Bidwell Lore – Mohican Territory and Loss of the Homeland

Welcome to week 57 of Bidwell Lore. This week we continue to share the history of the region before the establishment of Monterey and Tyringham.  Today we discuss Mohican territory and loss of land.

Mohican Territory and Loss of Homeland
by Rob Hoogs

The Mohican lands extended from what is now Lake Champlain south nearly to Manhattan Island and on both sides of the Mahicannituck (Hudson River), west to Schoharie Creek and east into Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut. The Munsee, part of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware people, settled near the headwaters of the Delaware River just west of the Mohicans. Their lifestyles and languages were similar to those of the Mohicans. The Mohicans never forgot that they were relatives of many other tribes who had traveled with them over the centuries. Mohican leaders often sent warriors to assist their allies when they were in danger of being attacked. But these were temporary alliances and did not result in a powerful confederacy like the “Five Nations” formed by the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois.

Map of Mohican Territory from Lake Champlain down through New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Coming of the Europeans
In September 1609, Henry Hudson (1565-1611), a trader for the Dutch, sailed up the Mahicannituck (then called the “North River,” now “Hudson River”) through the lands of the Mohicans. He found himself in an area rich in beaver and otter, the kinds of furs the Dutch most coveted. By 1614 a Dutch trading post was established on an island (later called Castle Island) just south of what is now Albany. As the fur trade expanded and furs became more difficult to find, tensions developed between the Mohicans and the Mohawks, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people to the west. Each group wanted to maintain its share of the fur trade business, as well as retain friendly relations with their European allies. Not only did conflicts occur between the Mohicans and the Mohawks, but the Native people were also caught in wars among the Dutch, English, and French. In the mid-late 1600s, the wars with the Mohawks, plus the Dutch and English colonization, unscrupulous land practices, indebtedness, and cultural conflicts caused them to move farther eastward “across the mountains” into the Housatonic River valley, in what is now Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Old Dutch map of a walled in Mohican village

Loss of the Homeland
The Mohican economic pattern was greatly changed by contact with the Europeans. They stopped making many traditional items because new tools, iron kettles, cloth, guns, and colorful glass beads were available at the trading posts. The English, who eventually replaced the Dutch in this area, chose to “civilize” all the Native people in what they called “New England.” The vast lands, which the Mohicans had used for agricultural fields, hunting, and fishing, began to have boundary lines and fences when shared with non-Indians. Since their lands were declared to belong to European monarchs by “right of discovery,” they found that they could not defend their ownership in the courts of the colonists. As more and more Europeans arrived, the Mohicans, like other Native people who had traditionally depended upon themselves and the resources of Mother Earth, found themselves dependent on white people and what they could provide.

Image of two Native peoples, one speaking/singing the other laying down looking sick

Diseases and Other Impacts
The coming of the Europeans into the Native Americans’ lands affected them in another catastrophic way. Europeans brought diseases with them: smallpox, measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever. Native peoples who had never been exposed to these European diseases had no natural or acquired immunity to them. Hundreds of thousands perished from diseases—sometimes whole villages at a time. These diseases—together with colonial wars and the impacts of the forced removals from their homelands—decimated their population.

Christian Missionaries
European Christians with missionary zeal also entered Native villages for the purpose of converting the people from their traditional spiritual practices to Christianity. Some Native people, noting that the Europeans seemed to be prospering in this new land, felt that perhaps the Europeans’ God was more powerful, and agreed to be missionized. 

In 1734, a missionary named John Sergeant (1710-1749) came to live with the Mohicans in their village of Wnahktukuk (now part of Great Barrington). He preached the Christian religion, baptized those who accepted his teaching, and gave them Christian names such as John, Rebekah, or Abraham. In 1738, the Mohicans gave John Sergeant permission to start a mission in the village.

Eventually, the European inhabitants gave this place the name “Stockbridge,” after a village in England. In this mission village, which we discussed in many previous issues of Bidwell Lore, a church and school were built. The Mohicans, as well as other Native people who relocated there, became known as the “Stockbridge Indians.”

Thank you to the Stockbridge-Munsee for helping the Museum originally put this story together in 2018For 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. 

In the next article we will the Mohicans westward removal before beginning the stories of Tyringham and Monterey.