ways of the natives van der Donck brought ample amounts of wampum to the peace negotiations, lending some to Kieft – who perhaps unsurprisingly had no idea of the tradition – so he could present the appropriate amount as a gift.  It was apparently appreciated – by Kieft I mean – because one year later he granted van der Donck some 24,000 acres of land along the Hudson River north of Manhattan (to put things in perspective Manhattan itself is close to 15,000 acres) making him, as Russell Shorto put it, “lord of much of what is today the Bronx and southern Westchester County.”

Beschryvinge van Nieuvv-Nederlant

van der Donck’s “Description of New Netherlands”

By the time van der Donck was granted the estate he was already married to Mary Doughty – daughter of Francis Doughty (did you think I had forgotten him?) – so settling new territory was becoming something of a family affair.  van der Donck named his newly-granted estate Colen Donck, and proceeded to build some saw mills along the large creek that would come to be called, surprise surprise, the Saw Mill River.  In light of the size of his land holdings the local Dutch started to call him Jonkheer, meaning “young gentlemen” or “squire” and it was from that word that the city of Yonkers would derive its name.  I’m not sure if the name came about in van der Donck’s lifetime; he would die some 10 years later, in 1655 or 56 – how or exactly when no records have been found to tell us, though the consensus seems to be he was most likely a casualty of the so called Peach Tree War.  The Peach Tree War was another conflict with the natives, lasting all of one day – September 15, 1655 – though this time the natives were the ones leading the surprise attack.  The attackers were members of the Susquehannock Nation, and they were retaliating for the capture of the Swedish colony, New Sweden, by the Dutch (under Willem Kieft’s replacement Director-General, Peter Stuyvesant).

Now if you’re anything like me, right now you’re saying, “wait a minute, did you just say New Sweden?” And I did! I said New Sweden – the Swedish actually had a colony in the United States for a brief period.  The Swedish!  You don’t exactly think of them as colonizers (or maybe think of them at all?).  It was in present day Delaware – another place you probably aren’t thinking about too much.  But maybe it’s time to start.  I hardly even really got started on Yonkers though, and this has already gotten longer than I thought it would.  That tends to happen.  So let’s call this Yonkers Part One, I guess.  I should probably call it Part One, question mark, cause at the rate I’m going am I ever really going to get back to it?  There’s so damn much to write about!  I’m not complaining mind you.  I mean, New Sweden!