This clip introduces David Cohen's 1974 interpretation of Ramapough ancestry and notes that the family trees he traces end in the 1970s.
In general there is a dearth of publications about Native American history, and only a handful of scholarship, at manuscript length, about the Rampough. Therefore, a book like The Ramapo Mountain People, published by a university press, written by a professor with a PhD, is likely to register with a perceived authority to the general public. Since students are taught very little in schools about Native American history, they will likely assume that such a book will contain the truth.
While Cohen’s book may not be known or relevant to a national audience, there are different dynamics that must be considered at the local level. In the Mid-Atlantic region, it is likely that people could have been influenced by the background tales they have always heard; the whispered comments about Jackson Whites, or the dangerous and “lawless” neighborhood of Upper Ringwood. Childhood storybooks like The Faith of a Colliehave the potential to embed in readers’ memories, and color their view of the living community in their state. The string of newspaper reports highlighted previously could have made an impact on people’s perceptions, as well as local pop culture reports such as the Weird N.J. Websiteand book.
While these derogatory depictions may not be relevant nationally, and while Cohen’s book may not be taken seriously in the wider academic community, it certainly has retained its hold at the local level, as demonstrated by the book reviewer’s comments about Cohen’s “professional-level historical research.” Therefore, this section delves into a closer look at the claims Cohen makes and the evidence he uses to support these claims. His work is then compared to other scholarship on Rampough history created around the same time as Cohen’s - historian Herbert C. Kraft’s work on the Lenape, and archeologist Edward Lenik’s work on the Ramapough. This is then put in dialogue with more recent texts from Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) scholars who focus on decolonizing scholarship and engaging seriously with Indigenous forms of knowledge keeping.
This clip points out significant gaps in the research that has been used to define who the Ramapough are and to discount their Native identity.
Beyond its impact on the Ramapough, an analysis of this book yields an instructive case study about how academic texts can operate to overwrite or erase Native American pasts. Close scrutiny illustrates the difficulties that arise when scholars attempt to reconstruct Native American history mainly through the use of colonial records and eugenics-inflected sources. It is a good example of how Native repositories of knowledge are discounted in the production of histories.
Cohen’s work can be compared to the work of archeologist Edward Lenik to illustrate how colonial documents can be interpreted in different ways. Cohen and Lenik came to very different conclusions about who the Ramapough are, although both consulted colonial documents as those are the main available sources. There are several key differences in how they conducted their research and in what kinds of evidence they consulted. Cohen spent one year living with and observing the three Ramapough communities, while Lenik has partnered for years in an ongoing relationship with the Ramapough. Additionally, Lenik takes into account physical evidence along with written accounts. This includes archeological remains as well as markers in the cultural landscape with features such as ceremonial stones.
David Cohen did his fieldwork for the book in the late 1960s, and brought to the work a background in genealogy and folklore. He focused on researching the history of the folk reference to “Jackson Whites,” a pejorative term used locally to describe the Ramapough. He makes the case in the book that the community, then widely know as the Ramapo Mountain People, came about as the result of settlement by the mixed-race children of Dutch men and African women in the early 1800s.
The genealogies published in the book stop in the 1700s; was Cohen able to link the living community he researched in the 1960s to these three families? If any such genealogical work was conducted, it is absent and unmentioned in the book. A stronger case could have been made by working the genealogies backwards from the modern people. Since Cohen was unable to make any connection between the modern and historical people, how can he be sure that they are the same people, or that others did not migrate or intermingle with the families he records? Cohen himself admits the impossibility of “establishing positively the exact relationship between many of these colored families in the mountains and the earlier colored families in the Hackensack River Valley.” He points out that the record is clear only in the case of one individual, John Van Donk, who appears on the record in 1800 living in Warwick, NY and moving to Pompton Township, NJ by 1830.
A unique aspect, for the time, of Cohen’s research was his extensive field work and interviews with the Ramapough as he spent one year living among them. This lent his book a sense of reliability, thus amplifying the damage it was able to cause. While today studies that include oral histories are much more common, they do involve clear discussion of methods and generally point to broader theoretical frameworks that inform the study. This engagement is missing in The Ramapo Mountain People. While Cohen should be lauded for employing a unique approach, the lack of analysis of large paragraphs of interview excerpts leave the reader without clear guidance as to what is being revealed.
There certainly were challenges due to the nature of the field at the time of his research and writing. Cohen was writing this book in the years when the field of Native American Studies was being formed, with the first department of American Indian Studies founded at the University of Minnesota in 1969. While some academic studies of Native American history were available, these were rarely written from a Native perspective, and included inaccurate portrayals. There was not much available on what Cohen was writing about, and he had to draw on colonial archives and sources.This was by necessity, but contemporary scholars are now working to contextualize the nature of these sources.
The Jackson Whites: A Study in Racial Degeneracy. Published by The Vineland Training School (1911). Elizabeth Kite Papers. MC 579. Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries. Link for the finding aid: http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/ead/manuscripts/kitef.html
A particularly problematic study referenced is The Jackson Whites: A Study of Racial Degeneracy (1911), created by the Vineland Training School, a school for “backward” and “feeble-minded” children. No discussion is provided as to the nature of this material and its connection to the eugenics movement. Instead, it is simply presented as a natural and authoritative source of unbiased information. Such studies draw from eugenics theories – such as “tri-racial isolates” and “tri-racial blood.” These frameworks of social scientific analysis are now outdated. Again, this would have been normal for the time, but today we need to take a new look at how to work with and contextualize those kinds of sources.
A more glaring omission is that the book contains only a few pages that focus on Native American history, and there is almost no mention of conflicts, movement, and migration. There wasn’t much information available at the time of the research, but even well-known historical facts are not mentioned, such as the Treaties of Crosswicks (1756) and Easton (1758). Only a few pages in the book are devoted to outlining this landscape prior to the early 1800s, which is when Cohen claims the “real” ancestors of the Rampough appeared in the region (Cohen, 1974, p. 43). While some information may have been difficult to find, a book published just twelve years after this volume by Herbert C. Kraft titled The Lenape: Archaeology, History and Ethnography contains a fairly robust discussion of Native Americans in New Jersey from European contact to the modern era. Kraft, in fact, dismisses Cohen’s earlier work, stating:
“ The origins of these people are very controversial, but it is clear that some are descended from local Munsee-speaking Indians who moved into the isolated Ramapo Mountains seeking a haven from the Dutch and English settlers in the latter half of the seventeenth century. They were later joined by multiracial settlers of various backgrounds who intermarried with the Indians."
- Herbert C. Kraft
While it is not clearly stated in Cohen's text, somehow the genealogical histories of the three families he traces have been connected to the Ramapough. This is explained with a statement of the fact of ancestry that has not been definitively proven in the text:
Shortly after 1800 the ancestors of the Ramapo Mountain People began to sell their farms in the Hackensack River Valley and move to the Ramapo Mountains to the northwest. Because of the absence of diaries and other documents, the reasons for this migration are not known (Cohen, 1974, p. 43).
Here, a leap is made to the claim that the three families he described are the sole ancestors of the Ramapough. Several important clarifications are missing in the text. First, is it only the similarity of last names that can currently be found among the Ramapough (De Fries, Mann, and Van Dunk) that makes this case for ancestry? Does the author assume that because someone has a European last name that they cannot be Native American? It certainly was not uncommon for people to adopt European names, especially if they had been Christianized due to the extensive efforts of settlers. If Native women married into any of these families, there would probably be little historical or genealogical evidence of their presence, as women are notoriously absent in many genealogical documents, especially those of the 1600s and 1700s.
Second, no mention is made of Native Americans in New Jersey employing the use of single, traditional names in recorded documents such as land deeds, and there is no discussion about when Native people would have taken on the practice of adopting last names. The many land deeds that Edward J. Lenik outlines in Ramapough Mountain Indians, where Native women sold land to European settlers, are signed with a single name (Lenik, 2011, pp.11-14). Similarly Chief Katonah, a Lenape sachem, signed land deeds with a single name through 1743. One land deed from 1701, held by the Stamford, CT City Hall, contains the marks of Catonah as well as Maninus. Using such marks to sign agreements was common at the time as noted by George H. Loskiel, a Moravian missionary to the Delaware Indians in 1794. These marks or symbols on deeds and treaties over time came to be replaced with names and initials.
Loskiel notes “some prefer the names given by the white people. Some have learnt to write the initials of their new names” (Lenik, 2011, pp.37-38). Lenik has documented the mark of Manis on land deeds; the mark representing Manis (Manes) appears on a deed dated March 7, 1737/8 for a tract of land for Pothat, which is now the village of Sloatsburg, NY. According to the purchaser, Wynnant Van Gelder, Manis seemed to be the leader of this group of Indians who with his “friends and Relations…granted and freely conveyed” the land (Lenik 2016 p. 17). Could it not be possible that the common family name amongst the Ramapough of “Mann” could well derive from this lineage rather than from the “Emmanuels” family documented by Cohen?
Third, the genealogies published in the book stop in the 1700s; was Cohen able to link the living community he researched in the 1960s to these three families? If any such genealogical work was conducted, it is absent and unmentioned in the book. A stronger case could have been made by working the genealogies backwards from the modern people. Since Cohen was unable to make any connection between the modern and historical people, how can he be sure that they are the same people, or that others did not migrate or intermingle with the families he records? Cohen himself admits the impossibility of “establishing positively the exact relationship between many of these colored families in the mountains and the earlier colored families in the Hackensack River Valley.” He points out that the record is clear only in the case of one individual, John Van Donk, who appears on the record in 1800 living in Warwick, NY and moving to Pompton Township, NJ by 1830. This is impossible because:
“ Gaps in the genealogical records and the fact that the federal censuses for 1790-1830 are missing prevent establishing positively the exact relationship between many of these colored families in the mountains and the earlier colored families in the Hackensack River Valley. But in one case the record is clear.”
Beyond proving a genealogical link in the case of John Van Donk, a lack of Native American ancestry has not been determined in Cohen’s research.