The Native American history of Queens

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Image source: Wikipedia

It’s easy to forget that, well before these street numbers, apartment buildings, and train lines existed – before Queens was Queens – the area had been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years. Scholars believe that the Queens area was not densely populated, and that Native Americans lived in small groups mostly along the bays, creeks, and ponds, where they could fish (haddock, oysters), farm (maize, squash), gather (strawberries, chestnuts) and hunt (grouse, quail).

Unfortunately, not a lot of the history of these indigenous peoples has been recorded, and evidence is still being pieced together. But we do know that the native inhabitants spoke one of the languages of the Algonquian language family, one that Native New Yorkers author Evan Pritchard refers to as Renneiu. Pritchard maintains that this Long Island language was linguistically different from the Munsee language spoken on Manhattan.

Some of the major groups recognized as having lived in the area that is now Queens are the Matinecock, who were on the northern side of the island; the Rockaway, who inhabited the Rockaway peninsula and surrounding areas; the Maspeth, who lived along Flushing Bay and Newtown Creek; and the Canarsie, who lived mostly in Brooklyn as well as parts of the Jamaica region. Scholars disagree on whether some of these were actually self-ascribed tribe names or simply place names that Europeans later used to refer to the groups of people living there.

Either way, we do know that the names for Jamaica, Rockaway, Maspeth, and other places came from Native American words. “Jamaica” probably comes from a word for “place of the beaver” – as beavers were abundant in the streams and ponds north of Jamaica Bay. “Rockaway” most likely meant “sandy place,” which is self explanatory. The name “Maspeth” derives from a word for “bad water place,” perhaps because people there relied on the salty waters of Flushing Bay and Newtown Creek. Kissena Park was a region once controlled by the Matinecock, and “Kissena” may have meant “cold place.” The name of the large public housing development in South Flushing, “Pomonok,” is from a word meaning either “land of tribute” or “land where there is traveling by water.”

Many of the main roads of Queens also have their origins in ancient Native American trails. One important thoroughfare was the Old Rockaway Trail, which follows what is now Jamaica Avenue through Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Jamaica, Hollis, and Bellerose, then onto the current-day Jericho Turnpike into Nassau County. Another key trail ran north to south along what is now the Van Wyck Expressway, Sutphin Boulevard, and Rockaway Boulevard. Grand Avenue and Flushing Avenue in modern-day Maspeth and Elmhurst also trace the route of an ancient trail. These routes were used extensively for trade and travel, as were major waterways such as the East River and Jamaica Bay.

The first Europeans to settle in the area now known as Queens were the Dutch, and during the 1630s and 1640s, the indigenous people and the Dutch coexisted in the region. Relations were mostly peaceful and trade-oriented at first, but there were some violent disputes over land rights. In the 1640s and 1650s, English settlers began to populate the area as well; they brought their livestock, which led to further conflict over land use.

When the Dutch established the town of Vlissingen (now Flushing) in 1645, at least 30 Native American families lived there. But in 1662, a smallpox epidemic spread through Queens, killing huge numbers of the indigenous people. Eventually, the Europeans managed to acquire the rest of the land of Queens in various ways, including through purchase. For example, William Hallet – who now has a bar/restaurant in Astoria named after him – purchased a large tract of land south of Hallet’s Cove from the Canarsie.

In 1656 Thomas Hicks led a group to drive the remaining Native Americans from Douglaston and Little Neck, and then took over their lands. The conflict was known as the Battle of Madnan’s Neck, and took place at the current intersection of Northern Boulevard and Marathon Parkway. Much later, when Northern Boulevard was being widened in the 1930s, Matinecock graves were discovered there. They were moved and re-buried in the cemetery of Zion Episcopal Church (GMAP), where a stone marker announces, “Here rest the last of the Matinecock.”

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Image source: The Lost Spirits (click for larger image)

However, there are still some Matinecock around. A modern-day tribal leader, Osceola Townsend, has said that some 200 Matinecock families live in and around Queens, although the group is not officially recognized by the state or federal government. In recent years, Matinecocks have stated that Fort Totten in Bayside is land that should still belong to them, and that the fort lies on top of ancient burial ground. In a 2009 documentary film called The Lost Spirits, Eric MaryEa (who is of Matinecock and Italian heritage) explores some of these ongoing struggles. In 2000, two different exhibits – at the Bayside Historical Society and the Poppenhusen Institute in College Point – focused on Matinecock history in the area.

Sources:
Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York [Google Books]
History of Queens County [Brooklyn Genealogy Information]
Old Queens, N.Y. in Early Photographs [Google Books]
Matinecock History [Matinecock Masonic Historical Society]
Forgotten Tour 31, Little Neck/Douglaston, Queens [Forgotten New York]
NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: BAYSIDE;Matinecocks Lay Claim to Fort Totten, Citing Burial Ground [NYT]
Displays feature works of 1st people [NYDN]

2 Comment

  • I remember seeing a relatively recent map of Astoria showing along its northern edge the “old Native American trail” or something like that. Yet I have not been able to find any information on it. Any ideas?

    • In the Native New Yorkers book, Pritchard mentions “an ancient trail that wound through Astoria, starting at a canoe landing across from Ward’s Island and continuing east to Flushing Bay.” However, the book says that this trail was along modern-day Woodhaven Blvd, which must be a mistake. Astoria Blvd and/or Ditmars Blvd would make more sense.