Long before Astoria was Astoria, a creek called Sunswick by the local Indigenous tribes traveled northward from what is now Queens Plaza, up the present-day route of 21st Street, and opened into the East River, where Socrates Sculpture Park stands today.
Sunswick Creek suffered greatly from the industrialization of the land surrounding it after the Europeans arrived. Increased population brought increased pollution; sewage filled the water, making it stagnant and attracting mosquitoes, and making its marshy surroundings a breeding ground for disease.
By the turn of the 20th century, residents of the now-booming Astoria regularly clashed with local authorities over management of the creek and its detrimental impact on public health. The solution was to completely bury the creek under new industrial buildings; its only remnant is a small inlet at the southern end of Socrates Sculpture Park.
Like Sunswick Creek, the history of Native Americans in New York is buried. The Lenape people of the New York City area did not leave written records, so much of what we know comes from the Europeans. Although European accounts of encounters with Native Americans are often unreliable, they shed light on the lesser-known Indigenous presence in modern-day Queens.
For millennia prior to the arrival of the Europeans, much of the Northeast, from Delaware to Connecticut, was known as Lenapehoking, the homeland of the Lenape.
Astoria itself was not well-populated. Much of Western Queens overall was uninhabited hunting ground for the local tribes; the land between Long Island City and Corona was known in the Algonquin language as Wandownock, meaning “fine land between the two streams,” referring to the East River and Flushing Bay.
The name “Sunswick” was likely not the original name of the creek or the surrounding land; it is believed to have originated from the Algonquin term Sunkisq, meaning “woman chief” or “sachem’s wife.”
A number of related Lenape peoples lived in what is now New York City. The Munsee subtribe dominated parts of Manhattan. The closest group to Astoria were the Mespeatches, who lived alongside Newtown Creek in what is now Maspeth, which derives its name from the tribe. Mespeatches in Algonquin means “bad water place,” likely referring to the stagnant water in the creek.
The Canarsee were another branch of the Lenape who primarily lived in Brooklyn, are the namesake of the Canarsie neighborhood there, and appeared to have a presence in Astoria as well. The Rockaway, as their name suggests, lived on and around the Rockaway peninsula. The Matinecock primarily dwelt in Northeast Queens and along Long Island’s north shore.
The names of the tribes are debatable; it is uncertain whether the Indigenous peoples themselves actually identified as Mespeatches, Canarsee, or Rockaway, or, as was common practice, whether Europeans assigned these names to people based on nearby locations.
The Dutch West India Company established the colony of New Netherland in modern-day New York and New Jersey on Lenape land. Its member Jacques Benfyn was the first non-Native landowner in now-Astoria, having been granted in 1638 a peninsula beneath the intersection of three waterways- the East River, the Harlem River, and the Long Island Sound.
This turbulent meeting point was called hellgat in Dutch, or Hellgate in English. Today, the Hellgate and Triborough Bridges pass over this very spot. The peninsula itself was called Hellgate Neck, and Benfyn built a grain plantation there.
As was the case throughout the colonies, the Dutch used violence to eliminate the Indigeous population. From 1643-45, New Netherland Governor Willem Kieft led a two-year campaign of brutal raids against the Lenape, known as Kieft’s War, indiscriminately slaughtering, drowning, and mutilating men, women, children, and infants.
The local tribes, including the related Canarsee, likewise used violence to defend their homes from European conquest. During Kieft’s War, Benfyn’s plantation in now-Astoria was destroyed, along with many European farms and settlements. As a result, Kieft was fired from his post as governor, and was replaced in 1647 by Peter Stuyvesant.
Five years later, in 1652, the first inhabitant of now-Astoria, British-born William Hallett, relocated to New Netherland from Greenwich, Connecticut and on December 1 was sold Benfyn’s land on Hellgate Neck by Stuyvesant, supposedly in coordination with the Native Americans.
Hallett’s stay did not last long; in 1655, his farm was burnt down by Natives, likely the Canarsee, so he moved further inland to Flushing. Stuyvesant ordered all European settlers to leave their farms and move into the villages. The destruction of Hallett’s home may have been caused in part by Stuyvesant’s improper coordination with the Natives when selling the land to Hallett.
In 1664, the British took over the New Netherland colony and renamed it New York. Stuyvesant was deposed, and Hallett petitioned the new British governor, Richard Nicolls, for his former land back. To prove his purchase, Hallett presented two Native Americans, Shawestcont and Erramorhar, under the authority of Mattano, “chief of Staten Island and Nyack.”
The Nyack were a subtribe of the Canarsee who populated what are now Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, but, according to records from the sale, lived in Shawcopshee in Staten Island.
This apparent discrepancy is owed to the fact that in 1652, the same year Stuyvesant sold Hellgate to Hallett without full consent of the Natives, threat of attacks from the Dutch forced Chief Mattano to sell much of southern Brooklyn and relocate the Nyack to Staten Island.
Hellgate Neck, which had been known as Sintsinck (meaning “stony place”) by the Native Americans, was renamed Hallett’s Point, as it is still known today. Hallett’s property grew from a 162-acre farm to over 2,000 acres, stretching from what is now Broadway to Bowery Bay, extending eastward to what is now Steinway. The land remained in possession of the Hallett family for generations.
The New York colony grew and eventually gained independence. The area around Hallett’s Point was later renamed Astoria after fur merchant John Jacob Astor in order to attract investors, and since then has been one of New York City’s most sought-after neighborhoods by newly-arrived immigrants, young professionals, and real estate companies alike.
Meanwhile, the Lenape were decimated through war and disease, and the survivors were expelled from their homeland. Today, most Lenape do not even live in the New York City area. Their history prior to the colonial era is, for all intents and purposes, lost.
Names like Hallett, Sunswick, and Sintsinck are present today on street signs, bars, and playgrounds throughout Astoria, but most people have never heard the stories behind the names, or know about the creek buried beneath the buildings.
It is possible to simultaneously acknowledge the violence that made this all possible, while also celebrating the thriving, diverse neighborhood that Astoria is today.
The Lenape Center in Manhattan is led by Lenape elders with the goal of educating the public about the true history of the Lenape nation in New York, and honoring their continued presence and contributions to our society.