The Old New York Frontier/Part 1/Chapter 1

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Part 1.   Indians and Fur Traders
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Chapter 1.   The Iroquois and the Susquehanna


WE cannot understand the Indians of New York if we judge them only by what is seen to-day of the Indian life in the Far West, among tribes who roam the mountains and plains, and who have emerged so little from the nomad state; or if we judge the Iroquois by their descendants now living on reservations. Not alone has their territorial dominion passed away, but their genius also — at least, in its manifestations. They have remained silent witnesses of the progress of civlized life on American soil — stolid, unimpassioned, proud. Before the white man came was their time of spendor; after that began their decadence.

    The Iroquois, in their best days, were the noblest and most interesting of all Indians who have lived on this continent north of Mexico. They were truly the men whom a name they bore described, a word signifying men who surpassed all others. They alone founded political institutions and gained political supremacy. With European civilization unknown to them, they had given birth to self-government in America. They founded independence; effected a union of States; carried their arms far beyond their own borders; made their conquests permanent; conquered peoples becoming tributary States much after the manner of those which Rome conquered two thousand years ago, or those which England subdues to our day. In diplomacy they matched the white man form Europe: they had self-control, knowledge of human nature, tact and sagacity, and they often became the arbiters in disputes between other peoples. Universal testimony has been borne to their oratory, of which bears the supreme test of translation. Convinced that they were born free, they bore themselves always with the pride which sprang from that consciousness. Sovereighs they were, and the only accountability they acknowledged was an accountability to the Great Spirit.

An Iroquois Fort

    In war genius they have been equalled by no race of red men. The forts which they erected around their villages were essentially impregnable. An overwhelming force alone could enter them; artillery alone could destroy them. It was virtually an empire that they reared, and this empire of the sword, like the Empire of Rome, meant peace within its borders. Before the Europeans came, there had unquestionably, for some generations, been peace among them. It was an ideal and an idyllic state of aboriginal life, all the which was to be overthrown by the white man when he arrived, bearing in one hand fire-arms, and in the other fire-water.

    The period for which the province of New York had been occupied by the Iroquois, [1] or Five Nations, at the time of the Dutch discovery, is not known. Morgan [2] cites circumstances which show that the Iroquois League had existed for about a century when the Dutch landed, thus carrying its formation back almost to the coming of Columbus. Indian tradition pointed to a much older date, but Indian tradition is a very uncertain guide for dates. We know that before the League was formed, the Iroquois had long been in possession of these New York lands. Thet came originally from the St. Lawrence Valley and had lived near the site of Montreal, at which point some of their descendants now reside. But when their migration into Central New York took place, we do not know. Five nations originally composed the League, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas; but the Tuscaroras, who had long lived in North Carolina, early in the eighteenth century, were permitted to settle in New York and become members of the federation. Thenceforth these Indians were known as the Six Nations.


  • [1] The origin of this word [Iroquois] was been long discussed. Horatio Hale refers it to a native Huron word, ierokwa, indicating those who smoke.
  • [2] Lewis H. Morgan, author of "The League of the Iroquois," the best of all books relating to the institutions and customs of that people, was born in Aurora, N.Y., in 1818, and died in Rochester in 1881. He was a graduate of Union College, a lawyer for many years, and served several terms in the State Legislature. He often visited the New York Indians on their reservations and was adopted by the Senecas. He wrote other books on aboriginal life in America, the scientific nature of which has been much esteemed. But "The League of the Iroquois" is the best known. It has long been out of print and scarce. Hardly more than one copy a year turns up at auction sales. A reprint is much needed.

    Writers have been fond of dwelling upon the masterly statesmanship which directed the formation of the League. So far from being a compact designed to promote war, its avowed purpose, as understood by Hale, was "to abolish war altogether." Dr. Brinton in quoted by Grinell a pronouncing the scheme "one of the most far-sighted an, in its aims, the most beneficent" that ever statesman designged for mankind. After its formation, the Iroquois rose rapidly in pover and eventually mad their influence felt all over the eastern part of the continent. The are known to have carried their arms westward to the Mississippi and southward to the Carolinas. They entered Mexico, and La Salle found them in Illinois. Captain John Smith, while exploring Chesapeake Bay, encountered there a small fleet of their canoes. Other Indians assured him that the Mohawks "made war upon all the world."

    Everywhere these New York Indians were conquerors. They gained at last a recognized mastery over territory that now forms States and might make an empire, their influence reaching its height at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Morgan declares that in point of sway they had reared the most powerfull empire that ever existed in America north of the Aztec monarchy. Miss Yawger quotes a remark, that their authority at one time extended over domain was embraced in the Empire of Rome, and Ellis H. Roberts has said they “ ran in conquest farther than the Greek arms were ever carried, and to distances which Rome surpassed only in the days of its culminating glory.” As for the ultimate purpose of the League being the abolition of war, this undoubtedly was its tendency, once conquest had been achieved. As with the Empire of Rome, so with the Empire of the Iroquois; within the borders of the empire there was peace. Morgan believes the Iroquois might have achieved still greater eminence. Parkman says they afford “perhaps an example of the highest elevation which man can reach without emerging from the primitive condition of the hunter.” But deadly enemies arrived when the white man came with his ambitions and his fire-water.

    It is interesting to reflect that this federation of warlike people had for its capital a small village near Onondaga [3] Lake where general congresses were held, and the policy of the League agreed upon. To Onondaga, highways from the south, east, and west conveniently led. These men lived on the highest land of the continent east of the Mississippi. They were at the head-waters of great rivers, and thus were able to reach nations less powerful than themselves, whom repeatedly they brought into subjection. Past the confluence of the Unadilla and Susquehanna rivers, messengers of peace or war, warriors going to battle and returning from victories in the south, made their way.


  • [3] People of the mountain is the translation Dr. Beauchamp gives for Onondaga.

    This strategic advantage in very notable manner was to serve the Indians in the eighteenth century when menaced by a conflict between Europeans — the English and the French — for possession of their country. No one understood the advantage better than the Indians themselves. At Onondaga they declared that "if the French should prevail so far as to attempt to drive us out of our country, we can with our old men, wives and children, come down the streams of the Mohawk River, the Dela-ware, both branches of the Susquehanna and the Potomac, to the English. If the English should expell us our country, we have a like conveyance to the French by the streams of St. Lawrence and Sorrell River, and if both should join, we can retire across the Lakes."

    The Iroquois, though powerful as a confederacy, were never a numerous people. Just before the Revolution it is unlikely that they numbered more than 15,000 souls, if so many – hardly one-third the present population of Otsego County. When their influence was greatest, and they had not begun to suffer from the white man’s vices, they are believed to have numbered perhaps 25,000, though never more. As late as 1873, official reports placed the total number then living at 13,660. At the close of the Revolution their population was considerably less than at the beginning; instead of 15,000 it probably did not equal the number returned in 1873. More of the Iroquois may, therefore, be living now than were living at the close of the Revolution.[4]


  • [4] Schoolcraft, writing in 1846, after taking a census, gave much lower estimates than any of these. At the beginning of the Revolution their number, he thought, was under 10,000, and in 1846 only 6,942. Of the latter total, 4,836 were then living in the United States and 3,843 in New York State alone. He thought their worldly condition at that time such as would promote a considerable increase within a short period.

    Those Iroquois lands of which this volume mainly treats, had been the property of the Mohawks and Oneidas.[5] The Unadilla River and part of the present town of Unadilla, with perhaps all of it, were Oneida territory. Farther east were Mohawk lands. The Oneidas are known to have sold land as far east as Herkimer and Delhi. Evidence, however, which Morgan regards as safe, begins the line of division at a point five miles east of Utica and extends it directly south to Pennsylvania, making Unadilla border-land between the two nations. Lands in several parts of Otsego County were sold by the Mohawks, but none lay as far west as Unadilla. John M. Brown, who went to Schoharie in 1750, says that after 1763 or 1764, the Mohawks claimed land as far south and west as the mouth of Schenevus Creek, and that it was only after establishing their claims that they made sales to Sir William Johnson. Beyond the Unadilla River and extending to the Chenango lay Oneida lands, but in this part of the province early in the eighteenth century a tract was granted to the Tuscaroras,[6] who had come up from their earlier home in the Carolinas, and thus made the six nations where before there had been five.


  • [5] Mohawk, or the other form of the word, Maqua, has been commonly defined as meaning bear. It has also been said to signify a man-eater. The word Oneida, means people of the stone.
  • [6] The accepted translation of this word is shirt-wearers.

    In the summer of 1608, one year before Hendrick Hudson explored another great river, Captain John Smith made a tour of Chesapeake Bay as far north as the mouth of the Susquehanna. Here he met the Indians whose name this river bears. Writing the word Sasquesahanocks, he called them "a mighty people and mortall enemies with the Wassawoneks." They were "great and well-proportioned men," and "seemed like giants to the English." He found them "of an honest and simple disposition, with much adoe restrained From adoring us as gods." George Alsop, who wrote sixty years later in a kind of extravagant language peculiar to him, described them as

"cast into the mould of a most large and warlike deportment, the men being for the most part seven foot high in latitude, and in magnitude and bulk suitable to so high a pitch; their voyce large and hollow, as ascending out of a cave, their gait and behaviour straight, stately and majestic, treading on the earth with as much pride, contempt and disdain to so sordid a centre as can be imagined from a creature derived from the same mould and earth."

The stream which they inhabited and seldom departed from, except for war Alsop says was "called by their own name the Susquehannock River."

    These Indians, the most powerful tribe in Maryland, were among the fiercest enemies of the Iroquois, by whom and by the white men of Virginia they were at last subdued. A greater enemy, however, had been found in the small-pox, which in 1661 and later years reduced the number of the warriors from seven hundred to three hundred, and thenceforth for a hundred years they remained "a weak and dwindling people." The last remnant of them perished in 1753 in Lancaster Jail, "cruelly butchered by a mob." The famous orator Logan was their most celebrated chief.

    The name Susquehanna is described by Simms as "an aboriginal word said to signify crooked river."[7] This interpretation has long survived, and perhaps to Cooper more than to anyone else is its survival due. Cooper gives that meaning in "The Pioneers." The word is not found in Iroquois dictionaries. It is not even an Iroquois word, although the name of an Iroquois stream and of a people who became allies of the Iroquois. It is, in fact, an Algonquin word, and seems to have come from the Lenni Lenapes, or Delawares. Heckewelder, the missionary, says it is properly the word “Sisquehanne,” and he advances the opinion that it came “from siska, meaning mud, and hanne, a stream.” It had been overheard, he says, by some of the first settlers in times of high water in such expressions as “Jah! Achsisquehanne,” meaning how muddy the stream is. Authorities to whom the author appealed have cited Heckewelder’s interpretation, and among them the late James C. Pilling, who devoted many years to a study of the Indian languages. Dr. Beauchamp, however, gives Quen-isch-achsch-gek-hanne as a word from which Heckewelder once thought Susquehanna might have been derived by corruption. This word means “river with long reaches,” which is a fair equivalent for “crooked river.” It is certainly a more accurate description than “muddy stream.”


  • [7] History of Schoharie County. Jephtha Root Simms was a native of Connecticut, and in 1829 was employed in New York City in a retail store. His health failing, he removed in 1832 to Schoharie County, where he went into business. He afterward became a toll-collector on the Erie Canal at Fultonville. Later he served as ticket-agent for the New York Central Road at Fort Plain, and at Fort Plain in 1883 he died at the age of seventy-six. Simms’s History of Schoharie County was first published in 1845. Just before his death he brought out an enlarged edition in two volumes with a new title, The Frontiersmen. Mr. Simms all his life was an industrious collector of local material. He wrote entertainingly and told a story well.

    The Iroquois had another name for the Susquehanna, Ga-wa-no-wa-na-neh, which means “great island,” and to which Gehunda, the common word for river, was added to get Great Island River. At the mouth of the stream, lying squarely athwart it, is an island perhaps a mile long, that was formerly known as Palmer’s Island, but later has been called Watson’s Island. It lies exactly where lived the Susquehanna Indians. The mainland opposite has been found to be very rich in weapons, domestic utensils, etc., many thousands of specimens having been found, and sometimes as many as a hundred in a single place. On this island was made the first white settlement in that part of Maryland some twenty-five or thirty years after Smith’s visit. The Susquehanna is remarkable elsewhere for the number and size of its islands, especially in Pennsylvania. Where the Juniata flows in, exists an island of very unusual size. On the Guy Johnson map of the country of the Six Nations appears a place in Pennsylvania called Great Island.[8]


  • [8] An interesting interpretation of the word Susquehanna has reached the author from the lroqoois village of Caughnawaga, above Montreal. He wrote to a French gentleman at that place to learn if the Marcoux Dictionary, preserved there in manuscript at the Jesuit Mission, could shed any light on the question. The gentleman replied that it gave none whatever, but he kind1y submitted the matter to a learned abbe' from another place and forwarded the abbe’s reply, which is as follows, translated from the French:
"We are here inclined to think the word is a corruption of Sequana, the Latin word for the Seine. It is the opinion of M. B., who is here on vacation, opinion which for him has passed to the state of a certain truth since the adhesion of a Paulist father which has just reached us, and assures us that the Seqnana of the United States has, like that of France, at its mouth a harbor called Havre de Grace, and that it was the French Huguenots who, settling in that place, brought together the name of the city and the name of the river."
To establish this theory it would be necessary to show that French Huguenots settled at the mouth of the river at a time earlier than the arrival of Smith, and proof of this is wanting. A romantic name Muddy Stream certainly is not. River with the Long Reaches is much better. Best of all is Great Island River, the name bestowed upon the stream by those who owned it. And by that name it would be both fitting and agreeable for those who love it to have it known.

A description of the upper valley was given in 1683 by Indian chiefs to James Graham and. William Haig, agents of William Penn, who had arrived in Albany. From the Mohawk Valley to “the lake whence the Susquehanna river rises ” they said the distance was “one day’s journey,” and from the lake “to the Susquehanna Castles,” meaning the Indian towns in the Wyoming Valley, was ten days. From Oneida to “the kill which falls into the Susquehanna,” this kill being the Unadilla River, was one and a half days’ journey, and from the kill to its mouth was one day’s journey.


Next: Chaper 2. Indian Villages in the Upper Valley[edit]