- First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York by Robert S. Grumet
Robert S. Grumet is unarguably one of the foremost scholars on the history of the indigenous peoples and cultures of the Hudson Valley region (comprised of the Munsee-Lenape [Delaware], Unami, Raritan, Navesink, Minisink, and other Native populaces) and in this book weaves a synthetic and comprehensive narrative of those peoples throughout their centuries-long residency in the present-day greater New York area. In his initial chapters, Grumet illustrates the cultural, spiritual, economic, and political structures of those Native societies before the onset of European colonization, relying primarily on anthropological and archaeological sources. In particular, Grumet evokes the dynamic and complicated kinship networks that undergirded those Native societies and demonstrates their spiritual understandings of and relationships to their lands, all of which stands as a testament to Grumet’s knowledge of and respect for these histories and peoples.
The strength of Grumet’s work revolves around this attention to the lands of the Hudson Valley, which exists literally as a third party or actor in the narrative of European and Indian contact, negotiation, and conflict throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth century. While some scholars assert that indigenous lands were utilized consistently by Native peoples to gain access and a greater foothold in European trade, stave off settler incursions, or cement political alliances and fictive kinship relations, Grumet forcefully reminds readers and academics alike that “land was never just a commodity” (68). Instead, Native peoples who ceded lands to Europeans often expected these transactions to establish social and political obligations and rituals of reciprocity between these two contending populations while attempting to enfold Europeans into Native understandings of the world. Furthermore, Grumet presents these Indian-European negotiations over land in the Hudson Valley as arenas [End Page 382] of “working disagreements based on a form of creative misunderstandings” (74). In essence, Grumet asserts that the politics and economics of Native land cessions, or “Indian Deeds,” constituted one of Richard White’s “Middle Grounds,” where two conflicting interpretations of landownership, use, and spirituality intersected in mutually beneficial ways, at least initially. Additionally, Grumet’s other narrative framework of an ethnopolitical history, or a study of not just Indian-European relations but also intra-Native politics and warfare, paints a portrait of a vastly contentious and politically fractious Hudson Valley where indigenous peoples and their rivalries with one another shaped the physical and geopolitical landscape as much as their European counterparts.
However, it must be said that Grumet’s focus upon the Indian-European negotiations over Hudson Valley lands ultimately leads to the oft-told declension narrative of indigenous dispossession. In fact, the entirety of his examination of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries comes across to this reader like the medieval “Dark Ages” in which disease, escalating warfare, land theft and fraud, and imperial conquest and dispossession of Native territories utterly subordinated those indigenous populations, who, to avoid further calamity, moved and amalgamated with other Native polities. Likewise, Grumet’s coverage of the Hudson Valley Indians’ migrations and coalescences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adds little to our understanding of this period and of those Native peoples’ histories and cultures, all of which has already been covered extensively by other authors like Amy C. Schutt in Peoples of the River Valley: The Odyssey of the Delaware Indians. Further, Grumet’s ethnopolitical historical framework is often convoluted and disorienting, leaving the reader to only guess at whose history is really being told. While part of this is simply, and in my opinion commendably, the illustration of how fractious the geopolitical landscape of the Hudson Valley proved, especially due to the intestinal contests and rivalries that existed between the many indigenous peoples of that region, the narrative bogs down when many of the Hudson Valley Indians recede into the background amid rivalries with other Native polities like the Iroquois and Susquehanna, the onset of European imperial warfare and dispossession, and the emergence of the Delaware Indians as the primary...