History of New York State/Pre-Colonial History and the "Province of New York"


This chapter will examine the pre-colnial history of the New York State. People have lived in what is now known as the State of New York for over five thousand years. Native Americans were the first migrants to settle in to the New York area, having ultimately settled there after traveling by way of the Bearing Strait, pushing through mountains, plains and forests. The fertile land surrounding the riverbanks was attractive to these migrants as they sought to establish settlements. The geographical features of New York made the area a strategic stronghold for any group of Native Americans that was able to establish themselves there. The first group of Native Americans to occupy the New York area spoke the Algonquian language with the last wave of Algonquians’ arriving just before the year 1000. By the time the first white settlers arrived in New York during the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, the power of the Algonquians’ had declined and had shifted to the powerful tribes of the Iroquois. With the arrival of European settlers such as Henry Hudson the political and social landscape of the new world started to change. This chapter will also look at the history of the New Netherlands and their settlement of New Amsterdam which would eventually become NEW york City. Finally this section will examine the influence of the telegraph, newspapers and Rural literacy in New York State history.

The IroquoisEdit

When the first French explorers came to the North Eastern forests of North Americas five hundred years ago they encountered a people whom they called the Iroquois. The Iroquois ruled a vast territory of what is now New York State, Ontario and Quebec. The Iroquois were famous for their skills in hunting and their abilities as warriors. In addition, the Iroquois system of government was highly sophisticated and democratic.

Part of a map of featuring land belonging to the Iroquois from end of XVIIIe century by Louis Hennepin, made for Guillaume III of Orange.

Early Ancestors of the IroquoisEdit

The ancestors of the Iroquois lived in the North Eastern forests for thousands of years. At first they were hunter gathers, but eventually they developed means to cultivate the land. The ability to cultivate the land allowed them to build permanent villages, which grew into larger nations. The area was comprised of five such nations, including the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca. In total, fifty thousand people lived in these nations, sharing similar languages and cultures.

Iroquois HousingEdit

The Iroquois lived in villages with two main housing units, the wigwam and the long house. The wigwam was built out of bent sticks shaped in a circle with bark and grass used to make the roof. In addition, many Iroquois lived in longhouses, which were constructed out of wood saplings sheathed in elm bark. Longhouses ranged from 40 to 400 meters in length and usually had three to five fires inside them. The Iroquois call themselves Haudenosaunee, which translates into the “People of the Longhouse.”

Wars and ConflictEdit

Despite their similarities, the nation’s often fought against one another for land and power. The largest such conflict was the Iroquois civil war, which lasted for over one hundred years. One reason why the Iroquois Civil War lasted for so long was because of the custom known as "mourning war". Mourning war was a religious custom were every death of a community member had to be answered either by the taking of captives or the death of a member of the enemy tribe. It is obvious how the influence of this practice of mourning warfare can lead to a bloody cycle of warfare. The Iroquois civil war threatened the survival of the Iroquois people. Evidence of the carnage of these dark times can be seen in archeological sites of Iroquois villages. For example, most villages had tall stockades surrounding the village to protect from attackers.

Formation of the Iroquois ConfederacyEdit

The Iroquoian prophet Deganawida, also known as the Peace Keeper, is said to have brought peace and unity to the Iroquois nations. It is said that the Peace Keeper was born in a Huron village, where he had a vision from the creator to bring peace to the Iroquois nations. Another important actor was Hiawatha, who was a skilled warrior and leader of the Onondaga nation. Hiawatha and the Peacemaker worked together to share their message of peace to the Iroquois nations. One by one they convinced each nation to join the Iroquois Confederacy. Under the Iroquois Confederacy the practice of revenge killing was replaced with the Great Law of Peace This law acted as a constitution and ensured peace and cooperation between the five nations. Under the Great Law each Nation played a role in the governing process. The Iroquois Confederacy was governed by a council of village chiefs who acted as the governing voice for the Iroquois. Tribes were also arranged into political structures known as clans. These were made up of many families with common Female ancestors. Compared to their modern Western counterparts, Iroquois women had much more power. For example, elder women, known as clan leaders, were responsible for village life and for appointing the male council of chiefs. If necessary, they could also remove them from office for poor behaviour or abuse of power.

The founders of this confederacy linked their new government to “a long house where families dwell together in harmony.” Meaning that it was meant to bring peace to the tribes of the Iroquois. This confederacy formed a very intricate political structure between the five nations of the Iroquois. The five nations divided their people up into clans. Each of these clans was given the symbol of an animal to represent them. Clans extended through each of the five nations with members of a clan in one nation being bound with the strictest of ties to members of the same clan in the other four nations. However, it was forbidden to marry a member of the same clan. Although the clans had their own leaders, no one clan or tribe could enter into any sort of important activities, such as declaring war or signing peace treaties, until this matter had been formally discussed in a council of all the nations and a decision had been arrived at unanimously. As the confederacy became more and more powerful, jealousy and hatred on the part of neighboring peoples began to grow. Many wars broke out between the Iroquois confederacy and neighboring nations, the Iroquois were known for their brutality when at war and have said to be the most powerful war machine in the history of all Native American’s. This led to other nations being humiliated by the Iroquois or in some cases, completely annihilated.

The transition from the five nations to the Iroquois Confederacy is best seen in the Wampum belt. In the center of the belt is a white pine tree which symbolizes the unity of the Iroquois nations. Some social scientists believe the Iroquois confederation was built out of threat from the European settlers as a quasi-militaristic means of protection. The Iroquois confederacy was a highly advanced political organization which would eventually become a model for many constitutions, including that of the United States. Historians, such as Donald Grinde have argued that democratic practices of the Iroquois helped inspire Benjamin Franklin and many other framers of the United States Constitution. The most most influential law was the Great Law of Peace, which brought peace to the Iroquois tribes. On October 5 1988, the US Congress recognized the Iroquois's impact on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The Iroquois and the early European SettlersEdit

The arrival of European settlers would dramatically change the balance of power in North America. For over 200 years, the fur trade forced the Iroquois to choose sides between the British and French. During this time European powers tried to gain favour with them so they could be used as a valuable ally. These men campaigned for the confederacy because of the urgent need for peace and unity among the nations of the Iroquois.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the Iroquois confederacy is that they were able to still maintain their power after the Dutch, French and British came to New York. The Iroquois were able to adopt the superior techniques of these white settlers and maintain a dominant position in New York for well over a century after their arrival. The Iroquois were able to establish friendly relationships with the Dutch and British trading furs with them for items such as cloth, guns, and rum. The British recognized the power of the Five Nations Confederacy and endeavored to convert the Iroquois into loyal allies. Prior to the British, the Dutch were the Iroquois Confederacy's closest European allies due to their close proximity to the Iroquois, which allowed for easy trade. The British accomplished their goal by annexing the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1664, and by default adopting the close alliance with the Iroquois. The British were able to use their relationship with the Iroquois to turn them against the French the Iroquois raided many French settlements. However, this caused a bloody retaliation, which forced the Iroquois to sign a peace treaty with the French in 1701. The Iroquois were able to use the treaties they had with the French and British to make them play against each other and in affect create their own control of the fur trade. Because of their remarkable ability to adopt new techniques and adapt to different situations, the British regarded the Iroquois as the most powerful confederation of Native American’s known to them.

Henry HudsonEdit

Initial voyageEdit

Little is known of the early life of Henry Hudson until he was hired by the Dutch to seek a new passage to Asia, after attempting to do so twice for the British. Setting out aboard the Halve Maen (Half Moon), icy conditions in the North Atlantic drove Hudson south towards North America, where he intended to find another route north through the rivers to the Pacific Ocean. Hudson anchored initially in Delaware Bay, but, knowing that his ship was too large to navigate the shallow waters, he then sailed northward along the coast and into what is now the Hudson River.

Native InteractionsEdit

Initial interactions with Natives were quite peaceful, with both the sailors and natives were fascinated by curiosity about the other. Yet after three days of coming and going in peace, a boat returning from an exploration was suddenly attacked by natives in two sets of canoes. John Colman was the one sailor who was killed in this attack, becoming the first European to have died in the Hudson River. Colman was buried afterwards on Sandy Hook, and the spot was named Colman’s Point in his memory. After this violent interaction, Hudson refused to fully trust the intentions of the natives, yet nonetheless continued to trade with them as he sailed further upriver. The Halve Maen eventually sailed upriver to what is now the present city of Albany, the furthest point up the river. At Albany interactions with natives were significantly more pleasant than earlier on, exchanging many different goods, some were even welcomed aboard to drink wine. Theses interactions with natives at Albany were a part of what established the area as a significant trading centre, along with many other positive interactions Hudson and his crew had on their journey back downriver.

Hudson’s final voyage, and memory today.Edit

Halve Maen approaching Manhattan 28 June 2009

The final voyage of Henry Hudson contributes even more to the mystery surrounding his life. Setting out in 1610 on another attempt to find the northwest passage, the ship and crew were unprepared for the rough and icy waters of what is now Hudson’s Bay. Somewhere in the bay, a long-time crew member of Hudson’s led a mutiny against him, and set Hudson, along with a few others (including one young boy assumed to be his son) out adrift, never to be heard from again. While Henry Hudson is credited with discovering New York, there is substantial evidence of previous European explorers sailing into the area, and even sailing upstream what was to become known as the Hudson River. Yet, similar to Christopher Columbus’ relationship to the discovery of North America, Henry Hudson is given this credit because his “discovery” is seen as the starting point of the colonization and development of New York State. The impact of Hudson’s voyage is extensive, but it is clear that his reports back to the Dutch led to the establishment of the New Netherland, the first major European colony along the Hudson River. The importance of it is not forgotten, even today. In 2009 both Manhattan and Amsterdam held 400th anniversary celebrations of the voyage, including a major exhibit in the Museum of the City of New York. Hudson has been celebrated as one of the world’s most notable explorers, in spite of his life ending in failure to find the northwest passage. This passage was finally discovered by the explorer Ronald Amundsen, ironically near the three hundredth anniversary of Hudson’s first voyage to find it.

New Netherlands(1614-1667)Edit

Original map made of New Netherlands by Nicolaes Visscher I in 1656; this is a reprint from 1685

The New Netherlands was the 17th century colonial province of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The settled Dutch areas are now parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The Capital of the colonial was New Amsterdam which was located at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. In 1609, Henry Hudson, an English explorer was hired by the Dutch East India Company to locate a Northeast passage to Asia sailing around Scandinavia and Russia. Due to the amount of ice he was forced to turn west, eventually he ended up exploring the east coast of North America. Hudson came across several different native groups. Upon return from the New World, Hudson dispatched reports to the Dutch East India Company, proposing more searches in the New World. In 1614, the governing body of the United Netherlands colonials issued patents in 1614 for the development of New Netherlands as a private commercial venture. The colonial ship dispatched was known as the New Netherland, and this name was then transferred to describe the colonial province surrounding the northeast coast of this new world. As a private business their main goal was to exploit the North American fur trade. The Dutch legislator preferred small trading posts as opposed to large colonies. They were more interested in a quick profit, as opposed to establishing colonies. It was not until the defeat in Brazil did the Dutch West Company focus on North American colonization. The Dutch settlers relied on the Native Americans population, including the Algonquians to capture fur for them. The Dutch slowly built many trading posts in the area to take advantage of the fur trade. Overtime, the Dutch established a monopoly over the fur trade by allying with the Iroquois Confederacy. Ultimately as trade started to boom the Dutch population grew. In 1617 Dutch colonists built forts at the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. Today this is where Albany stands in New York State. In an attempt to protect the mouth of the Hudson from other colonial powers the Dutch set up a colony on the island of Manhattan, purchased from the natives for a price of twenty-eight dollars. The citadel Fort Amsterdam was built to protect the mouth of the river. Eventually the fort expanded and became a permanent place of settlement. To protect the settler’s investment Peter Minuit negotiated the purchase of Manhattan from the local native groups for only 60 guilders. The colony was renamed New Amsterdam and became the capital of the Dutch colonies in North America. New Amsterdam became a vital trading hub between Europe and North America. Furthermore, the colony was very diverse consisting of Europeans, Native American’s, and African slaves. In 1664, the British captured New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. The ancestors of the original Dutch settlers played an important role in colonial America.

The Telegraph, Newspapers and Rural literacyEdit

1747 New-York Gazette, Revived in the Weekly Post-Boy Jan19

Prior to the American Revolution localized literary rates were stagnant. However these rates had risen to prominence once the rhetoric of the revolution had popularized local media as a political tool in the 18th century. Colonial identity went through a transformation which established it as distinctly different from, although ultimately loyal to, Britain. By the eve of the American Revolution this identity had shifted in a direction of segregation from Britain in respect not only to politics but in all aspects of life. This transformation was by and large affected by the various talks, letters, speeches, pamphlets, and newspapers that emerged prior to and during the American Revolution. Often the topic of debate previous to the conflict between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies was the anguished and varying views amongst the colonists in regards to what action was most appropriate to take in the face of British tyranny. The heightened spread and frequency in which literary media was produced was in response to the intolerable acts instated by the British Government. Initially the American Revolution was not about violent acts done for sovereignty but rather, as John Adams was reported to say, it was to change the “minds and hearts of the people” and the articles at the time often reflect this view. American Whigs used the method of adopting new techniques of political agencies and the spread of public communication to rally a popular front. Literary works and pamphlets became a popular trend at this time: one notorious example with extraordinary consequences being the pamphlet Common Sense authored by Thomas Paine.

Newspapers printed during this time did not have much of the credibility or accuracy that is expected from today's media, yet, they did provide a new perspective that was now readily available to the masses, which commented first on the American Revolution, and then also the Civil War. It took until several generations later before newspapers could be published without the problems of being anonymous, without a date, location, origin, or lacking important details. The first New York local newspaper is reported to have been the New-York Gazette, which is estimated to have first been issued circa November 8-12, 1725.

There had been an attempt at the propagation of multi-lingual schools in New York State for some time, however most notably, where there had once been Dutch-language schools within New York State they soon became replaced by Anglican Societies in favor of English-language schools. This fact can account for the Anglicization of both Dutch and French populations in the colonies; furthermore, it suggests a method in which American populations could become consolidated in language and therefore able to access the growing market for telegraphs, newspapers, and general literacy.

Last modified on 29 November 2013, at 04:54