Did the Native Americans Who Sold Land to Thomas Pell in 1654 Understand the Nature of the Sale?
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On June 27, 1654, as Thomas Pell wrote, "A great multitude off Indyans & many English" gathered to witness Native Americans and English witnesses execute a so-called "Indian Deed" transferring about 50,000 acres of Native American land to Thomas Pell of Fairfield. I have written on many occasions about the Pell Deed and the Native Americans who sold the lands to Pell. For a bibliography with links to available items, see the end of today's posting.
Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog poses a very difficult question: Did the Native Americans who sold land to Thomas Pell on June 27, 1654 truly understand the nature of the sale? As will be seen, answering such a question is difficult if not impossible.
Some historians such as Francis Jennings, a former professor of history at Cedar Crest College, past Director Emeritus of the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian in Chicago, and past President of the American Society of Ethnohistory, argue that so-called "Indian Deeds" were little more than frauds committed against the Native American population. Indeed, Jennings argues that colonial settlers shunned "[o]vert conquest" and, instead, practiced a "deed game . . . as a means to win by legal strategem what could not be dared by arms." See Jennings, Francis, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialisms, and the Cant of Conquest, p. 278 & pp. 128-37 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975) (published under the direction of The Holland Society of New York).
Such a view, however, seems paternalistic and, indeed, ethnocentric. It seems to assume that Native Americans were incapable of understanding that an exchange of goods for land on which they lived would lead to their exclusion from such land. Such an argument might carry more weight regarding the earliest such land sales beginning with Peter Minuit's storied acquisition of the island now known as Manhattan in 1626. With near certainty, however, it must have been the case that by 1654 Native Americans in the region of New Amsterdam understood that such exchanges of goods for lands would lead to loss of dominion and control over such lands. There had been a tremendous number of "Indian Deeds" executed in the region by that time. See generally Gehring, Charles T., ed. and translator, New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch - Volumes GG, HH & II -- Land Papers (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1980).
Recent work by historians who have studied the issue seem to agree that the understanding of the implications of such land sales by Native Americans in the New Amsterdam region evolved in precisely such a fashion from 1626 through the 1650s. That is not to say, however, that the process was not still one-sided in favor of the ever-expanding population of colonial settlers who were hungry for land. One expert recently summarized this one-sidedness in the context of Dutch Indian Deeds during this period as follows:
"What might be suggested is that native people were quick to discern that the Dutch were intent on purchasing the land on which they subsisted and that, in turn, they would receive valuable and needed goods in exchange. And among the possibilities is that, in their desire to adhere to stated policy, what mattered most to the Dutch was that deeds were drawn up, signed, and secured to fulfill the requirements of that policy, and if challenged, could be brought into one of their own courts for adjucication. There was no known equivalent forum in native communities, nor should one be expected. In the end, the Dutch may have been unconcerned about from whom the land was actually purchased. It was the deed -- a legal agreement, an instrument -- that counted, one not easily countermanded unless malfeasance could be established. The Indians fully understood that the Dutch wanted to buy land and, taking the position that there were economic and perhaps social advantages to be gained, sold whatever parcels the Dutch wanted. Did the Indians 'own' or manage this land? Were they authorized to sell it? These questions are not answerable. It is possible that, however land tenure was practiced before the arrival of the Dutch, that process my have rapidly been transformed to address and accommodate changing circumstances. Native people, perhaps leaders in their communities or those who may have ingratiated themselves with the Dutch, or who saw opportunities in the making, likely were the initiators of these changes. The familiar view that Indians were simply and always the victims of the colonial land-taking juggernaut need not prevail. There is no reason to believe tht native land tenure systems, and native people themselves, were incapable of the kinds of change and expedient adaptation suggested here. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence in the literature that a bias has been operating, a consequence of which has been a long-standing but wrong-headed assumption that Indians in fact could not adjust to the maelstrom of change around them. They did."
Starna, William A., "American Indian Villages to Dutch Farms -- The Settling of Settled Lands in the Hudson Valley" in Panetta, Roger, ed., Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture, p. 73 & pp. 84-85 (NY: Hudson River Museum / Fordham University Press, 2009). Of course, precisely the same could be said of the English who purchased lands in the New Amsterdam region at the same time as the Dutch.
Can we divine anything that casts any light on such issues directly from the language of the Pell Deed? It would seem so.
It is not possible to know today if the terms of the Pell Deed were translated for the Native American signatories nor, it they were, whether the translation was complete and accurate. The terms of the deed, however, clearly indicate that a bounded area of land was being transferred to Pell and his heirs forever without any "molestation" on the part of the Indians thereafter (i.e., "Thos Pell now inhabitinge in Fayrffield his heyres & assignse to hould injoy improove plant as hee shall see cause to his Best to be improved ffor & to him & his heyres fforever wh out any molestation on our pt "). The Pell Deed also affirmed that the bounded area was being delivered into the possession of Thomas Pell and his assigns with the boundaries of the mainland portion of the lands marked (i.e., "doo deliver it into ye posession off ye sayd Thos Pell & his Assignes: markinge ye bounds to ye mayne Land wch is & shalbe ye present bounds to ye mayne Land"). As if such provisions were not enough, the deed provides that the Indians transferring the land agreed to "make good" to defend any claims for the land pursued by the Dutch or other Indians (i.e., "And doo herby ingage our Selves to make good our selves against all Claymes intayled either by Dutch or Indyans wt ever").
Moreover, to affirm Pell's dominion and control of the bounded lands, the Pell Deed carved out only two exceptions that permitted the Native Americans: (1) to allow their cattle to wander onto and feed on the lands; and (2) to allow Native Americans to cut timber on the lands. (I.e., "only Liberty is ffreely graunt ffor ffeedinge offe cattle & Cuttinge off timber beyound those Bounds"). Additionally, the deed included a section entitled "Articles of Agreement" that required the Native Americans to send two men each spring to reaffirm and re-mark the boundaries of the lands that were sold to Pell.
Assuming that the terms of the Pell Deed were accurately translated or described to the Native American signatories, it would seem unlikely that they misapprehended the nature of the transaction and that they were giving dominion and control of lands over which they previously held dominion and control to Thomas Pell.
* * * * *
Immediately below is a transcription of Thomas Pell's handwritten copy of the Pell Indian Deed, an image of which appears above.
Richard Crabb Magistrate +Shawanórõckquot
Thomas Lawrence +Poquõrúm
John Ffinch +Anhõõke
Henry + Accorly This is A True Coppy off ye
William Newman originall written Thos Pell”
Below is a bibliography with links to available items regarding Thomas Pell's so-called "Indian Deed" executed by local Native Americans on June 27, 1654.
Bell, Blake A., Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., 2004) (book published to commemorate Pelham's 350th anniversary in 2004).
Bell, Blake, Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak, The Westchester Historian, Vol. 28, Issue 3, pp. 73-81 (The Westchester County Historical Society, Summer 2002).
Mon., Sep. 07, 2015: Why Did Native Americans Sell Lands Including Today's Pelham First to the Dutch and then to the English?
Mon., Aug. 17, 2015: Buyer's Remorse: After Thomas Pell Bought Pelham From Native Americans, He Wanted His Money Back!
Tue., Mar. 25, 2014: More 17th Century References to Native Americans in the Manor of Pelham.
Wed., Jan. 29, 2014: There Were No Native Americans Known as Siwanoys.
Wednesday, April 02, 2014: 17th Century Record Identifies One of the Native Americans Who Signed Pell's 1654 Deed as a Wiechquaeskeck, NOT a Siwanoy.
Mon., Dec. 31, 2007: Research Regarding Anhooke, One of the Native Americans Who Signed the Treaty by Which Thomas Pell Acquired Lands That Became the Manor of Pelham.
Fri., Nov. 02, 2007: Information About William Newman, One of the Englishmen Who Signed Thomas Pell's Treaty on June 27, 1654.
Thu., Nov. 01, 2007: Information About John Ffinch, One of the Englishmen Who Signed Thomas Pell's "Treaty" on June 27, 1654.
Wed., Oct. 31, 2007: Information About Richard Crabb, One of the Englishmen Who Signed Thomas Pell's "Treaty" on June 27, 1654.
Tue., Oct. 30, 2007: Information About Henry Accorly, One of the Englishmen Who Signed Thomas Pell's "Treaty" on June 27, 1654.
Tue., Oct. 16, 2007: Information About Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak Published in 1912.
Fri., Aug. 10, 2007: Information About William Newman, A Witness to the Signing of Thomas Pell's "Treaty" with Local Native Americans on June 27, 1654.
Thu., Aug. 09, 2007: Information About John Ffinch: A Witness to the Signing of Thomas Pell's "Treaty" with Local Native Americans on June 27, 1654.
Tue., Jul. 24, 2007: Article About the Pell Treaty Oak Published in 1909.
Mon., Jul. 23, 2007: 1906 Article in The Sun Regarding Fire that Destroyed the Pell Treaty Oak.
Wed., May 02, 2007: Information About Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak Published in 1922.
Fri., Nov. 03, 2006: More About Richard Crabb, the "Magistrate" Who Witnessed the Signing of Thomas Pell's "Treaty" with Local Native Americans on June 27, 1654.
Fri., Sep. 29, 2006: Intriguing Evidence of the Amount Thomas Pell Paid Native Americans for the Manor of Pelham.
Fri., Sep. 22, 2006: Henry Accorly: A Witness to the Signing of Thomas Pell's "Treaty" with Local Native Americans on June 27, 1654.
Fri., Sep. 15, 2006: William Newman: A Witness to the Signing of Thomas Pell's "Treaty" with Local Native Americans on June 27, 1654.
Thu., May 18, 2006: Richard Crabb, the "Magistrate" Who Witnessed the Signing of Thomas Pell's "Treaty" with Local Native Americans on June 27, 1654.
Thu., Apr. 13, 2006: Rumors in 1657 That Thomas Pell Manipulated Local Native Americans To Protect His Land Acquisition From Incursions by the Dutch.
Fri., Jul. 29, 2005: Has Another Piece of the Treaty Oak Surfaced?
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