Indian History – Missing in Action
Historical markers have come up missing in my part of the northeast. In the late 1990s I lived in New York City’s borough of the Bronx and Native American history was well marked by descriptive signs, telling the story Native American warriors played in founding the United States. Right after the fledgling United States declared her independence, the British seized control of the important port of New York City. The first task of General George Washington was to take it back.
Washington employed at least two units of Native American warriors in this campaign. One was the Rhode Island Colored, which consisted of Pequot Indians and Free Negroes. Another was a contingent of Stockbridge, Munsee or Wappinger Indians led by David Nimham, who had also fought in the French and Indian War a few years earlier.
The bulk of the fighting took place in what is now New York City’s most northern borough, but was then rocky rural country in which the British installed several defenses. Washington and his Indian troops eventually won, of course, and made New York the capital of the United States. David Nimham, whose father was also a prominent leader, paid the ultimate sacrifice by dying in battle.
Nimham and his men were slaughtered in a spot that is now part of Van Courlandt park in the Bronx. The Mount Vernon, NY chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a stone marker commemorating the massacre of Nimham’s men, and there is a fairly large plot of grass surrounded by an iron fence that keeps it marked off from the forest behind it.
Other markers were not so lucky. I recall walking my dog at the park by the Jerome Park Reservoir, and in 1999, there was still a bronze plaque commemorating the Rhode Island Colored and their indispensability to the American cause. It was mounted on one of two brownstone pillars that marked the entrance to the park. A few years later, the plaque vanished. All that remained was the lighter-colored stone, which the plaque had protected from the weather, to remind anyone it had been there.
Around 2005, I found a newer sign, posted in the 1990s, at another corner of the immense Van Courtland Park, this one on the corner of Jerome Avenue and Gun Hill Road, next to an elevated rail line. It mentioned George Washington and the Native American troops who made his success possible. I was immensely proud of this marker, but my joy was to be short lived. A major infrastructure project, building an underground water filtration plant, required the demolition of several acres of the park and the historical marker was removed along with playgrounds, benches and athletic fields.
It would be unfair to say there is a conspiracy afoot to erase all Native American history from New York City. The missing Jerome Park marker was almost a century old, but the gate that supported it still stands. The Gun Hill-Jerome marker was in the way of a major construction project (it was featured on the cable reality show Sandhogs, about the men who build underwater tunnels), and someday it may be replaced. Not far from the Nimham monument is a place called Indian Field, named for a large Lenape cornfield that was later absorbed into the Van Courtland plantation.
But the greatest reason for hope; the hope that the Native American presence will not only be remembered but is still here, is this: the David Nimham monument is still well maintained. No pigeons foul the stone. The plaque is still clearly legible. Someone mows the grass in the rectangular lot around it. Most significant, though, the fresh offerings of corn and other gifts left at the monument.
The Indigenous presence is still here, even in New York City.