Whose Streets? Lenape Streets! The Hidden History of Brooklyn

Walking down Fulton Street in Brooklyn or dodging cars on Atlantic Avenue, it can be easy to forget that New York has ever been anything but a crowded, congested warren of roads, apartments and subways. In fact, though, humans have inhabited the Lower Hudson region for over 12,000 years. At the time, what is now New York City was a rich floodplain about 70 miles from the ocean, and the land was packed with mega-flora and fauna, from woolly mammoths to mastodons and giant beavers. The people who inhabited this land lived on its wealth, hunting, gathering and fishing the rivers. Over the next 2000 years, the ice age began to retreat, the climate changed, and the megafauna went extinct from a mix of overhunting and warmer weather. By 8000 years ago, the rising sea had swallowed most of the floodplain, creating rivers, estuaries, marshes and harbors and compelling the hunter-gatherer tribes of the area to stay longer and longer at fertile spots near rivers. Over time, these temporary camps became permanent settlements, and the scattered tribes developed a common language and customs. These early indigenous inhabitants called themselves the Lenape, roughly translated as the common people, and called their home—which covered parts of present-day New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware—Lenapehoking.

The Lenape migrated to what is now New York City about 3,000 years ago, and by the time of European contact, they were nearly twenty autonomous Lenape groups and nearly 20,000 Lenape. Manhattan and Brooklyn were largely dominated by the Munsee (named for the dialect of Algonquin that they spoke), in particular the Canarsee and Marechkawieck. As detailed in another Social Justice Tours post, the Lenape people were brutalized by European conquest, and a combination of new diseases, wars, massacres and nefarious land “purchases” eventually reduced their population to just ten percent of its former power and transferred Lenapehoking almost entirely into European hands.

  Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds and Places in Kings County , 1946,  Brooklyn Historical Society

The majority of Lenape descendants now live in Oklahoma—displaced from their original homeland by years of forced migration and war—a tragedy that has yet to be fully absorbed or accounted for by the US government and its people. But even the unwitting Brooklyn commuter is closer to Lenape history that they might think. According to a 1946 Brooklyn Historical Society map, Atlantic, Flatbush and Division Avenues, as well as Fulton Street, were all built on old Lenape trade, hunting or walking paths and the modern-day Van Voorhees park is based on an old park labeled as Sassians.

Boerum Hill appears to have been home to an Indian burial ground, and what is now City Hall appears to have been a thriving indigenous village.

Knowing that our modern thoroughfares are descended from Indian paths and our government buildings are built on one-time Indian villages doesn’t—obviously—undo the centuries of genocide and abuse that European and American people have heaped upon the indigenous population of Turtle Island. But recognizing that the land you walk everyday in New York was shaped by the rightful inhabitants of this land reminds us that the entire United States is a palimpsest of colonial violence built over centuries of Native American homes, lands and habitats—as well as customs, beliefs, and practices. If we can learn to read the streets beneath the streets and the stories beneath the stories, we can be one step closer to acknowledging and repairing our part in covering them up.

Ash Sanders