Looking around Greenpoint today, it’s hard to imagine that this area of high rises and former factories was ever different, but three hundred and fifty years ago Greenpoint was the hunting grounds of the Native American Mespeatches people who lived just up Newtown creek in Maspeth, which takes its name from its original dwellers. There they lived in large wooden long houses with up to twenty members of their extended families.
Perhaps there were once earlier Native Americans who actually lived in Greenpoint. In the 1840s when Neziah Bliss, the founder of Greenpooint, was laying out streets they found a Native American burial ground around Freeman Street. In the early 17th century diseases spread by Europeans wiped out around ninety percent of Natives, perhaps including local Native Americans. We will never know for certain.
Part of the reason that the Mespeatches used the area only as a hunting ground was environmental. The place was too swampy for habitation and when the waters that often flooded the area resided they left a smelly residue. However, our area was a perfect hunting ground and Native Americans used canoes to hunt deer and small game here as well as eating a variety of local fish and shellfish. It is hard to imagine today, but our area was filled with oyster and clam beds and the gift of oysters was one of the traditional native greetings. Local Native Americans made beautiful strings of wampum from local oyster shells.
Around 1640 Greenpoint witnessed the first contacts between European colonists and Native Americans. Europeans were attracted by the stands of local timber, which they cut and sold in markets in Manhattan. Native Americans were amazed by the metal knives and axes carried by the Europeans. At first contacts were friendly as Natives traded beaver and other pelts for metal tools. However, the friendship would not last long. Europeans and Native Americans had different ideas about land ownership. The land here, though ceded to the Dutch in a 1638 treaty, in the eyes of Native Americans did not cease to be theirs. They continued to hunt on it and felt they had a right to share the crops grown on it. With such different views on land ownership conflict was inevitable.
In 1643, Kieft’s War broke out between the Natives and the Europeans. The Dutch Governor Kieft ordered his soldiers to massacre Native Americans living in Manhattan. One hundred and twenty Native Americans were murdered and this led to a bloody war, which lasted from 1643 to 1645. The Mespeatches responded by wiping out a European settlement at Maspeth along Newtown Creek, drawing a bloody European response. Dirck Volckertszen, Greenpoint’s first settler, was part of a raiding party that killed local Native American men, women and children. At the end of the war a native warrior chided the Europeans saying, “’When you first came to our coasts. You sometimes had no food; we gave you our beans and corn, and relieved you with our oysters and fish; and now, for recompense, you murder our people. In the beginning of your voyages, you left your people here with their goods; we traded with them while your ships were away, and cherished them as the apple of our eye; we gave them our daughters for companions, who have borne children, and many Indians have sprung from the Swannekens (whites) ; and now you villainously massacre your own blood.”
It was only after the war Dirck Volckertszen felt safe enough to build the area’s first house in 1645, but this house would only stand ten years. Another war between Native Americans and settlers broke out.It would be the final decisive local conflict. In the war the Native Americans killed two of Volkertszen’s sons and a third who survived was tortured. The native village at Maspeth was completely destroyed and by 1700 the few Natives who survived the bloodletting had moved further east. Native American Greenpoint had become just a memory.