The territory we now know as New York City was originally inhabited by the Lenape, an offspring of the Algonquin civilization whose forced displacement began with the arrival of Europeans, continuing well into the 19th century.
Starting in 1524, the Europeans began to have contact with the current area of NYC, when Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian sailor, first arrived into New York harbor to trade with the Lenape, followed by the Dutch in the Hudson River area in 1598.
By 1626, the Dutch allegedly “bought” the Manahatta island from the Lenape, a transaction enforced by the building of a wall around what then became New Amsterdam, marking the beginning of the Lenape’s forced mass migration out of their homeland.
The wall, originally built to keep out the Native Americans and the British, eventually became Wall Street, Manahatta – translating to “Hilly Island” – turned into Manhattan and Wickquasgeck, part of the Lenape trade route became BredeStraat, which was renamed as Broadway by the English once they took control of the area in 1664. Today, most Lenape live in New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Ontario, but their influence on the city’s physical geography can still be felt.
Once the English renamed the colony as Province of New York, the city kept growing northward, becoming the third-largest in the British Empire, after London and Philadelphia. Cosmopolitan from the beginning, NYC was established and governed mostly as a strategic trading post.
By the late 1700s, 25% of its population consisted of enslaved Africans or people of African descent. Around 40% of the population back then owned slaves, meaning the success and development of the city relied heavily on their work.
Now that we have some context to New York City’s colonial history, let’s review some of the major sites to visit during this Decolonizing Tour of the city.
The American Museum of Natural History:
Hopefully, by the time you’re reading this and taking your own decolonizing tour around NYC, the statue of Theodore Roosevelt, flanked by African and Native American men at the entrance of the Museum has already been removed, as protesters have demanded it for years. Still, be sure to visit the exhibition that directly refers to it and the controversies around it.
While the AMNH (American Museum of Natural History) has certainly attempted to address the issues it faces by providing context and highlighting inaccuracies in some of its exhibits, there is still much to be criticized about natural history museums in general, as the entangled histories of anthropology and natural history present some quite unique obstacles to decolonization processes: While there aren’t any exhibits dedicated to Northern European or North England cultures, there are plenty of permanent halls dedicated to non-European peoples, a practice which serves to perpetuate the notion that only Indigenous and non-Western peoples deserve to be on display alongside minerals, fauna, and flora. This aligns everything non-Western with the natural, biological, and pre-civilized.
Columbus Circle, Upper West Side
Though protesters have rallied against it for years, the statue of Christopher Columbus at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle remains intact and guarded by NYPD officers.
While there are several other Christopher Columbus statues across the city, and even a Columbus Park in Brooklyn, this one, in particular, was included in the National Register of Historic Places, meaning it is permanently protected as a federal monument.
Designed by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, the statue has been held in place since 1892, when it was erected to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage that changed an entire continent’s history. It also offers a symbol of recognition to Italian immigrants in the country, since it was funded by every Italian American business in New York at the time, who saw it as a way to honor their history and ethnicity, as well as an attempt to be better accepted within American society after facing long term discrimination.
While Columbus’ legacy as a colonizer and the main historical figure behind the genocide of indigenous people all around the American continent cannot be disputed, the fact that it holds such meaning to Italian Americans – who have rallied all around to defend it several times – is what causes it to remain in place.
African Burial Ground National Monument, Lower Manhattan
Lost under years of urban development and landfill, the African Burial Ground National Monument was rediscovered in 1991, revealing the remains of 419 Africans and more than 500 individual artifacts. Located in a small plot of land in Lower Manhattan, we can now recognize this place as the burial ground for over 15,000 free and enslaved Africans between the 1690s and the 1790s.
As the Dutch granted conditional freedom to a few African men and women in the 1640s, an African community was created on the outskirts of the city. However, members of this community were not allowed to bury their dead in New York’s primary burial ground, which is why this particular spot was chosen to do so.
The discovery of this site provided great research material for anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians regarding NYC’s African community in the 18th century. Today, a visitor center and museum have been established at the site, offering a series of exhibits, walking tours, and activities highlighting the Burial Ground’s contributions to history and information about the social, political, cultural, and economic aspects of the African community in colonial New York.
Bowling Green Park, Lower Manhattan
Before settlers arrived, the place now hosting New York City’s oldest park used to be the seat of power in Manahatta, home to the Kapsee chief and a sacred elm tree marking one of the island’s most important meeting places. Here, the Lenape held Council Fires, and crowds of people gathered to trade, socialize or listen to the words of great speakers.
According to several reports, it was right on this place where the Dutch laid claim to Manhattan Island during a shady “trade” operation in 1626. Peter Minuit, director of the Dutch settlement, assumed he was buying the island for sixty guilders (around $24 at the time) worth of goods, naming it “New Amsterdam” and claiming it as a settlement. However, the Lenape had only agreed to share the territory with them and even helped the newcomers adjust to their new environment before conflict arose, and they were eventually kicked out of their territory.
Minetta Lane, Greenwich Village
Both current-day Minetta Lane and Minetta Street are named after the Minetta Creek, a stream that runs right beneath West 3rd Street, between McDougal Street and 6th Avenue. Before the colonizers arrived, the Lenape called this creek “Manetta”, meaning “evil spirit” or “snake water”, referring to an Algonquin legend about an evil snake that had tormented the world for long, until Nanabush, a Lenape hero, finally vanquished it and all that was left of it was this snake-like creek.
By the mid-17th century, the area became home to “partially-freed” slaves, who settled around the creek once they were allowed by the Dutch to farm a small patch of land for a fee. After slavery was abolished in New York City in 1827, the area became home to a large African American population, which caused it to be known as “Little Africa”.
Astor Place, East Village
Formerly known as Kintecoying by the Lenape, today’s Astor Place used to be a major inter-tribal crossroad in which Manahatta’s three major Lenape groups would gather. Back in the 16th century, the Canarsie, Sapohannikan, and Manahatta people hosted meetings, speech councils, games, politics, trades, and burials right in this place. It is also the same spot where Red Cloud, chief of the largest tribe of the Teton Sioux Nation and an influential Native American leader gave a prominent speech back in 1870, urging peace with the U.S. government.
Long before Wall Street was one of the most important financial centers in the world, when New York City was called New Amsterdam and owned by the Dutch, a wall between 9 to 12 feet high and 2,300 feet long was built in the area along the current road as a way to protect the Dutch settlement from attackers – such as pirates, the British and Native Americans.
Here, the Dutch settlers conducted much of their trading, building a large outdoor marketplace in which even financial transactions were carried. By 1711, once the British had already taken hold of the area, this became the city’s slave market. Considering how significant the role of slave trading was in the economy of the British Empire, the area quickly became a prominent financial center where men made fortunes trading slaves on the auction blocks.
Planning a visit to New York? Check out our article on Where to Find the Best Views of New York City!
We hope you learnt a lot from this article on New York’s colonial history. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter!
Decolonizing Travel is a series aimed at shedding light on the colonial past of major European and North American countries through the revisiting of monuments, streets, and sites particularly related to it.