The Story of Jersey City & Her Indigenous Peoples
Yesterday we celebrated two holidays, separate reminders of this country’s history that reflect very different sides. For decades, many of us have grown up celebrating Christopher Columbus Day, a day in celebration of the man who “discovered” and founded the new world of North America. We were very much led to believe as children and adults that Columbus was a hero of his time, a righteous and incredible man who fought against the odds of society, government and the forces of nature to traverse the ocean and find new trading routes in the name of the Crown and God. Yet in recent years the voices of indigenous Americans have become louder and harder to suppress. Voices telling a story of genocide, famine, pestilence, war, rape, slavery and torture, revealing a darker and scarier history many of us never even knew of. In the past couple of decades, many states across the US, including Alaska, Hawaii, California, and Maine, have pushed away from Columbus Day and are instead celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. All across New Jersey you’ll see towns and roads with native names but despite this fact, New Jersey is not on the list of states that acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.
We live in a country with sociopolitical norms that historically censor, forcibly assimilate, and perpetuate cultural genocide against minorities. These issues run deep through our history. So much truth of history is lost in this age of information, especially the stories of how we got here as a nation. Here at home in Jersey City, few know the history of its original indigenous people and how the shadow of the past still looms over this precarious holiday.
Pavonia, New Netherland: Pre-Jersey City
In the 1640s, Dutch trade was booming. The partnership between the Dutch government and the Dutch East India Company was paving the way for the development of a Dutch Colony of extraordinary caliber. As the Dutch import grew, so did their need for settlement and colonization, and there was no stopping an international mega-corporation wrapped up in its government and her conquests from getting what they wanted. The Dutch East India Company, which was worth more then than what Apple is worth today, was notorious for slave trading, colonial oppression and mistreatment of employees. They were allowed to mint their own money, acquire territory, build forts and castles, raise armies, and “wage war” if it was in the interests of Country and the Company. Their representative and director embodied these notoriously ruthless tactics.
Dutch sailors to the north supplied European firearms to their neighboring Iroquois, but Willem Kieft, New Netherland Director and the representative of the Dutch East India Company, refused to sell or trade arms with the Lenape refugees, who he viewed as savages, and vowed to force into submission. In 1642, tribal warfare drove members of the Tappan and Weckquaesgeek tribes of the Lenape people to seek protection and build camps in Communipaw village, a Dutch community and part of the Pavonia colony. This stretched from the Hudson shoreline to Bergen Hill, in what is now Jersey City.
Not only did the Lenape suffer from being refugees in a tribal war against a better equipped enemy, but from European diseases and livestock encroachment onto their land. Willem Kieft grew nervous and suspicious at the influx of Native Americans in New Amsterdam and Pavonia. In the early 1640s, Kieft tried (unsuccessfully) to impose a tax on the Lenape which quickly earned the disdain of the tribes who refused to pay foreigners for the ‘privilege’ of living in their own territory.
Hostility and tensions quickly escalated, with occasional acts of savage killing on both sides including the murders of two Dutch colonists. Kieft sought to try the suspects under Dutch law but his requests only fed the fire. Kieft repeatedly refused to listen to his appointed council and continued his cruel and harsh tactics against the Lenape refugees.
Blood Beneath Our Feet
On February 25, 1643, Kieft, against protests from citizens of the Dutch colony, crossed the Hudson River from his headquarters in New Amsterdam with a sergeant and eighty soldiers, and stormed the Native American camps in Pavonia. The Dutch force used military action indiscriminately, killing all including women and children in what is known as the Pavonia Massacre or Kieft’s War.
“Warrior and squaw, sachem and child, mother and babe were alike massacred. Daybreak scarcely ended the furious slaughter. Mangled victims, seeking safety in the thickets, were driven into the river, and parents rushing to save their children, whom the soldiery had thrown into the stream, were driven back into the waters and drowned before the eyes of their unrelenting murderers.” – John Romats Brodhead, 19th century historian.
At the news of these senseless murders of nearly 120 natives, the remaining rivaling Algonquins tribes, eleven in total, united and launched a series of attacks. The united Algonquins attacked the settlement, burned the buildings, murdered the settlers, kidnapped family members of political figures, wiped the villages out of existence, and laid waste to the colony. Many surviving settlers returned to the Netherlands and considered the Dutch colony a failed experiment by the Dutch West India Company. Kieft’s War cost the Dutch government their footing in the New World, an event that drastically pivoted the direction of history in this region and the world.
Peace would not be established again till 1645 after several Algonquin outposts were obliterated by British Captain John Underhill, who was conscripted by the remaining settlers, forcing the surviving tribes to a ceasefire. Kieft was ordered to return to Holland in 1647 to explain his actions to the government, but died in a shipwreck at sea. This peace was much short-lived, as the next generation of Algonquin and Iroquois would be devastated by smallpox brought by Europeans, and were no longer a military threat by the time of the 1664 British takeover of the New Netherland settlement.
History Changed Forever
These events, which spanned less than 20 years, forever changed the fate of the Indigenous peoples of Jersey City. Kieft is no hero but recorded and taught history does not loathe him because of his crimes, but rather for his failures.
The history of Christopher Columbus and other colonists and ‘conquerors’ have long been sugarcoated in this country, retelling the horrors of genocide as the victories of conquest and burying the failures under unteachable silence. Kieft and Columbus are different faces of the same dark history. Colonists like Christopher Columbus have statues erected and a holiday in their honor but in the face of Indigenous people, it is an added insult to their life, land, and history. How long have you lived in Jersey City and not known about the native history of the ground we walk?