October 18, 2023
By Beth Rigby
There are many advantages that come with living in New York; there is a rich diversity within this state that is unlike any other. The high peaks, sandy beaches, fertile farmland, great lakes, and small towns are all connected by a complex system of roads and trails. The origin of the paths on which we travel are often intentionally left out of the story; many of our grand roadways and trails were in fact carved by Native Americans. Much of the American rhetoric makes it seem like the indigenous peoples are a part of ancient history; this couldn’t be farther from the truth. So much of our culture reflects the lives of the original stewards of this land.
Before New York City was occupied by the Dutch in the 1600s, the Lenape traversed the Hudson Valley and the island we now refer to as Manhattan. Lenape translates to ‘the ancient people’, which refers to their community’s extensive history in the Delaware bay, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware areas. In the 17 th century, the Lenape tribe consisted of approximately 20 different groups, their cumulative population hovering around 20,000. Land was a communal resource for all the groups to use responsibly; shared lands were held in trust. The Lenape originally named the region Lenapehoking and the island ‘manaháhtaan’, which roughly translates to the Island of Many Hills. The trails, hunting paths, and trade routes developed by the Lenape were coveted by the European settlers. Most notable of these is the Wickquasgeck Trail, commonly used for hunting, trade, and mundane travels. This path followed the natural ridges of the region and ran the entire length of the island of Manhattan. Eyeing the path of least resistance, the European settlers followed suit. Today, the 15-mile-long road, now known as Broadway, stretches through Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester County, allowing the continued use of this historic path. Moving east, several roads in Brooklyn follow the walking paths of the Canarsee and Marechkawieck of the Lenape. According to a map developed by historian James A. Kelly in 1946, major arteries now known as Fulton St., Flatbush Ave., and a part of Atlantic Ave. were all paths well-traveled by the Canarsee and the Marechkawieck.
The Iroquois traveled through the forests of New York for centuries; naturally, trails were created to reflect the most favorable footpaths. Many trails established by the Iroquois are sprinkled throughout NYS and are still used by hikers today. Warriors’ Trail, Catherine Town-Cayuga Lake Trail, Owego-Dryden-Onondaga Trail, Taughannock Trail, Danby Trail, Pony-Hollow Trail, and Ithaca-Dryden Trail are examples that can be found around Cayuga Lake and Ithaca, NY. Smaller paths wander off the main arteries, for those who preferred to spend their time hunting or fishing. Cayugas Onochsoe off of the Taughannock Trail is just one example of a beloved camping spot in this region, eel-fishing being the common past time at this location. Watkins Glen State Park features many trails carved by the Seneca- or the western most tribe of the Iroquois confederacy. This park is just south of Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes by volume and second longest in length. Moving east, the Indian ladder Trail in Voorheesville once featured a wooden ladder that allowed travel up and down a 100-foot rock wall. The trail is still open to the public and while the ladder is long gone, a steel staircase allows travelers to ‘climb’ the wall.
The examples listed in this short work merely scratch the surface of the history behind New York state’s major roadways and walking paths. It is of the utmost importance that we credit the indigenous peoples of New York for their extensive contributions to our intricate road systems. We often revere way-finders like Lewis and Clark for their ability to navigate the wilderness of the North American continent. However, we rarely attribute the same respect towards tribes like the Iroquois and the Lenape. It is our responsibility to remedy this and celebrate those whose footsteps beat down the paths we enjoy today. As we create new connections with our shared past, our connections with neighboring communities strengthen.
Map of Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds, and Places in Kings County
Courtesy of The Brooklyn Library
Map of Lenape Languages and Tribes Image from Wikimedia Commons
Map of Ithaca
Page 8 of Old Indian Trails Book