History of New Paltz: Native American Heritage Month

New Paltz, like much of New York, is on Indigenous land. 

Before the Dutch touched New York’s shores in the late 1600s, the Lenape people first inhabited the area along with much of southern New York, northern New Jersey and Delaware.

New Paltz was home to the Esopus tribe in these days before their fall in prominence after conflicts with the Dutch. Today, that history is not readily available after a quick Google search, even during American Indian Heritage month. 

SUNY New Paltz and the surrounding area has a number of references to the Lenape tribal community, specifically the Esopus.

Beyond the borrowing of names, little has been done to memorialize the Esopus and Lenape people first here. 

One could be forgiven for not knowing that Plattekill Road is a reference to the native name for the Plattekill River, not a banal street name. 

According to an article published to Hudson Valley Magazine, that’s the legacy of the Esopus Wars. The Dutch Settlers of lower New York and the Esopus people engaged in a bloody conflict on and off for years. Characterized by a series of bloody misunderstandings, the war began with the tribes on the decline from European based disease and alcoholism brought on by one sided barters. 

The settlers first attacked the Esopus thinking that their drunken boisterousness was a raid. The Esopus responded by laying siege to a town. This led to a brief truce before another unnecessary act of violence. The Esopus were attacked while trading which led to all out war between both groups. 

The Esopus retreated into the woodlands and fought a guerilla-style war while the Dutch sent reinforcements from Manhattan to chase them down. 

In 1664, the run-and-hide tactic eventually came to ruin as the Esopus were trapped at their local hideout and slaughtered, including their chief. This not only ended the war but any state of eminence for the Esopus. The Dutch, after securing peace, gave up themselves to the British the same year. 

This tale of Dutch conquest comes full circle. A prisoner taken by the Esopus described her views of the Mid Hudson Valley and this description led to the Huguenots known as the Douzaine buying property in what became New Paltz. 

The white settlers had no interest in reinforcing tribal history as they cemented power in the coming ages. What is interesting is that in the generations that came to follow no one else did either. 

There’s Huguenot history everywhere in New Paltz supported by foundations, societies and the descendants of the original families. The same can’t be said about Native American history and culture. 

While Huguenot attractions are able to be bumped into walking down Main Street, the nearest reservations are the Onendoga and Oneida further upstate. 

Obviously due to erasure and disease there are less Indigenous people as a part of the population but it isn’t as if there are more Huguenots than Native Americans (who number 2% of the country). 

In the past, New Paltz changed the name of dormitories and the dining hall in the Peregrine complex on account of the names being those of slave owners. But it’s possible to do more. 

History is a real concept and people don’t need to necessarily feel ashamed or forget the Huguenots or other settlers to appreciate and learn the past of the local Esopus.

Correction: The article previously stated that the Peregrine complex of dormitories was named after Indigenous tribes, which is untrue. The dorm names do reference Indigenous words and some of the dorms on campus are named after Indigenous tribes, but not the ones in the Peregrine Complex.