Staten Island is the least populated part of America’s most crowded city, hence its self-pitying nickname: “the forgotten borough.” But when it comes to its Native American past, perhaps it is really the forgetting borough. There are no indigenous place names currently used on the island, which makes it unique among all counties in the greater New York City area.
This erasure may be evidence of the island’s contested past, as the colonists who bought it were eager to see the natives go. Dutch and English settlers spent 40 years trying to seize it. Unsurprisingly, the messy history of its purchase is overshadowed by legends of the more celebrated island to the north. But here the oddball borough has Manhattan beat, as there is a more compelling story to tell of how Staten Island was bought and sold.
From land papers, we know that Indians most often called the island Aquehonga Manacknong, a name that likely meant “the place of bad woods.” (The name also suggests the borough’s inferiority complex goes back a long time.) In keeping with the place’s characteristic amnesia, we don’t even know what the island’s native residents called themselves, besides the generic term lenape or “people.”
The native communities on the island were politically linked with the Hackensack, Tappan, Raritan, Manhattan, and Rockaway peoples. But no colonist recorded a proper name for just the islanders. One acceptable but broad term for the people of Aquehonga Manacknong is Munsee, which is an umbrella term for the dialects spoken near the lower Hudson. Today, descendants of these first peoples also identify under the even broader ethnic terms Lenape or Delaware.
The Dutch, who began colonizing the region in the 1620s, admired the hilly mass that guarded one of the best natural harbors on the continent. They named it after the Staten-Generaal, the assembly that united the seven Dutch provinces and was the highest sovereign body in their monarchless republic. Although the Dutch made an initial purchase of the island in 1630, they did not get around to making a permanent settlement there until 1639. The early European buildings were abandoned in local wars that broke out in 1641, then again in 1655. Though natives signed a second deed to the island in 1657, it was annulled months later when the Dutch purchasers failed to deliver the goods promised for the land. ...