Land Heist in the Highlands: Chief Daniel Nimham and the Wappinger Fight for Homeland

Researched and written by Peter Cutul, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

[The article below is an abridged version of the full article available here.]

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation or the Hudson Highlands Land Trust.

Although many residents of the Highlands are familiar with Last of the Mohicans, surprisingly few have heard of Chief Daniel Nimham. Nimham has been described “as the most prominent American Indian associated with the Hudson Valley in the second half of the 18th century.” A member of the Wappinger tribe residing in what today would be Putnam and Dutchess counties, according to American Indian scholar, Larry Hauptman, Nimham was a “diplomat, soldier, and sachem” who chose diplomacy over the sword in an age when his white counterparts rebelled violently against overreaching and overbearing landlords.

Nimham’s Fight for His People and Their Homeland

In 1687, two Dutch traders, Jan Roelof Sybrandt and Lambert Dorland purchased a license from New York Governor Benjamin Fletcher for 15,000 acres along the eastern Hudson River shore of today’s Putnam County, with the stipulation that an Indian deed be acquired by June 2, 1688 and letters patent by July 1, 1688.

Because the Eastern boundary was never clearly defined, the Governor at the time did not grant a patent, waiting for a more detailed survey. Further, although required by the Governor to obtain an Indian deed for the parcel by 1688, Sybrant and Dorland did not manage to acquire a deed for the 15,000 acre tract until 1691.

Nonetheless, on June 16, 1697 Adolph Philipse, the son of land baron, slave trader, mill owner, and owner of almost one third of Westchester County, Fredrick Philipse, bought the property from Sybrant and Dorland. Amazingly, the next day Adolph received a royal patent from Governor Fletcher extending the eastern boundary approximately an additional 190,000 acres to the CT border! Although Adolph Philipse managed to acquire a patent for the enlarged property, no deed was ever recorded as he likely realized it would have been considered invalid due to the fuzzy Eastern boundary and because no additional compensation had been provided to the Wappinger for this massive eastward expansion. The recording of deeds was—and still is—an important step in the legal process of authenticating land transactions.

In 1750 Adolph Philipse died, leaving the 200,000 acre plus holding to his nephew Fredrick Philipse II. Fredrick only lived a year before passing away and bequeathing the land evenly to his three children: Philip, Susannah, and Mary. The Philipse sisters, Susannah and Mary, married Beverly Robinson and Roger Morris respectively. Effectively marrying into wealth, Robinson and Morris each laid claim to approximately 60,000 acres of land, or roughly two thirds, of contested Wappinger land, encompassing over three quarters of today’s Putnam County.

When the Wappinger returned from fighting for the Crown in the French and Indian War they were dismayed to discover that not only had their hunting grounds been disturbed, but that their land had also been claimed by Robinson, Morris and Philipse. Their consternation led Chief Nimham, representing the tribe, to file a claim against the landlords in 1762.

In 1763 tenants on Wappinger land who were forced to sign new leases with Robinson, Morris, and Philips, petitioned the King for assistance, complaining that the men had “Discouraged people from Building Houses and planting orchards” in addition to evicting tenants who had “good and warrantable title by Lease Deed.” A clash was in the making between the tenants’ belief in their right to the land because of land occupancy, labor, and existing Wappinger lease agreements, and the landlords view of ownership by title.

The 1765 Land Hearing for the Wappinger

The increasing tensions motivated the New York Common Council in 1765 to finally grant a hearing to the Wappinger and aggrieved tenants. With the assistance of attorney and Wappinger tenant Samuel Munroe, Nimham presented his case to the Council detailing how Adolph Philipse had never purchased the land beyond the 15,000 acre holdings from Dorland and Sybrandt and that no Indian deed existed to legitimize the drastic 190,000 acre expansion of Philipse holdings by Governor Fletcher. As the case wrapped up, Beverly Robinson produced a deed dated August 13, 1702 which included language covering the whole 205,000 acre parcel and extended the Eastern border all the way to CT. The deed having never been seen before, nor recorded or registered with New York State, was either entirely fake or had been “surreptitiously obtained” from the named Indians, likely under duress or by means of bribery.

Despite the questionable nature of Robinson’s 1702 “Indian Deed,” an investigation by New York Attorney General John Kempe, favorable to the landlords, was enough to persuade the Council to rule against Nimham and the Wappinger.

The Wappinger Response and a Second 1767 Land Hearing

Demoralized, but not defeated, in 1766, as the anti-rent riots in the Hudson Valley reached their climax, Chief Nimham, along with six other Wappinger (four men and three women in total), largely funded by their sympathetic tenants, sailed to England to take their case directly to the King. The Secretary of State and the Lords of Trade viewed the Wappinger and their cause in a favorable light. On behalf of the King, Secretary Shelburne instructed Governor Moore to “take under your most serious consideration the case of these distressed people and turn your thoughts to every possible measure that may obtain for them a just and lasting satisfaction and that you will take on yourself as far as justice and the reason of the thing shall demand the office of their advocate and protector.”

On their return sometime in the fall of 1766, Nimham refiled his claim against the landlords’ land grab. A trial was scheduled for March of 1767. Nimham was able to hire a bright young lawyer, a Yale graduate from Connecticut named Asa Spalding. Considering the circumstances Spalding argued an impressive case for the Wappinger, bringing forth “clouds of witnesses,” some of which gave quite damning evidence against the landlords.

Spalding definitively stated, “Several others testified that they had heard the said Adolph Philipse say that although he had a Patent of said Land; yet he never had purchased the Same of the Natives, nor never could prevail upon them to sell the same.”

Despite proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the land had been improperly claimed by Philipse, Morris, and Robinson, and pointing out all of the legal statutes that their claim failed to meet, perhaps it was no surprise in whose favor the Council ruled. The landlord’s attorney summed up best why despite the convincing case made by Spalding the Council ruled as it did, “Twill open a Door to the greatest Mischiefs, inasmuch as a great part of the Lands in this Province are supposed to lie under much the Same Situation.”

A ruling in favor of the Wappinger would open a can of worms, one that might unravel a whole network of questionable land claims throughout the region based largely on short dealings with the Native Americans and underhanded tactics.

“Upon the whole Matter, his Excellency the Governor and the Council, are unanimously of the Opinion, and do declare, that the Indians now living of the Wappinger Tribe, have no Right, Title, or Claim to the Lands granted as aforesaid by Letters Patent to the said Adolph Philipse…”

Despite the guidance of Secretary Shelburne and the Lords of Trade, the verdict was in; a summary and conclusive dismissal of the Wappinger and their claim. Nimham was forced to move the rest of his tribe to Stockbridge, MA and relinquish all claims to the Wappinger ancestral homeland.

The American Revolution: One Last Chance for Justice

In April of 1775, a final opportunity for justice for Nimham and the Wappinger appeared with the arrival of the Revolutionary War. The Wappinger had one last chance to win back their lands and freedom. As early as the spring of 1775 Nimham traveled to Boston to declare his loyalty to the Patriot cause. Joined by his son Abraham, both joined the Stockbridge Militia Company, a Native American military unit comprised of Munsee, Mohican and Wappinger largely from the Stockbridge area.

On Aug. 31, 1778, while on a scouting expedition in what is today Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Daniel Nimham and the Stockbridge were ambushed by not one but two of the British army’s most notorious units, the Queens Rangers and Tarleton’s Dragoons. Estimates suggest that the Stockbridge lost anywhere between 17 to 40 men, including Chief Nimham and his son.

Although cheated out of land, liberty, and justice, the saga of Chief Daniel Nimham and his people is now being brought to light and commemorated. If not for the coronavirus, the Daniel Nimham Intertribal Pow Wow would have been celebrating its 20th season. In addition to recent monuments in the County and a Veteran’s medal featuring Nimham, in East Fishkill, a new sculpture is in the works by noted sculptor Michael Keropian, as the story of Daniel Nimham and his people continues.

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Please see the complete list of citations in the full article.

Photo captions and credits:
(1) Memorial to Chief Nimham in Putnam County Veterans Park in Kent, NY. Sculpture by Michael Keropian.
(2) Map of the Philipse Patent showing the holdings of Robinson, Morris, and Philipse via Wikipedia.
(3) The questionable 1702 Deed produced by Beverly Robinson during the Nimham land hearings, via Bernis Nelson; the deed is held in special collections at Columbia University.
(4) “Chief Nimham’s Last Stand” – Conception of the ambush of the Stockbridge Indians on Aug. 31, 1778. Oil Painting by artist Don Troiani