The Native Americans of the Patterson Area


Because Patterson is so rich in Colonial-era history, including events of the War of Independence, it is often forgotten that this area was already home to a thriving and organized culture even before the Europeans began their exploration of the “New World”. Often called “Indians” by early explorers, who thought they had arrived in India, these Native Americans, or “indigenous” peoples who predated the Europeans, made their homes throughout the Hudson Valley, and throughout the United States. Like the Europeans, the indigenous groups differed in language, customs, and political organization. But these groups were lumped together and considered one large race by the white Europeans who did not understand the red man anymore than the new land that they were exploring and colonizing.

The Algonquins

The Native Americans in our region were part of the Algonquin Nation, whose territory extended from the northeastern United States into Canada. The Algonquins consisted of three major confederations: the Mahicans, Delaware, and the Wappingers. Each of the confederations consisted of several tribes.

The Algonquins were a patriarchal society. Men were leaders and heads of families. The family was the fundamental unit of organization in Algonquin culture. Each family had defined territorial hunting and trapping areas that were passed from father to son. Several extended families comprised a “band”.

It is interesting to contrast our modern day enthusiasm for clean water and a clean environment with that of our Native American ancestors. Respect for, and proper use of, land was critical to the Algonquins who relied on the land for food and shelter – their very survival. Land use, therefore, was the key component of their social and political structure. In the winter, families hunted, fished and trapped. In the spring, they met at gathering points like waterways that could provide abundant resources such as fish, which could feed them through the summer. Waterways such as rivers and lakes were such important means of transportation, that they were often used to define the boundaries of hunting and trapping territories for each family, band, or tribe.

Native American villages in Patterson

Many of us may have images of the American Indian that is derived from their portrayal on television westerns and in movies. These portrayals are often of a savage and uncivilized race. While there were many wars among the tribes and between the Algonquins and other Native American Nations, the Algonquins had an interesting political structure that was loosely democratic. Algonquins from the various communities would meet in a council once or twice a year, usually in the spring and fall. At the council meetings, families could meet and discuss the state of their land, the availability of resources and food, and their relations with neighboring tribes. Decisions would be made on how hunting lands would be allocated to each family and band during the following year. Tribes were governed by councils of elected sachems, or chiefs. Eastern Algonquins also had a higher rank leader, the sagamores, and a bashaba, who functioned as a governor or president of the council.

The Algonquins did not recognize the concept of property ownership, sales, purchases, or trading. They saw the land as belonging to everyone in the tribe or subsidiary unit. This led to major misunderstandings between the Europeans and the Native Americans that often turned bloody. For example, the Europeans were able to seize property from the Native Americans by presenting deeds and bills of sale. But to the Native American, the deed simply was a friendly and neighborly gesture of offering to share the land.

The Wappingers

The Algonquin tribe the inhabited the area around Patterson was the Wappingers. The territory of the Wappingers was roughly bounded on the west by the Hudson River, on the south by area now known as the Bronx, on the north by the Rhinebeck area, and on the east by the Taconic Mountain Range along the New York / Connecticut border. The Wappingers were made up of seven sub-groups: the Kitchawank, the Nochpeem, the Sintsink, the Siwanoy, the Tankiteke, the Wappinger, and the Wecquaesgeek. It is, however, misleading to think of these groups as being one tribe. Each of the sub-groups was independent and handled its own affairs. The Wappingers typically only functioned as a single unit in times of war. The two sub-groups in the Patterson area were the Nochpeem, which occupied the area of northern Putnam County and southern Dutchess County, and the Tankiteke, which occupied the eastern halves of Putnam and Dutchess Counties into the extreme western portion of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Many of the towns throughout the Hudson Valley take their names from the Native American tribes that lived in those areas. Wappingers Falls in southwestern Dutchess County is an obvious example.

Any rock overhang or small cave could serve as a temporary shelter. This rock shelter is located in Patterson. (The Putnam County Historian) A typical wigwam was easily constructed from bark, thatch, or small branches. A hole in the roof allowed smoke from cooking or heating fires to escape. (Institute of Indian Studies, Washington, CT)

It is believed that the Wappingers settled in the Hudson Valley in 1300. The bays, inlets, rivers, creeks, and coves offered natural protection from their enemies. The Wappingers populated peaked in the early 1600s when it reached approximately 8,000. The Wappingers were an agrarian society, although hunting and fishing also provided additional food. The main crops included corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, which was used for ceremonial purposes. The Wappingers lived in wigwams or wooden long houses, but in winter they would retreat into fortified structures known as “castles”, which would afford protection from the elements and from their enemies. There were several encampments in and around the Great Swamp in Patterson, including Cornwall Hill, Mortner, Rock Cut, and Akins. A Native American cemetery was located at the mouth of the Haviland Hollow Brook, and was probably located near their winter hunting camp.

The Coming of the Europeans

The Algonquins of the Hudson Valley were initially friendly to the exploring Europeans. The Europeans actually needed the indigenous peoples to teach them how to survive in the “new world”. But cultural misunderstandings – and greed – soon doomed relations between the two.

French explorer Giovanni de Verrazano arrived in North America in 1524, and is thought to have been the first European to make contact with the Algonquin tribes. This contact was initially friendly, but Verrazano raised the ire of the Wappingers when he tried to kidnap two of them as he made his exit. Thus the stage was set for feelings of mistrust by the Wappingers for the Europeans.

Next to come was British explorer Henry Hudson, after whom the river is named. Hudson was in the service of the Dutch East India Co., and was searching for a northwest passage to China. Hudson arrived in 1609 and explored a greater portion of the river than Verrazano, reaching an area just south of Albany. Hudson made contact with several Native Americans along the way. Again, things quickly went bad. Upon initial contact, Hudson's men panicked and opened fire. The Wappingers returned a volley of arrows in defense, killing one of Hudson's men. Hudson eventually attempted to defuse tensions by inviting several local sachem onto his ship and presenting them with wondrous gifts from Europe, but the feelings of mistrust remained. Hudson's men had many peaceful encounters with some of the tribes he made contact with, but they also had some disastrous experiences.

An early Dutch map of New Netherlands shows both the Dutch and Native American settlements. (SUNY Stony Brook) After the hunt. (Putnam County Historian)

The Dutch had also arrived in the Hudson Valley in the early 17th century. After 1610, the Dutch had developed good relationships with the Wappingers, and were able to expand their trade routes into Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey. Settlements followed, and more and more Dutch arrived. Conflict between the Dutch and the Wappingers was inevitable. An especially violent period came during the rule of Dutch governor Willem Kieft, who commanded the New Netherlands colony, located near Albany, beginning in 1639. Keift was aggressive and incompetent, and ran roughshod over the rights of the indigenous peoples in his territory. During Kieft's rule, many altercations occurred among the various Algonquin tribes living within the territory claimed by the Dutch.

In 1664 a British fleet captured the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, and the Dutch ceased to be a significant influence in North America. English colonists then arrived and settled in Wappinger territory. Lands were taken, sometimes for payment in trade, and often under less than ethical conditions. Between 1683 and 1685, the Wappingers sold more than 100,000 acres of land to the Europeans.

The Decline of the Wappingers

From the mid 1600s to the mid 1700s, the Wappinger population the Hudson Valley dropped quickly. There were many reasons for the decline in addition to the often questionable land grabs by the Europeans. Illegal alcohol sales to the Wappingers created social problems. There were deaths caused by smallpox epidemics in the Hudson Valley in 1636, 1656, and 1692, and by a malaria epidemic in 1700. Warfare took more lives. Tribal conflicts took their toll. Even more lives were lost as the Wappingers and other Native American nations were forced to participate in the European wars that stretched from Europe to the European colonies in North America. For example, during King William's War (1689-96), the British recruited Wappingers warriors to help defend New York from the attacking French and their Mohawk allies. Two-thirds of them perished. Those Wappingers who were left in the Hudson Valley moved away from the region. Most moved north to the Mahican villages along the Housatonic River in western Massachussetts, or moved with other Algonquins to Schaghticoke in the Upper Hudson region. Some also moved to New Jersey and were absorbed by the Unami and Munsee Delaware. By the 1730s, there were only a few hundred Wappingers left in the lower Hudson Valley.

A young woman watches for birds or other animals that might attack food crops. (NY State Museum) Arrowheads like these have been found locally. They are carved from stone. (The Putnam County Historian) An old cemetery on Haviland Hollow Rd, as seen in this 1978 photograph. The cemetery contains the graves of early European settlers as well as Native Americans. (The Putnam County Historian)

The European missionaries not only brought Christianity to the Native Americans, but also made the Native Americans aware of European law. When warfare failed to remove the European settlers from Native American lands, the Wappingers and Mahicans turned to the European courts for help. Daniel Nimham, the last prominent Wappinger sachem, even traveled to England to plead his case to the Crown. In 1762 Nimham filed suit in the New York courts to reclaim land that was taken without compensation. The colonists, first taken aback by the surprising tactic, regrouped and filed a series of motions designed to delay the suit. Eventually the War of Independence interrupted the legal process.

During the War of Independence, the Wappingers first tried to remain neutral, but then sided with the Americans. Nimham and his warriors fought in many battles, including Bunker Hill in 1774, White Plains in 1776, Saratoga in 1777, and Barren Hill in 1778. Nimham and over 40 of his warriors were killed in 1778 in the battle of Kingsbrige, located near the Bronx/Westchester border. Half of the Mahican and Wappinger men of military age died fighting for the American cause during the war. Even with the size of their sacrifice, they were prohibited from becoming citizens of the new country of the United States. The remaining Wappingers scattered throughout the country to join other tribes.