Traditional images of Thanksgiving depict Pilgrims and Native Americans at a feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but Garden State history suggests that the nation should be thinking of New Jersey as the place of the first encounter between colonists and the nation’s indigenous people.
It’s a point that the staff at the New Jersey State Museum is making this month with a new publication and a Saturday, November 17, walking tour of the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark in Hamilton Township. The National Park Service calls Abbott Farm “one of the country’s most famous archaeological sites.”
Gregory Lattanzi, an archaeologist and assistant curator in the state museum’s archaeology and ethnology bureau, says that the history of New Jersey’s Native Americans is an important part of our cultural understanding and extends further back before the Mayflower. Way back.
“One of the first native groups that Henry Hudson, even Verrazano, encountered was the Lenni Lenape. The Lenape covered New Jersey, Manhattan, Long Island, and the eastern part of Pennsylvania. They were one of the first groups who encountered the English, Swedish, and Dutch who settled here and started trading. It’s significant that these Native Americans were among the first to have the European culture thrust upon them,” says Lattanzi.
The 43-year-old curator, who studied archaeology at SUNY Binghamton and Temple University, says that the relationship between the two cultures went generally well. That was because the Europeans “were more interested in trading than in making settlements. They were more interested in getting money.”
While home to an indigenous group, the state also attracted other pre-colonial Native American populations. “New Jersey is not only the crossroads of the American Revolution; it was also the pathway to the other geographic locations. Just as everyone today takes the Northeast Corridor, that’s what the Native Americans did. We have the presence of native groups throughout the state, that’s significant.”
Abbott Farm, Lattanzi says, “is probably the only site that had continuous native presence from about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago to contact period. While it is a national landmark, not too many people are aware of the significance of that site. It’s always outside of the radar. It’s like the best kept secret in New Jersey. It’s one of the reasons that we promote it.”
National Historic Landmarks are designated by the United States secretary of the interior because a site possesses “exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.” The site received the designation in 1976.
Abbott Farm is named after Charles Conrad Abbot, whom Lattanzi calls, “an amazing individual.” Abbott was born in 1843 in Trenton and lived a major portion of his life along the wetlands between the capital city and Bordentown.
Though he graduated with a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1865, he devoted himself to being a naturalist, archaeologist, and author.
An abundance of Native American artifacts in the Trenton region fueled his interest, and in 1872 he wrote the article “The Stone Age in New Jersey” for the American Naturalist. A more developed article followed three years later in a Smithsonian Institution publication.
Abbott’s voracious collecting and studying spawned a theory that Native Americans had been in New Jersey far longer than anyone had previously thought.
Abbott shared his ideas with other archaeologist and geologists, including the influential anthropologist Frederick Ward Putnam of the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Through Putnam, Abbott’s Trenton sites became the focus of a 20-year field research program, attracting leading American and European scientists.
The museum curator is amazed how Abbott happened to be in the right place at the right time. “It was luck. Where he was situated just happened to be the best place to look for artifacts. Archaeology was becoming more important. And there was interest. People were looking for evidence of early man all over the world.”
Abbott’s basic premise was that the Trenton artifacts were comparable in age to the most ancient human artifacts found in Europe and Africa. “He thought that they were that old. But it didn’t matter. It made people aware that they needed to take a look at these sites. And that they needed to look at the native people of the area.”
Lattanzi says that Abbott put New Jersey on the archaeological map. “His argument was wrong, but that does not negate the fact that he had most well-to-do archaeologist and scientist of the world come to Trenton.”
The amount of attention Abbott received was unprecedented and helped pave the way for Dorothy Cross, a notable figure in American archaeology and New Jersey history.
“She was the most amazing scientist. She was one of the few females to get an archaeology doctorate at the time. She came to New Jersey and volunteered at the museum in 1929, and she excavated a couple of rock shelters in north New Jersey. She then started working on the archaeology at Abbott Farm during the WPA. She did some great work,” says Lattanzi.
That work included at least two decades of archaeological field work at Abbott Farm, writing volumes of New Jersey’s archaeological history, and adding to the New Jersey State Museum collections of Native American artifacts, which Lattanzi says “are the only things that we have to use to educate the general public.”
While it was clear that there were significant populations of Native Americans in the Abbott Farm region for several hundred years, actual numbers came after colonization. “We know from historic accounts written around 1600 A.D. that within the Lenape homeland, there were probably 11,000 to 12,000 people in the region. But we haven’t found any structures,” says Lattanzi.
While there is some solid archaeological information about the state’s original people (Lenni Lenape means “real people”), it is far from complete.
“One of the things that struck me with respect to other native cultures in the Ohio and Mississippi Valley is that the Lenape interacted with other groups. We know this because we have artifacts from different regions. We know that they must have gotten them somehow whether exchange from neighbors or on a group trip to get the info. We see that from the artifacts that they are not local.”
Yet there is a puzzle to that interaction. While other tribes had chiefs and used burial mounds, the Lenni Lenape do not. “That’s one of the unique things that we see and intrigues me. Why didn’t it happen here?” says Lattanzi
Some of the site’s artifacts from that period are on view at the museum and include pottery, which presents yet another mystery: design. Lattanzi says, “The design basically fell from the sky. There was nothing before it. It just seems to pop out of nowhere. Around the whole vessels, they created hatch marks, lines, anything. One of the early archaeologists from the Museum of Natural History in 1910 was quoted as saying that these are some of the most beautiful and intricate designs east of the Alleganies.”
Lattanzi says some archaeologists have a theory about the designs. “One of the things that has been brought up is that it looks as if they’re mimicking textiles.” So there is a strong sense that the Lenape were extending the patterns of their textiles to the surfaces of their pottery.
As a way of sharing what information it does have, the museum recently published a catalog of its archaeology and ethnology collections, “The Story of New Jersey’s Indians.” The 40-page book features photographs of important artifacts as well as text by Lattanzi and fellow assistant curator Karen Flinn. Respected state archaeologist and professor Richard Veit wrote the forward.
The book is important to both curators. “We wanted to be able to publish something. The bureau had not had a publication for a very long time. With the funding to open our galleries, we wanted to have a small catalog that talked about the exhibit in a narrative form.”
A grant from the New Jersey Historic Commission lets the museum offer the publication to educators and academic institutions for no cost. The general public can find it in the museum gift show. It will also be available on the internet, says Lattanzi.
He says that the book is important now because of all the attention the museum is getting for its program on Native Americans. “In the past 10 years I have never taught as many classes as I have. It’s been really amazing. To have this publication as a resource to educators and supplement that with a visit to museum will build awareness of the Native Americans in New Jersey.” Lattanzi, originally from Long Island, has worked at the museum for a decade.
Another project to foster awareness is the November 17 tour of Abbott Farm, located at John A. Roebling Park in Hamilton. There Lattanzi and Flinn will provide a brief introduction to the site, talk about the past excavations, and hopefully visit a current excavation being conducted for Mercer County. “I’m hoping to show how archaeology is being done at the present and look at key sites in the park area,” says Lattanzi.
The book, the tour, and the museum’s Lenni Lenape exhibition in the recently refurbished galleries all work together to build awareness. Says Lattanzi: “For people who haven’t been to the site or not know about it, we want to make them aware of this natural and cultural resource that is in their back yard and understand this resource. It is a resource that should be shared by every resident of New Jersey and every person in the country. It’s a national landmark and should be treated as such.”
Abbott Farm Tour, John A. Roebling Park, Hamilton. Saturday, November 17, 10 a.m. to noon. Pre-registration ($25; $15 for Friends of the Museum) required. Children under 16 years must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. 609-292-8594.
John A. Roebling Park is open dawn to dusk every day and part of the Mercer County Park System. nj.gov/counties/mercer/commissions/park/roebling_park.html#3.