Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Should the Siwanoy Elementary School Should Be Renamed?

Provocative title?

This article, of course, is not a serious call to change the names of our beloved Siwanoy Elementary School, or the original Siwanoy High School, or Siwanoy Place, or Siwanoy Country Club, or the Siwanoy Trail, or the many other regional references to "Siwanoy."  Such references have been an historic part of our popular culture for more than 150 years.  But, there is an important teaching moment for our students (particularly those at Siwanoy Elementary School) to help them understand that critical thinking requires us to question what we are taught; to ask for the evidence; and, to assess it on our own.  

I have argued for many  years that during the early to mid-19th century or even earlier, the term "Siwanoy" mistakenly emerged as an erroneous short-hand reference to local Native Americans who did not refer to themselves, and were not referred to by others, by any such name.  During the last sixteen years, after reviewing thousands and thousands of colonial documents and document translations, I have been unable to locate a single instance including a reference to any individual or a specific group of individuals as "Siwanoys."  I have written about this before.  See, e.g., Wed., Jan. 29, 2014:  There Were No Native Americans Known as Siwanoys.  

More and more experts and specialists independently have reached the same conclusion that my research has suggested.  There is nothing to be suggested by this other than the fact that quite a number of those who study the issue have begun to reach the same conclusion.  There was not a local Native American group that recognized itself (or that was recognized by others) as "Siwanoys."

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog quotes one portion of a substantial footnote in a recently-published study by Robert S. Grumet, an expert on the Munsees who populated today's Pelham and the surrounding region (and beyond).   Grumet indicates that the term "Siwanoy" as among those that are yet "another linguistic fossil that may be put to rest here."  According to Grumet:

"References to Southern Indians fill colonial records.  Siwanoys are perhaps the best known 'southerners' among people interested in the original Indians of greater New York.  Although Buckland (2002:65-67) equates Siwanoy with sewan making, most linguists regard the name as a form of the Eastern Algonquian word for southerner.  Contemporary documents tend to support this finding.  In 1655, for example, Van der Donck (in DONCK:92) listed Savanoo as the language of what he called Southern Nations and featured Siwanoy just inland from Long Island Sound on Visscher's 1655 revision (the name first appeared on the 1651 map) accompanying the second edition of his book printed in 1656.  Siwanoy appears in the same general locale in nearly every subsequent version of the map.  Despite this, no known colonial chronicle uses the term Siwanoy to identify a particular individual or community.  

The widespread acceptance of Siwanoy as the proper name for the original inhabitants of the mainland from Hellgate to Norwalk may like the Wappinger Confederacy, be traced to Ruttenber's writings.  Ruttenber (1872:81-82) largely relied on the name's position on the Jansson-Visscher maps to identify Siwanoy as a cover term for all Indians living along the western reaches of the mainland along Long Island Sound.  Inspired by Morgan's pioneering social and kinship analyses, Ruttenber used totemic devices to identify and link the variously named individuals and communities in the area.  Although Ruttenber's innovative linkages of people and totems remains intriguing, his assertion that Siwanoy was the name they used to identify their nation has not stood the test of time.

A look at colonial records shows that the word Siwanoy first appeared in written form on Block's 1614 map as Sywanois.  Block placed Sywanois in northeastern Massachusetts and mentioned Siuanoe maquaas in a note identifying Susquehan- [Page 330 / Page 331] nocks as southern Mohawks in IMI 2:c.pl.23.  Despite records documenting nearly continual warfare between both nations throughout much of the 1600s, Susquehannocks and Mohawks frequently acknowledged that their two peoples had a common origin.  Evidently drawing from Block, De Laet (in NNN:44 and 53) was the first writer to use the name, in prose, placing Siwanois along Long Island Sound and numbering Sauwanoos among nations living near the South (Delaware) River.  Sanawanoock, a variant of the latter term, was fixed in the middle of present-day New Jersey on two globes manufactured in the Netherlands during the 1620s (IMI2:c.pl.30).  Writing in 1628, De Rasiere (in NNN:103) situated Souwenos on Long Island, writing 'in some places it is from three to four leagues broad, and it has several creeks and bays, where many Indians dwell, who support themselves by planting maize and making sewan [wampum], and who are called Souwenos and Sinnecox [Shinnecocks]. . . . The tribes are held in subjection by, and are tributary to, the Pyquans [Pequots].'

Siwanoy is not the only community identified by its directions in early records.  Most notably, Shawnee also means Southerner.  Wampanoag and Abenaki are variously translated as 'easterner' and more poetically as 'dawnlander.'  Native New Yorkers often used variants of the Delaware word wpanow when referring to Indians from New England as Eastern Indians (Goddard 1971:19).  Determining what a writer meant when referring to Eastern Indians is often difficult.  It is hard, for example, to determine exactly just who De Rasiere (in NNN:103) was talking about when he referred to Wappenos in 1628.  Contemporary references to Wappenos, such as De Laet's reference to people variously identified as Wapenocks and Wapanoos at Narragansett Bay on Block's map (both in NNN:42-43), evidently refer to Indians later known as Wampanoags.  De Rasiere's observation that those not driven off by Wappenos 'for the most part have died' provides a further clue.  Epidemics that ravaged New England Indian communities from 1616 to 1619 (Spiess and Spiess 1987) and again from 1631 to 1634 are not known to have spread to Munsee country.  Just as the tidal Hudson today serves as a boundary line separating many northern and southern plant and animal species, it may also have been a barrier to epidemic contagion.  If this was the case, and if De Rasiere was talking about Indians living not just on but east of northern Manhattan, these factors may support identification of Wappenos as Wampanoags in particular or as Eastern Indians in general.  Van der Donck in DONCK:92 used Wappanoos as a general name for Eastern Indians in the same way he used Minqua to identify all Iroquois-speaking nations.  Wappinger sachem Nimham II's 1762 self-identification as 'a River Indian of the tribe of the Wappinoes, which tribe was the ancient inhabitants of the [lower] eastern shore of Hudson's River (see below) shows how similarly spelled names can be used to identify different communities.

The term Norther Indian was often applied by the people of Munsee country and those colonizing their lands to Mahicans and their closely related friends and relatives living along the northern New England-southern Canadian borderlands.  People living in the Hudson Valley identified Unamis, Susquehannocks, and Native people sometimes called Virginians as Southern Indians.  Indians from the remote [Page 331 / Page 332] interior were called Far Indians.  New Amsterdam colonists began using the term North River to identify the Hudson after 1640 (earlier voyagers called it River of the Mountains, Manhattan River, or Mauritius River).  The Delaware River was known as the South River throughout the era of Dutch colonization.  The name of the estuary christened East River by the Dutch endures to the present day.

These examples show how both Indians and colonists in the Hudson Valley used three of the four cardinal directions to identify people and rivers.  Neither people used west for the same purpose, preferring instead to refer to lands in that direction as Far country or as territories of particular peoples like Ottawas, Ojibwas, and Miamis.  This may be attributable among Munsees to beliefs that departed souls travel westward (see De Rasiere in NNN:86 for the earliest known reference to Munsee beliefs concerning the western direction).  No similar belief among settlers who moved among them explains the absence of references to a western river or nation in their documents.

Virginian is another linguistic fossil that may be put to rest here.  Although early European writers sometimes referred to America as Virginia, only one documentary reference refers to Indian sellers of land in Munsee country as Virginians.  This reference appears in the earliest known English transcription of the November 22, 1630, deed to land around Newark Bay (in Westbrook and Van Ingen 1841:14) and evidently reproduced in the much-used citation published in NYCD 13:2-3.  The absence of the term in the most recent transcription of the original deed document (in LP:3-4) indicates that the term Virginian was added by its original transcriber and repeated by those using his transcription."

Source:  Grumet, Robert S., The Munsee Indians:  A History, pp. 330-32 n.15 (Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2009) (Notes to Pages 73-75, including this quoted Endnote 15).

In short, Grumet believes that the reference "Siwanoy" was merely an example of a reference to a cardinal direction to identify people.  It was used to reference Indians located to the south -- i.e., southerners.  A rather crude analogy would be a New Yorker today who says "poor southerners have had to suffer through a particularly hot and humid summer this year" when referring broadly to Americans who live below the Mason-Dixon Line.  Like I, he is struck by the lack of any colonial documents yet identified use the term Siwanoy "to identify a particular individual or community."  He traces the mistaken use of Siwanoy to apply to a specific group of Native Americans to writings published by Ruttenber in 1872.  Ruttenber, however, likely was aware of Robert Bolton's assertions published in the first edition of his History of Westchester County in 1848 stating that Native Americans living along Long Island Sound in today's Northeastern Bronx and Westchester County were called "Siwanoys."

Surveying all the evidence, Grumet concludes succinctly that the "assertion that Siwanoy was the name they used to identify their nation has not stood the test of time."  

Somehow, however, "Wiechquaeskeck Elementary School" just doesn't have the resounding ring to it that "Siwanoy Elementary School" does . . . . . . 

Siwanoy Elementary School in the Village of Pelham Manor.

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