Hackensack was the exonym given by the Dutch colonists to a band of the Lenape, a Native American tribe. The name is a Dutch derivation of the Lenape word for what is now the region of northeastern New Jersey along the Hudson and Hackensack rivers. While the Lenape people occupied much of the mid-Atlantic area, Europeans referred to small groups of native people by the names associated with the places where they lived.
A phratry of the Lenape, the Hackensack spoke the Unami dialect, one of the three major parts of the Lenape languages, which were part of the Algonquian language family. Unami meant the "people down river", and they identified themselves with the totem of the turtle ("Turtle Clan"). Their territory has been variously spelled Ack-kinkas-hacky, Achkinhenhcky, Achinigeu-hach, Ackingsah-sack (among others) and translated as "place of stony ground" or "mouth of a river". It included the areas around the Upper New York Bay, Newark Bay, Bergen Neck, the Meadowlands, and the Palisades. Other bands of Unami speakers in the area included: the Raritan on Staten Island/Raritan Bay, the Acquackanonk on the Passaic River, and the Tappan along the Palisades and Pascack Valley. These groups, along with the Wappinger in the Hudson Valley, and Canarsee and Rockaway on Long Island, were sometimes collectively called the River Indians.
In the 17th century, the Hackensack numbered about one thousand, of whom 300 were warriors. Their sachem (or high chief) was Oratam (born circa 1576). He was likely also the sagamore of the Tappan, a distinct but intimately related Lenape group. It has also been written that the Tappan and the Hackensack were one tribe. The proof of this is the many land deeds signed by men who were Sachems of both tribes at the same time. The Lenape practiced seasonal migration and agriculture. The Hackensack set up campsites and practiced companion planting to supplement foraging, hunting, fishing, trapping, and shellfishing. The terrain was quite diverse: wide tidal flats and oyster beds, forested mountains, and level land that could be cultivated.
They relocated Hackensack, their semi-permanent village, every several years to allow the land to renew itself. It was sited mostly between Tantaqua and the middle reaches of the Hackensack River. Their summer encampment and council fire was located at Gamoenpa, the "big landing-place from the other side of the river.". At Hopoghan Hackingh (meaning "land of the tobacco pipe"), they collected soapstone from which to carve tobacco pipes.
The society of the Hackensack (and all Lenape) was based on governance by consensus. A sagamore, though very influential, was obliged to follow decisions of the council, leaders among the men. Those with the totem of the turtle were held in great esteem by Lenape groups, particularly as peacemakers. The word caucus may come from the Algonquian caucauasu meaning "counselor".
The Dutch claimed Hackensack lands as part of the colonial province of New Netherland after Henry Hudson first explored the area. He sailed up the river now named for him, anchoring at Weehawken Cove in September 1609. Living close to what became the province's capital, New Amsterdam (at the tip of Manhattan), the Hackensack had early and frequent contact with the New Netherlanders. They traded beaver, pelts, sewant, manufactured goods, including firearms, gunpowder and alcohol. They also "sold" their land for settlements at Pavonia, Communipaw, Harsimus, Hoboken, Weehawken, Constable Hook, Achter Col, Vriessendael.
In 1658, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of New Netherland, re-negotiated the purchase of all the land from "the great rock above Wiehacken", west to Sikakes and south to Konstapels Hoeck. The area became collectively known as Bergen with the founding of a village at Bergen Square in 1661. In 1666, the Hackensack sold the land that would become the city of Newark to Robert Treat and in 1669, Oratam deeded a vast tract of land (2200 acres) to Sara Kiersted (who had mastered the Lenape language and acted as interpreter) between Overpeck Creek and the Hackensack River. He also brokered many land sales, and treaties between the native and colonizing peoples, including those that ended Kieft's War and the Esopus Wars. In a series of essays published in 1655, David Pietersen de Vries, who had established a homestead at Vriessendael, described his observations of the Hackensack.
The British take-over of New Netherland between 1663 and 1674 coincided with Oratam's death (who was said to have lived into his 90s). The government of the newly formed province of East Jersey quickly surveyed, patented, or deeded lands throughout Hackensack, Tappan, and Raritan territory. In most cases, the Lenape were compensated for sale of the land. Both the land at Newark Tract and Horseneck Tract were sold to English-speaking settlers by the Hackenack.
In 1600 the Lenape population may have numbered as many as 20,000. The English colonists later referred to them as the Delaware Indians, after the major river in their territory, which the English named the Delaware. Several wars, at least 14 separate epidemics of new infectious diseases (yellow fever, smallpox, influenza, encephalitis lethargica, etc...), and disastrous over-harvesting of the animal populations reduced the Lenape population to around 4,000 total by 1700. The Lenape people, like all Native Americans, had no immunity to Eurasian diseases, which had been endemic in European cities for centuries after arriving from Asia. They suffered high rates of fatalities from the diseases. Some Lenape starved to death as a result of the over harvesting of game. Others were forced to trade their land for goods such as clothing and food, but they had different conceptions of property use and did not have the same sense of ownership.
As the Lenni Lenape population declined, and the European population increased, the history of the area was increasingly defined by the new European inhabitants. The Lenape Indian tribes played an increasingly secondary role. After the early period, the Hackensack were no longer mentioned in colonial documents. They may have mostly died, removed themselves, integrated into European settler society, or became tributary to other groups, such as the Ramapo, who occupied areas of the northeastern mountains of Bergen and Passaic counties, and Munsee.
By the mid-18th century the English colonists referred to the Lenape people generally as the Delaware, in recognition of their major territory along that river and around the bay it feeds, both of which they named for Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr and governor of the Jamestown Colony. Some Lenape had migrated west out of the area of English colonization. In the eighteenth century, the Lenape were signatories to the Walking Purchase agreement in Pennsylvania, and Treaty of Easton. The British were trying to gain control of lands they had "acquired" from the French after the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and the Native Americans were trying to prevent further European encroachment into their territory. Today Lenape groups are dispersed around the USA.