Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Indian Land Case in Colonial New York

A remarkable document was reprinted in the Summer, 1964 issue of Ethnohistory (volume 11, Number 3). This document, having been preserved in the British Museum, was introduced and edited by professors Oscar Handlin and Irving Mark under the title: "Chief Daniel Nimham v. Roger Morris, Beverly Robinson, and Philip Philipse - An Indian Land Case in Colonial New York, 1765-1767" (known hereafter as simply the Indian Land Case).

A portrait of Beverly Robinson.

At issue was a large tract of land in the Hudson River Valley, at least 20 miles long. British aristocrats from the Philipse family claimed to have made a legitimate purchase of it from certain Wappinger Indians. To this day, Philipse descendants do not acknowledge the illegitimacy of their ancestors' claim.

Patrick Frazier dealt with this land ownership controversy so very well in pages 155-170 of The Mohicans of Stockbridge (since the Google e-book omits some pages, you're much better off getting ahold of the print version). However, Frazier "cheated" by using many good sources. My job right now is to just tell you about the Indian Land Case as it appeared in Ethnohistory about 200 years after it was first written by an anonymous Connecticut lawyer sympathetic to the cause of the Indians.

The Indian Land Case tells of how the Wappingers occupied and held claim to the contested land when whites first discovered this country, how they fought and died for the British and how their remnant moved to "a place called Stockbridge" in 1756 (pages 196-197). (The issue of why the Stockbridge Indians, despite being made up of so many Wappingers and other non-Mohicans, are often called Mohicans is something that I won't make an issue of right now.)

The Land in question was in Dutchess and Westchester Counties on the New York side of the Hudson River.

By the 1760's, the purported lords of the land-in-question were Philip Philipse and his brothers-in-law, Beverly Robinson and Roger Morris. The three aristocrats sought to eject the Wappinger Indians and their salt-of-the-earth white tenants in 1765.

With just a few sentances, professors Handlin and Mark's introductory summary tells us exactly what happened over the course of about two years:

The Indians and their tenants, charging that the Philipse claim fraudulently deprived them of their land, petitioned Lietenant-Governor Cadawallader Colden and his Council who in 1765 rejected their plea... they appealed to the King's ministers who referred them back to the Governor, Sir Henry Moore, and his Council, with the same result as formerly (page 193)."

Cadawallader Colden -->

Why was the original plea, and in particular, the final appeal rejected? This quote from the Indian Land Controversy makes it quite clear:

They [the Indians and their attorneys(s)] also further intimated that inasmuch as it had been Suggested to them that most if not all the Gentlemen of the Council, were either Interested in the Lands in Controversy, or in other Lands which lay under Similar Circumstances and had perhaps once before Judged in this same Case; they were desirous that his Excellency [the Attorney General of the Colony of New York] should hear and determin the matter of said Complaint without his Council; or at least that None of those Gentlemen who were thus Interested or who had already once Judged in the Cause might sit in Council during the trial. But this being taken as an Impeachment of the Honor of the Council was not Granted (page 213).

To put it another way, there was no such thing as a conflict of interest back in those days. If you were an aristocrat or an oligarch, you were entitled to be interested in whatever you were already interested in.

1 comment :

Debra Winchell said...

Too bad for me since I'm related to Daniel Nimham. My ancestor was his uncle.