Trading sparked tribal battles

Trade: The Mohegans and Mohawks had few reasons to enter each other's territory until they sought to interact with the same trading partner, and then a "great war" ensued.

April 28, 2002|By James M. Odato | James M. Odato,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - The early-17th-century arrival of the Dutch caused an eruption of hostilities between two Native American tribes that had long struggled over territorial control.

It also spurred the death of Indian culture as native people relied on the fur trade to supply them with goods.

Traditional competitors for land, the Mohegans and Mohawks had few reasons to enter each other's territory until they sought the same trading partner.

The population of the Mohegans, an Algonquian-speaking tribe, is estimated to have been in the thousands. They tended to live in small communities dominating both shores of the Hudson, a region they had controlled for centuries.

Some researchers believe that deep below modern Albany, New York's capital city, are the remains of the few large Mohegan villages.

Land of `man eaters'

The tribe's territory extended to roughly west of what is now Amsterdam, a town on the Mohawk River. If Mohegans traveled much farther west, they entered the land of those they named Mohawks, the Algonquian word for "man eaters."

The tribes' languages were extremely different. The Mohawks called themselves Kaiienkehaka, "people of the flint," because they made spear tips, knives and arrowheads. Numerous accounts state that the Mohawks indeed ate Mohegan captives.

The Mohawk territory included areas on the western shore of Lake Champlain and south toward the Delaware River.

The Mohegans had an early trade monopoly since the Dutch had built their fort in Mohegan territory. When the Mohawks stretched their boundary east to control trade routes with the Dutch, the Mohegans reacted, and a "great war" ensued.

But disease brought many more casualties. In the first decade after European contact, hundreds of Mohegans died of smallpox and other illnesses. Some historians say 90 percent of the tribe perished.

European influences

The Mohawks, more interior and farther from the Dutch, came to the fort to trade beaver pelts and other furs. European diseases killed thousands of them in sporadic outbreaks that had begun with contact with Basque fishermen and the French to the north.

Both tribes became fond of the European goods. The Mohawks first learned the value of pelts in trades with the French. They depended on the blankets, knives, hatchets and other trade items, perhaps as a way of exercising their political, military and economic influence.

The Mohegans lost many of their original ways quickly because of their close contact with the Dutch and their reliance on trade items, said Steve Comer, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohegans. A Wisconsin-based people, the band is descended from those who first greeted Henry Hudson and later sold land to Kiliaen Van Rensselaer. The tribe was pushed west more than 200 years ago.

The Dutch may have had trouble distinguishing people of various tribes at first. According to 17th-century journal entries, they were impressed with the native people's friendliness among family and friends and ferocity toward one another.

Tribal members may have resembled one another, but the demise of the Mohegan culture means little is certain about its ways. The Mohawks have retained much of their culture, including their Iroquois language.

The physical differences - height, hairstyle, facial marks and coloring on body decorations - might not have been apparent to Europeans.

`Just like Dutchmen'

During celebrations, the Mohawk warriors would have worn three standing feathers (probably eagle) in a cap of turkey feathers. The Mohegans probably wore feathers in their hair as well.

One journal entry by a 17th-century visitor, Johannes Megapolensis, declared the Mohawk Indians "to be just like Dutchmen in body and stature; some of them have well-formed features, bodies and limbs; they all have black hair and eyes, but their skin is yellow."

He also noted that in the summer the natives were naked except patches covering "private parts." In cold months, they wore undressed deer, bear or panther skin.

He said the people wore their hair long and some of the men had streaks of hair from their forehead to their neck "about the width of three fingers." They painted their faces red, blue and other colors and "look like the Devil himself."

The territorial war was fierce between 1615 and 1629. The Mohegans built their own fort - opposite Fort Orange - near the southern end of the city of Rensselaer on the Hudson River. But the Mohawks prevailed, requiring the Mohegans to pay them a yearly contribution, usually in furs.

Even though the Mohegans no longer controlled the fur trade, they owned the land. They were more willing to sell to the Dutch after they lost the "beaver wars," and the Dutch made vast land acquisitions from the Mohegans in 1630 and 1631.

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