Giving New York Munsees their Proper Names

Giving New York Munsees their Proper Names: Tantaque and Tackapousha

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

unearthing gothamRecently, I was preparing for my History of New York City course by reading Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana DiZerega Wall’s Unearthing Gotham, a book on New York’s archeology recommended by my colleague Joe Diamond, Chair of Anthropology at New Paltz.  The book includes a story about Tantaque, a Munsee Indian, and his meeting with two Labadists in Manhattan on October 16, 1679.  The Labadists, Jaspar Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter, were scouting New Amsterdam as a possible location for their small religious sect to relocate in North America.  Like the Quakers, the Labadists believed in a radical interpretation of the gospels and split from established churches to form their own community, moving from place to place in search of a welcoming environment.

longislandtribesInteresting as the Labadists were, I was more intrigued by the fact that the authors of Unearthing Gotham named an individual Munsee—Tantaque—and were able to fill in some of his biography.  They described him as “an eighty-year-old man originally from Long Island” and “a well-known figure in early New York, for he was a generous man and, in his younger days, had often given fish to starving Europeans.”[1] This anecdote immediately reminded me of Squanto (also called Tisquantum), the famous Pawtuxet Indian who assisted the Pilgrims in their early days and is associated with the first Thanksgiving.  Yet I realized that I had never heard a Munsee Indian from this period named or personalized in any way.  In most of my readings, the Munsee people were characterized as a group.  Often defined in contrast to the Iroquois Confederacy, the Munsees (also called Delawares) were Algonquian peoples who lived in the Hudson River Valley, on Long Island, and along the Delaware River.  Within the Munsee were smaller communities, such as the Esopus (in what is now Ulster County), the Wappinger (across the river),  the Minsink (along the Delaware), the Tappans (along the Palisades), the Raritans (in present-day New Jersey), the Massapequas, Rockaways, Merricks, Matiecocks, and Secatogues (all on Long Island), and others.   The Munsees were the Native Americans whom we remember as selling Manhattan to the Dutch in a bad land deal, a group that was greatly reduced by disease, then quickly removed in a series of wars—Kieft’s War (1640-45), the Peach War (1655-56), and the Esopus Wars (1659-63).  None of them, in my memory, had individual names or lives that one could trace.

first-manhattansFailing to name individuals erases them from history.  I had always assumed that we just didn’t know the names of New York Munsee leaders or, if we did, we had no stories to give content to their names.  On the basis of Unearthing New York and another book recommended by Professor Diamond, First Manhattans, A History of the Indians of Greater New York, by Robert S. Grumet, it is clear that my assumption was incorrect.  Using documentary evidence about meetings and land deeds, Grumet names numerous Munsee leaders who lived in and around New Amsterdam under the Dutch and New York City under the English.  In this entry, I will discuss only one of them:  Tackapousha.

Tackapousha (fl. 1643-96) was a Sachem of the Massapequa tribe of Western Long Island.  Grumet describes him as a “culture broker,” a man who became a trusted negotiator between the Munsee and the Dutch, while Cantwell and Wall call him “one of the most influential Indian leaders of the seventeenth century.”[2]   Munsee Sachems were leaders by consensus; unlike European kings or colonial governors, they did not rule as much as represent their people.  According to Grumet, they were “authoritative, not authoritarian.”  Tackapousha’s history suggests that he was anxious to get along with the Dutch colonial government (that is, the West India Company), even to be of use to them in their conflicts with other tribes, and to use them as reciprocal protection against his peoples’ enemies.  This attitude reflects a similar pattern of Native American-European interactions from French Canada to Virginia.  Groups like the Huron, for instance, hoped that Europeans would assist them in fighting other Indian tribes, those who were their traditional enemies, like the Iroquois.  Then, as allies, tribes would join European forces and war against their allies’ adversaries, whether European or American.

We do not know Tackapousha’s birthdate, but he appears in colonial records in the 1640s and does not disappear until the late 1690s.  One of his recurrent roles was as a peacemaker.  In 1645, Tackapousha attempted to bring Kieft’s War (a bloody, genocidal conflict between the dictatorial Dutch Director-General of New Netherland and local tribes) to an end, despite the fact that the Dutch had recently murdered seven Indian captives.  In fact, Tackapousha assured the Dutch authorities that all of the Native American communities on Long Island wanted to establish a reconciliation, so much that they would even send their own warriors to fight with the Dutch against any tribes who continued the war.  The war had left both the Dutch and the Munsee drained and traumatized.  Since neither side seemed capable of destroying the other, Tackapousha apparently had won his people’s support for a more cooperative relationship with the Dutch.

A little more than ten years later, Tackapousha again promised the Dutch—in this case Peter Stuyvesant—that the Long Island Indians would keep the peace if the Dutch agreed to protect them.  On March 12, 1656, Stuyvesant signed a treaty with the Massapequa forgiving and forgetting the crimes of Kieft’s War, and recognizing Tackapousha as “ye chiefe Sachem” of all the Indians on Western Long Island.[3]  The Massapequa hoped for protection against both the encroachments of colonists and the attacks of old enemies like the Narragansetts, whom they feared might stage raids across the Long Island Sound.  In 1660, Tackapousha and Stuyvesant met again to discuss the whereabouts of the Indians who had killed some settlers in Maspeth.  When Tackapousha told the Director-General that those individuals had left Long Island, he was believed.  It appears that Tackapousha “took seriously the many treaties of peace and friendship he had signed with the Dutch.”[4]   After the English captured the colony of New Netherland in 1664, he was slow to come to greet the new rulers.  But by 1674, when Governor Edmund Andros took control of the colony, Tackapousha once again represented the Indians of Western Long Island in delivering greetings.  When conflicts between Indians and settlers threatened New England in 1675, Tackapousha reassured Andros that his warriors would not be joining any war parties.  Tackapousha did not take sides during Leisler’s Rebellion, but welcomed the new governor Sloughter when he arrived in 1691.  By 1694, however, “the elder Long Island statesman” was not well enough to attend a formal meeting with the new governor, Fletcher.

Grumet argues that leaders like Tackapousha attempted not only to get along with European settlers, but also to manipulate them to forestall the loss of lands they did not wish to relinquish.  For example, in dealing with English settlers who emigrated from Connecticut to Northern Long Island, sachems signed deeds with rival communities whose boundaries overlapped.  Tackapousha himself sold land on the border between Oyster Bay and Hempstead in a move that resulted in decades of legal wrangling.    When English colonists on Long Island tried to drive the Massapequa off lands they believe were still theirs, Tackapousha was forced to ask Nicolls, the first English governor, for help.  But the Indians rejected his compromise solution: “Tackapousha subsequently produced a map showing where lands now claimed by Hempstead settlers exceeded the original purchase boundaries.”[5]  The Massapequa did not want to sell more land, and when the next English governor, Lovelace, demanded a meeting in 1671, the sachem refused to attend.  Later, under Andros, the Massapequa sachem complained about the failure of settlers in Hempstead to pay for the land they were claiming.  In 1687, a new governor, Dongan, gave Tackapousha and his people a reservation of 150 acres at Cow’s Neck on the North Shore of Long Island.  The reservation was small, but the Massapequa still used other undeveloped areas on the island.  As late as 1696 Tackapousha was still signing deeds that conveyed land to the English settlers in Oyster Bay.  Sadly, his last recorded act was signing a 1696 deed that transferred his peoples’ land at Fort Neck to the community of Oyster Bay.

At this point the Massapequa sachem had been an active leader for more than fifty years.  In fact, as an official leader of his people he had outlasted all of the Dutch West Indian Company Directors-General, and ten English governors.  He had survived war, disease, and conflicts over land.  He had certainly not stopped the European advance into the Massapequa’s ancestral territory, but he had worked to delay that advance and had struggled to co-exist with the Dutch, then the English.

Acknowledging the proper names of Indigenous people is important.  Without names, the Native American presence either evaporates—the Manhattans sold their island, then disappeared—or lingers as a story of victimization.  In such a story, Indians are deprived of their individuality and agency.  While named Europeans like Peter Stuyvesant and Edmund Andros appear as real people, the Munsee become an amorphous lump, leaderless dupes of Europeans, not really worth learning about.  That is no longer the way we want to teach the history of New York State.

tackapausha2The legacy of Tackapousha lives on in a somewhat muted form today in the Tackapausha Museum and Preserve in Seaford, Nassau County, on the South Shore of Long Island.  Devoted to environmental education, the site does not focus on the history of the area, or Tackapousha as a leader.  In fact, the museum itself currently manages with only a part-time and seasonal staff.

Finally, a few words about the terms we use to describe Indigenous peoples.  My understanding is that it is best to identify specific tribes and individuals whenever possible, as I have tried to do here.  The question of whether the term “Indian” or “Native American” is preferable remains controversial, even among Indigenous people themselves.  The history of these peoples is not my own area of expertise, but I have learned from colleagues in both history and anthropology that the term “Indian” is acceptable to some (but not all) indigenous peoples in the United States.  Interestingly, the term Indian is used by Grumet, while Cantwell and Wall use Native American.

[1] Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall, Unearthing Gotham, The Archeology of New York City (Yale University Press, 2001) p. 35.

[2] Cantwell and Wall, p. 131

[3] Cantwell and Wall, p. 138

[4] Robert Grumet, First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011) p.95

[5] Grumet, p. 95


“Native American or American Indian,” by Dennis Gaffney (2006), PBS;

What’s in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness, by Christina Berry, All Things Cherokee;

“Introduction & 1st Question: Indian or Native American,” by Dennis Zotigh, The National Museum of the American Indian;

2 thoughts on “Giving New York Munsees their Proper Names

  1. Marcus

    I need some help understanding something that happened to me in what was Munsee land beneath the Palisades in New Jersey. Beneath the cliffs in Alpine, New Jersey to be exact. I don’t know if you can or will help, but I had to try. 26 March 2016


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