Stone Age Mohicans

By Lisa LaMonica | info@mainstreetmag.com

Much of upstate New York was Mohican territory. They also dominated the territory spreading west to Windham, north almost to Lake Champlain, west towards Stockbridge MA, and south – almost to Manhattan. Their stories, and some of the local historians chronicling them, are almost lost to time.

Their stories are still worth telling. From them came the mythology of Spook Rock Road, highlighting the sociological differences between the Original People and Dutch immigrants coming to the region with and after Henry Hudson. Mohicans should also still be remembered for their contributions to our history during the period of the American Revolution; they were honored previously by George Washington as “Friends of our Fathers.” Mohicans served in George Washington’s Continental Army in battles that were not theirs.

Pilgrims and our European ancestors weren’t the first here as people often forget. There were many ways our predecessors could have been honored; in local school district history classes, in road markers, in art, in oral history, and in books. There has only been a smattering here and there to document their existence. The New York State Museum in Albany has some archaeological and ethnological items from local digs; you would need to visit the museum in order to see artifacts as there are no photographs available. Generations of people have lost their link to the past along with the region’s history. The Mohican language is also extinct; as with any language, there are a certain number of people needed to still be speaking it in order to pass it onwards. Apparently, they had no written language that survives, although certain universal symbols such as the turtle and chevron have been found on artifacts.

The collective unconscious

Mohicans have become a part of our collective unconscious in part due to James Fennimore Cooper’s 1757 novel, The Last of the Mohicans. A novel in which they were romanticized, but where Cooper also made them out to be “unwise” and contributing to their peril and decline in our region, as referenced in a 1968 Tales of Old Columbia, Hudson New York newspaper article. It was their “lack of wisdom which brought them to terrible destruction in Roger’s Island after they had won a battle near where the city of Hudson now stands.”

Cooper’s novel, originally published in 1826, would be his greatest work both here and abroad, and still remains one of the most widely read novels in the world. Cooper’s father would establish Cooperstown, NY, on what was the frontier of a settlement after the Revolution. Cooper sometimes had brief encounters and conversations with Oneida tribesman traveling along the Susquehanna River nearby.

Their history & Henry Hudson

Mohicans were an ancient and powerful race of people; their tools show fine levels of craftsmanship for that time period. Early AmerIndians describe a Bering Straight crossing by their ancient ancestors passing over great waters by north of another country, where this country and another are almost connected. Knowing famine, they had traveled a great distance to settle along the now Hudson River. The Delawares and the Lenni Lenape tribe from the west near present-day New Paltz are believed to be who the Mohicans are descended from. The Delawares claim to be the breeding stock from which most eastern Algonquin tribes, including the Mohicans, sprang from.

By 1609, the 1000 or more Mohicans in the Hudson River Valley commanded respect; their main villages and chiefs occupied the Hudson River’s eastern banks and islands. In the fall of 1609, “a Mohican walked out from one of the main villages and saw a strange sight on the river. Thinking it was some sort of great fish, he ran back to the village to tell the others.” Returning to the scene with two more Mohicans, they encountered the coming of Henry Hudson and his crew aboard the Half Moon. Within twenty years of the time of Henry Hudson’s ship entering possibly at Hudson or Stockport, their numbers had started to decline. Whether it was in part or in whole due to warring with neighboring Mohawks or the coming of the Dutch, their stronghold in the region would soon not last.

When Henry Hudson and subsequent Dutch visitors arrived somewhat later, Mohicans were extremely hospitable to the outsiders. Hosting the newcomers, Mohicans readily showed Henry Hudson and his crew the Mohican way of life, their tools, their cooking and hunting techniques, along with their food supplies. Meals made by them for the visitors included wild game and the meat of a dog. We know also from journals kept at that time that Henry Hudson and his crew entertained Mohicans aboard their ship; a gesture involving remarkable trust on both sides. After Henry Hudson returned to his homeland, fur trading with the Mohicans continued every summer as the Dutch traveled up the Hudson River. Trade developed between these two cultures, the Mohicans made a strong pact with the Dutch, and beaver fur trading became very lucrative for both.

In their own language, the Mohican referred to themselves as the “Muhhekunneuw” “people of the great river.” This name was difficult for the Dutch to pronounce, so they settled on “Manhigan,” the Mohican word for wolf and the name of one their most important clans. Later, the English altered this into the more-familiar Mahican or Mohican.

Battling the Mohawks

More Europeans would be coming to the region, triggering jealously from the Mohawks because of the prosperity of Mohicans. Having to pay tribute to Mohicans who controlled the Hudson River Valley up to Albany also incensed the Mohawks. Around 1625, Mohicans banded together with Muncees and Lenni Lenapes and continually fought Mohawks in one battle after another, armed in part with guns from the Dutch. Their last battle took place on flat land near what is present-day Hudson, on the “plateau which runs between the river and the hill upon which Church’s house now stands.” The house referred to is Olana, Hudson River School painter Frederic Church’s Moorish masterpiece.

Pretending retreat, Mohicans drew Mohawks closer to them for purposes of luring their enemy onto their own ground. Mohawks became disorderly and scattered by nightfall. Defeated, Mohawks retreated to the island of Vastrick, later called Roger’s Island in the Hudson River near what is now the city of Hudson. Vastrick Island, later called Ten Pounds and then Roger’s Island, was named for Garret Vastrick, a merchant of New Netherlands and a friend of then Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

Wishing to wipe out all remaining Mohawks, Mohicans landed on the island late night. What appeared to be Mohawks sleeping by their fires, were actually logs wrapped in blankets and a disappointment to Mohicans wishing to use their tomahawks to wipe them out.

More importantly, Mohicans were now surrounded by Mohawks who fired shots from the woods with guns from the Dutch that Mohicans did not know they had been provided with. The few surviving Mohicans were marched north as slaves the next morning by victorious Mohawks. Some Mohicans were burned at the stake. Some Mohican surviving families had previously started to retreat over the mountains into Massachusetts. A council held in 1670 between Governor Lovelace and Columbia County Mohican chiefs restored peace among them, the Mohawks and English.

Years later, Mohicans would come back to Columbia County, NY, since Mohawks never claimed this territory after defeating them. Mohican spirit as warriors started to disassemble. They faced problems with alcohol provided by the Dutch starting with Henry Hudson himself aboard the Half Moon. Mohican numbers may have started to decline also due to being exposed to smallpox brought by the Dutch. Important to realize is that no known disease left the New World impacting the Old World that we know of.

European settlements

In 1660, the first European settlement is documented from records of a land purchase from the Mohicans by Jan Fransen van Hoesen at Claverack Landing, present-day Hudson. Claverack was a Dutch word meaning Clover Rack or Clover Reach. In 1667 land patents were also granted to Abraham Staats. The two earliest known houses in Columbia County are the Van Hoesen house and the Staats house. The Staats house, constructed in 1665, contained three foot thick walls and had originally been burned by Indians, then rebuilt.

During the second Esopus War, 500 Indians comprised of Mohican, Katskills, and Wappingers battled another tribe who nearly destroyed the Staats house altogether. An early tenant of Staats was killed by this tribe; his wife carried off by them.

Hostile tribes from Canada were a threat to early homes in the region and the hope was to fortify them with walls of such thickness and strength with bricks made here and imported from Holland. In 1878, Captain Franklin Ellis reported that 25 bushels of Indian artifacts were found near the house, to include axes and arrowheads. The house still stands on Station Road near the Columbiaville Bridge.

Archeological excavations

Kenneth H. Mynter of Brooklyn, settled in Hudson as a child and became fascinated with the tribes of the region, becoming recognized as an expert on them and well sought out for information. Ken’s ancestry on his mother’s side dates back to the Vikings with his father’s ancestry traced back to Ponce de Leon. As a professor at the University of Rochester and member of the New York State Archeological Association, he would complete an excavation of an Indian shelter in Claverack yielding evidence that the site was used 5,000 years ago.

Carbon tests proved that cooking fires were used there as far back as 3,000 BC with remnants of meals eaten there; mussel shells and animal bones were found. In 1984, while writing for the Independent newspaper, he wrote: “Indians were living here in this county before the building of the pyramids while our own ancestors were living in the New Stone Age in Europe.” It is a staggering thought to have sink in. His favorite and most interesting finds were at the location of Spook Rock Road in Greenport, near Hudson.

Leaving the City of Hudson on State Route 23B, turning right just past the Old Tollhouse, is Spook Rock Road. The road was originally a Mohican trail. Certain seasons of the year had the Mohicans living and hunting in the Windham, Greene County region, while the rest of the year they resided in Columbia County. The trail came from Hudson and followed along the edge of Becraft Mountain, and they would cross the Claverack Creek. The trail split; the eastern part heading toward an Indian village near Great Barrington, MA, and south trail which would lead to an Indian village near Pine Plains called Shekomeko.

Ken, along with New York State archeologists, excavated on Spook Rock Road naming one of the sites the “Taghkanic Rock Shelter.” This was a large overhang jutting ten to 15 feet from the rock wall. With wooden poles leaned against it, it was a shelter for Mohicans hunting and fishing for hundreds of years. Possibly still visible is a blue line painted on the side of the rock ledge denoting the original level of ground where excavation had started.

Pots, arrowheads, & more

Taconic, Taughannock, or Tachkanick as it was written in an Indian deed of 1685 has had various spellings but is a Mohican word meaning “the woods.” Resulting from the dig, at a depth of 12 inches, various pot shards were discovered, some from an Iroquois tribe. Owasco pot sherds, Point Peninsula sherds, and Levanna type projectile points were unearthed. The Owasco culture, around AD 1000, differed from Point Peninsula’s coiled pottery making by means of modeling their pot making material. Owascos incorporated maize, beans, and squash in their agriculture, living in longhouses.

Levanna projectile points are considered true arrowheads rather than darts or atlatl dart points also found in the region. As explained to me by Stephen Kent Comer, a dart was something between an arrowhead and a spear head. Darts were used with an atlatl, a straight flat stick with a hook on the end that was basically an extension of the arm. The thrower held one end of it, putting the dart with the butt fitting in the hook and threw it that way. It was what was used before the invention of the bow and arrow, which came much later around 1200 AD. An example of a rare dart called the Vestal Notch point, is depicted in the photograph (right). Given to me by a relative, it was photographed and shown to Jonathan Lothrop, Curator of Archaelogy at the New York State Museum in Albany. The point is dated to the Late Archaic period of about 4,000 years ago.

Digging deeper at the Spook Rock Road location provided evidence of older Native Americans previously inhabiting the region. Artifacts recovered were bone awls, bone harpoon, antler flakes, beaver incisors, flint chips and unio, a type of mussel shell. At the ten to 14 inch level of excavation, five stone-bordered hearths were unearthed. At 48 inches a cylinder shaped pestle was found. Believed to possibly have been used as a medicine mortar, the vessel had a series of incised bird track patterns on the outside. Also found nearby was a semi-lunar chopping stone. Food refuse samples collected at the site were analyzed to have come from deer, woodchuck, and bobcat with one oyster shell also being found.

As the Mohicans annually traveled down from Windham mountain, it is believed that this site was their winter hunting territory. Ideally situated nearby to Claverack Creek, the creek in archaic times had a huge salmon run every spring. Quoting Hillsdale minister Reverend William Blackie from his 1928 paper and presentation notes, “It is a self evident fact that development of the art of hunting has been a gradual one even among primitive peoples. In the earliest times it was a matter of catching by the hand and then stages to the use of what we may call arms of precision.”

Most likely Rev. Blackie is referring to the types of thrown spears used by the Mohicans to acquire various fish and game that they feasted upon. Fishing hooks were made from bone and bird claws. Later, the weapon of the chase was the bow and arrow.

A rare turtle

Claverack resident and past town historian Ted Filli carried on Ken Mynter’s work after his passing. In a recent presentation at the Hudson Area Library, Ted spoke about his knowledge of the Mohicans from having worked with Ken Mynter and also state archaeologists William A. Ritche and Robert E. Funk. Ted has one of the largest and rarest of Mohican artifact collections including one particularly interesting and rare item.

It is a copper turtle that was worn as an ornament around the neck found at a site in Athens, Greene County in the 1940s. It represented belonging to the turtle clan of Mohicans and was described in Henry Hudson’s journal by his first mate. Hudson and his men upon entering the Mohican village, first noticed the ornament on Mohican men apparently wondering if it was a sort of tattoo. Before the Dutch arrived, Mohicans were acquiring copper from the French to the North at the Great Lakes region. This artifact was photographed by the Peabody Museum, and so far, is the only known surviving example.

Mohican agriculture

Ted Filli described Columbia and Greene counties at the close of the last Ice Age as having glaciers a mile high, which were responsible for cutting through the valley and creating the Catskill Mountains. Caribou along with deer were part of the Mohican diet, with their jaw and teeth bones saved and used to scrape corn off corn cobs.

With an extensive knowledge of Mohican agricultural practices, Ted described their method of planting the “three sisters;” bean, corn, and squash. Corn stalks were used as the means to wrap bean plants up and around for their vine growing quality. Corn and squash were introduced to this region from the Ohio area around 5,000 years ago. Mohicans grew gourds too, and while not digestible, they had many uses as storage containers when carved out.
These Paleo nomadic people used a practice of burning out areas of their encampments from time to time as they left areas and moved into others seasonally. This served many purposes such as destroying overgrowth, bringing down trees needed to make into canoes, cutting down on bugs and a sort of sanitizing a region of waste accumulated during their stays.

Soapstone pots were demonstrated as fragments found underground sometimes attached to tree roots. Soapstone is mostly found in nearby Southern Connecticut. Ted explained that due to the weight of this type of pot, Mohicans had a cache of these left underground in all of their regions to be used later upon returning.

The Claverack Giant

Another prehistoric Ice Age artifact found nearby would introduce excitement and concepts previously unknown. In 1705, a Dutch tenant farmer picked up a five pound tooth that had rolled down a hill to his feet. The first major fossil find in America came from Claverack, NY, and it had come from a mastodon. This fossil find would have major repercussions for science, but also for religion.

Firstly, it introduced the concept of extinction, which was new to science at that time. Distantly related to elephants, this particular then unknown species,“incognitum” named in 1806 as a mastodon, was believed to have become extinct 10,000 to 11,000 years ago. Their extinction may have been the result of a major climate change or caused by human hunting.

Mohawks had argued with Dutch farmers over the identity of the “Claverack Giant.” Iroquois and Mohicans had fossil finding folklore with giant creatures that had died out called Maushops. News of the tooth discovery attracted a large number of Indians tribes: Mohawks, Mohicans, and Pequots from the Connecticut region.

Folktales & love

Spook Rock Road long ago originated a folktale; a ghost story that is still told in many versions today. The ghost of a Native American girl has been spotted along the road, and the legend consists of an angry father who forbade this daughter the right to love and marry her chosen man, resulting in her throwing herself into Claverack Creek.

Another version of the story is about the rock in the creek itself, where an Indian boy and girl from differing tribes, forbidden in love, were punished and died as a result of their angry gods. “Under the shelter of Becroft’s Mountain in Greenport, there once lived a Tribe of Mahikans in the family of the Algonquins. Among their people was a beautiful maid, blessed by the Great Kitchi-Mannito with all the grace and comeliness inherent in her race. Perhaps it was her misfortune to meet by chance a young brave Mohawk sent to spy on the Mahikans, for the arrow could never be broken between Mohawk and Algonquin, enemies since ancient times. The handsome Mohawk and the beautiful Indian maid were drawn together like fire to the dry tinder, and their love was so strong that it vanquished the enmity of Nations. They met secretly on the rocky mountain that bordered the swift flowing waters below, and none knew except one who had hoped to claim the lovely maiden for his own. One fateful night, under the cover of a violent storm, the Mohawk made his way to the over hanging rock which was the lovers’ place of rendezvous. The rock gave way just as the maid ran to her lover’s arms. As lightening flashed and thunder roared, both were swept off the mountain with the rock, which went crashing down the hill. As the boulder came to rest in the stream below, they were buried beneath its ponderous weight. When white settlers came, each time they rang a Church bell to mark the death of one of their people, it was said that the rock turned over, releasing the lovers for a shadow of a moment in the old world of their happiness. Then Spook Rock rolled back to entomb them again, together for all eternity.” Ruth A. Stickle’s Folklore of Columbia County.

Where are they now?

Mohican descendent Stephen Kent Comer explained to me: “This typical ‘Indian’ story could be interpreted as a colonialist explanation for the reason why the Original People seemed to ‘melt away’ at the encroachment of Euro-American society. In this case, the young and brave is symbolic of Native People presumably wanting to integrate into colonial society but unable to do so because they cannot meet the requirements of white civilization. The Native Peoples then destroy themselves because of their regrets and inabilities, rather than from any aggression or repudiation on the part of the invaders.” Stephen was generous with his time when I interviewed him for my Haunted Catskills book in 2013. He put me in touch with Bonney Hartley in Troy, the tribal historic preservation officer for the federally recognized Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation; he has been instrumental in lending images and information.

Donald Shriver, president emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Stephen Kent Comer, last lineal survivor of the Mohican Nation in the vicinity of Columbia County, added a historical marker alongside the already-existing History of Columbia County marker at the northernmost overlook of the Taconic Parkway. The original marker tells of Hudson’s arrival in 1609 with no mention of the Mohicans.

After years of fund raising and work with a variety of state agencies, and with the help of St. Peters Presbyterian Church in Spencertown, NY, the men decided it was necessary to commemorate the Mohicans who had greeted Hudson and his crew. Comer noted, “I say that when I came to this area thirty years ago, I was amazed to find virtually nothing about my people in their native land. It was as though we were a ghost people.”

Around 1736, the Mohicans left Claverack and New York for Stockbridge, MA. The Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation and its 1500 living members now reside in Wisconsin.

2018-08-04T12:58:17+00:00August 4th, 2018|