Work and Commerce

Munsee / Settler Trade

article coming soon

Since first contact, trade was the mutual language spoken by Indigenous Americans and Europeans. Early European explorers traded for food and supplies, for fur, and for precious metals. For most Europeans, especially the mercantile-minded Dutch, the primary goal of trade was profit. For most Indigenous people, the exchange of goods in trade was often an integral part of building—and maintaining—diplomatic relationships.

The best trade transactions are mutually beneficial; each party walks away from the discussion feeling they gained something valuable and that the trade was a fair exchange. At first, trade between Munsee and European settlers followed in this vein, but as the decades wore on and competition for resources increased, the power of Munsee people to engage in trade as equals declined.

First Contact

The Munsee first encountered Europeans when Giovanni Verrazzano sailed into New York Harbor and was met by thirty canoes of Munsee. Munsee and Mohican people interacted with Henry Hudson in 1609 on his voyage up the river. In 1613, Dutch traders left Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese man of African descent, on Governor’s Island for nearly a year—the first non-Indigenous person to live in New York. He learned to speak Munsee and developed trade connections for his Dutch employers. Nearly every encounter resulted in some exchange of goods, both as a symbol of Indigenous hospitality and mutual diplomacy, and as a way for Europeans to resupply.

Trading Partners

Map of "Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova" (New Netherland and New England), by Willem Blaeu, c. 1635. Blaeu based this map on the notes of Adriaen Block and it is one of the earliest maps of New Netherland. Wikimedia Commons.

After Hudson’s 1609 journey, cartographer Adriaen Block traveled to newly claimed New Netherland to confirm Hudson’s findings in 1613–14. The first European settlement, established not on Manhattan, but near present-day Albany, was Fort Nassau. Traders and colonists began trickling in, but it wasn’t until the establishment of the Dutch West India Company in 1621 that investment in the colony took off.

New Netherland was, at its heart, a company colony. Most of the earliest colonists were in the employ of the Dutch West India Company, and profit was the ultimate goal. Even the first enslaved people in the colony were owned by the company, not individuals. Dutch and other Europeans traded with Indigenous people for food, information, furs, and land.

In 1626, the island of Manhattan was infamously “purchased” from the Wecquaesgeeks for 60 Dutch guilders, although the local Munsee band almost certainly saw the transaction as closer to a lease or rental payment rather than a permanent transfer of land from common access and ownership to individual dominion. While land “purchases,” both legitimate and not, were part and parcel of the colonial period, it was the fur trade that dominated the first decades of the colony.

The Fur Trade

19th century illustration of white man in 18th century clothing taking fur from Indigenous man. Another White Canadian leans on a barrel and smokes a European pipe. Another Indigenous man crouches on the ground and smokes a Native pipe.
Cartouche from William Faden, "A map of the Inhabited Part of Canada from the French Surveys; with the Frontiers of New York and New England", 1777. Library and Archives of Canada.

At the time Europeans were searching for shortcuts to Asia, European fashions were changing as well. Hats were crucial to everyday life in most European nations, not only as a fashion statement, but also for practical attributes like warmth, water resistance, and shading the eyes. In the 17century, tall-crowned, wide-brimmed hats of all shapes and sizes became exceedingly popular, and the best material for making these hats was beaver fur.

Beavers have long, waterproof guard hairs on the outside of their coats which trap air in their dense underfur, keeping them warm and dry even as they swim. It is this dense undercoat, or “wool,” which was much-desired by European hat makers. Russians had perfected the process of removing and felting these hairs, but by the 1700s the European beaver was dying out, in large part due to the high demand for beaver felt hats.[1] While Europeans like Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain failed to find the Northwest passage, they did find an abundance of fur-bearing animals, especially beaver.

In a workshop, three men bend over a table scraping beaver furs. Hat forms hang on the wall behind them. Outdoors, a man works with stretchers.
"Manufacture of Beaverfur Hats," published in Universal-Magazine, London, 1750. Wikimedia Commons.

The fur trade represented the first long-term trade agreement between Europeans and Indigenous people. In New York, the Dutch West India Company traded with lower Hudson tribes like the Munsee as well as tribes further north, like the Mohawk and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee). Some of the earliest Dutch colonists, including Margaret Hardenbroek and Frederick Philipse, engaged in the fur trade, dealing directly with Native representatives. Native people not only hunted the fur-bearing animals, they also processed the pelts. Beaver pelts which were simply dried were known as “parchment” beaver. Those which were processed for up to a year by Native people were of much finer quality, as the skins were soft and pliable and most of the outer guard hairs had already been removed, making the processing of the “wool” hairs much easier, and resulting in a higher-quality product.

Dutch and other Europeans traded a wide variety of goods with their Indigenous partners, including goods like brass kettles, fire steels, blades, firearms and ammunition, fabrics and ribbons, needles and thread, blankets and clothing, and tobacco and alcohol. Most of the trade goods saved time and effort in daily life, freeing up more time for the fur trade.

The European demand for North American fur cannot be overstated. Between 1626 to 1632 alone, Dutch traders shipped 52,584 pelts home to the Netherlands.[2] This number does not include furs shipped to Europe by English and French fur traders elsewhere in the Northeast. In England alone, between 1700 and 1770, 21 million finished beaver felt hats were exported to other countries.[3] That number did not include domestic purchase of hats from the English hat-making industry or hats made elsewhere in Europe.

The insatiable desire for beaver and other furs had a huge impact on Indigenous trade networks. As game animals grew scarcer, trade networks ventured farther and farther afield, with Native people in New York eventually serving as intermediaries for counterparts from neighboring tribes as far west as the Mississippi. The Munsee, in particular, developed trade networks with other nations as far west as the Ohio River Valley.

Sadly, the incredible demand for furs led to overharvesting, just as it had in Europe. By the 18th century, the numbers of animals harvested for their furs had dwindled. Increased European land use had also impacted animal populations as hunting grounds shrank. As Native people were less able to accommodate European demand, their economic and political power also decreased. Many tribes who had lost many members to disease and changed their lifestyles to accommodate the fur trade found it difficult to return to their previous ways of life. Some attempted to improve their political standing by adopting European style dress, religion, and farming techniques. Many Munsee and Mohicans adopted Christianity and became known as the Stockbridge Munsee and Stockbridge Mohicans. Most were still treated as other by the colonists even as they tried to maintain trade and diplomatic relations. By the end of the American Revolution, the official policy of colonial governments i forced removal of Indigenous people.

Munsee and Philipse Manor Hall

Margariet and Frederick Philipse were both intimately involved in the fur trade which helped propel them to incredible wealth. But by the time they joined in the 1650s, the fur trade was largely centralized on Albany, and Margariet traveled there often to negotiate with Iroquois/Haudenosaunee factors.

The Philipses purchased Adriaen van der Donck’s patroonship, Colendonck, from his widow in the 1670s and in the 1680s they began constructing the first part of what would become Philipse Manor Hall near van der Donck’s sawmill on the Nepperhan. Although we have yet to discover clear evidence one way or the other, it is likely that local Munsees returned to Neppeckemack for the spring fish runs each year. They may have traded fish, game, and handmade items like baskets to the Philipses and other Europeans in the region, in addition to beaver, deerskins, and other furs like mink, fox, marten, bear, and raccoon.

It is also likely that the original section of the house was constructed as a trading post rather than a full-time residence. The Philipses maintained their primary residence in New York City. Archaeology in the basement of the original house along the Nepperhan found a large piece of tile which leads us to believe they maintained the Dutch tradition of tiling underground storage areas. It is likely the basement was a place where trade goods were kept secure. Although we do not have accounting records for Philipse Manor Hall from this time, other records in the Hudson Valley indicate that Munsee people continued to trade with Europeans into the 1730s.[4]




[4] Waterman, Kees-Jan and J. Michael Smith. Munsee Indian Trade in Ulster County New York 1712-1732, Syracuse University Press (2013).