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Indians at the Post Office

Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Indians Trading with the Half Moon

Indians Trading with the Half Moon
Indians Trading with the Half Moon by Henry Schnakenberg
Fort Lee, New Jersey Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Indians Trading with the Half Moon by Henry Schnakenberg
Fort Lee, New Jersey Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Mural artist Henry Schnakenberg was born in the independent village of New Brighton on Staten Island, New York, in 1892. Schnakenberg had been interested in art since childhood, but after graduating from Staten Island Academy, he followed his father into the insurance industry. While working in insurance, he enrolled in night classes at the Art Students League in New York. He decided to become a professional artist in 1913, leaving the insurance industry and enrolling full time at the Art Students League after being deeply moved by the Armory show which featured contemporary European and American Art. He studied principally with Kenneth Hayes Miller, who focused on solid compositions, logical structure, and clear forms. In 1914, a jury chose Schnakenberg’s painting Monday for exhibition at the National Academy of Design. After serving in the Army Medical Corps in World War I, Schnakenberg’s success continued, and he taught classes on still life in the 1923-1924 and 1924-1925 academic years at the Art Students League, and in 1930, he was elected president of the League’s Board of Control. He received a commission from the Section of Fine Arts of the U.S. Treasury to paint murals for the Post Offices in Amsterdam, New York and in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which were installed in 1939 and 1941, respectively. The Fort Lee murals, depicting scenes from the history of the area, are titled The Early Moving Pictures, Washington at Fort Lee, The Present Day, and the panel under consideration here, Indians Trading with the Half Moon. In his work, Schnakenberg focused on New York and the New England countryside, but also painted portraits and scenes from his travels abroad. Schnakenberg was also an art collector and generous to causes in support of other artists. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Vermont, Burlington in 1938 in recognition of his helpful attitude toward young artists. In 1955, he donated $5,000 to the Wadsworth Atheneum to aid in the establishment of a fund to purchase contemporary American paintings and sculptures. Several accounts of Schnakenberg describe his warm and generous personality.  He moved to Newtown, Connecticut in 1947 and died there in 1970.

Fort Lee is located on the shore of the Hudson River, across from Manhattan. One of the first meetings of Europeans and the native peoples in the area is depicted in Schnakenberg’s mural, when Henry Hudson sailed up what is now the Hudson River in the ship Half Moon in 1609. Throughout the 17th Century, several attempts were made by Dutch parties to establish colonies in the area, but they were successfully repelled by the native inhabitants. Notable incidents included Director-General William Kieft’s hostilities against the Indians in the Pavonia area from 1643-1645, known as Kieft’s War, and the Peach Tree War of 1655, sparked when a Dutch colonist shot and killed an Indian girl who had picked a peach from his tree. Finally in 1660, settlers returned to the area that is now Bergen County, New Jersey and established the first permanent European settlement in the territory. In August 1664, the English Navy captured New Amsterdam in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Province of New Jersey was formed in 1674, and Bergen was recognized as an independent county in 1683. The town of Fort Lee takes its name from a military encampment in the Revolutionary War, strategically located atop the New Jersey Palisades opposite Fort Washington in Manhattan, where underwater obstructions were placed in a line between the two Forts to prevent the British from sailing further up the Hudson River. On November 15, 1776, the British attacked Fort Washington. The result was a victory for the British forces, and the Continental Army lost all the arms and equipment they had at the Fort and over 2,800 prisoners. Following this defeat, and seeing the approach of reinforcements, including German soldiers, Colonel Robert Magaw surrendered Fort Lee and initiated a retreat through New Jersey. In 1781, a Loyalist corps of Refugees attempted to establish a post at the Fort Lee site and were engaged in hostilities with the Bergen County Militia. The conflict, known as the Battle of Fort Lee, ended when the British High Command ordered the Refugees to leave Fort Lee, and the militia were devastated by a rain storm. The town of Fort Lee was established in 1904 by an Act of the New Jersey State Legislature. It is well-known today for the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee with Washington Heights in Manhattan, New York City, and as a primary site of the earliest years of the motion picture industry in America.

The earliest occupants of what is now Bergen County were the Lenni-Lenape groups of the Tappan, Hackensack, and Rumachenank. The Lenni-Lenape, also known as the Delaware, were a thriving society of several thousand in the year 1600, and had already occupied their territories for several Centuries. Their first encounter with Europeans came in 1609, when Henry Hudson arrived in the Half Moon. Henry Hudson was born in England in 1565, and was commissioned by the Muscovy Company of London in 1607 to find a passage from Europe to Asia through the Arctic Ocean. This voyage, and a second Muscovy expedition in 1608, both aboard the ship Hopewell, were unsuccessful. In 1609, he had moved to Holland and was commission by the Dutch East India Company to make another attempt. He sailed to the Americas on the ship Half Moon, but due to worsening cold weather, he turned south and sailed into Chesapeake Bay. From there, the Half Moon explored what is now the Hudson River all the way to present-day Albany. During this exploration, Hudson and his crew met and traded with many of the Indian peoples they met. Hudson traded European steel knives, hatchets, and beads for Native American corn, bread, and oysters. The land along the Hudson River Valley was then claimed for the Dutch, where they eventually settled and founded New Amsterdam. Due to the influence of Dutch settlers, and the European desire for furs and pelts, many of the Lenni-Lenape began to adapt their lifeways to exclusive hunting and trapping. In the mid-17th Century, tobacco dominated trade and agriculture. In addition to the violent conflicts noted earlier, the Lenni-Lenape were also strongly impacted by trade, disease and alcohol brought by the European settlers in the area. Smallpox, in particular, decimated the Lenni-Lenape population. Eventually, the surviving Lenni-Lenape relocated to the upper Ohio River Basin. In the 1860s, the United States government removed most of the remaining Lenni-Lenape to Indian territory in Oklahoma. Today, their descendants are organized in 2 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma and 1 in Wisconsin, as well as the state-recognized Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware and the Ramapough Mountain Indians and the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, both recognized by the state of New Jersey.

In the Fort Lee Post Office, Henry Schnakenberg’s mural captures this early moment of encounter through his stylistic portrayal of still life scenes with clear forms. Indian men are seen gathering trade goods, including corn, squash, tobacco and oysters. The central figure is seen prominently displaying a handful of green tobacco leaves, the crop that would come to dominate trade and agriculture in the area in the coming century. The other goods shown are consistent with descriptions of the trade between the Half Moon and the Indian inhabitants of the area. The mural also accurately shows an Indian man wearing a roach headdress of porcupine quills, rather than a feathered war bonnet of a Plains Indian. This mistake had been made in the design of the Seal of Bergen County in 1910, where a Dutch trader-settler was depicted meeting with an Indian in a western style headdress. This was corrected in 1983, and the Indian is now correctly depicted in eastern woodlands dress. The settler-trader, who held a rifle in the 1910 that was removed in 1983, shakes the Indian’s hand as they are circled by an eagle and his Dutch ship rests at anchor in the background. Interactions between the Half Moon and the Indians were not always as peaceful as they appear in this mural and in the Bergen seal, however. Before the Half Moon ever arrived on the River, it stopped in Maine where, according to the journal of first mate Robert Juet, Indians were dragged from their homes and the crew “took the spoil of them.” Shortly after arriving in New York Harbor in early September 1609, Hudson dispatched 4 Dutch crewmen and Englishman John Colman to explore the surrounding area in a smaller craft. In an encounter with 2 dugout canoes, 2 of the crewmen were wounded by arrows and Colman was shot in the neck and killed. Despite this, the Indians in the area continued to trade with the Half Moon. For his part, Schnakenberg has chosen to focus on the Indians in the scene. The Europeans are only visible as small figures in the background, accepting goods from the Indians on the ship anchored in the distance. None of their faces are recognizable. Significantly, in doing so, Schnakenberg has avoided creating another portrait of a perceived local hero, and has focused instead on attempting an authentic depiction of life in a particular place at a pivotal moment in history.

By Meghan A. Navarro


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