Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Mohawk Valley Indian Notes

When the Valley was Young

Prehistoric and Historic History of the Red Men of the Mohawk Valley by Robert M. Hartley

Saint Johnsville, New York, Enterprise and News, December 11, 1935

(A paper read before the teachers of the schools of Amsterdam, Oct. 9, 1935.)

We live beside one of the earth's oldest waterways. On the north the oldest mountains are our neighbors. Far back in the aeons of unrecorded time, beside which the longest periods of history and tradition are as fleeting moments, great convulsions caused faults and uplifts which formed our embryo valleys and hills. Then came the long age of ice, when the whole northern country was subjected to the grinding of the glaciers which as its volume decreased, followed the more ancient faults and rifts and gradually scoured out our future rivers, and, as the melting ice receded northward, the waters subsided until at last in place of glaciers and a flow of torrential waters, came a change of atmospheric movements and temperature. This dried out the pools and deposits of sediment, clay, gravel and sand, and was slowly clothed with a kindly growth; and here in time appeared a race know to archeologists as an Eskimo-like race who are believed to have been the first to dwell on the North American Continent.

The earliest remains of man and his art occur with the bones of extinct Post Tertiary animals found in England, France and Switzerland, and were without question coeval with some of the extinct mammals. How and when the American Indians came to be natives of our country we do not know. This is an unanswered and seemingly unanswerable question, regarding which many theories have been advanced by various authorities.

Of the dark ages of aboriginal life and strife, we know practically nothing, except as pieced together through the larobs, research and investigations of archeologists. We know that Columbus and his companions were the first to record contact with the American aborigines, and through their ignorance they named the natives, Indians, because they supposed the Atlantic coast was the shore line of Asia, and that they were meeting in the brown or red skinned people of the new found land, the Hindus of Hindustan. The name, Indian has clung to them ever since, though we have added by way of explanation the European name of their country, and now describe the race as the "American Indian," a compound which is sometimes wrought into a single work, "Amerind."

When the first explorers reached the interior of New York State, it was occupied by two Indian families, known as the Iroquois and the Algonquins. The latter family who held all of the Hudson River Valley, the Highlands below the Catskill Mountains, all of Long Island, were closely related to the New England Indians. The former occupied the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys westward beyond the Genesee River. Further west and south were other tribes kindred to them. However, it must not be understood that the Iroquois were the first to occupy our Mohawk Valley, for the Algonquins occupied and lived here unknown years before they were driven out by the Iroquois, some time perhaps, between the years 1570 to 1590. There is also material evidence that other peoples, at a much earlier date were here, as a considerable number of artifacts have been found on ancient sites and in occasional graves, that identify and suggest, as before mentioned, an Eskimo occupation at some very early day.

Van Epps-Indian Occupation of Glenville

These sites are particularly found in the vicinity of prehistoric lakes located on the highlands, and other ancient camping places and fire beds by that veteran Mason, Manning Tod situated on the high margin of the river valleys. So it appears we can justly infer that this Eskimo-like race lived here many, many centuries ago as at the time of or closely following, the retreat of the great Labradorian glacier. The surface geology of our region plainly indicating that at the waning of the great glacier, the valley of the Mohawk was an outlet of a great inland sea, and that the present valley was then filled to its very brim. Thus the camp sites found of this supposed fur clad race are situated just where we might expect to find them-on the margin of these post glacial likes and the shore line of Mohawk's mighty torrent. So, from occasional discoveries of typical Eskimo culture, it would appear reasonable to believe that they, or a people closely akin to them, lived and hunted over our region in the long, long ago, when the great ice covered waters were existent.

Scattered here and there on other ancient sites, which are also located on high ground above the Mohawk Valley, from its junction with the Hudson westward, are occasionally found arrow and spear points made o fa hard red slate, which has been identified as belonging to a race known to archeologists as the "People of the Red Paint." They are a race of uncertain origin and stock, who derived this particular appellation from the fact that all their graves contain numerous deposits of red ocher, and are further characterized by the profusion in their graves of worked stones resembling plum bobs, numerous gouges, celts, long red slate spear points, and other artifacts of high workmanship. A scientific comparison of these implements contained in the graves of the Red Paint people, with those of all later tribes, indicates that their characteristic forms were unknown to all other American Indians; that these people of the Red Paint did not merge with any other known culture, and that they were absolutely distinct and very ancient, with a culture so peculiar that it cannot be correlated with any known tribe, either historic or prehistoric. These people of the Red Paint seem to have reached their greatest culture in the State of Maine, but apparently their occupation extended in a long narrow belt across the State of New Hampshire, Vermont and westward through the Mohawk Valley.

No precise date can be given to the coming of the Iroquois to New York State, but apparently they were strongly established when Champlain and Hudson entered it in 1609, and probably had occupied its more central section for fifty or more years.

According to the Mohawk's tradition, after their exodus from Canada, they first occupied sites, south of the Adirondacks and well back from the Mohawk River. The location of these three principal villages, has been known to archeologists for many years and are commonly known as Garoga, Cayadutta, (Cayadutta was discovered last by Geo. W. Chapin of Fonda in 1890), both on the north side of the Mohawk in Fulton county and Otstungo in the present town of Minden, Montgomery county. These sites were named from the streams on which they were located. Here they lived in their secluded villages, whose locations were easily defended from attack by reason of their natural situation, and further defended from attack by strong palisades. When they increased in strength and numbers, they abandoned their forest strongholds and boldly established their long houses, in palisaded enclosures or so called "Castles," along the Mohawk River, westward from the Schoharie Creek to near Little Falls, where they were found about 1615, by the Dutch explorers and fur traders.

Probably the first white man in history to come into contact with the Mohawks, was Jacques Cartier. In 1535, in his voyage of discovery up the st. Lawrence River, he found and visited the Indian village of Stadaconne located near the present city of Quebec and still a larger village upon which site was later built the city of Montreal. From Cartier's account it is evident that both of these villages were Iroquois-Mohawk. The description of the manner of their fortifications and their surrounding corn fields tend to prove this for the Mohawks were not nomadic, and always lived in such fortified towns. They were at this period more of and agricultural than a warlike people. Further evidence that these villages along the st. Lawrence, visited by Cartier, were Iroquois-Mohawk is the fragments of pottery found on these early sites (now in the McGill University Museum at Montreal) which are identical in ornamentation with those found on the three principal Mohawk Valley prehistoric sites of Garoga, Cayadutta and Otsungo.

It is not only tradition but history, that seventy-five years after Cartier's visit, the whole St. Lawrence region was occupied by the Algonquins and no trace of the Mohawk villages remained at either Stadaconne or Hochelaga.

The first record that such a nation or confederacy, as the Iroquois existed, seems to have been in 1609 when Champlain was a Montreal. The Algonquins, who then lived along the St. Lawrence, begged him and his companions to join them in was against their enemies, the Iroquois. This was apparently the first rumor of such people to reach the ears of the french and the chance meeting with a band of Mohawks near the carry at Ticonderoga was the first conflict known in history between the Mohawks and French. With the help of their French supporters with their terrifying arquebuses, the Algonquins were victorious. This apparently un-important event subsequently determined the whole after-course of history in North America for by it was incurred the deadly enmity of the then powerful tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy of central New York, and by it the French occupation of the valley of the st. Lawrence and of Lake Champlain was hindered and set back. Thus, while the French were struggling to establish their infant colonies in the hostile wilderness a settlement was developed by the Dutch at Fort Orange. Punitive French expeditions pushed southward to the Indian villages along the Mohawk, and adventurous explorers and trappers penetrated into every region of the country and knew well what it promised. Similarly, the Dutch in the security of their friendship with the Iroquois, acquired first hand knowledge of the territory. But France and the Netherlands were at peace. The situation rapidly changed. In 1674 England permanently displaced Dutch rule and brought her great resources and ruthless energy to the struggling colony of New York. She brought also her enmity of France and her antagonism to French ambitions.

The great item of historical interest of the Iroquois, after their occupation of the Mohawk Valley and Central and Western New York, was the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy, or League of Five Nations which is believed to have taken place between the years of 1570 and 1590. According to the various versions existing among the five tribes of the League, its origin is attributed to Hiawatha and Dekanawida. The former is reputed to have been a chief of the Onondagas, and Dekanwida a Huron. Both, tired of the continual warfare among the tribes, set out on a wandering mission to combat the bad influence of Adadarko, the "evil spirit" or "bad mind." Destiny guided them to the land of the Mohawks where they met, and shortly after both were adopted into the tribe. Dekanawida revealed the idea of the Great Peace to Hiawatha, and together they set about its accomplishment by the Great Peace, was established between the kindred nations. As a government system, it was an almost ideal one for the stages of culture with which it was designed, for barbaric man on any continent. By adhering to it the Five Nations became the dominant native power and during Colonial times, exercised an eminent influence in determining the fate of English civilization on our continent. As allies of the British, they fought for it, and destroyed all French hopes for colonization. With this centuries old law, as a guiding force, the Iroquois have persisted to this day as a people, and largely preserved their national identity and much of their native culture. This fact is remarkable, when they have been surrounded by a dominant culture whose encroachments are persistent and unrelenting. To lovers of legendary lore, to students of governmental systems and anthropology, and to those who love the romance of the Mohawk Valley, this great legend offers a theme of poetic and heroic interest.

The formation of the confederacy of the tribes of the Five Nations placed them in a strong warlike position, and for more than a century they waged continual wars with their old enemies, the Algonquins, and other tribes. All history gives the Mohawk nation the reputation of standing at the head of the confederation in bravery, strategy, sagacity and influence and largely due to them, the Five Nations were able to conquer and subdue rival tribes. The very name of the Mohawks became a terror among other Indians.

The Iroquois presented the finest type of the North American Indian family and one would look at them, when given opportunity and facilities to absorb and make use of new methods upon contact with the white man.

There could be no more attractive section to the Indians than the Mohawk Valley and the central lake region of New York State.

The Mohawk River afforded an easy highway for their canoes, short portages carried them in every direction and their trails ran to all the hunting grounds and their war trails over which they traveled to the conquest of their enemies. These natural advantages gave this territory a dominating situation. Added to this were the surrounding forests and the smaller streams which teemed with game and fish, while the more open fertile river flats afforded land for the corn fields and gardens. In all, the valley of the Mohawk was a locality particularly adapted for the livelihood of a primitive people.

Among the Mohawks, as among all the other Indian tribes and barbaric people the women did all the drudgery of the household. They cultivated the fields of maize and gardens of beans, squashes, gourds, edible roots and a kind of potato. They made sugar and syrup from the maple tree and it was from them that our pioneers first learned the process of this manufacture. The women tanned a prepared the skins and made their garments and moccasins; wove their baskets and mats of willow, rushes and grasses; molded their pottery vessels. Their's was a busy life, but among them these labors were not considered degrading. On the other hand, the men as defenders of their village were always obliged to keep themselves and their arms in instant readiness to repel invading attacks, and to scout and keep an ever watchful eye for enemies on all the trails leading through the forests to their villages. As food was the main object of existence, the men hunted and fished, but such quarry was not always secured without considerable effort and long tiresome journeys. Canoes, paddles, bows, arrows, spear and fishing lines had to be made and kept in order, and there was always plenty of odd jobs for the men to do in making household utensils; in the carving the of wooden dishes and spoons; repairing their bark houses; in the slow making and sharpening of stone axes; and in flaking arrow and spear heads and new cutting edges on tools and weapons.

Living a simple life, their wants were few compared with our civilization of today, but it was a busy life. They were men and women of like wants and passions with us, for among all people of all generations, the same requirements are necessary to perpetuate and sustain life.

The Indians developed a strong religious instinct, which had a great influence upon their lives and customs. They believed in a spiritual being who they called the "Great Spirit," and a life in the hereafter, the "Happy Hunting Ground," their conception of a paradise where the necessaries of existence were provided without work or exertion. They had a fear of evil spirits and like many people even in our days, considered that such evil spirits could be conciliated by making sacrifices to them of goods and animals. Their "Shamen" or witch doctor's job was to concoct charms or cast spells over those who were believed to be affected by an evil spirit. These "Shamen", witch doctors or "medicine men" also doctored the sick, had a crude knowledge of diseases and of the potency of many herbs as medicines.

The Indians attached great importance to mental visions and dreams. Those favored with such manifestations of contact with the spirit world were considered to be highly favored, and their experience was treasured and memorized in the form of a story or chant. Upon occasions of a pow-wow, such favored individuals would be called upon to state their experience. These stories would be closely followed and memorized by the audience, and in this way some of those fantastic revelations would in time become a tradition with a village or tribe. It was believed if an animal or other object was connected with a dream, its alleged intimacy with the dreamer would indicate that the people were being favored by some relation from the spirit domiciled in the animal or object. An animal thus regarded would become connected with the people and would be adopted as a totem or emblem of such clan. It is very likely that thus the Iroquois may have adopted the emblems of the various clans, the Bear, the Turtle and Wolf of each nation.

Perhaps it may be of interest to here note, that these emblems were always traced upon the grants or deeds of land given or sold to the whites. And in some instances these animals were traced lying on their backs indicating the land having been and was dead to them. It is not unreasonable to believe that the three principal prehistoric Mohawk villages, Garoga, Cayadutta and Otsungo, represented the three spiritual clans of the Bear, Turtle and Wolf. This is very possible, for in all periods after they established their villages or Castles along the Mohawk River these villages were always know as those of the Bear, Turtle and Wolf.

We gather that from their traditional beliefs and practices, the foundation of their social system, however crude, was based. The methods of compensation for a wrong, their customs of marriage and divorce, the education of their young, and their system of community ownership of property were deep rooted in their social system and religious belief. If this had been studied with consideration and care by the European invaders, a better understanding might have been attained and much of the frightful conflict and brutal retaliation which disfigures our country's history might never have taken place.

One feature which should not be overlooked is the rank and influence of the Indian women. While their government was in the hands of the chiefs, these chiefs were nominated by the suffrage of the women of the clan to which they belonged, by birth or adoption, but such nominations had to be passed upon by the tribal council. The chiefs held office for life, unless deposed for cause. The line of descent was followed through the mother's side, thus enhancing her dignity. No one married in their own clan, and when traveling they were supposed to be entertained by those of their own clans. A marked policy among the Iroquois was the adoption of captives and allies into full citizenship. This was done to replace those lost in battle or captures, enabling them to strengthen their was parties, in their almost incessant warfare and hold their power through a long period of years.

The Iroquois were noted for their state craft and diplomacy, and for the eloquence and fluency of their speeches. Many early writers state that on great occasions it was impossible to impart or translate into English some of the speeches of the celebrated chiefs, especially those of red Jacket and Farmer's Brother, into anything like the force and beauty of their eloquence.

There were few of the products of nature of which the Indians failed to make use. Every edible berry, root and nut was a part of their food supply. They were industrious and successful farmers. We are indebted to them for our maize and potatoes and hardly less for our tobacco. Though simple and uneducated, the Red Men grew them successfully, and we must also credit them with developing by selection and cultivation several varieties of corn, differing in the shape and color of the kernels. They also grew several varieties of beans, squashes, pumpkins and gourds. They made use of the wild grape, currant, plums and cherry which they no doubt dried for winter use. It is not unusual when excavating on prehistoric and historic Indian village sites, to find in the refuse several varieties of charred corn kernels. Squash, pumpkin or gourd seeds and pits of the wild cherry and plum.

That the Mohawks and other inland tribes varied their menu by gathering the common river mussel, the Unio, is also determined by the great quantities of these shells found on their camp sites.

Incidentally, and exposure of such mussel shells, caused by a woodchuck digging a hole in the woods along the Cayadutta Creek, near Sammonsville, Fulton county, in 1890, revealed to the keen eyes of a collector of Indian relics, the location of the large prehistoric Mohawk village, so well know today among archeologists as "Camp Cayadutta."

The Mohawks, sometimes called the "People of the Flint," were the keeper's of the Eastern Door of the Long House, and were ever noted as a warlike people. Their bravery and invincible prowess made their very name a terror over several states and Canada. All history gives the Mohawks the reputation of standing at the head of the Great Confederacy in bravery, sagacity and influence, although less in numbers than several of the other nations.

This story of the Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy, is perhaps already too long. Much more could be said of their characteristics, lives and doings. But before closing it seems necessary that we do not ignore their known evil propensities. Their social system required them to exact full compensation for any injury, by way of goods or in the life of some relative of the party who committed such injury or wrong. If such recompense were not forthcoming, revenge often brutal and murderous, was not only a proper act, but an inherited obligation. This was never understood by the early white settlers or authorities and the misunderstanding which resulted brought about much of the conflict, or the destruction and bloodshed, that disfigured the relations between the tow peoples. We must admit that there were among the natives some thoroughly depraved and bloodthirsty persons, but we must not lose sight of the deceit and dishonesty exhibited by our own ancestors, who were imbued with the same principles. While certain crimes may not have evoked condemnation among our Indians, there was, however, built up among them during the ages of development, a clearly recognized method of compensation for an injury or wrong. The principle instilled into their minds was the same as that "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," which is still the motive of many civilized peoples.

Let us draw a friendly screen around their mis-doings and their evil propensities, but it is not altogether true that the Iroquois and other Indians, lived perpetually in their war-paint; that they were always cruel by nature, brutal, stern and masters of silence; or that they stalked gloomily through life with hatchet ever loosened, with no pursuit except war in their ferocious minds. Among themselves, in their own clans and tribes, they were different, and naturally a kind hearted and trustful people; not quarrelsome, nor fierce, but like all children of the forest loving laughter and all things bright and mischievous. All Indians had a vivid personality and racial rpide; a keen sense of knowing things, a steady glow of character and purpose that always upheld the dignity of a great and passing race.

We must look with sympathy upon the Indian ideals and customs; and their ancient civilization in an entirely different light from that of the white race and remember with thankfulness the obligations to them which our forebears accepted and the benefits we may have inherited from a vanishing race-our First Americans.

Robert M. Hartley October 9th, 1935.

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