Indians traded Manhattan for trinkets

Three of the Mythographer’s favorite words are “according to legend,” especially memorialized in bronze on a historical plaque.  And it just so happens that such a plaque can be found in the Mythographer’s backyard, otherwise known as New York City’s Inwood Hill Park, where it is affixed to a boulder surrounded by paved walkways. The plaque was dedicated as part of New York City’s 300th anniversary celebration in 1954. “According to legend,” the plaque reads, “on this site of the principal Manhattan Indian village, Peter Minuit in 1626, purchased Manhattan Island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders.”

Inwood Hill Park, New York City

Inwood Hill Park, New York City

So did the transfer happen in northern Manhattan? Did it even happen at all? And if not, why has its memory been kept alive? At first glance the place seems appropriate for such a transaction. The rock is known as “Shorakkopoch”, and it’s nondescript on its own.  But as a carrier of myth, it’s important.  Inwood, the residential neighborhood on the narrow northern tip of Manhattan is one of the few places on the island where it actually feels like an island, and an island left behind.  The park is home to 160 acres of the last original forest in Manhattan.  Rare plant and animal species abound. So do remnants of Native American culture.

There’s a natural prairie field abutting the inlet of brackish water which flows in and out of the Hudson River estuary.  At low tide, you can see Canadian geese make their way through the mud, avoiding the partially buried cell phones and truck tires.  Just across a narrow strip of water are the rocky heights of the Bronx.  This part of Manhattan was instrumental in the Revolutionary War, and it was one of the last areas to be settled–the A train didn’t reach that far north until the 1930s.  In the midst of the Art Deco-era apartment buildings gas stations, and liquor stores, there’s a Colonial-era farmhouse operated by the city as a museum.  Anyway, the neighborhood is a weird nexus of land, water, and history, and it feels appropriate that this would be the spot on which the world’s most famous transfer of property took place.

The plaque gives another reason why this site might have been chosen. With the specificity of an obituary, the plaque continues: “This boulder also marks the spot where a tulip tree (Liriodendron Tupera) grew to a height of 165 feet and a girth of 20 feet.  It was, until its death in 1938 at the age of of 230 years, the last living link with the Reckgawawang Indians who lived here.”  So the sale apparently took place in 1624, the tulip tree began growing in about 1700, the Reckgawawang still lived in Manhattan.  In 1938 the tree died.  In 1954, ancient tulip tree still within memory, the American Legion memorializes the spot.

Stay tuned for Part Two…

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