Peach Trees of Manhattan

Native American historian Evan Pritchard brings groups on guided tours of Manhattan, telling about the lives of Natives who lived there before the skyscrapers and subway tunnels.

He shows us the archaeological fossils that we walk through every day, sitting there in plain sight. Like Broadway in Manhattan, a trail believed to have been originally created by Mastodons, walking in single file, during a time when the Wisconsin glacier had receded to that point. It was then tread by Natives for thousands of years. The “Mohican Trail,” begins and ends at two geological power centers: Bowling Green, at the tip of Manhattan island, and Montreal. The 5000 year old trail was first a pilgrimage route, then a great trading route.

Another archaeological fossil is on the west side of lower Manhattan. In the West Village near the beginning of the Hi-Line is a wide intersection, at Gansevoort Street and Greenwich Street. (Google Maps calls it Gansevoort Plaza.) Cars and bikes and pedestrians pass all day long, but no buildings have been built in that spot. The fact that nothing has been built there is a subtle honoring of the place where the native Sappohanikan Fort stood, which goes back hundreds of years before the Dutch. It was a great fort, possibly 10 feet tall, of large cedars, and continued to be used by the Algonquin people as a trading post and dwelling place until 1661. It stood very close to the shores of the Hudson, near the most narrow crossing point to New Jersey. When the Dutch arrived, they established a tavern a short distance away — just out of range of the flight of a bow and arrow. A tavern (known now as The Old Homestead Inn) still stands there today.

Looking at familiar cityscapes with a lens on its deeper story, and noticing that Broadway / the Mohican Trail is still a commercial center for fur, leather, tobacco, squash, Indian corn, Pritchard shows the ways in which “not a lot has changed about this place in thousands of years.” It is as if the energy of a place suggests the types of activities that lend themselves to this place. Long before the financial powers built up on Manhattan, it was a geological power center, with crystals embedded in her surface. Dravite Crystal, mixed with marble, is found in the bedrock of Manhattan Island, particularly at Marble Hill. This type of crystal was used ceremonially by the Lenape and other tribes.

Looking at the deep history of a place, we can also understand more about the initial clash of cultures, and the events that have been woven into the geo-political layers, hovering above Terra Firma, the more deep and changeless aspects of place. We can find signs of where those power centers are in our cities, and make sense of why large cities were built up in a particular place, in a particular way.

The natives of New York did not have fixed concepts of land ownership as the Europeans understood it, but did have an established system of migrating to familiar places according to the season. In the summer months, the Lenape would come to what is known today as lower Manhattan to harvest fresh water mussels. They would smoke them and keep them stored to sustain themselves throughout the winter months. The women would adorn themselves with the pearls found in the occasional oyster. With the waste from the shells, they created massive shell middens. There is one buried below what is known today known as Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. A little ways away from Pearl Street native “maidens” would do their laundry in the small stream that would pour out from the spring that has since been named “Maiden Lane.”

Pritchard tells one particular story of a woman chief, a Sunkskwa (Head or Leading Woman) who was particularly beloved. One place she would visit in the yearly migration was not far from the mussel harvesting spot. There was at least one peach tree growing there, and she would enjoy a peach from a particular tree.

In 1655 a Dutch settler Hendrick Van Dyke built a house for himself there, as well as a fence encircling the yard that included the old peach tree. In September of that year when the Sunkskwa came to pick her annual peach, the Dutch man took his rifle and shot her dead.

The Algonquin had elaborate conflict resolution techniques known as the Way of the Heron, which prescribed how to respond. If there was an injustice, restorative practices were used. All non-violent methods would have been exhausted first. According to the severity of the act, this could have included self-sacrifice to address the injustice of others; group teach-ins; forgiveness of the perpetrator; lecturing of the perpetrator; offering pelts or some other goods of value to the victim; adopting the perpetrator to do the work of the deceased; adopting the perpetrator into the family to take the place of the deceased. The Way of the Heron did not exclude war or corporal punishment, but those were seen as the last options. After the other steps and forms of diplomacy had failed, the Way of the Heron codes called for marking or injuring a murderer in some way; or killing the murderer or a family member of the murderer.

While the Way of the Heron is strictly an oral tradition, it was observed meticulously and maintained an equilibrium among the tribes. In the Algonquin system of governance, peace and justice were so highly developed that archaeologists have found no fortifications in highly disputed territories, relying instead on ancient traditions of diplomatic skill. If these codes sound familiar to students of non-violence, that is not coincidental. This oral tradition of the Way of the Heron was transmitted to Henry David Thoreau, by Penobscot native Joe Polis in 1840s when they were together in Maine and went to the peak of the sacred mountain Mount Katahdin. That same year Thoreau published a pamphlet on Civil Disobedience, which reached Mahatma Gandhi while he was studying law in England.

According to Algonquin law, taking the life of a chief was a serious offense. It was though that if a chief was killed, the entire tribe suffered. When the Sunkskwa was murdered, the tribes in all directions responded. The laws called for injuring (but not killing) Van Dyke. He was found beaten but unfortunately soon died from his injuries.

After Van Dyke was found dead, Van Tiethoven acted according to the very different European codes of restitution and called for murdering many natives. This devolved into The Peach Tree War along the Hudson River.

The fence erected by the Dutch man was built against the current of the worldview of the native people of that place, who were living in a certain relationship to the land. It was built without a deed recognized even by European law. The way that home and fence were built is resonant with the border walls of today. And the fate of the Sunkskwa who was killed because of the fence is resonant with the Mexicans of the 1800s inhabiting areas known today as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, who famously said:

“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

 

Because of historians like Evan Pritchard, who are countering a dominant narrative of forgetting, and marking the place on a map where sparks of violence burst into flame, if we wanted to take the subway today and go back to the place where that peach tree stood, where the Sunkskwa met her death, we could find it easily. Today it is known as Ground Zero.

We can go there, and with precision, know where to do ceremony, where to send prayers into the earth for healing and restitution. And where to listen for what the earth has to teach us. If we listen well, perhaps some message will come back, from deep within Terra Firma, that can provide renewed guidance for these times, on how to re-animate the ways of peaceful resolution to conflict, and how to recommit ourselves to the original instructions that have been inscribed deep within this land. The earth remembers, and since the earth remembers, so can we.

 

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