Friday, September 2, 2011

Blood in the Streets: The Forgotten Wars of Jersey City

Everyday thousands of people go to the districts of Jersey City, New Jersey but little of them know about the areas interesting past. The area is now home to many who want a picturesque view of Manhattan, business that are some of the biggest companies in the nation, young mobile socialites who hit the trendy bars and restaurants that line the streets and visitors from across the world who come to get that perfect photo of the New York skyline. However, I am willing to bet 99% of them do not know the bloody history that once soaked the ground they are living, working, partying or walking on today.


So what am I talking about? Blood in the Streets? Forgotten Wars? Well I am talking about Keift's War, a war that happened right in Jersey City. I bet next your asking yourself, but who could have fought a war there? Well before Jersey City was the bustling, urban and the populated diverse city it is today, it was inhabited by the Lenape. The Lenape were just doing there thing and then their new neighbors, the Dutch, showed up and opened up shop on. The two completely different cultures living side by side was a recipe for disaster. The two groups differed in every way imaginable and those difference would only led to tensions growing which ultimately led to conflict. Before we get into the conflict, lets talk a lot at the two groups and piece together history and see where and when things went wrong.


I will start with the Lenape since, well since most people don't know the Native Americans in New Jersey had a name or even that they existed on the scale which they did. The word Lenape is Unami,(a dialect used by the Lenape) meaning "the people." The Lenape lived in a village style setting, much different from that of say the Iriquois or Souix Nations. They related like neighbors, and the Lenape were like the sweet old couple that lived on the corner, the nice old lady that baked cookies and everyone did things for her and the hard ass old husband that no one messed with because he is a WWII Vet that could still beat up half the neighborhood tough guys. What I am trying to say is that they were the most respected tribes in the area and often looked to for leadership. Most of the Lenape's history has been learned from the notes early settlers that first came to New Jersey. The Lenape were skilled at everything, perhaps that is why they were held so high amongst other tribes, and these skills were noted by the Dutch from clothing, hunting, culture, etc.


So before we get into the first few meetings and all that diplomatic stuff lets talk about the Dutch. We all know about Henry Hudson sailing right into what would become New York Harbor and dropping anchor like he owned the place. Now why did he, well because he was backed by the biggest company in the world, at the time, the Dutch West India Company. It was so big and powerful it held great political power then the Dutch government did, a old world JP Morgan Chase or HSBC Holdings. Hudson and his men set up shop and opened the New York metro area to the New Netherland Company. This was like opening the flood gates. The Dutch company sent ships loaded with merchants and settlers. Now we will fast forward a bit to 1643 when the Dutch were very well established in the area. Now why 1643? Well that is when things are starting to turn sour between the Lenape and Dutch.

                                                                             National Archive

Now why did things get bad in 1643? Well as you can see from that handy map above, it shows the center of New Netherlands, which encompassed New Amsterdam (New York City) and the area that would become New Jersey (or the Lenape's land). Now the first Dutch settlers arrived in modern day Jersey City in 1634 and set up a small villiage known as Communipaw (Yes, Jersey City residents that is where Communipaw Ave gets it's name from). Farms were established to feed the growing population of New Amsterdam. And that is problem number one, the farms and can anyone guess what it is? Anyone? Well it is the use a slavery. The Lenape and other tribes seeing this left the area in fear of being enslaved. Problem number two was just general miscommunications. Third, was the "tribute payments" which was basically shake down money the Dutch demanded from the Lenape. These problems all boiled over in the Pavonia Massacre, or the straw that broke the camels back. What happened was a Dutch military expedition brutally killed several Wappingers (remember the Lenape were like a community, so different villages had different names Lenape is just a general term for "the people"). This was it, it was over the Lenape were ready to rain fire down on the Dutch and that is exactly what they did.


The war between the two sides would be known as Kieft's War. Williem Keift was the Director of New Netherland, basically the equal of what the Mayor Bloomberg today. The only difference is that Kieft had military power and he ordered the Pavonia Massacre with the goal being the removal of the Lenape. Too bad for Kieft the Lenape were not going to let that happen. Kieft had been pushing for a war with the Lenape but unfortunately for him the Dutch colonists thought he was a nutty war monger and didn't pay attention to him. The colonist knew they had a good relationship with the Lenape through trade and basically that they hadn't killed all of them yet. But Kieft wasn't happy. He launched attack after attack on local tribes from Jersey City to all corners of New Netherland. The worst happened in Jersey City and is known as the Pavonia Massacre, or the first battle of Kieft's War. In this "battle" Kieft sent 130 Dutch troops out and they, without mercy, killed 120 Lenape men, women and children. And what did Kieft do after that? Well first he denied that he gave the order and then second he rewarded the returning troops. Now how bad was this? Check this example out from someone that was there:

"Infants were torn form their mother's breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown..."

So you can see it was pretty brutal and the Dutch had some serious revenge coming their way.

It was about to get serious. The fall of 1643 spelled bad news for the Dutch. The Lenape and the surrounding tribes around New Netherland joined force and prepared to invade. How big of a force? It estimated they had somewhere around 1500 to 1700 warriors ready to rock'n'roll. No matter what the number was the Natives were no longer messing around, they killed anyone and anything that crossed their paths. They killed one of the leading women in American History, Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson was big on women's right and tried to gain as much as possible for them within the strict Puritan society. She was also one of the first believers in a separation of church and state, but I digress. So the Lenape were on the war path (no pun intended). After they were done killing settlers and scaring the hell out of the survivors, they destroyed everything. Historians say that the tribes destroyed about 20 years of settlers works. The Lenape caused such chaos that New Amsterdam was over crowded with refugees and was on the verge of complete collapse. It got so bad that the Dutch colonist began to impeach Kieft. Check this out, part of the argument to remove Kieft:

"We sit here among thousands of wild and barbarian people, in whom neither consolation nor mercy can be found; we left our dear fatherland, and if God the Lord were not our comfort we would perish in our misery"

Now if that doesn't spell fearing for your life I don't know what does. The Dutch were sitting ducks, just waiting to be pushed out of New Amsterdam and back to the Netherlands. But the Lenape resisted killing all of them. In that moment of weakness (which I use the word weakness loosely) the Dutch counter attacked. This attack was orchestrated by Kieft in order to save his own skin. Even though it was successful the people still had enough. They saw Kieft was bad for business and was causing not just a loss of profit for New Netherland but the loss of life he cause was unexceptable. And even though his counter attack worked, it was like putting a piece of chewing gum on a broken water main. The Lenape for the next two years harassed the hell out of the New Netherland colonists. They continued their attacks on settlers outside of New Amsterdam and that includes anything the Dutch did in Jersey City. However, the tribes could never get that final big blow that would have sent the Dutch pack together. So instead they stuck to the hit and run tactics which worked just as good, for 2 very long years. After two years of living in constant fear, Kieft was removed and a peace treaty was signed.


So what happened after the dust settled? Well many of the Dutch hauled ass out of New Amsterdam. The Dutch West India Company's street cred was serious damaged and lost boat loads of monetary support from investors. Kieft (that handsome fellow in the picture above) was called back to the Netherlands to answer for all the problems he caused and in a stroke of... perhaps justice, Divine Providence, or just plain ole karma he died in a shipwreck off the coast of Wales before ever making it back to the Netherlands. The population of New Netherland also was destroyed. It is estimated that only about 800 Dutch remained after the war, which is less then half of prewar estimates. For the Dutch this was the beginning of the end. The Dutch controlled the areas of New Netherland for about 17 more years before handing it over to the British. And what about the Lenape? Well there is no estimation of total deaths. What is known is that the Lenape and surrounding tribes slowly lost their lands and were pushed south and west. Today the Lenape still exist, somewhat, they have lost their ancestral lands and have been, over our history, forced out west.


So why write about something that happened in the 1640s? Who cares? Well that is why I wrote this. Living in Hudson County my whole life you never learn about our areas Native history. We learn about the Dutch and Peter Stuyvesant, the American Revolution and the militia battles at Bull's Ferry, the waves of immigrants and the building of Hudson Counties industries, but never about the Lenape or their history. Aside from that we have monuments scared throughout the county from every possible person or group. Civil War, Spanish American War, Firefighters, Police, 9/11, Presidents, Jackie Robinson, Celia Cruz, even a monument for the Katyn Massacre (Polish Nationals killed by the Soviets, in Poland). Now why isn't their a monument to the Lenape? Was having a village massacred not enough? Go reread the excerpt and tell me that the Lenape do not deserve a tribute on the Jersey City waterfront? Are they not Americans? Are they not a part of our History? I say yes and I say it is time to see them honored. Whether my writing makes a difference and influences someone else to push for a monument then great. But what I'd like for the read to take away is just the knowledge that such an injustice had happened right under your feet. So whether your going to work, to Newport Mall, catching the Path, going out for the night or going home remember the Lenape and remember that it was their land, a land which their blood has been spilled on and a land which they defended bravely.


  1. great story...and yes...a monument is long overdue!

  2. I absolutely agree, it is an injustice. I thank you for making the whole story during that particular time , clear and to the point. Our church pastor was actually the one to point out this story, he believes its cursed, my son was killed in that area and many have died from all types of cancer. The lenape left a mark thats for sure.

  3. GLORY, thanks for the post and for stopping by to read the post. I am sorry to hear about your son. But if you do not mind my asking, what church do you belong to? I'd love to pass by and pick your Pastor's brain about what he knows about the Lenape in the area, please let me know and thanks