Adirondacks: Native Americans

Human presence in the Adirondack region of New York spans thousands of years to the Paleo-Indian period. The rugged mountains served as hunting grounds for several nearby Native American peoples, most notably the Mahicans and the Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy. These tribes did not live directly in the Adirondack Mountains but on lakes and in river valleys near the area. Today, the federally-recognized Native American tribe in the Adirondack region of New York is the St. Regis Band of Mohawk Indians of New York of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Franklin County.

Paleo-Indian (15,000 to 7000 B.C.) sites have been found around the region dating to 9000 B.C. These peoples lived near the shore of the Champlain Sea, which covered the Adirondack Mountains. The first Archaic (8000 to 1000 B.C.) people in New York came from the St. Lawrence River Valley to the area around Lake Champlain and into the Hudson River Valley. Other related groups settled at Oneida Lake via the Oswego River system. These Archaic people, referred to as the Laurentian culture, were semi-nomadic hunters and gathers. They used spear-throwers and bone harpoons for hunting. Tools crafted from Lake Superior copper, obtained via trade, were also utilized. The Laurentian culture was gradually replaced by other traditions. Between 2200 and 1500 B.C., the Sylvan Lake and River cultures appeared in eastern New York. Succeeding them was the Frost Island culture in central New York, which transitioned from the Archaic period to the Early Woodland period. During the Frost Island culture, pottery first appeared.

Early Woodlands cultures in the Adirondack region included the Middlesex culture, which was related to the Adena culture in the Ohio Valley. This culture was followed by the Point Peninsula culture in the Middle Woodland period. Later, the Owasco culture of the Late Woodland period had protected settlements located along rivers and streams like the Point Peninsula peoples. They were hunters and gatherers who farmed with sticks and hoes.

Iroquoian peoples arrived between 1,200 and 4,000 years ago, and both the Mohawk and the Oneida consider the Adirondacks to be part of their territory. The Algonquian-speaking Mahicans also claimed the mountains as their lands, particularly the area east of Lake George to southern Lake Champlain. According to Tuscarora and Haunosaunee (Iroquois) historian Rick Hill, the Adirondack region was a “Dish with One Spoon” neutral territory shared by the Iroquois with their allies and friendly peoples during peaceful times. This later included Europeans, notably the French. A 1624 peace treaty between the Mohawk and Mahicans, brokered by Samuel de Champlain, allowed for shared access to each other’s hunting territories in the Adirondacks.

The Mahicans occupied the Hudson River Valley nearly up to Lake Champlain, west to Catskill Creek, and east into Massachusetts and the Housatonic River Valley. Their council fire was on Schodack Island at Albany. They were an Algonquian people and were culturally related to other New York tribes such as the Wappinger, Lenape, and Montauk. Algonquian peoples had no clans but extended biological families inhabiting a wigwam (a dome-shaped dwelling) or longhouse.

War with the Mohawk led to the removal of the Mahican council fire from Schodack to near modern Stockbridge, Massachusetts at Westenhuck. In 1626 the Iroquois defeated the Mahicans in the Mohawk Valley. However, instead of ceding territory to the Mohawk, the Mahicans sold the land to their Dutch allies. The tribe split in the eighteenth century, with two groups heading west. In the 1730s one group of Mahicans moved to Wyoming, Pennsylvania, then with the Lenape and Munsee continued to Ohio, and the three tribes merged. Another group of Mahicans settled in Indiana on the Kankakee River in the 1720s. Not all the tribe left Massachusetts, with a portion of the Mahicans remaining who became known as the Stockbridge Indians.

The Iroquois, which is actually an Algonquian derivative of the word for “real adders,” referred to themselves as Ogwanonhsioni, or “longhouse builders.” The Iroquois Confederacy was Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse.” Similarly, the names by which we know each tribe was not what they called themselves:

  • The Mohawk were Kanyengehaga, or “people of the place of the flint.”
  • The Oneida were Oneyotdehaga, or “people of the standing stone.”
  • The Onondaga were Onontaga, or “on the mountain.”
  • The Cayuga were Gayokwehonu, or “where they land the boats.”
  • The Seneca were Onondewagaono, or “great hills people.”

Traditionally, the founders of the Iroquois Confederacy are recognized as Deganawidah, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk or Onondaga Iroquois. Fifty-one sachems (chiefs) comprised the Great Council, of which nine Mohawks were members. Unanimous agreement by the Council was required to pass any resolutions.

The Iroquois were a village people with a strong communal sense. They inhabited semi-permanent settlements which were moved when either convenient supplies of firewood, wild vegetable foods, and local game gave out, or the unfertilized agricultural soil adjacent to the village became exhausted, a period ranging from eight to twenty years. The small settlements grew over time to towns of over 1,000 people in the period when Europeans arrived. Mohawk villages were in the Mohawk River Valley between Schenectady and Utica. They had seven villages in 1644 and five in 1677, with about 500 total warriors. Each Iroquois tribe was organized into clans, which numbered from three to ten and were named for animals. Clan society was matrilineal. The three primary clans of the Mohawk were the Bear, Wolf, and Turtle clans.

The staple crops grown by the Iroquois were corn, beans, and squashes, which were considered sacred gifts from the Creator. Other cultivars included tobacco and sunflowers. Village women gathered nuts, berries, roots, fruits, and mushrooms. Maple syrup was made to serve as a sweetener. In the late fall, villages were essentially abandoned as the Iroquois set up hunting camps to gather meat, returning in mid-winter. The forests around Lake George were a preferred hunting ground for the Iroquois. Again in the early spring, villagers left to harvest maple sap for sugar and gather eggs and birds. Fishing was conducted in spring and summer.

The Mohawk were an aggressive people who sought to expand their territory, which at times was disastrous for the tribe. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, they attacked and nearly decimated the Abenaki to the east, the Huron to the north and west, and Algonquian tribes, who had nearly wiped out the Mohawk in the past, to the north. Between about 1604 and 1614, the Mohawk and Conestoga waged war, with the Mohawk nearly made extinct.

The arrival of Europeans negatively impacted the Mohawk people. Before contact in the seventeenth century, the population of the tribe was between 8,000 and 11,000, but disease reduced the Mohawk to only 2,000 to 4,500. Trade with the Europeans intensified the aggressive nature of the Mohawk. The Dutch and French desired beaver skins, and the former party offered firearms in exchange. This increased firepower allowed the Iroquois to expand their territory to over 1,500 miles in the 1600s, spanning as far west as the upper Great Lakes. In the eighteenth century, Albany became a center of trade between the American colonists and the French in Canada and their Algonquian allies. This rankled the Mohawk, who disliked the British selling ammunition to their enemies.

Despite an antagonistic relationship between Indians and colonists, some British and American officials gained the trust of the Iroquois and other natives. Sir William Johnson served as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern American colonies. He was a trusted negotiator with the Mohawk, who made him an honorary chief. Johnson had relationships with native women including Molly Brant (Konwatsi’tsiaienni), sister to Mohawk chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea). London Gentleman’s Magazine described Johnson in 1755:

Being surrounded by Indians, he speaks several of their languages well, and has always some of them with him. He takes care of their wives and old Indians, when they go out on parties, and even wears their dress. In short, by his honest dealings with them in trade, and his courage, which has often been successfully tried with them, and his courteous behavior, he has so endeared himself to them, that they chose him one of their chief Sachems, or Princes, and esteem him as their father.

As European encroachment threatened Indian sovereignty, the natives retreated to places of geographic refuge such as the Adirondacks. Both Iroquoian and Algonquian tribes gravitated to the region. Among these peoples were the Mohawk and Abenaki, semi-nomadic Algonquian speakers whose territory fell within Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts, and southern Quebec. In the eighteenth century, many Abenaki fled to Odnak, a community in Quebec. The Mohawk also retreated north toward Akwesane (St. Regis) in Canada. Both tribes continued to send hunting parties into the Adirondacks.

Many colonists were distrustful of Native Americans, and their sentiments approached full hatred. Indian raids destroyed property and captured people, specifically women and children. To the Americans, the natives were simply and obstacle in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, one to be removed at all costs. During the American Revolution the Mohawk sided with the British. Following American victory in the war, many of the Mohawk moved to Canada. In 1777 the Oneida, who sided with the American colonists, burned villages and expelled the Mohawk from eastern New York. While the Seneca offered land to the Mohawk in Genesee Valley, chief Joseph Brant refused the offer, instead negotiating a treaty in 1784 with the British for lands in Canada. All Mohawk land claims in the United States were ceded in 1797.

Footnote:

Melissa Otis, “At Home in the Adirondacks: A Regional History of Indigenous and Euroamerican Interactions, 1776-1920” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 2013), 52; William A. Ritchie, Indian History of New York State, Part 1: Pre-Iroquoian Cultures (Albany: New York State Museum, ca. 1969), 7-21; Frederick Webb Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Part 1: A-M, Smithsonian Institute Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), 786.

Ritchie, Part 1, 24-35.

Otis, 53-55.

William A. Ritchie, Indian History of New York State, Part 3: The Algonkian Tribes (Albany: New York State Museum, ca. 1969), 17; Hodge, Part 1, 786.

Hodge, Part 1, 922.

William A. Ritchie, Indian History of New York State, Part 2: The Iroquoian Tribes (Albany: New York State Museum, ca. 1969), 1-2.

Ibid., 13.

Ibid., 3, 10; Hodge, Part 1, 922-924.

Ritchie, Part 2, 6.

Hodge, Part 1, 922.

Otis, 59; Hodge, Part 1, 922; B. C. Butler, Lake George and Lake Champlain: From Their First Discovery to 1759 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Co., 1868), 17.

Orasmus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase and of Morris’ Reserve (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1852), 70.

Otis, 89

Hodge, Part 1, 924; Esther V. Hill, “The Iroquois Indians and Their Lands Since 1783,” Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association 11, no. 4 (October 1930), 336-337.

Last updated: November 21, 2018