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The Memory of All Ancient Customs: Native American Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley

Retelling the native past of the Hudson Valley is like making a quilt out of scraps. Thankfully, Tom Arne Midtrød has the patience to do patchwork. Meticulously, he stitches together many fragments of published and archival evidence in this new book about the valley’s Indians in the colonial period. Along with the growing shelf of new titles on the region’s natives by Robert S. Grumet, Paul Otto, and Amy C. Schutt, this study deepens our understanding of the people who lived in one of the busiest corridors of British North America yet too often are misunderstood or forgotten.

Midtrød’s study focuses on both downriver and upriver folks who lived from the modern site of Greater New York City all the way to the Albany area. All of these people spoke close variants of the family of Algonquian tongues known as “Delaware” or “Lenape.” As Midtrød demonstrates convincingly, “strong ties linked these various groups to one another.” Villagers belonged to real and metaphoric extended families, shared a set of diplomatic customs and ideas, and had a general tendency to side with their fellow river folk when dealing with intrusions from outside Indians or Europeans (xix). In telling the story of the first two centuries of colonization, Midtrød faces a number of challenges. The seventeenth-century Dutch accounts are both sparse and maddeningly unspecific; many Dutch authors wrote about Indians as a generic monolith, making no distinction between inland, river, and coastal peoples. And later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English administrative sources are sometimes spotty. The Indian peoples of the Hudson appear inconsistently and under a changing set of group names.

Midtrød aims to write a study with “relations among Native peoples at center stage” (xii). His “central premise” is that valley folk “tended to deal with the colonizers as they did any other group of people,” and that this insight can take us beyond the simplistic “binary juxtaposition of Natives and newcomers” (xv, xiii). A glance at the chapter titles might give the impression that the book is a narrative. They progress from “Struggling with the Dutch” to “Living with the English” to “Disaster and Dispersal.” But the nine chapters are only loosely chronological and often draw evidence from a wide range of time periods. The result is not exactly a story, but a stage-by-stage analysis of the river’s native politics from contact to the American Revolution. The author also devotes the bulk of his attention to the seventeenth century, when valley Indians figured more prominently in colonial papers on native affairs.  

The book’s topical approach helps trace the contours of the native political landscape. In his first two chapters, which describe the workings of Indian diplomacy, Midtrød makes a number of sensitive observations about the power of metaphor and fictive kinship in the river Indian political culture, and he is cautious never to overgeneralize. His method of mixing early and later evidence helps him argue convincingly that river Indians had a sustained tradition of respecting each other’s local authority while often forming loose alliances in times of trouble. They were “no mere collection of disconnected groups,” but rather independent villages that shared old and lasting bonds of blood, sympathy, and friendship maintained without “permanent councils or other forums” (23, 60). Upriver and downriver villagers held common beliefs about how to avenge murders, settle boundary disputes, and welcome native refugees into their homes. The central problem river folk faced was that colonists did not care for these customs, nor were they as committed to the ideal of peace.  

Instead of narrating the grim series of aggressive wars led by New Netherland governors Willem Kieft and Petrus Stuyvesant from the 1640s to 1660s, Midtrød steps back to examine larger trends. Primarily, he finds the Netherlanders guilty of general indifference to Indian practices and customs. For example, the Dutch were “unwilling to adapt to Native notions of reciprocal gift exchange” and the Indians were “disappointed to find [the colonists] openly scornful of their religion” (65). While “Native leaders could not make the newcomers find their place as junior partners beholden to the locals,” they did reach “a second best outcome”: “the Dutch and Natives were in principle equals in their treaties and agreements” (78). But as the English took command of the Hudson Valley’s colonial settlements in the 1660s and 1670s, this idea of equality between began to fade.

The book’s finest moments come when Midtrød traces the “change in posture” in river Indians’ political position in the 1660s and 1670s (87). Making excellent use of a number of unpublished sources, he shows how the Hudson natives navigated a series of confluent events. Around the same time that the English drove the Dutch out of the governor’s house on Manhattan Island, King Philip’s War broke out in New England. The inland Iroquois Confederacy seized this opportunity to make themselves the regional broker between all Indians in the Northeast. During this turmoil, the river Indians increasingly began to use the honorific “father” for English governors, rather than “brethren.” The English in turn began to call the the natives “children.” Yet Midtrød is quick to show that these terms were not necessarily loaded with “European connotations of stern and authoritarian patriarchy”; the river folks also used the metaphor of elder brethren when speaking with the Iroquois (88). Thus by the 1690s, “Hudson Valley Indians had two senior relatives in their immediate neighborhood: the Iroquois and the government of New York” (129). Placing the river peoples within their larger imagined family explains how they saw the century to come—they could appeal to both their brothers and fathers or play one off against the other.  

The book moves rather briskly from the 1690s to the 1780s, as disease and land loss led to the fracturing of the native political world, with the majority of river peoples heading west and only a few small communities remaining after the Revolution. As their numbers thinned from disease, many decamped to Anglican and Moravian missions, while others began slow and fitful moves toward future homes in the American and Canadian Great Lakes and Plains, where their communities survive today. Still the eventual exodus inland “should not obscure the fact that the Indian societies of this area had been remarkably tenacious” for two centuries of the colonial invasion (210).  

While his analytical bent is generally a strength, it unfortunately lets Midtrød slip into jargon. When discussing gift-giving, talking, marrying, mating, fighting, and gossiping between Indians, he favors abstract terms like “modes of intergroup relations” or “spheres of interaction,” or else he borrows phrases that seem to belong in a corporate boardroom. At one point, he describes sachems’ dealings with their neighbors as “an integral part of their strategic outlook” (100). He is especially fond of the buzzword “network,” a term that better evokes blinking servers and plastic-coated wires than the reasons people paddled canoes and followed paths from one wooden village to another.  

Still, with its hard-earned insights drawn from wide and deep research, The Memory of All Ancient Customsis a valuable resource to historians of the region. Midtrød’s admirable attention to Indian perspectives helps him put together his many swatches of evidence and recreate the fabric of the colonial-era Hudson.

 

-- Andrew C. Lipman, Syracuse University

 

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