The “Indian wars,” that ignominious history of Colonial and American devastation of the native peoples of North America, effectively ended in 1890 in South Dakota at the Battle of Wounded Knee, although skirmishes continued into the late 1920s. The wars started almost as soon as Europeans began their hegemony in the early decades of the 17th century, most notably with the Jamestown Massacre of 1622 in Virginia, and New England’s Pequot War of the 1630s. These wars are now deeply ingrained in the American psyche, having inspired some of the best literature, art, and film ever to come out of this country; and they helped form the singular American identity in the minds of much of the world. Yet one of the earliest and most dramatic of the Indian wars has been mostly ignored: the Esopus Wars that took place in Ulster County in the 1660s.
The biggest battle between the Munsee Esopus tribe of the Lenape Indian nation and the colonists from the Netherlands occurred in 1663. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the conflict, which resulted in the loss of dozens of lives, destroyed valuable property, claimed hostages on both sides, and nearly wiped out an entire tribe. The wars marked the ultimate and literal release of the bad blood that began as soon as the Dutch tried to gain a foothold in the New World.
Tensions began to arise between the Lenape and the colonists when the Dutch started building settlements around 1652. In 1658, they built a stockade and a village (what is now Kingston). They first called it Esopus after the local tribe, but renamed it Wiltwyck in 1661. Though each group was wary of the other, trade commenced.
“‘Clash of cultures’ is an outdated term, but the fact is, the Indians were confronted with a culture that was vastly more sophisticated,” says Marc B. Fried, author of The Early History of Kingston & Ulster County, NY and other Ulster County histories. “Theirs was a stone-age society that didn’t even have the wheel or wagons. They were becoming dependent on guns, iron, copper, wool cloth, and so many other things that they were trading for. And by the time of the settlement, many Lenape Indian tribes had been decimated by disease; their population was declining. With all these changes they were demoralized, as anyone would be.”
They were also upended by alcohol, which the Dutch were trading to them against direct orders from the New Netherlands leadership. The natives had no experience with alcohol and started to abuse it, Fried says.
Alcohol actually turned into the impetus for war. After one too many drinks, a group of Esopus got a bit rowdy while celebrating around their campfire. A Dutch mob — fearful that the noise signified native aggression — attacked the Indian village. In retaliation, some 500 Esopus returned to Wiltwyck and killed livestock, destroyed crops, and laid siege to the village. This first war didn’t end until July 1660, when the Dutch — having been reinforced with men and weapons — struck a truce with the Lenape.
Three years of peace followed — although, Fried says, there were a few more disputes over farmland. The Dutch thought all was quiet on their western front. But in 1663 the natives planned a bloody ambush that came to be known as the Esopus Massacre.
On the morning of June 7 of that year, the tribe entered the stockade under the pretense of bartering, as was frequently done during peaceful times. Shortly thereafter, Dutch citizens from the nearby settlement of Niew Dorp (now Hurley) rode into Wiltwyck to report that Niew Dorp had just been attacked and a band of Esopus were destroying the village and taking prisoners. The Indians inside Wiltwyck took that as their signal, and attacked the settlers. As Dutch Captain Martin Kregier reported: “The Indians here in this village immediately fired a shot and made a general attack on our village from the rear, murdering our people in their houses with their axes and tomahawks and firing on them with guns and pistols; they seized whatever women and children they could catch and carried them prisoners outside the gates, plundered the houses and set the village on fire.”
Twelve men, four women, and two children were killed inside the stockade. Another 10 women and children were kidnapped. Twelve homes had burned. In Niew Dorp, three men were killed, and eight women and 26 children were taken prisoner. That entire village was burned to the ground.
Thus began the Second Esopus War, which rocked the whole of the colony and may have contributed to the Dutch handing the territory over to the British just one year later.
The Esopus and their hostages retreated, guerrilla-style, into the woods. Each side courted allies: The Lenape enlisted aid from the Minisink tribe, and the Dutch sent reinforcements upriver from New Amsterdam, as well as some Mohawk tribesmen to help rescue the captives.
Throughout the summer, the two sides played cat and mouse. In late July, the Dutch located an Esopus fortress in what is now either Wawarsing or Kerhonkson, based on intelligence they gathered from captured Indians. Kregier and his small army destroyed the site, burning the fields and food, but the Esopus retreated and hid again — along with some of the hostages. In September, the Dutch found their new redoubt and killed a large number of natives, including the Esopus chief Papequanaehen, which effectively ended the war. The white captives reported having been treated well, and some had grown fond of their captors. “There were two children who had become caregivers for an elderly woman, and they stayed with her for some time,” Fried says.
Their nation in ruins, the Esopus signed a peace treaty in 1664 — and the future of the Hudson Valley was established. The Dutch, now leery of all native tribes, grew increasingly preoccupied with the English interlopers and ceded their territory to them later that same year. “The wars may have weakened the Dutch, and you could even argue that without the war the Dutch may have put up more of a fight against the English — though that is purely speculative,” Fried says. “Instead they gave it up without a shot being fired.”
The war also gave white people their first glimpse at the interior regions of the Valley. A woman captured by the Esopus was perhaps the first to spend time in the Shawangunk Mountains. Her description of the region is said to have inspired the Duzine, the 12 Huguenot families that bought property in what became New Paltz in the 1670s.
By that time, the Esopus had scattered, and ceased to exist as a unified tribe. The few that remained had crossed the Shawangunks and lived among the Mohawk and other tribes. Their descendants now live on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin.
Although there was general accord between the British and the natives, skirmishes occasionally broke out between them. And in 1781, during the Revolutionary War, a group of Iroquois joined a band of Loyalists to attack and burn the hamlet of Wawarsing, killing 11 people. After that, though, the Indian wars moved steadily west. The white empire expanded, eventually overpowering the native tribes from the Valley all the way to the Pacific Ocean.