The hills and bluffs at the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson rivers, where the Bronx curls around the tip of Manhattan, form a magical place where quarter-mile-high glaciers seem to have moved with the grace of a sculptor’s hand. This is Inwood Hill Park, where you will find ancient “Indian caves.” In pre-Colombian times, these hillside caves were hidden deep beneath the naturally formed rocky outcroppings; today, they’re cool, secluded niches. For centuries, members of the Wiechquaesgeck tribe used them as a summer camp where they could harvest shellfish, eels and fish from the nearby river. (The caves were close to the water at the time, before the landfill projects of the WPA.)
In 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson to Albany, he encountered the Wiechquaesgecks (a branch of the Lenape tribe, headquartered at Dobbs Ferry, and belonging to the Mohegan group of the Algonquin nation). According to some accounts, two tribesmen were taken captive but jumped overboard; one of them drowned. On Hudson’s return, they attacked his ship, the Half Moon, and six or seven Indians were killed.
The Wiechquaesgecks stayed in the area until 1643, when they were attacked by Mohawks and fled the region. They left numerous archaeological artifacts behind–pottery shards, weapons, shell and bone implements. In the early twentieth century, archaeological digs near 203rd Street and Seaman Avenue uncovered skeletal remains of a chief, a woman and a child.
The city bought the land for Inwood Hill Park between 1915 and 1940, and the park officially opened on May 8, 1926. As late as the 1920 and 1930s, Princess Naomi, a member of the Algonquin nation, ran a Native American museum and store there. Other Native Americans gave tours of the caves, ran a library, and demonstrated native arts and crafts.
Just a few hundred yards from the caves is a small boulder–the Shorakopoch Rock–adjoining the soccer field. A plaque on the boulder reads: “According to legend, on this site of the principal Manhattan Indian village, Peter Minuit in 1626 purchased Manhattan Island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders.” The Indians are said to have planted a tulip tree to commemorate the occasion. The plaque says that the boulder marks the spot where the tree grew, “to a height of 165 feet, a girth of 20 feet. It was until its death in 1933 at the age of 280 years the largest living link with the Reckgawawanc Indians who lived here.” According to the 1939 WPA Guide to New York, a “gaunt stump of a huge tulip tree” marked the spot where the famous trade is said to have taken place.
Dodie Dohoney (Cooper Union)
The Indian Caves at Inwood Hill Park around the corner from the soccer field clustered a few steps straight up the east face of the hill, visible to all who pass by. They weren't used year-round by New York's indigenous people, but were more like a summer camp, a place to harvest the abundance of shellfish, fish and eels available in the waters nearby. Go on a sweltering summer's day to suck up the cool air that gets thrown out from the caves. It feels like instant air conditioning...free too! It's a place that transports you to a time, a people and way of life far removed from ours.
When I was seven (1935) I knew there were Native Americans living at the Spuyten Duyvil (Inwood Hill Park). I used to watch Indian kids spear the fish. One time, I stole a chicken when they were having a festival for themselves. I was very hungry and poor we never had a chicken--so I grabbed the chicken from the spit and ran into a cave into the woods. When I finished eating and came out of the cave, the Indian boy and his buddy were on top of the cave waiting for me to come out. They hit me with a large rock and I still have the scar. We were so poor, my mother would go picking out garbage to help the family. We did not swim in the river, it was too dangerous and there were lots of drownings.