Europeans and Indigenous groups had different ideas about land use. For many Indigenous people, including the Munsee, the European concept of land ownership was initially foreign. As time went on, disputes over land use and claims lead to violence and dispossession of Native peoples.
Native people used the land in a reciprocal way – wild foods were monitored and cultivated in-situ, shellfish and mollusk populations were purposefully managed, and people traveled to locations where food was abundant. Land use was generally based on collective use – not individual ownership. Territories were defined by hunting grounds, cropland, and harvest locations, and boundaries were often marked by natural barriers like rivers and streams, mountains, etc.
On the property that would eventually become Philipse Manor, Munsee Lunaape established a village at the confluence of the Nepperhan and Hudson Rivers – where migratory fish and shellfish were abundant and floodplain lands fertile for cultivating crops. Some bands like the Munsee had both winter and summer villages, and individuals or groups would often travel far afield for food acquisition, including hunting and fishing, or for religious purposes.
For the Munsee in particular, land use was governed by their matrilineal inheritance structure. Children could count both biological father sand maternal uncles as “father,” but inheritance passed through their mother’s line. Munsee families were also matrilocal, meaning men left home to marry into another village, and girls usually stayed with their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, etc. Most family bands were egalitarian, and sachems, or leaders, ruled by consensus and were known for their powers of persuasion.
Although territory disputes between the various Indigenous nations in the Americas were common, disputes almost always centered on land use, rather than ownership. Land use was tied very closely to sources of food and raw materials used for fuel and tools. Some less-populous bands would pay tribute to larger nations in exchange for protection, and conflicts were often resolved with condolence gifts. For the Munsee, their practices of out-marriage and tracking genealogy helped make connections with neighbors and bring diverse groups into the various bands as new family members. Although land use claims could be traced by lineage, especially by leaders overseeing groups spread over a large territory, the idea that an individual would own land in perpetuity to the exclusion of all others was foreign.
European concepts of land use were more rigid and based in both religious belief and political tradition. By the 15th century, most of Europe was Christian and in 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull that sparked the concept of the Doctrine of Discovery – the idea that European nations could lay claim to non-Christian territories for the purpose of Christianizing any local inhabitants. Spain, Portugal, France, and even Anglican England adopted the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their conquest of territories outside of Europe.
Biblical rhetoric at the time emphasized man’s dominion over the earth. Not only did Europeans have the mandate of “be fruitful and multiply,” but also a mandate to subjugate nature to agricultural control and order. This mandate also applied to nations yet to be conquered.
In most of Europe, wealthy aristocrats controlled most of the land through individual ownership. Serfs and peasants cultivated the land and occupied buildings (and in the Medieval period were “protected” by armed forces) in exchange for a portion of the harvest. That portion was determined by the landlord (literally “lord of the land”) and could vary on a whim. Large tracts of forest land were tightly controlled by the aristocracy, who were often the only ones allowed to harvest wood and hunt game. This manorial system– where a single individual or family controlled huge tracts of land and were the “lords” to tenant farmers – was transplanted from Europe to the Americas with colonization. Under Dutch rule, patroonships were awarded and when the English took control of New York, most of these were converted to manors, with new manors awarded, including to Frederick Philipse I.
In 1609, when Henry Hudson and his crew first made their way up the river that would come to bear his name, they described the land in extractive terms – timber, metals, abundant foods, navigable rivers –illustrating the fact that they had to appease their funders and demonstrating their European ideas about land use. Still, it took several years after Hudson left for more Europeans to come to the area, and fifteen years until a permanent European settlement was established. The land remained safely in Native hands, for now.
One of the most famous land deals in American history was the “purchase” of Manhattan. New Netherland colonial governor Peter Minuit, finding Governor’s Island unfit for founding a new colonial town, negotiated with the Weckquaesgeek to move his settlement to the neighboring, and much larger, island that would come to be named Manhattan. In exchange for trade goods worth about 60 Dutch guilders, Minuit “purchased” Manhattan Island.
Most of these early purchases were contracted between leaders of the two groups, not individuals. Representatives of colonial governments, or in the case of New Netherland, the Dutch West India Company, met with leaders of the various Indigenous groups to make treaties, which are legal agreements between two sovereign nations. Even as the colony grew, individuals were not allowed to transact land deals with Indigenous people without express permission of the colonial government, and often the two parties had to come to the colonial courts to certify the transaction. In addition, colonial government policies emphasized that colonists should engage in fair deals and avoid forcing, pressuring, or tricking Indigenous peoples out of their lands, likely to reduce to the potential for violence.
The fact that these stipulations had to be put in writing suggests that enough people were doing the opposite to warrant the passage of laws. New Netherland was unique among many early colonies as it did allow individual purchases of Native land, often referred to as “Indian deeds.” Between 1630 and 1779, more than 600 such deeds were signed by Munsee people, transferring land to Europeans. Deeds often had to be read aloud, for those who could not read Dutch or English, the languages in which the deeds were written. Most colonial governments, like New Netherland and New York, required registration of Indian deeds, and to also obtain a survey warrant, survey and map the lands, and secure a patent of ownership from the government. The extensive and expensive paperwork, and accompanying taxes, meant most European landholders were already wealthy.
Although Indigenous ideas about land use almost certainly meant that the earliest land transactions were viewed by the Native peoples as permission for joint use, rather than exclusive European ownership, this changed over time. Declining Indigenous populations due to the depredations of disease as well as cultural and social shifts toward the fur trade meant that less land was required for subsistence living, so groups were willing to share, or divest entirely. For the Munsee, in particular, Europeans may have even been welcome allies and trading partners, at least at first.
Without a mutual understanding of these transactions, however the land transfers and acquisitions lead to outbreaks of violence. In the 1630s the Dutch West India Company outsourced the issue of European settlement to patroons – investors who managed thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of acres “improved” by tenant farmers fleeing religious persecution and seeking a new life. As more European colonists came to the area, wars over resources broke out. Kieft’s War, the Peachtree War, and the Esopus Wars dominated the early colonial period. By the time New Netherland became New York in 1664, the Dutch and their Indigenous neighbors had been at war on and off for over twenty years. These conflicts, combined with disease outbreaks, reduced the Munsee population from around 15,000 in 1607, to around 6,000 in1634, to less than 3,000 by 1664, to a low of around 1,000 by 1720.
Many of the land sales were likely an attempt at cultural survival. No longer as powerful and populous as they once were, many Indigenous people sold lands they could not longer use to help ensure the survival of their people. This compliance in the sales of lands for prices they knew were too low was accompanied by promises of military protection, just treatment in colonial courts, and other obligations like continued hunting or fishing rights. In this, Munsee people attempted to maintain their communities in the face of superior numbers.
Others engaged in “sales” of lands that belonged to neighboring groups, to appease Europeans hungry for land and engage rivals in conflict with the Europeans while keeping themselves out of the fray. In addition, “Sachems soon saw how conflicting interpretations of words and meanings could embroil contending landowners in lengthy disputes that dragged on inconclusively for decades at a time.” They exploited vague wordings to their benefit, thereby buying their people time to continue to occupy their lands while the sales were contested.
As colonists pushed up into the Hudson River Valley, the Munsee were gradually pushed out. Many went west to their neighbors in the Delaware River Valley. Others went northeast to Stockbridge, MA to join Christianized Mohicans there. But some Munsee never gave up their land claims. In the 1760s, even though the vast majority of Munsee lands had been transferred via land deed, many Munsee felt they had been unfairly dispossessed. In some instances, like the Walking Purchase in Pennsylvania, they had been.
But the Munsee were not the only people with contested land claims. The colonies of New York, Connecticut, and Maryland also contested their borders. In New York, following the French and Indian Wars, veterans were offered free land as part of their pensions. But they could only claim land not already claimed by Native peoples or by other Europeans. In New York, where the powerful Six Nations held most of the Mohawk River Valley and European manor lords held the majority of the Hudson River Valley north to the Adirondacks, there was no unclaimed land left to be had. European settlers bent on avoiding tenancy under a manor lord tried to exploit the boundary disputes between the colonies. They settled on land they claimed was not under the jurisdiction of manor lords. When the colonial governments reset the boundaries between New York and Connecticut, in some places, manors were extended to the new boundaries. In at least one instance, farmers had already been living on the land, rent-free, for decades. Others paid rents to the local Wappinger band of Munsee, and the Mohicans, who by then mostly resided in Stockbridge, MA.
In this, the Wappinger saw an opportunity. By allying themselves with the farmers, they hoped to officially claim their lands in the colonial courts. In particular, the Highland Patent, purchased by Adolph Philipse from Dutch investors in the 1690s, had never been formally registered with the colonial government. Due to vague landmarks, the eastern boundary of the original Indian deed was extended much further east by Adolph Philipse. Historian Thomas J. Humphrey explains:
In 1756, while many Wappinger Indians were fighting for the British against the French and while the remainder of the tribe stayed with the Stockbridge Indians, Beverly Robinson, Roger Morris, and Philip Philipse appropriated most of the Wappingers' territory (see Map above). Robinson, Morris, and Philipse maintained that they legally owned the land because they held the deed for the territory drafted in1691 between Lambert Dorlandt and Jean Seabrandt on one side and a group of Wappinger Indians on the other. The deed described a plot of land immediately above the 86,000 acre Cortlandt Manor. Adolph Philipse gained possession of the deed and in 1692 he received a grant for the territory from New York's governor, Benjamin Fletcher (1692-1698). While the original patent of Lambert and Seabrandt was relatively small, Philipse's opponents alleged that Adolph Philipse cut down a tree that marked a corner of the territory and expanded his original 15,000 acre tract to roughly 205,000 acres. He received an official grant for the entire territory from the New York royal governor in 1697. In the early 1760s, Robinson, Morris, and Philipse began issuing eviction notices to those people who held titles or leases to land from the Wappinger Indians. These farmers refused to sign the one-year leases offered by Robinson to become his tenants and some of them petitioned the king for their land in 1763 and1764. Many of these disgruntled tenants had signed 999 year leases with the Wappinger Indians.
Both the rebellious farmers and the Wappinger contended that the border lands were never part of a legitimate purchase. Upon the death of Adolph and his heir Frederick Philipse II in the early 1750s, the patent was divided among the Philipse heirs. Beverly Robinson and his wife Susannah Philipse Robinson inherited the portion where most of the rebellious farmers had settled. Some tenant farmers had been paying rents to the Philipses with a portion of the harvest and had lifetime leases. In the 1760s, Robinson abruptly changed the agreements, switching to short-term leases and switching to cash rents.
Daniel Ninham, leader of the Wappinger, testified in court that the original sale did not include the lands near the Connecticut border. But in the courtroom, Beverly Robinson produced a deed from 1702 purportedly between Adolph Philipse and the Wappinger which included the contested territory. Robinson read the deed aloud, and then put it back in his pocket. The deed was not entered as evidence. Although the Wappinger names on the deed were recognized by tribal members, they did not have the authority to sell land, and no living member recalled record or mention of the sale. The defense also argued that the Wappinger had abandoned the land during the French and Indian War (in which they were fighting on behalf of the British) and had therefore forfeit their claim and the land had reverted to the Crown.
The court sided with Beverly Robinson and the other Philipse heirs, largely on the strength of Robinson’s deed, which was almost certainly forged. In addition, some speculated that recognizing the Wappinger’s claim of first occupancy would set precedent for future land disputes, opening the floodgates of Native people suing to reclaim their lands. It would have also set precedent for tenant farmers to challenge the legitimacy of their landlords’ land claims.
Daniel Ninham, his son Abraham, and most of the adult male Wappinger population were killed in the American Revolution fighting for the rebellious Continental forces. Following the American Revolution, the remaining Munsee and Mohicans at Stockbridge were forcibly removed. Surviving veterans were denied pensions and benefits. But the Munsee never forgot their lands in the Hudson Valley, and continued to try to reclaim them. After being removed several times from lands they purchased and settled, the Stockbridge community eventually ended up in Wisconsin.
In 1854, Mohican sachem John Wannuaucon Quinney of the Stockbridge Munsee traveled from Wisconsin to Reidsville, New York, a town to the southwest of Albany. A leader and diplomat who worked tirelessly to improve legal rights and federal recognition for his nation, Quinney was invited to give the Independence Day speech for the town – one of the first recorded by an Indigenous person. In it, he addressed the dispossession of his people:
“It is curious, the history of my tribe, in its decline, during the last two centuries and a half. Nothing that deserved the name of purchase was ever made. From various causes, they were induced to abandon their territory at intervals, and retire further to the inland. Deeds were given, indifferently to the Government, or to individuals, for which little or no consideration was paid. The Indian was informed, in many instances, that he was selling one parcel, while the conveyance described other, and much larger limits. Should a particular band, for purposes of hunting or fishing, desert, for a time, its usual place of residence the land was said to be abandoned, and the Indian claim extinguished. To legalize and confirm titles thus acquired, laws and edicts were subsequently passed, and these laws. Were said then, and are now called, justice! Oh! What a mockery to confound justice with law. Will you look steadily at the intrigues, bargains, corruption and log-rolling of your present Legislatures, and see any trace of the divinity of justice? And by what test shall be tried the acts of the old Colonial Courts and Councils?”
— Stockbridge Mohican/Munsee leader John W. Quinney, July 4th, 1854, speaking in Reidsville, New York
Quinney died a year later, but his people did not give up. In1859, the Stockbridge-Munsee/Mohican nation sent representatives to New York to again ally themselves with anti-rent farmers in an attempt to reclaim their land. A delegation of several Mohicans came to Columbia County and occupied vacated tenant farms in cooperation with anti-rent protesters. Although ultimately unsuccessful in court, the Mohicans and anti-rent families continued to cooperate into the 1870s. The Munsee and Mohicans never gave up their efforts to protect and return to their homelands. In 1999 the Tribe established a Tribal Historic Preservation Office and in 2011 they purchased Papscanee Island near Albany - a culturally sensitive site of 63 acres along the Hudson River.
 Grumet, Robert S. The Munsee Indians, University of Oklahoma Press (2019), p. 95.
 Humphrey, Thomas J. “’Extravagant Claims’ and ‘Hard Labour:’ Perceptions of Property in the Hudson Valley, 1751-1801,” Pennsylvania History, vol. 65 (1998), 141-166.
To learn more about Indigenous land use and the Munsee, check out these additional resources:
Broderick, Warren F. "Strange Partners in Land Equity: Mohicans and Tenant Farmers 'Invade' Upstate New York in 1859," The Hudson Valley Review, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Spring, 2019), pp. 13-25.
Grumet, Robert S. The Munsee Indians, University of Oklahoma Press (2022).
Humphrey, Thomas J. “’Extravagant Claims’ and ‘Hard Labour:’ Perceptions of Property in the Hudson Valley, 1751-1801,” Pennsylvania History, vol. 65 (1998), 141-166.
Lavin, Lucianne. "Stockbridge Mohicans Past & Present: A Study of Cultural Survival" Mass Humanities, February 2011.
Otto, Paul. "The Dutch, Munsees, and the Purchase of Manhattan Island," from Opening Statements - Law, Jurisprudence, and the History of Dutch New York. Published by New York State Bar Association Journal 87(1), January 2015, pp.10-17.