A Comparative Analysis of Archaic Peoples and Early Dutch Settlers Living in The New York Region

The coastline of current-day New England was considerably different thousands of years ago. Manhattan and Staten Island were some 40 miles inland eight thousand years ago (Cantwell 2001: 37). It was only as the ice sheets receded north and melted, a result of a global warming trend, that ocean levels rose to today’s elevation over a period of thousands of years (Cantwell 2001: 38). The area around Manhattan, which is now on the coast, was once a varied inland landscape with marshes, lakes, and forests. Through analysis of seeds, pollen, and other plant remains, research shows these forests were densely populated with trees such as spruce, fir, pine, and birch (Cantwell 2001: 38, 42) (Tankersley 1990: 306). In 1624, the Dutch established their first outpost about 150 miles north of Manhattan, up the Hudson River, called Fort Orange. It was located near the modern city of Albany, NY. (Cantwell 2001: 119) Interestingly, the environment was similar to that of prehistoric Manhattan. The plant life was similar, with spruce, fir, birch, and poplar dominating the area around Fort Orange (Tankersley 1990: 306). Because archaic groups and a fledgling European outpost relied so heavily on the local environment to survive, there are many commonalities in how they lived. Using this similar environmental context, one can explore how each group, with their different technologies and social traditions, adapted and survived.

The rich flora supported a remarkable diversity of animal life, and allowed archaic and European groups to live off the land and not rely on agriculture. It appears that the available animal life was very similar for both the archaic peoples and the Dutch. Megafauna like mammoth, mastodon, and giant sloth had become extinct by archaic times. Large numbers of caribou, bear, moose, elk, and especially white tailed deer were present throughout (Baker 1994: 96, 97) (Cantwell 2001: 38, 42, 47, 57) (Keene 1981: 93, 101) (Tankersley 1990: 310). These animals were regularly hunted and likely provided much of the subsistence for these groups. At Fort Orange, large caches of white tail deer remains have been found, supported by a historical document noting that deer meat was a main dietary component at the outpost (Huey 1988: 241, 603). The Dutch settlers found the abundance of deer astonishing because venison was a delicacy in Europe (Cantwell 2001: 179) (Huey 1988: 241). There was also plenty of small game to be hunted, including rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, muskrat, beavers, hares, and otters (Baker 1994: 97) (Keene 1981: 106).

Enormous populations of birds, supported by the flourishing plant and animal life, were hunted. The Passenger Pigeon, now extinct, was an important avian resource for paleoindian and archaic communities. Arriving in huge flocks in early spring, these birds would provide feasting for an entire community (Keene 1981: 112). Wild foul were also heavily hunted and were still populous by the time the Dutch set up Fort Orange (Huey 1988: 241, 362) (Keene 1981: 116). Large populations of geese, swan, crane, turkey, pheasants, and duck were present and likely hunted by archaic people, and certainly by the Dutch (Baker 1994: 97) (Huey 1988: 243, 245).

Hunting wasn’t limited to terrestrial game. Fish such as salmon, trout, sturgeon, and bass, were abundant in the many streams and lakes that populated the region in both time periods, and were heavily exploited (Baker 1994: xxii, 97, 32) (Cantwell 2001: 40, 42, 45, 47) (Huey 1988: 243) (Keene 1981: 121) (Tankersley 1990: 311). Clams, mussels, and oysters were also collected (Baker 1994: 97) (Cantwell 2001: 55) (Huey 1988: 243, 245, 362, 363) (Keene 1981: 126). Archaeologies have uncovered many large shell heaps from the middle Archaic, indicating that large quantities of shellfish were consumed, and likely being processed for beads as well (Cantwell 2001: 54, 58). Shellfish, especially oysters, offered an emergency protein source during hard times when other resources were not available (Cantwell 2001: 55, 59).

There were other types of food besides animals available. Nuts and seeds, such as acorns and sunflower seeds, were an easy resource to collect, were nutritious, and could be stored (Keene 1981: 65) (Cantwell 2001: 47, 59) (Baker 1994: 74) (Cantwell 2001: 58). However, many of these had to be processed before they were edible (Keene1981: 71). Fruits, such as grape and pumpkin, provided an immediately consumable resource (Keene 1981: 81) (Baker 1994: 72) (Huey 1988: 7) (Cantwell 2001: 44).

Although many of the animal and plant resources were the same for archaic peoples and early Dutch settlers, their means of procurement was quite different. Before Fort Orange evolved into a village with farming, it relied almost exclusively on hunting and gathering food, like the archaic peoples before them. The technology the Dutch employed was significantly more advanced. However, this did not help as much as one might think. The principal component for archaic weapons was the knapped point, made for a spear, atlatl, or various other implements (Cantwell 2001: 43, 48) (Spiess 1987: 37) (Tankersley 1990: 305). The Dutch had gunpowder and advanced fabrication processes that allowed them to make items like firearms and cannons (Huey 1988: 56) (Baker 1994: 226).

Gathering plant resources, such as fruits, nuts, seeds, roots, greens, and sap would have been similar for both the Archaic peoples and Dutch colonists. However, hunting animals is much more difficult because of their mobility. In response, people developed ranged weapons. Archaic people had developed the atlatl, a spear with a throwing device for extra mechanical advantage. The Dutch had firearms using spherical, lead ammunition and black powder. Studies have shown that the effective range of the atlatl was about 50 meters, although only accurate at half that distance (Keene 1981: 128). Interestingly, firearms of the early 1600s, which the Dutch were equipped with, had a further effective range, but only acceptable accuracy for hunting at ranges of less than 30 meters. They were also very unreliable and sometimes exploded (Baker 1994: 226, 249). This meant that both groups had to engage game at close range. The Archaic people were probably very proficient hunters, knowledgeable about their native environment, unlike the Dutch. Also, firearms likely scared away nearby animals, making it harder for the Dutch to kill enough game to sustain the settlement.

Archaic people could build wooden watercraft (Cantwell 2001: 70). These were probably used for transportation as well as fishing. Basic fishing technology hasn’t changed much since archaic times. It is believed that traps, weirs and nets were used for mass collection of fish by archaic peoples (Cantwell 2001: 58) (Keene 1981: 124, 128). Spears, harpoons and even baited lines could have been used as well (Keene 1981: 125). The Dutch certainly would have had access to all of these methods.

Europeans repeatedly remarked how wonderfully rich New England was when they first discovered the land (Howell 1886: 21) (Huey 1988: iii). Verrazzano, an early North American explorer compared it to the Garden of Eden, and also explained how the land was “suitable for every kind of cultivation” (Baker 1994: 72). Indeed, when the Dutch first landed, they wanted to engage in more familiar agricultural pursuits. However, such an ambitious undertaking is time consuming, and it took the Dutch nearly 20 years to become self-sufficient (Barnes 1851: 46) (Cantwell 2001: 125, 146). During this time, the colonists at Fort Orange were ill equipped to survive solely off this rich, but foreign land; to survive, they needed assistance from the local Native American communities. Groups like the Munsees helped sustain them with food and also assisted in building housing (Cantwell 2001: 122, 124). Soon, this relationship grew into mutually beneficial trade.

The Dutch had established Fort Orange for fur trading operations. There was a huge demand for fur in Europe because of its scarcity, making it a status symbol (Cantwell 2001: 132, 150). For food, tobacco, fur, and other assistance, the Dutch traded beads, firearms, metal axes, copper kettles, liquor, cloth, knives and other European items, which were highly sought after by many Native Americans (Baker 1994: 146) (Cantwell 2001: 119, 132) (Howell 1886: 2) (Huey 1988: 7, 30, 81) (Hyde 1924: 7). This trade soon involved many local Native American groups, including major ones like the Iroquois, Mohawks, and Algonquians (Cantwell 2001: 132) (Hyde 1924: 8).

Scholars believe that trade was an important factor in population movement and settlement patterns, as groups vied for access to important resources (Keene 1981: 180) (Tankersley 1990: 316). Archaic groups, although mostly sedentary, were mobile at certain times of the year, perhaps covering distances up to 500 km a year (Tankersley 1990: 314). Like the Dutch, archaic peoples were engaging in trade and interacting with other groups. There were many navigable routes to the west and north that could have been used for trade (Cantwell 2001: 60). Material trade seems to have been present even in earlier periods. A paleoindian archeological site in Maine contained cobble chert of exotic origin (Spiess 1987: 34, 37). This material may have originated in the mid-Atlantic region and diffused from group to group, rather than through direct trade (Spiess 1987: 37). The material found in Maine was almost certainly transported through the New York region; indicating groups there were engaged in trade in paleoindian times as well. Port Mobil in New York, another paleoindian site supports this. Materials from chert quarries, possibly from Eastern Pennsylvania, have been recovered there (Cantwell 2001: 43). A reddish-purple argillite, a Mesozoic stone mostly found in the central Delaware River Valley, has been recovered in archaic archaeological sites in New York (Cantwell 2001: 60, 79). Archeologists are unsure if the spear points made from this material or just the raw materials themselves were traded. However, archeologists periodically recover new styles of spear points that are not locally produced, which means that finished products were being traded as well (Cantwell 2001: 56). These trade networks continued into the Woodland Period, although evolved considerably in complexity and reach, including trade of not only materials like sheet mica, but also ideas, rituals, and even domesticated plants (Cantwell 2001: 76, 79).

The Dutch, although thousands of miles away from their homeland, had strong ties to the Netherlands culturally. They received news regularly as merchant ships visited Fort Orange. Although itself a trading outpost, residents at the fort often traded for European goods to reestablish “the comfort and sophistication of everyday life in the Netherlands” (Cantwell 2001: 177, 180) (Huey 1988: iv). Furniture, plates and tobacco pipes of Dutch and English origin have been recovered at Fort Orange in significant numbers (Huey 1988: 249 255). They even built a brewery at Fort Orange, partly for trade, but also for social reasons (Barnes 1851: 46) (Huey 1988: 33, 42). These social elements were important for the Dutch colonists. It maintained social traditions and a sense of nationality, especially as more and more children were born in the New World that had never been to The Netherlands. Fort Orange slowly evolved from a fortified outpost to a village called Beverwyck, with increasing European-style opulence (Barnes 1851: 46) (Cantwell 2001: 135) (Huey 1988: 51, 559) (Hyde 1924: 6).

The Fort regularly hosted entertainment for the residents and also local Native American groups, which were very friendly (Howell 2) (Hyde 1924: 6). The social interaction and strong economic partnership between Fort Orange and Native American groups forged an attitude of cooperation. This included mutual economic benefit and collective protection from hostile Native American tribes and the French to the north (Huey 36). Even throughout the political upheavals in New Amsterdam (current-day Manhattan), where Native Americans were being brutally raped and massacred, life at Fort Orange and the surrounding areas remained peaceful (Howell 1886: 47) (Huey 1988: 96). The Dutch at Fort Orange continued to work, trade, and sign treaties with Native Americans long after the Dutch in New Amsterdam had broken off ties with such groups (Hyde 1924: 8).

In some ways, archaic groups were similar to the Dutch socially. Scholars believe that archaic groups visited neighboring communities of kin or allies (Cantwell 2001: 60). Ceremonies and exchanges of valuable raw materials like chert or ivory were probably common (Cantwell 2001: 43). These trips were “to maintain social and political relationships”, much like the Dutch were doing with their neighbors (Cantwell 2001: 60). Escalating communication between distant groups also meant marriage partners could have been traded, which increased long-range social interaction (Cantwell 2001: 61). This phenomenon probably resulted from an increasingly complex culture, which by the late archaic, for example, had developed elaborate burial rituals (Cantwell 2001: 64, 67).

New England is unique in that it has been continually occupied for eleven thousand years (Cantwell 2001: 3). Group after group has occupied this land and settled it. Initially, the Dutch found themselves in a land where their technology could not save them. They needed to adapt quickly to survive, and in doing so, behaved much like their archaic counterparts thousands of years earlier. The Dutch settlers at Fort Orange and the archaic peoples around the area of modern-day New York City had many parallels. They both lived in a similar environment; living off the rich plant and animal resources it provided them. They traded for desirable resources and established extensive trade networks. They both had complex social systems, and interacted with their neighbors to maintain good relations and cooperate for mutual protection and economic benefit. As archaeological efforts continue, researchers will undoubtedly gain new insight into how these two groups lived, which will almost certainly reveal additional parallels.

Works Cited:

  • Baker, Emerson et al, ed. American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  • Barnes, William. The Settlement and Early History of Albany. Albany: Gould, Banks & Gould, 1851.
  • Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana Wall. Unearthing Gotham. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Howell, George. Bi-Centennial History of Albany: History of the County of Albany, N.Y., from 1609 to 1886. New York: W.W. Munsell & co., 1886.
  • Huey, Paul. Aspects of Continuity and Change in Colonial Dutch Material Culture at Fort Orange, 1624-1664. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1988.
  • Hyde, J. A. Lloyd. The Relations Between the Early Dutch and the Indians as Affecting the Subsequent Development of the Colony of New York. New York: 1924.
  • Keene, Arthur. Prehistoric Foraging in a Temperate Forest: A linear Programming Model. New York: Academic Press, 1981.
  • Spiess, Arthur and Deborah Wilson. Michaud: a Paleoindian Site in The New England-Maritimes Region. Augusta, Maine: The Maine Historic Preservation Commission, 1987.
  • Tankersley, Kenneth and Barry Isaac, ed. Research in Economic Anthropology: Early Paleoindian Economies of Eastern North America. Supplement 5. Greenwich, Connecticut: Jai Press, Inc., 1990
© Chris Harrison