The Esopus Wars were fought primarily between the Munsee Esopus and the New Netherland colonists in 1659-1663. The image of an “Indian” war most often conjures up scenes of the American West, yet this conflict took place right in the proverbial backyard of the Hudson Valley.
The conflicts were centered around the settlement of Wiltwijck, a place we know today as Kingston. The conflict completely changed the power dynamic of the region, from one dominated by American Indians to European colonists. While from another angle, a look at the war’s participants offers a view of the diverse population that composed Dutch New York.
Little today is left of the Hudson Valley as it was in 1663. But two artifacts offer a window into that distant time and place. One is an account of the war written by Captain Martin Krieger, and the other is the Kingston Stockade District. The Journal of the Second Esopus War written in 1663 by Captain Krieger is a detailed text of some twenty-five thousand words. Many of those words describe a series of military expeditions, while others give insight into the everyday life and unique culture that was the New Netherlands. The journal is more of what today we would call a report or an account, as the personal inner musings that we associate with a journal or diary did not take shape till the nineteenth century. Though the journal is not intimate in an individual sense, it does shed light on the individuals involved in the Second Esopus War and the historical landscape they inhabited.
Settled by New Netherlanders in 1652, Kingston at that time was the only sizable settlement between Albany and New York, and the area surrounding the settlement was controlled by the Esopus nation. The Esopus were a branch of the Delaware Indians known as the Lenape, and spoke the eastern Algonquin language Munsee. They are sometimes referred to as the Esopus Munsee and their territory before the Esopus Wars encompassed much of today’s Ulster County.
The stockade was a result of the growing animosity and violence between the two groups. In 1658, Director-Governor Peter Stuyvesant surveyed a bluff that offered natural protection on three sides, and he and his carpenter Fredrick Philipse oversaw the erection of a fourteen foot palisade built with tree trunks pounded directly into the ground. The new stockade came with new rules; the villagers would now go out during the day to their varied labors and fields, and return to the stockade to spend the night in their new village homes. During the Second Esopus War Captain Krieger was continuously sending groups of soldiers to protect the settlers going out to work on various tasks, the most prominent being the maintenance and harvesting of crops, and the continual gathering of fire wood. Another challenge for Captain Krieger was the need to escort those using the Strand Road, which ran for three miles over some rough terrain, connecting the stockade of Kingston to the Rondout Harbor that led to the Hudson River. The road provided a vital link to the supplies of the outside world that the young settlement could not survive without.
The First Esopus War started on September 20, 1659 as the villagers of Kingston attacked a group of Esopus, who after working the day as hired hands paid unfortunately with brandy, were most likely intoxicated and celebrating around a fire outside the stockade walls. There is no record of provocation on the part of the Esopus that led to two unarmed celebrants being shot dead, only that the settlers were fearful, and that fear acted upon manifested itself into violence. The Esopus, who were outraged by the unprovoked attack, returned the next day in force and virtually destroyed everything of the settlement outside the stockade, which was now locked up tight.
The First Esopus War came to an end the following summer of 1660, with little loss of life, though the sale of twelve young Esopus captives into slavery to the far off island of Curacao was neither forgiven nor forgotten. And the subsequent peace treaty, brokered by the Susquehannok and Mohawk between the Esopus and Dutch seemed more a ceasefire than a lasting agreement. After the uneasy peace of 1660, the Esopus refused to cede or sell any additional land to the settlers. Regardless, the ever growing population of Wiltwijck continued to encroach farther into Esopus territory. Repeated attempts to peacefully mollify the situation failed; the Esopus decided to declare war first this time.
The journal includes a prelude of sorts not written by Krieger himself, but is an account of the massacre at Kingston on June 7, 1663. The document signed by the various members of the Court at Wiltwijck to the Council of New Netherlands offers an introduction to the environment Krieger was about to enter into, and also that this war would be more violent than the one three years ago as each side would pursue a scorched earth strategy against the other.
Around mid-day on June 7, 1663 the Esopus put into action a devastating surprise attack inside the stockade of Kingston. The report states that the Esopus started “Entering in bands through all the gates, they divided and scattered themselves among all the houses and dwelling in a friendly manner, having with them a little maize and some few beans to sell to our Inhabitants.” Unbeknownst to the settlers of Kingston that day, the Second Esopus War had already started earlier that morning.
The document continues, “And after they had been about a short quarter of an hour within this place, some people on horseback rushed through the gate from New Village (this village was located at the present town of Hurley) crying out: ‘The Indians have destroyed the New Village!” It is unknown when the Esopus were planning to strike, but news of the attack on the New Village set their plans immediately into action. The recounting of events written only a few weeks later still bear the shock and trauma inflicted on that day: “And with these words, 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.” The Esopus, though almost seemed more intent on taking hostages, as “they seized whatever women and children they could catch and carried them prisoners outside the gates, plundering the houses and set the village on fire to windward.” And as fast as it all happened the Esopus were gone, but not before twenty villagers lay dead and forty-five were taken hostage, mostly women and children.
The lists provided of those killed at Kingston bring home the reality of the numbers. Some are completely heartbreaking, entries such as “Jan Albersen’s wife, big with child, killed in front of her house” or “William Hap’s child burnt alive in the house.” Other entries shed light on those who are often overlooked in the historical record, “Thomas Chambers’ slave murdered on the farm.” This highlights the fact that slavery was practiced probably from the founding of Kingston, and would be tolerated in New York for almost two-hundred more years till full emancipation was reached in the 1820’s.
The large number of hostages taken in this initial attack, besides their value in ransom, makes it seem as though maybe the Esopus were waging some sort of mourning war. Mourning wars are thought to have been the primary practice of warfare conducted before the arrival of Europeans in North America. The point of a battle against another community was not to inflict casualties, but to take hostages. Some hostages would be tortured to death as revenge for those lost in previous battle, while others would be adopted into families to help restore population levels. With such close contact between the Esopus and those at Kingston, it is most likely that disease took a toll on the population. As well, the twelve young Esopus sold into slavery after the First Esopus War might have been a consideration for the taking of so many children as captives. As Krieger’s journal relates, most of the hostages were finally recovered unharmed by the end of the war. The war might not have been completely over land boundaries as it is often portrayed.
This was the world of violence and uncertainty that Captain Krieger found himself as he stepped off the ship that brought him as well as a small army from Manhattan to Kingston on July 4, 1663. The first entry from Krieger reads, “We entered the Esopus Kill (a creek named for the Esopus Munsee) in front of the Rondout with two yachts, and sent Sergeant Pieter Ebel with 40 men up to the village Wiltwijck to fetch wagons; he returned to the river side about 2 in the afternoon accompanied by Sergeant Christian Nyssen, 60 men and 9 wagons; they loaded these and departed with them to the village where I arrived towards evening. Saw nothing in the world except three Indians on a high hill.” The first few weeks would continue in this fashion, with Krieger overseeing the transfer of supplies from the harbor to the village, sending out escorts to protect workers in the fields and sending groups of soldiers to lay in ambush.
While preparing for an assault on the Esopus strongholds later that fall, the individuals whom Krieger comes into contact speak to the diversity of the people, both American and European, who inhabited the future state of New York. In the everyday running of the village and in negotiations for the release of hostages, Krieger comes into contact with Mohawks, Mohicans, Catskill Munsee, Wappinger, Hackensack, and Minqua peoples. He is also aided by “Lieutenant Couwenhoven with 41 Indians” from Long Island in his campaign against the Esopus. Krieger also notes the origins of those he meets in his journal: “August 5th Thomas the Irishman arrived here, August 17th Gave three Englishmen leave to go to and return from the Manhatans, September 25th Domine Blom had arrived in the Spaniard’s yacht, October 10th Louis the Walloon went to fetch his oxen, and October 15th Hans the Norman arrived at the Rondout with his yacht from Fort Orange.” In addition to the Dutch, French Huguenot, and others from the German principalities like Krieger himself, there were also “7 of the Honorable Company’s slaves” in Krieger’s force. These slaves of the Dutch West India Company most likely represented people of various Caribbean and African background. All these people of various origins highlight the diversity of Dutch New York, as much of Colonial America was multicultural from the start.
Captain Martin Krieger’s journal goes on to relate in a somewhat cold businesslike manner the scorched earth campaign he would lead against the Esopus nation. In May of 1664, the few surviving sachems of the Esopus signed a peace treaty with Stuyvesant, which ceded all claims of land in what was now formerly Esopus territory. A belt of wampum was given as a token of peace, and is kept today in the Ulster County Hall of Records in Kingston. Martin Krieger would go on to spend his last years upstate, settling near Niskayuna on the Mohawk River. The date of his death is unknown, though some records indicate to as late as 1712. The journal he wrote lives on as an important document of not only the Second Esopus War, but also of the variety of individuals and peoples that history would know less of without his writings.
The Stockade Area in Kingston is now a National Historic District. Much of the history and stone architecture now found there represent a later period than that of the Esopus Wars. Of the original wooden houses, barns, and palisades nothing remains, yet the original street layout of the Stockade Area is as Stuyvesant planned in 1658. Walking on these streets 350 years later, one doesn’t get the feeling that Kingston was at one time a frontier town or that it was the setting for a fiercely fought “Indian” war, but there was a time when the United States did not exist and the American West was located right here in the Hudson Valley.
Illustration: First page of the 1665 treaty, prohibiting violence between “Christians” and “Indyans”.
This piece first appeared in Green Door Magazine.