Three Rivers
Hudson~Mohawk~Schoharie
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Robert M. Hartley Collections of Indian Artifacts (Chiefly of the Mohawk Valley) and Military Uniform Buttons in the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library, St. Johnsville, NY
Prepared by The Montgomery County Department of History and Archives and
The Van Epps-Hartley Chapter of the
New York State Archaeological Association
Published by Mrs. Robert M. Hartley, 1943

INDIAN OCCUPATION OF THE

MOHAWK VALLEY

IN Colonial times, the Mohawk Indians, keepers of the eastern door of the Iroquois "long house" or confederation, were the unquestioned masters of the Mohawk Valley and the hunting grounds in the forests to the north and south. In 1535, Cartier had found them living in the St. Lawrence valley. By 1609, when Champlain and Hudson visited what would later be New York State, they had migrated into the valley of the Mohawk, driving out the Algonkian-speaking tribes who had lived there before them. These Algonkians-the Mahikans, the Delawares, and their kinsmen in New England and Canada-were bitter enemies of the Iroquois throughout the 17th century.

The history of the Mohawks is, for the most part, a matter of record, for they played an important part in our early history. Their pottery and other implements are easily recognized. We know where their most important stockaded "castles" and outlying villages were located and can trace the changes which occurred in their native civilization, as they copied the white man's way of life and borrowed his tools and weapons. We have no such knowledge of their Algonkian neighbors to the east. Nobody has ever excavated a known historic village of the Mahikans or the Delawares in New York State, to find out what their Stone Age implements looked like.

It was once thought that all Indian relics found in the Mohawk Valley must have been left by the Mohawks. Later, when the real, unmistakable Mohawk implements were recognized, historians assumed that everything which was not Mohawk must be Algonkian, since tribes speaking the Iroquoian and Algonkian languages were the only ones living in this region when the first Europeans settled here. More study and excavation have proved that there were many different Indian peoples living in the northeastern United States in prehistoric times. Until we can show a similarity between these prehistoric remains and those of the historic tribes, we can only say that some of these early people must have been the ancestors of the later Algonkians-which ones we do not know. Until they are identified, archeologists prefer to describe each prehistoric group according to its characteristic implements and way of life, as this or that "culture", usually named after some locality where its remains were first found or systematically excavated.

There may have been men in the Mohawk Valley, as there were in the far west, not long after the close of the great Ice Age, some 10,00 to 20,000 years ago. Flint implements, almost identical with the famous Folsom and Yuma points made by these ancient hunters, have been found in New York State. However, nothing yet revealed by scientific excavations in this region dates from much more than 2,000 years ago, according to present estimates.

The first people in the Mohawk Valley, of whom we have any definite knowledge, were roving hunters, fishermen, and food gatherers, who knew nothing about agriculture or making pottery, and lived literally off the land. They had dogs to help them hunt deer and bear, but their life must have been a very primitive one. They belonged to what has been called the Archaic culture, and there are indications that they may have been the first inhabitants of much of the eastern part of the Unite States. A few of their camps or small villages have been found in our area

At about the same time, or possibly a little later, another nomadic group of people seems to have migrated into New York and New England from the St. Lawrence valley and eastern Canada. Because all clues to their origin point to the north, where they seem to have copied some of the tools and customs of the Eskimo, they have been called the people of the Laurentian culture. They spread all over the state, and their characteristic stone gouges, knives and choppers of ground slate stone plummets, and broad-based notched arrowheads of several varieties are easily identified. At first, they had no knowledge of agriculture or pottery-probably because they came from a region where corn could not grow-and their life must have been a roving one like that of man of the present Algonkian tribes of northern Canada. Later, they did learn to make crude pottery, to use copper as well as stone when they could get it, and possibly even to plant Indian corn and tobacco. These are the people who, because their slate implements are much like those of the prehistoric Eskimos, were once thought to have been of Eskimoan origin themselves. In Maine, they may also have developed into the mysterious "Red Paint People", described by many writers on archeology. It is not impossible that they were the first Algonkians.

At a still later date, people, from the mound-building tribes of Ohio and the Great Lakes area, seem to have visited New York State. Although they built no mounds in the eastern part of the state, their knives and spears of native copper, marine shell beads, beautiful strange ceremonial stones, such as bird stones and goat stone, and blades of Ohio flint, were traded to other tribes and are found over a wide area. They are the greatest mystery in New York State archeology, because their villages have not been found and their cemeteries have been opened only by amateurs or workman. Two large cemeteries of this people were found during the last century, one near Palatine Bridge and another west of Scotia, by railroad workers. Their contents were shoveled into the railroad bed or scattered as curios before any record could be made of what was being found. Only a few pieces from these graves found their way into Mohawk Valley collections. Other finds of copper, stone tubes, and ceremonial implements are clues to the locations of their camps and villages, which may one day be found and carefully excavated. There were probably at least two invasions of these westerners in prehistoric times, identified as the Point Peninsula and Middlesex cultures. We are not certain which group lived in the Mohawk Valley.

The last two groups of prehistoric Indians, of which we have any knowledge, were almost certainly Algonkians. It is only a matter of time until the final proof is obtained. One group, belonging to the so-called Coastal culture, came from the south up the Hudson valley and along the Mohawk, bringing grooved stone axes, stemmed and notched arrowheads and pots with pointed bottoms of the type which is usually considered Algonkian. They were very probably the ancestors of the Mahikans, Wappingers, and other Hudson River tribes of Colonial times. When they came and how long they lived in the Mohawk Valley, or how far west they pressed, we do not know as yet, but they seem to have been driven out by the invading Iroquois, whose much finer pottery they bought and copied freely. They may have mixed with their Laurentian predecessors, for occasional slate knives and gouges turn up in their village. More serious excavation in the Hudson Valley is needed to prove their connection with the later Algonkian tribes.

The other group seems to have come from the south and west. These people, the so called Owasco culture, are most easily recognized from their almost exclusive use of broad triangular arrows, wider and heavier than those of the Mohawks, and their clay pipes and rather well made pottery. They were probably neighbors of the Coastal people, and may have warred with them for possession of the Mohawk Valley, where their villages occur on almost every fertile flat along the river. They too probably spoke a dialect of the great Algonkian language, and may some day be identified with one of the historic tribes. That they remained here until the Iroquois came is shown by the fact that they copied the characteristic straight-line designs of the Iroquois on their cruder pottery during the later years of their occupation. They may have been driven out by the invading Mohawks, not long before the first white men came to New York State.

Last of all came the Iroquois, and last of the Iroquois the Mohawks, whose three clans, the Turtles, Bears, and Wolves, built their forts and villages in the Mohawk Valley at and west of the Schoharie until the time of the Revolution. Their earliest villages are hidden in the woods well back from the river, and were strongly fortified. Later, they grew bolder and moved closer to the stream, which was their main thoroughfare, and even down to the river flats like their predecessors. There is still a great deal to be learned about them-how they were related to the other Iroquois tribes, the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, the Hurons, Andastes, Eries, and many others-when they came and what route they followed-which of their village sites can clearly be identified with those described by the Jesuits and other early explorers and writers. In the end, they remained true to the treaties they had made with their great friend, Sir William Johnson, and fought with the British against the American colonists. They went down to defeat and the position of importance, which they had held throughout Colonial times, was lost.

This is the picture of the prehistoric Indian occupation of the Mohawk Valley, as indicated by recent reports and present theories. It has been formed by study of the collections made by such pioneers as Robert M. Hartley, who kept a careful record of all they found, and, through painstaking excavations of camps and village sites, in this and neighboring states. Future work may explode many of these ideas or prove our interpretation wrong, but it will also clarify other points which are still obscure and, eventually, a comprehensive picture of New York State and the Mohawk Valley, as they were in prehistoric times, will emerge

P. SCHUYLER MILLER
August, 1942.

Copyright 1998, -- 2003. Berry Enterprises. All rights reserved. All items on the site are copyrighted. While we welcome you to use the information provided on this web site by copying it, or downloading it; this information is copyrighted and not to be reproduced for distribution, sale, or profit.

Contents Introduction Links Home