“ The Ridgefield clan called themselves the Ramapoo Indians. About the beginning of the last century (18th) they were under the government of a sachem named Catoonah. On the tenth of October, 1708, Catoonah and his people sold out their country, for one hundred pounds, to a company of settlers from Norwalk and Milford. The tract was estimated to contain twenty thousand acres: no reservation was made and the Ramapoo Indians went their ways into the wide world, to seek a home where it might be found.”
The quotation above appears in a history written by a Connecticut historian, in a discussion of Indigenous tribes in the western part of the state in 1708 (DeForest, 1851, pp.359-60). A map created two years later in 1710 by William Bond of the Ramapo Tract indicates two Indian longhouses in the Mahwah area, near the confluence of the Ramapo and Mahwah Rivers. Another longhouse is noted on the map near Oakland, and two longhouses in Wykoff, New Jersey. David Cole’s 1884 history of Rockland County notes that circular wigwams were observed and recorded in 1765 in Ringwood, New Jersey, and in the 1780s in Sloatsburg, New York on the Ramapo River (Lenik, 2011, p.11). Edward J. Lenik’s archaeological surveys in the Rampo Mountains “have identified twenty four dwellings and associated structures and small farmsteads attributed to the Ramapough Mountain Indians dating from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. These occupation sites exhibit a great deal of variation with respect to their architecture, land use and location and a distinctly dispersed community settlement pattern” (Lenik, 2016, p. 36).
Road from Ringwood to Slott’s on the New Windsor Road. No 41. New York Historical Society - Robert Erskine-Simeon DeWitt maps, 1778-1783
The people who came to be known as the Ramapough Lunaape (Lenape) relied upon the protective isolation of the mountains on the border of New Jersey and New York. Manumitted African Americans, or those able to escape slavery, also sought safety in the wilds of the Ramapo Mountains. “In every part of eastern North America from the 1600s to the 1800s, escaping African slaves sought refuge among Native Americans, relying on a natural affinity between oppressed peoples.” (Nash, 1995, p.947). These newcomers to the Ramapo Mountains were first mentioned in 1771, with documentation of “Negro Guy’s Improvements,” and in mapmaker Robert Erksine’s survey from 1778 which recorded “Negro Pond” (Sessions, 1985, p.11).
While free Blacks had enjoyed some measure of independence and economic success, a number of laws began to restrict this. For example, a 1798 New Jersey law severely limited their rights to cross county and state boundaries. “Small wonder that some families chose the relative isolation and freedom of the Ramapos over the increasing discrimination in the more populated lowland areas” (Sessions, 1985, p.12). Some settled with the Native peoples who remained in northern New Jersey. Over the subsequent generations, these inhabitants of the Ramapo Mountains intermingled, with the unifying community hallmark of cultural adherence to their Lenape identity.
The Ramapough’s story is representative of larger issues. The Ramapough have long been depicted in ways that flatten out complex histories of encounter between Black and Native peoples to fit into neat narratives and squeeze into clearly defined categories of identity. While they are recognized by the state of New Jersey, they do not have federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This is by no means an unusual situation, as scholars of the contentious federal recognition process have elucidated. The dispossession of Native lands took place over centuries, and included policies that were enacted well into the 20th century in continuing efforts to dispossess Indian land and weaken tribal sovereignty. The “authenticity” of Native identities is questioned to this day in a number of ways.
The Ramapough have long lived at a crossroads, both before and during the Colonial period, and the region has seen fluidity of settlement and movement. The Ramapo Pass, located near Mahwah, New Jersey, serves as the southern door to the Hudson Highlands, and human travel has always funneled through it. The movement of Native peoples through this region included: the Hackensacks as they were dispossessed of their coastal locations in the 1680’s; the Wappingers and others from today’s Westchester County at about the same time; the free Blacks and Dutch farmers moving away from Manhattan at the same time; the Tuscaroras as they moved north to join the Haudenosaunee; the Mohicans as they moved from Massachusetts and Connecticut to join the Moravians in Pennsylvania circa 1740; British army deserters in the Revolutionary War; and the Brotherton families as they moved to join the Oneidas in the early 1800s. These complex trajectories of movement have scant documentation in archives and are difficult to outline.
In recent years scholars have started to explore this history and its complicated geographical implications. Kerry Hardy, the Lead Researcher and Cartographer at the Public History Project (PHP) at Rutgers Newark, has initiated a project exploring the movement of Algonquian groups from the Northeast, as they responded to a number of threats, both before and after European contact. The Algonquian formed new alliances and confederacies in response to the Haudenosaunee confederacy and then later to events like the Dutch massacres in Kieft’s War (1643-45) and the French and Indian War (1754-63). Displaced groups were on the move in response to many threats, venturing into new geographic regions. The Ohio Territory was a region in which various groups came together, before then being driven to Oklahoma, where some federally recognized Lenape live today. This means that every group’s identity was changed and shaped by Colonial pressures. PHP’s ongoing research explores the experiences of Lenape-affiliated groups in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. They are investigating the dozens of way-stations where displaced Lenape groups lived during their westward movement. These include sites on the Susquehanna, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers, as well as a few sites in Six Nations territory.
While many Lenape were forced out of the state after the 1758 Treaty of Easton, the treaty itself specified the transfer of ownership of the territory, but did not specify that Indians would not be allowed to stay in the territory. A number of documents, including a letter written in 1764 by German industrialist Peter Hasenclever, who purchased the Ringwood Ironworks estate in 1764, references the presence of Native people dwelling in the woods, hunting, fishing, and harvesting food (Heusser, 1923).
Letter written by Peter Hasenclever from Ringwood, NJ on Dec. 15, 1764. Published in Hasenclever’s Works: The Story of an Early Industrialist, by James Ryan.
Chief Vincent Mann speaks at the 2021 NJ History Conference Panel "What the Evidence Reveals" about the Treaty of Easton and Hasenclever's letter.
The question of Ramapough identity involves making sense of the Native people who stayed in New Jersey and how they formed community with others moving through the region - which included Native Americans, Africans, and Dutch and English settlers. The complexity of these groups encountering each other - as they were fleeing to escape colonial violence or enslavement, or to find settlement opportunities - has complicated the debate around Ramapough identity. This braided knot of encounter is not well understood through standard American frameworks of identity, which tend to focus on pure categories.