Bidwell Lore – Correcting Persistent Myths and Linguistic Bad Habits

Welcome to week 55 of Bidwell Lore! This week we continue to introduce our new series The Plan for the City on the Hill, Township No. 1 – Tyringham and Monterey The Original “Hinterland Settlement.” Today we will be discussing persistent myths and linguistic bad habits often perpetuated by outdated stories and history texts.

Correcting Persistent Myths and Linguistic Bad Habits
by Rob Hoogs

In June we will begin to tell some of the stories about the colonization of Township No. 1 by Rev. Adonijah Bidwell and his fellow residents. But, this colonization was preceded by untold generations of Native Peoples who lived here and managed the land. Before we can tell the story of the colonists, we need to overcome some of the misconceptions about the Natives and their land use. And we have to correct some of the persistent and pernicious myths that our language and our “history” books have perpetuated.

Colonialism and “Decolonization”
“Colonialism” has been defined as when one nation seizes control of another nation’s natural resources & peoples for profit. An extreme form is “settler colonialism”, in which the invading nation attempts to permanently settle the territory by eliminating the native population & erasing its culture. In recent years, several researchers have branded the colonization of New England colonialism as settler colonialism. “Decolonization” is the act of undoing the effects of colonization. It includes removing the cultural biases of the dominant colonial culture from historical interpretations to allow a more accurate presentation of a country’s past & present history & heritage. Recently, the decolonization movement has begun to remove the confines of colonial histories in the study of indigenous & other once “marginalized peoples”. Acts like NAGPRA [North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] along with efforts to involve members from these communities in all aspects of historical study & programming have created new, more accurate interpretations that utilize archaeology, oral tradition, & written documentation to correctly incorporate indigenous, captive, & emigrant lifeways & thought into the larger history of the Americas. [1]

“Pristine Wilderness” or Well-Managed Woodlands
When the Dutch and English began their colonization, this was not a “pristine wilderness.” The land had been actively managed and used by the indigenous peoples for hundreds of generations! The colonists may not have realized that the Natives had been managing the woodlands for millennia, with clearings, under-burning, and agriculture. The European diseases that came with the colonization beginning in 1492 decimated the native population throughout the Americas.  After “first contact,” an estimated 90 percent of the indigenous population died from these foreign diseases to which they had no natural or acquired immunity. And epidemics continued generation after generation to decimate the native population; in many cases, this resulted in cultural erasure. 

In 1609, when Henry Hudson explored along the river that the Natives called Mahicannituck – the “waters that are never still” (now called Hudson River) – he reported Mohican villages lined the entire length of the river. It is estimated that there were 25,000 Natives living there. But only a few years later, many of the villages were reported vacant, a result of European diseases that devastated the Native population. This extreme and rapid depopulation resulted in many of the agricultural fields being abandoned and management of the woodlands being stopped. What the later “settlers” described either as “pristine woodlands” or a “hideous howling wilderness” was in fact the result of the previously managed landscape having been abandoned due to the epidemics. The densely wooded thickets and impassable pathways through the woods were in the early stages of growing back.  

When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620, they were amazed to find cleared agricultural fields, villages, park-like woodlands – but no people, only bones in vacant lodges. From 1617 to 1619, a smallpox epidemic had killed off virtually all the Natives in the area. These Pilgrims and the later Puritan colonists considered it to be God’s blessing on their venture. 

Image of a fallen tree surrounded by trees in the forests around the Bidwell House Museum
The woodlands around The Bidwell House Museum

“Settler – Colonist – Invader”
Another linguistic fallacy is using the term “settler” for the Europeans who moved onto the natives’ lands. The word “settler” implies that the land had never been lived upon or improved, which is untrue.  “Colonist” is probably a better term, although it still does not adequately convey the severe dislocation and dispossession of the indigenous population caused by the European “settlements.” The colonization of their homeland by these uninvited interlopers brought with it imposition of Dutch and English land laws, which were totally foreign to the Natives and contrary to their cultural relationship to the land. In addition, European customs, deceit, and outright theft severely impacted the Native American population who survived the epidemics.  “Invader” is another term that might be used to describe the English and Dutch, but for purposes of comity, we will generally use the word “Colonist.

Some of the religious motivations or justifications for the “Colonists” and their financial supporters back in England were to “save the heathens.” (The 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, below, reflects this thinking.) While some of these impulses may have been sincere and well-intentioned, they had the actual effect of severely disrupting Native Americans’ society. European religion was often misused as an excuse to dispossess the natives from their land since it was not improved in what they considered a civilized English manner.

1629 Massachusetts State seal, featuring an outdated image of a Native person holding a bow and a shaft of wheat with a thought bubble that says "come over and help us"
Massachusetts Bay Colony Seal 1629-1686

Land Ownership
The concepts about land – “ownership,” “sale,” “use,” “improvement” – is another area where differences in literal and conceptual language between the Natives and the English severely disadvantaged the Natives.  The indigenous peoples did not believe in – could not comprehend the European concept of – “owning” land.  The natives revered the Land; it was their whole world, physically, spiritually, and culturally.  Native culture dictated that the land should be used and cared for, and the fruits of the land would belong to the family or group who did the work.  But once they stopped using that land, someone else could enjoy the “fruitful use” of the land.  The rights to use the land were negotiated with the sachems (leaders, both male and female) of their community.  And sachems would also negotiate with neighboring communities about the boundaries of their respective rights to use the land.  The rights established by these agreements were constantly being renegotiated and agreements renewed by payment of annual tribute.  In some ways, the Natives’ land use system was more similar to what we today think of as a “lease.” The English land ownership system of absolute “ownership” with fixed boundaries and exclusive use of the land was foreign to the Natives and resulted in many disputes, and ultimately to the dispossession of virtually all the Natives’ land and their forced dislocation.

Native Americans : Muh-he-con-neok : Mohicans
A few final notes about language: up to this point, I have used the descriptive terms Native Peoples, Indigenous Peoples, or Natives. I have avoided using the word Indian except in contexts such as Indian pathAlthough “Indian” was originally a misnomer, some indigenous people presently call themselves Indians. But it has become a pejorative term when applied by non-Natives. Even the more neutral term “Native American” may be offensive, since the indigenous peoples were here long before this was called “America.” So in the interest of brevity, I will generally use the term “Native” unless the context suggests otherwise. The Natives who inhabited and cared for these lands called themselves the Muh-he-con-neok, the Peoples of the Waters that are Never StillThey named themselves after Muhheconituck, the river along which many of their villages were located and where their central meeting space was sited (on an island near Schodack – the Fire Place or hearth – downstream of modern-day Albany). The Dutch transcribed their name as “Mahicaans.”  Their descendants are the Stockbridge-Munsee Community of the Mohican Tribe, who now live in Wisconsin, and who now call themselves Mohican in English.

For those who would like to learn more about the Native story, we encourage you to visit the webpage of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community where their history is explained in more detail. 

The Bidwell House Museum has a Native American Interpretive Trail focusing on the Natives’ woodland and hunting experience.  You can also visit a page on the Museum website dedicated to the Native story.

Finally, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in cooperation with the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area (“Housatonic Heritage”) has created a walking tour of Stockbridge highlighting the Native homes and culture there between 1734 and 1784.  Some of this has been the subject of previous Bidwell Lore articles written by Rick Wilcox. 

[1]This paragraph about Colonialism is quoted from a paper by Dr. Lucianne Lavin, The Institute for American Indian Studies Museum & Research Center, 38 Curtis Road, Washington, CT 06790

In the next article in this series, we will share some information about the everyday life of the Mohicans before the arrival of the English and Dutch.