Long before Henry Hudson “discovered” our region, the Mohican and Munsee Native American tribes were living a rich life in the territory we now call home. Here is their story.
This article first appeared in our July 2016 issue.
A great people traveled from the north and west. For many, many years they moved across the land, leaving settlements in rich river valleys as others moved on. Reaching the eastern edge of the country, some of these people settled on the river later renamed the Delaware. Others moved north and settled in the valley of a river where the waters, like those in their original homeland, were never still. They named this river Mahicannituck and called themselves the muh-he-con-neok, the people of the waters that are never still…
This is the original story, as told by a late-1700s Mohican historian named Hendrick Aupaumut, of the people who truly discovered America, including the river valley in which we now live. The names of the river and valley were usurped by a man named Hudson, whose people came from the east and, in the comparative blink of an eye, nearly ended a story that stretches back perhaps 13,000 years.
Today, about 1,500 men, women, and children, most of whom live in Wisconsin, trace their ancestry back to these people who traveled from the north and west as the Ice Age glaciers receded and humans first populated our land. That the descendants of these original settlers are doing well, after 400 years of disease, degradation, and dislocation, is good to know. Still better is to know their story in full, to appreciate their history, and honor their pride of place as the first people of the Hudson Valley.
“It Was a Rich Life”
Two distinct but closely related nations inhabited the Hudson Valley at the time of European contact. The Mohicans (or Mahicans) lived in the northern valley, the area from approximately present-day Kingston up to Lake Champlain, west to the Schoharie Valley, and east into Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. The Lenape (sometimes Lenni-Lenapi, meaning, roughly, “the real or original people”) first populated the Delaware River Valley, particularly around Minisink (“the place where stones are”) where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania meet. They are also called Delaware Indians, and the nation eventually comprised clans that lived in an area they called the Lenapehoking, their territory in what is now Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Eastern Delaware, and the Lower Hudson Valley. The northeastern clans who moved into our region spoke a Lenape dialect known as Munsee, and are thus also known as the Munsee Indians. It was the Munsee who were waiting on shore when Verrazano “discovered” his narrows in 1524 and when Hudson “discovered” the river in 1609. The Munsee were also the tribe that famously sold Manhattan to Peter Stuyvesant in 1626.
Though the Mohicans and Munsee were distinct, their languages were similar enough to allow communication (they are both considered part of the larger Algonquian language group that covers much of northeast North America), and their relations were mostly peaceful. They knew they were relatives, and assisted each other when in danger of attack on their western borders, from the Mohawk/Iroquois, and to their east, from the Mohegans, who, despite their similar-sounding name, were a competitive nation. But these were temporary alliances; the tribes never formed a larger confederacy like the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in central New York State.
Their daily lives were similar, too. In the 1,000 years or so before European contact, known as the Late Woodland Period, the native peoples lived in small clans or villages of perhaps 10 to 100 family members. The total number of native peoples living in the Hudson Valley is hard to estimate, but the Lenape population of all the villages from Delaware Bay to Esopus Creek was probably around 10,000 in 1600.
They were migratory, moving from area to area to follow the hunt and hunker down for winter. They typically lived in clearings they slashed and burned in the thick forest along creeks and rivers, usually on terraces above the floodplain, in places that still bear their names—the Wappingers (“the people of the east lands” or, possibly, “white-face opossum”); the Esopus (“the small river”); the Manhattans (perhaps “hilly island,” perhaps “place of timber”).
In present-day Westchester County, the native presence goes back at least 7,000 years, according to archeologists who uncovered on Croton Point the oldest oyster-shell middens found on the North Atlantic Coast. Croton, in fact, is named for the Indian sachem Kenoten (“wild wind”). The Wickquasgeck, another clan, occupied the western reaches of the county, centered around Dobbs Ferry. In the 1600s, the Kitchawanks, members of the Wappinger family, built and lived in a large, fortified village on the high flat at the neck of Croton Point, one of the most ancient and imposing fortresses south of the Hudson Highlands. They called their fortress Navish. (A marsh, which the natives called Senasqua, separates the Point from Croton Neck; you can find a plaque there at the spot where the Dutch signed a peace treaty with the Kitchawanks.) “
The Native Americans who lived in the Hudson Valley just before and at the time of European contact were agriculturalists,” says Joseph Diamond, a professor of archaeology at SUNY New Paltz. “They grew corn, beans, and various species of squash, and gathered plant foods such as hickory, nuts, butternuts, walnuts, acorns, and chestnuts, and various berries to supplement their diet.”
Corn, beans, and squash, in fact, were so central to native diets, the crops were known by the Iroquois as “the Three Sisters.” That interdependence required rather advanced horticultural skills. “There is a conception that the Algonquians were not sophisticated farmers like the Iroquois. I think that is not the case,” says Dr. John P. Hart, director of the Research & Collections Division at the New York State Museum in Albany. “To grow successfully, you have to understand how crops respond to soils, water, and rainfall, any type of unusual weather. When growing the three crops together, you have to understand how they interact with one another. If you have, say, 100 acres, that’s a lot of plants, so you have to understand what you are doing to have a successful harvest. And they had no plows, no metal tools—it was all hand labor, and they were very successful at it.”
They were also meat-eaters, hunting bear, elk, white-tailed deer, rabbits, squirrels, turkey, river otter, raccoons, and woodchucks, as well as various waterfowl. “Archaeological sites in the Hudson Valley have also produced evidence of fishing for most freshwater species, and, during the spring, they caught sturgeon, striped bass, shad, and herring, and probably dried, smoked, or roasted them,” Diamond says. Oyster beds found near the riverbanks provided abundant nourishment as well. In the spring, they tapped maple trees for syrup and sugar. After a hunt or harvest, the meat, vegetables, and berries were dried, the fish was smoked, and the bounty was stored in pits dug deep into the ground and lined with grass or bark. “They were producing enough food for large surpluses in case of crop failure for any reason,” Hart says.
They lived in several different kinds of houses, which they called wigwams, made of bent saplings covered with animal hides or tree bark, with a hole in the roof to vent smoke from fire pits. The homes could be circular, square, or oval, and some were rectangular longhouses. Several families from the same clan might live in a longhouse, each family getting their own section. “One of the longest in the Hudson Valley is 110 feet by 29 feet,” Diamond says of a longhouse inhabited by the Esopus Indians that was found by archaeologists in Marbletown (Ulster County). It contained European trade items from the Dutch, and many Native American items such as broken pots, smoking pipes, stone projectile points, knives, scrapers, and woodworking tools.
While the men traveled to hunt, fish, or fight, the women were generally in charge of the home, raising the children, and tending the gardens. But they were hardly subservient. “Contrary to American ‘squaw’ stereotypes of Native American women, the Lenape female had recognized authority roles within the family and the village community, comparing favorably in position to women in European society of the day,” Laurence M. Hauptman, professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz, writes in “The Native Americans: A History of the First Residents of New Paltz and Environs.”
Winter was domestic time. The natives carved containers and utensils; made or repaired their hunting, trapping, and fishing gear; fashioned new baskets and pottery; and made clothing, which they decorated with porcupine quills, shells, and other items from nature.
“Winter was also the time of teaching,” according to Dorothy Davids, author of A Brief History of the Mohican Nation, Stockbridge-Munsee Band. The storytellers passed on the stories of “how life came to be, how the earth was created, how the people learned to sing, the story of the drums and rattles, and what the stars could teach them.” They also learned how to live with their extended families in peace, respectfulness, and shared responsibility.
Ceremony was central to their existence. They had a ceremony whenever something needed “paying attention to,” Davids writes, such as the planting of the corn, beans, and squash, and the harvest. “They practiced several kinds of burial,” Diamond says, “including secondary burial, which is a common form of mortuary treatment around the world that involves a second ceremony several months to a year later.”
In all, the native peoples of the Hudson Valley at the time of European contact were more than just eking out a living, more than just surviving. “They were living complex lives, like we do,” Hart says. As Dorothy Davids writes, “It was a rich life.”
“Civilized” and Its Discontents
It was the people of this impressive and ancient civilization that one of Henry Hudson’s men, upon meeting the natives in Westchester, condescendingly called “well proportioned…Their limbs are properly formed, and they are sprightly and active.”
European conquest, unfortunately, would change that. Disease—specifically smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and scarlet fever, for which the native people had no immunity—wiped out hundreds of thousands; sometimes, entire villages perished at once. Colonization took out the rest. By 1639, the Dutch West India Company, under the colony’s director, Willem Kieft, had begun a land grab in present-day Westchester and the Bronx. The natives, who believed the land was theirs by grace of their gods, realized too late that their deals with the Dutch were sales, not rentals.
Wars soon erupted. In 1643, what became known as Kieft’s War decimated the Wappinger. The Dutch, aligned with the Mohawk nation, wiped out about half the Wappinger population of 3,000 in two years. The notorious British Indian raider John Underhill devastated an Indian village near present-day Bedford in 1644. The Peach Tree War of 1655 left another 60 or so Wappinger dead, and their confederation broke apart. Many survivors left the area to live with neighboring tribes in western Massachusetts.
Things were little better under British rule. The Munsee and Mohicans stopped living their traditional lives and making their traditional items, as the English endeavored to “civilize” all the native people. “The vast lands, which the Mohicans had used for gardens, hunting, and fishing, began to have boundary lines and fences when shared with non-Indians,” Davids writes. Between 1680 and 1708, much of the Munsee land around present-day Bedford was sold to the British, the deeds signed by an Indian leader named Katonah.
When the Munsee joined forces with the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War, many of them were killed—including their powerful sachem, Daniel Nimham—at the infamous Battle of Kingsbridge, in 1778 in the Bronx. By the turn of the 19th century, there were virtually no natives left in Westchester County.
The rest of the Hudson Valley native people suffered similar fates. The two Esopus Wars, in 1659 and 1663, were brutal and bloody affairs that left the Esopus devastated and dispersed to live with their Minisink brethren to the west. Many surviving Mohicans, meanwhile, also relocated to Western Massachusetts with the remaining Wappinger. They were converted to Christianity by missionary John Sergeant, who started a mission in 1738 in the area that colonists named Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “Some native people, noting that the Europeans seemed to be prospering in this new land, felt that perhaps their god was more powerful and agreed to be missionized,” Davids writes.
After the war, the Stockbridge-Mohican Indians and other tribes moved to Western New York, near Oneida Lake, and then again moved to Indiana to live with their relatives, the Miami and Delaware Indians, and then again, to inhospitable land in Wisconsin, in the 1830s.
And that was that. The Mahicannituck was the Hudson River. The Muhheconneok and Munsee were gone, replaced by the Europeans. A civilization dating back to the time of the mastodons had been nearly eradicated, and its few survivors were forced to live thousands of miles from their ancestral home, all in the span of about 200 years.
Many Trails, Leading Back Home
“Most people think we are all dead and gone,” says Bonney Hartley, the tribal historic preservation officer for the federally recognized Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation. Hartley, alive and well, is hard at work at her office in Troy, NY, advocating for roughly 1500 of her fellow citizens—about half of whom live on the reservation in Wisconsin—who are part of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation.
The nation set up this satellite office, on the campus of the Sage Colleges, to increase its presence in the Hudson Valley. Hartley collaborates with state and federal authorities whenever land development may encroach upon ancient tribal lands. If native artifacts may be disturbed, “we work on trying to avoid it and not disturb the site,” she says. “If that is not possible, we work on mitigation. The sites are irreplaceable. They may seem like just stones or pieces of pottery, but to us these are extremely precious.” Hartley also consults on museum exhibits, conducts public outreach, and, perhaps most important, strives to preserve burial grounds—her tribe’s most sacred sites.
The nation, though long removed from the Hudson Valley, has maintained an ongoing relationship with its ancient homeland. Bus trips pull in to the area regularly to visit important sites—the exact locations of which they prefer to keep to themselves for fear of poaching and vandalism. Without being too specific, Sherry White, tribal historic preservation manager, names towns in Westchester (White Plains); Ulster (New Paltz); Dutchess (Pine Plains, Poughkeepsie); Columbia/Green (Schodack Island); Rensselaer (Papscanee Island, Lansingburg, Schaghticoke); and Albany Counties (Schuyler Flats, Bethlehem, Peebles Island, Coeymans) as destinations, but adds that, “from Manhattan to Vermont, it is pretty hard to put a shovel in the ground without hitting a [native] site of some sort—fishing camp, hunting camp, burial ground, habitation site.” Members of the nation are always moved when they return to the Valley. “I have been on a bus trip, and it is really amazing,” Hartley says. “When you pull in to the area, a hush falls over the bus. Everyone feels the connection. It is a beautiful thing to see.”
Hartley says that, in general, the nation is healthy. On the Wisconsin reservation, a casino has brought economic opportunity, and a health center keeps the population well. Young people who once had to leave to find work are now able to stay. “We have a thriving tribe with continued leadership that has existed since time immemorial,” she says. “We have come a long ways from the devastation that occurred after [European] contact. We are so far from our homeland, first forced to Stockbridge, then multiple times west, and onto the worst land in Wisconsin. After all that, it is really a remarkable story of resiliency that we even exist at all.”
To Learn More
Much of the information in this article comes from the collected works of Robert S. Grumet, widely acknowledged as the foremost scholar of Native American history in New York State and the northeast United States. A quick Google or local library search will direct you to his many books on the subject, including The Munsee Indians: A History, First Manhattans: A History of the Indians of Greater New York, and Manhattan to Minisink: American Indian Place Names of Greater New York and Vicinity. The Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation’s website is www.mohican-nsn.gov.