First Esopus War

Many of our Dutch ancestors lived in Ulster County, New York in and around what is now Kingston. In 1659 and 1663 they engaged in two conflicts with the local Esopus Indians. The first Esopus War was caused by an act of Dutch cruelty and murder. While New Netherlands had many fewer colonists than New England in many ways Dutch relations with the Native Americans was worse than did the English.

One of our ancestor’s kidnapped sons decided to remain among the Indians with his new Indian wife and child. Since the Lenape had a matrilineal culture, a Pocahontas in reverse story makes sense. Overall, though, it’s a sad story,  I’ll let the narrative speak for itself.

Navigate this Report
1. Overview
2. Background
3. The Lenape

4. First Esopus War

5. Second Esopus War
6. Aftermath

Map of New York highlighting Ulster County

Ulster County, New York

First Esopus War

The first Esopus War was a short-lived conflict between Dutch farmers and the Esopus, largely started by fear and misunderstanding on the part of the settlers. On September 20, 1659, several Esopus men were hired to do some farm work for the settlers. After they had finished and had received their pay in brandy, a drunken native fired a musket in celebration. Although no one was hurt, some the Dutch townsfolk suspected foul play. Although a group of soldiers investigated and found no bad intentions, a mob of farmers and soldiers attacked the offending natives. Most escaped, but one was killed. The next day they returned with hundreds of reinforcements, and Esopus forces destroyed crops, killed livestock, and burned Dutch buildings.

Completely outnumbered and outgunned, the Dutch had little hope of winning through force. But they managed to hold out and make some small attacks, including burning the natives’ fields to starve them out. They received decisive reinforcements from New Amsterdam. The war concluded July 15, 1660, when the natives agreed to trade land for peace and food. The peace, however, was tentative at best. Tensions remained between the Esopus and the settlers, eventually leading to the second war.

May 1658 – In a letter from Thomas Chambers to Governor Stuyvesant, he writes in substance:  ”I saw that the Indians had an anker (ten-gallon keg) of brandy lying under a tree.  I tasted myself and found it was pure brandy.  About dusk they fired at and killed Harmen Jacobsen, who was standing in a yacht in the river; and during the night  they set fire to the house of  Jacob Adrijansa, and the people were compelled to flee for their lives.  Once before we were driven away and expelled from our property; as long as we are under the jurisdiction of the West India Company we ask your assistance, as Esopus could feed the whole of New Netherland.  I have informed myself among the Indians who killed Harmen, and they have promised to deliver the guilty party in bonds.  Please do not begin the war too suddenly, and not until we have constructed a stronghold for defense.”

Oct 1658 – Eight Esopus Indians broke off corn ears for Thomas Chambers. When they finished work the Indians said, “Come give us brandy.” Chambers replied, ” When it is dark.” When evening was come he gave a large bottle with brandy to the Indians. They retired to a place at no great distance from the fort and sat down to drink. The eight Indians drank there until midnight; by that time they were drunk, and they began to yell. At length the brandy came to an end. One Indian said, “Buy more brandy; we still have wampum.” The Indian who was afterwards killed went to Chambers‘ house to get more brandy. Chambers said, ” I have given you all I had.”

Dutch and Indians 2

The Indian then went to where the soldiers were, taking with him the bottle which he hid under his cloak. “Have you any brandy?” said the Indian. “Yes, I have brandy,” answered a soldier. ” Here is wampum, give me brandy for it.” “What is wampum, and what can I do with it? where is your kettle?” said the soldier. “I have no kettle, but I have a bottle here under my cloak,” replied the Indian. The soldier filled the bottle, but would take nothing for the brandy.

The Indian came to his comrades who were lying about and crying, and asked them, “Why do you cry? I have brought brandy!” Whereupon they changed their cry, and asked if he had given all the wampum. “No, a soldier gave it to me.” They replied “that is very good,” and began to drink lustily from the bottle, because they had no goblet or ladle. When the bottle was passed around the Indians began to wrangle and fight. Two of them presently said to each other, “We have no cause to fight, let us go away;” so they went away, leaving six. After a little time one of the remaining Indians said, “Come let us go away; I feel that we shall be killed.” Said the other, “You are crazy; who should kill us? We would not kill the Dutch, and have nothing to fear from them or the other Indians.” “Yes,” replied he, “but I nevertheless am so heavy-hearted.”

The bottle was passed twice, and the Indian said again, “Come, let us go; my heart is full of fears.” He went off and hid his goods in the bushes at a little distance. Coming back once more they heard the bushes crackle as the Dutch came there, without knowing who it was. Then this Indian went away, saying “Come, let us go, for we all shall be killed;” and the rest laid down together, whereupon the Dutch came and all of them fired into the Indians, shooting one in the head and capturing another. One drunken Indian was continually moving about, whereupon the Dutch fired upon him repeatedly, nearly taking his dress from his body.

Ensign Smith knew what the consequences of this outbreak would be, and he sought to ascertain who ordered the firing contrary to his express instructions. The Dutch cast all the blame on the Indians, saying that the latter fired first. The affairs of the colony being in such an unsatisfactory state, and finding the people would not respect his authority, Smith announced his intention of leaving for New Amsterdam next day. Great excitement was manifested when this became known. The people tried to dissuade him from his purpose by representing their exposed condition, and making assurances of future obedience on their part. Smith was intractable, and continued making preparations for his departure; but by an adroit measure of Stohl and Chambers, who hired all the boats in the neighborhood, he found himself unable to carry out his resolution. It was deemed expedient, however, to acquaint the Governor of the state of affairs, and accordingly Christopher Davis was dispatched down the river in a canoe for that purpose.

Davis was escorted to the river by a company of eight soldiers and ten citizens, under Sergeant Lawrentsen, Sept. 21st, 1659. On the return of the escort to the village they fell into an ambuscade near where now stands the City Hall; the Sergeant and thirteen men surrendered without firing a shot, the rest making their escape. War now began in earnest. More than five hundred Indians were in the vicinity of the fort, who kept up a constant skirmish with settlers. By means of firebrands they set fire to the House of Jacob Gebers; numbers of barracks, stacks and barns were in like manner destroyed. One day they made a desperate assault on the palisades which came near being successful. Failing in this, the Indians slaughtered all the horses, cattle and hogs they could find outside the defenses. Three weeks was a constant siege kept up so that “none dare go abroad.” Unable to take the town they vented their fury on the unfortunate prisoners.

Jacob Jansen Van Stoutenburgh, Abram Vosburg, a son of Cornelius B. Sleight, and five or six other were compelled to run the gauntlet; they were next tied to stakes, and, after being beaten and cut in the most cruel manner, were burned alive. Thomas Clapboard [Chambers], William the carpenter, Peter Hillebrants [son of Hildebrand PIETERSEN] and Evert PELS‘ son were among the captives.

These are the only names mentioned in the early records. Clapboard was taken by six warriors down the Esopus kill. At night he removed the cords by which he was bound, and successively knocked five of his captors in the head while they were asleep, killing the sixth before he could fly, and making good his escape. Another prisoner, a soldier, got home safely after a somewhat rough experience. Peter Laurentsen and Peter Hillebrants were ransomed.

Hendrick Vosberg Pels (1643 Renselaerwyck, NY – ?)  then a mere youth, was adopted into the tribe and married among them. In Lenape society,  Matrilocal residence further enhanced the position of women in society. A young married couple would live with the woman’s family, where her mother and sisters could also assist her with her growing family. Overtures were afterwards made to the Indians by the friends of the lad for his return; but the Indians answered that he “wished to stay with his squaw and pappoose, and he ought to.”

News of these events filled the whole colony with fear and forebodings. Stuyvesant had only six or seven soldiers in garrison at New Amsterdam, and they were sick and unqualified for duty. He then sent to Fort Orange and Rensselaerwyck for reinforcements; but the inhabitants of Fort Orange could not succor without leaving their own homes defenseless. The Governor asked for volunteers, offering Indians as prizes; only six or seven responded, lie then conscripted all the garrison at Amsterdam, the Company’s servants, the hands in his brewery and the clerks. The people made great opposition to this, averring that “they were not liable to go abroad and fight savages.”

Notwithstanding these hindrances Governor Stuyvesant set sail October 9th with about 160 men, and reached Esopus next day. Here he found the siege had been raised thirty-six hours before, and that the Indians had retreated to their homes whither the Governor’s troops could not follow them, for the country was then innundated with nearly a foot of water from the frequent rains.

In the spring of 1660, there was a renewal of hostilities; an Indian castle having been plundered, and several Indians taken captive, the Indians sued for peace and proposed an exchange of prisoners. Stuyvesant declined their overtures, and prosecuted the war with vigor, sending some of the captive chiefs, then in his hands, to Curaçao  as slaves to the Dutch.

The clans now held a council. Said Sewackenamo, the Esopus chief, “What will you do?” “We will fight no more,” said the warriors. “We wish to plant in peace,” replied the squaws. “We will kill no more hogs,” answered the young men.

Stuyvesant met their propositions with an extravagant demand for land. The fertile corn-planting grounds of the Walkill and Rondout valleys had excited the cupidity of the colonists. The Indians were loath to give up so much of their territory, but they finally acceded to the Governor’s demand. During the negotiations the Indians plead for the restoration of their enslaved chiefs. But in pursuance of Stuyvesant’s policy, those ancient sachems had become the chattels of Dutchmen, and were toiling, under the lash, in the maize and bean-fields among the islands of the far-off Caribbean Sea; so the Governor replied that they must be considered dead. Although deeply grieved at this, the chiefs agreed to the treaty, and departed.

Lenape by John Fawcett

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Continue to 5. Second Esopus War

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