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THE MOHICANS ... Children of the Delaware

Mohicans, the stoic race entombed in James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans, have not yet breathed their last...


Mohican Chief Nicholas

The "Muhheconnuk", or Stockbridge Indians, today live in Wisconsin; a far distance from their Housatonic River home between the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys. The name Muh-he-con-nuk , "great waters or sea, which are constantly in motion, either flowing or ebbing" speaks to a much earlier homeland to the west.

The ancient people had "emigrated from west by north of another country; they passed over the great waters, where this and the other country is nearly connected. " According to this 1734 account of a Bering Strait crossing, the islands of the west were close together and the nearby water [Pacific Ocean] was effected by the tides, giving rise to their name "Muhheconnuk". The early ancestors had been more civilized, according to this oral history, than their descendants. In time, "there arose a mighty famine which obliged them to disperse throughout the regions of the wilderness after sustenance, and at length lost their ways of former living. As they were coming from the west, they found many great waters, but none of them flowing and ebbing like Muhheakunnuk, until they came to Hudson's River; then they said one to another, this is like Muhheakunnuk our nativity." The Mohican ancestors found new homelands in the valleys of the eastern rivers.

Eastern Woodlands

A typical Hudson Valley woodland scene.

Before these people were Mohican, they were Delaware. It is from the Delaware (Lenni Lenape) that most Algonquian woodland peoples descend and thus the Delaware are referred to as 'grandfathers'. (This Delaware parentage is supported by linguistic, cultural, and geographical evidence, as well as many traditions among the Algonquians.) Long after the eastward migration, the Mohicans intermarried and had become "a detached body, mixing two languages together, and forming out of the two a dialect of their own, choosing to live by themselves." The Delaware tradition has the Shawnee contributing to this new dialect and speaks of the Mohicans asking on behalf of the Shawnee for permission to settle the Ohio River region. The patriarchal Delaware granted the request and the Ohio River country became home to the Shawnee.

The Mohican lands in early 17th century reached from Lake Champlain south to the lower Hudson River valley, west to Schoharie Creek, and east to the Westfield River in the Berkshire Mountains; the perimeters framed in all four directions by water. The Hudson River was the heartland of Mohican country. (The Delaware name for the Hudson is "Mohicanittuck", river of the Mohicans.) The principal villages were located on the east bank of the Hudson River, with the heaviest concentration of settlements in the Housatonic River valley, a total of approximately 40 villages.

A typical Mohican village was built on a hill and usually contained between 20 and 30 mid-sized longhouses. In winter, the villages were moved to fortified towns, or 'castles'. Families belonged to one of three clans, the bear, wolf, or turtle. The Mohicans, like many eastern woodland people were matrilineally oriented. Mohican Turtle Descendancy and clan affiliation was determined by the mother and sachems inherited their positions through the maternal lines of the bear clan. Women, however, did not possess political clout like Iroquois women and were not permitted to attend councils. Desperately dependent upon their crops, the Mohicans were also hunters, gatherers, fishermen, and traders. Copper from the Great Lakes was a prized trade item used extensively for adornment and valuable wampum beads for trade were obtained from the Delaware and Narangassetts. 

The Mohicans were a powerful presence in the Hudson River valley. War with the Iroquois, especially the Mohawk, was frequent. Bitter enemies, the Mohicans and Mohawk, yet they both would later enter into a covenant of peace and a shared alliance with the English. At this point in time however, the mutual hatred and constant strife served as great motivators for perfecting deadly warrior skills. Both the Mohicans and the Mohawk were respected and feared as fierce, aggressive tribes. The wars between them were mercilessly waged at a high cost to both. (During a late 17th century peace council, the Mohawks asked the Mohicans what they had done with the heads of their warriors.)

With the arrival of the Dutch in 1609 came an abundance of European goods. The Mohican lands of the Hudson Valley left them sitting pretty as their locale made them the most attractive trade partners to the fur-seeking Dutch traders. The two nations entered into an economic partnership that brought prosperity to both. For the Mohicans (Mahicans- Dutch spelling), the partnership was an enhancement of their political and military position. Association with the Dutch brought the Mohicans numerous benefits, not least of which was the acquisition of firearms. The sudden influx of wealth and superior weaponry had a severe destabilizing effect in the region. Without access to Dutch goods, especially guns, surrounded by enemies engaged in a 17th century arms race, the Mohawk future looked bleak. But they were a resourceful, tenacious people. It was too soon to discount a Mohawk rising sun.


The Dutch/Mohican alliance continued to flourish. The Mohicans controlled the Hudson valley trade regions north to French held Lake Champlain. The French presence had little direct effect upon the Mohican monopoly south of Lake Champlain. Pro-French tribes were on friendly terms with the Mohicans. The Mohawk, however, cast a jealous eye upon the growing Mohican wealth and influence. Embroiled in war with the Algonquians, French, and Abenaki to their north and east and thus blocked from trading in the St. Lawrence River Valley, the Mohawk frustratingly sought to tap into the lucrative Dutch fur trade. Exclusion from this profitable commerce, hatred of the French Indians, inaccessibility to the wampum producing Delaware, and rapidly growing Mohican power all promised to incite further Mohawk retaliation against the prosperous Mohican nation.

Evidence of the influence of the Dutch traders upon the Indians is seen in the successful mediation in 1618 between the warring Mohawk and Mohicans. Continued war was bad for business and the sole purpose of Dutch presence was business. The truce granted access for the Mohawk to the Dutch traders, which given the dynamics of the period was imperative to their survival. The truce also required the Mohawk to pay tribute to the Mohicans for the right of crossing Mohican lands to access the Dutch. While the Mohawk accepted the terms, they harbored resentment over the 'toll' demanded of them. The agreement was followed by six years of peace. In 1624 a change in ownership of the Dutch trading company brought new elements into the Hudson valley. The first priority of the Dutch company remained the acquisition of beaver pelts. A second objective was now defined as well, a result of the English settlements in the Plymouth Colony. To counter the growing English presence in New England, a competitive presence viewed as too close to Dutch interests, company officials vigorously began to recruit Dutch settlers. Thirty families arrived and a fort was soon constructed on the west bank of the Hudson, Fort Orange.

With the increasing demand for fur, the beaver population was rapidly declining in the river valleys of the Mohawk and Mohicans. The Dutch, seeking a new source for pelts, asked the Mohicans to arrange trade with the northern Indians of the St. Lawrence region, the Algonkin and Montagnais. These two tribes were allies of the French; more importantly, they were enemies of the Mohawk. When the Mohawk discovered the Mohicans were treating with the foe, they angrily attacked. The Dutch request for new trade sources unexpectedly sparked a four year war in the Hudson Valley. The Mohicans had the aid of Connecticut Valley Indians as well as Dutch soldiers in these conflicts. In previous days they were successful against the Mohawk. Times had changed. The Mohawk were much stronger than before and were now armed with Dutch guns. In 1626, Fort Orange's commander and six soldiers accompanied a Mohican war party. The group was ambushed, the commander killed, and the Mohawk reportedly cooked and ate one of the dead. As news of the ambush spread, the terrified settlers of Fort Orange flew into a panic. The Hudson River valley was again a war zone. Chaos replaced order and the Dutch families clamored for protection. The situation was somewhat diffused by Peter Minuit's removal of the Dutch to Fort Amsterdam. For two years the war continued. The Mohicans lost a principal chief, abandoned their villages on the west bank of the Hudson River, and in the end were decisively defeated. The year 1628 marked the beginning of the decline of the Mohicans and the next half century would be a see-saw of war and peace between the Mohicans and Mohawk.

There was a tragic reversal of fortune for the once prosperous, formidable Mohicans. As they once controlled the fur trade in the Hudson valley, the Mohawk now controlled it. The tribute of wampum they once demanded of the Mohawk was now required of them. The Mohecunnuck world was shrinking. By 1630, the Mohican lands west of the Hudson would be sold to the Dutch and the majority of the people would retreat to the Housatonic River valley. (The sale of the Hudson River lands should be considered a wise move as the Mohicans had already lost the lands for all practical purposes, yet they managed to receive financial compensation for them.) Meanwhile the Dutch revived European feudalism through the granting of patroonships in New Amsterdam to those would pay the fare for 50 or more new settlers. With the increasing expansion of the English New Englanders, greater changes were on the horizon of the Mohican world. Unlike the Dutch traders of Albany and New Amsterdam, the Puritan New Englanders took a great interest in the Mohican spiritual life. Before long, ministers were being sent among the Housatonic villages asking permission to establish missions. The Mohicans were not yet ready for such a life.

In 1662, the Mohicans once again attempted to arrange Dutch trade with the Algonkins, Montagnais, and Sokoki of the upper St. Lawrence. The Mohawk angrily issued a warning, were coolly ignored, and yet again struck hard against the defiant Mohican nation. The partnership forged with the Dutch was soon to be dissolved. In 1664 the British took Fort Amsterdam, defeated the Dutch, and from this point forward Mohican history is chronicled primarily by English history. The Hudson Valley had been nearly abandoned and though the English had signed treaties of trade and friendship with both the Mohicans and the Mohawk, the wars continued. The Mohican population was reduced to barely 1,000 and their land, with the exception of a few scattered villages, was confined to the Housatonic Valley in western Massachusetts (now Connecticut). In 1672 Governor Lovelace of the Massachusetts colony successfully arranged a lasting peace between the two nations, though the 'peace' was in reality a surrender of Mohican sovereignty. The bottom line was of course survival. Had the Mohicans not entered into the agreement with the Mohawk, they would not have continued as a people. Mohawk strength was insurmountable to a now weakened Mohican nation. They did what was necessary, a new relationship was cemented, and the Mohicans became the first members of the Iroquois "Covenant Chain".

Through several wars the Mohicans and the Mohawk aided the English. During King Philip's War however, the Mohicans of Schaghticoke found themselves sheltering refugees. The village was located at the confluence of the Hoosic and Hudson rivers. Philip and 600 men camped further down the Hoosic for the winter and some of the Schaghticoke inhabitants provided necessary items to the 'renegades'. But this act of charity brought punishment upon the Mohicans. Looked upon with suspicion fueled by colonial paranoia, the Mohicans were chastised by the English. Powder and lead, necessary for 17th century survival, was withheld. Resentment among some young Mohicans caused them to abandon the English cause and seek their freedom elsewhere. Despite this insult, the nation as a whole remained loyal, though neutral for a time.

Soon after the outbreak of Queen Anne's War (1701-1713), occurred an event that seriously threatened the Mohican/English alliance. In August of 1702, the Mohican sachem, Minichque went to Albany (previously Fort Orange). While there he was mortally wounded by 4 "free black men". The Mohicans were so outraged by the senseless attack they threatened an alliance with France. With their backs against the wall and forced to acknowledge their need of Mohican friendship, British officials vainly tried to save Minichque's life. Though they failed in their attempt, they did punish the assailants and the justice received on behalf of the sachem was greatly appreciated. The alliance was preserved and England retained an important ally.

Eight years later, four chiefs, including the Mohican Etowaukaum (Nicholas) and the Mohawk Hendrick (whose father was a Mohican), traveled to England to meet with (and charm) Queen Anne. While in England, the chiefs spoke of missionaries. While it was not yet a popular consensus, the seeds of Anglicization were planted. The Mohicans were seeking solutions for their inglorious state, and they now attempted to find them through religion. It seemed to them that the English were favored by God, thus they sought the same benevolence by the same God.

The year 1734 found the dwindling Mohicans at a crossroads. No longer numerous or powerful, their Hudson River valley lands nearly gone, increasing settlements of New Englanders along the upper Housatonic River, and the future uncertain, the time had come to decide upon a course for their survival. To this end a council was held for four days in July in a Housatonic River village. At issue was the question regarding acceptance of a Christian mission. Stephen Williams, a Springfield minister, was present at the council. (As a boy, Williams was among those captured in the 1704 Deerfield raid by the St. Francis Indians. Though his mother was among the group of women and children killed on the way to Canada, Williams empathized with the Indians.) It was true, said some, that acceptance of the New England missionary would mean the end of the Mohican traditions. It was also true that if they clung to those traditions they would not survive as a nation. They had already abandoned too much. For 125 years they had exposure to European goods. They had become so dependent upon these things that very few Mohicans could remember the skills of their grandparents. Intermarriage with colonists was common, and even wampum was obtained not through the Delaware, but from Albany and Springfield traders. It was a different world. The world that had long given the Mohican nation wealth, strength, and influence was gone, as were the earlier days of traditional Mohican culture. There was no returning to what was now a lost world. If they were to survive they must acclimate themselves to the English world. Weighing heavily the steps they were about to take, the Housatonics chose to accept Williams' recommended missionary, 24 year old John Sergeant.

While the Housatonics went the way of the New England Puritans, many of them kept what they could of their Mohican ways. Some of them however, could not adapt to the confinements of the settled Puritan life, having been reared in a society that sung the praises of warriors' brave deeds. Seeking the honors of war and the rites of manhood, and unwilling to embrace the English, many young Housatonic men went to the Ottawa. Despite the great difficulties in such an endeavor, the mission village was successful and in time Indians from as far away as the Susquehanna River came to witness the phenomenon. Many came out of curiosity; many stayed. The success was borne of a combination of factors, not least of which was Sergeant's easy style of acculturation. He is described by Samuel Hopkins as having "...a most generous and catholick temper...and he was far from rigid and narrow spirit..." Sergeant had even entertained the idea of taking a Mohican wife, though he married Abigail Williams in 1736. Another credit for the mission's success was the Mohicans' own zeal. They enthusiastically embraced Christianity with a true revivalist spirit. Their conversion was on the heels of the Great Awakening so the Mohicans may very well have been infused with the fervor raging up and down the Connecticut valleys.

In 1736 a proposal for resettlement was put forth to the Mohicans, supposedly designed to provide a permanent tract of land to the Mohicans, many of whom now had none. However, it was also meant, at least in part, to concentrate the 'praying Indians' in one locale that would not divide colonial townships. As they were, two new English settlements were cut in half . The thought of an Indian village between two colonial settlements was unnerving, and does highlight a rather half-hearted trust of the Mohicans. Yet, this was the colonial frontier and as such, a sense of security was rare. Removing, or 'resettling' the Mohicans would have eased the fear of an uprising, especially if they were ever inclined towards the French. At first the resettlement plan was met with resistance. After further deliberation however, the Mohicans accepted the proposal and a new township was established on the upper Housatonic. Situated on the north bank of the river, the tract had cleared meadows for farming, a large pond, and "sufficient" space to accommodate the Housatonics as well as other Mohican bands who wished to join their brethren. Though the Housatonics wanted the new settlement to be named Muhheconnuk, it was instead named Stockbridge.

The next few years revealed the dual nature of the Stockbridge enterprise. On the one hand, the road chosen was acknowledged to be the only path for survival. Conversely, the Anglicization of a native people proved to be a difficult, painful process. Puritan life was hard enough for the colonials who were at least striving to fulfill its rigid demands within a familiar cultural environment. Not so for the Mohicans of Stockbridge. So drastic a change was this life that it took great determination for the Mohicans to stay upon the chosen path. Their struggle was made that much harder by the pressures of both outside influences and internal conflicts. Life so near to the colonial settlements brought forth conflicting fruits. While some English genuinely extended a brotherly hand, others viewed the Indians with hateful suspicion. Adding to the confusion were the Dutch traders who responded to English requests that they not sell rum to the Mohicans by aggressively stepping up their sales. The Dutch claimed the English were slowly enslaving the Mohicans, the English countered that the Dutch had already done so through alcohol. Other Mohicans, including some still in the Hudson valley, ridiculed the Stockbridge Indians, at times even threatening them. There was division within Stockbridge as well, for not all the Housatonics embraced Christianity and Anglican culture. Factional rivalries took root and relationships were often strained. Yet even further strife was sparked by the increasing activities of the Moravian missionaries. Seeking to sway the Stockbridge Indians to their faith, the Moravians brought confusion to the missions and colonial resentment to themselves.

The Moravians established missions in a New York Mohican village 30 miles southwest of Stockbridge, Shekomeko, as well as the Connecticut villages, Wechquadnach and Scaticook. With no defined doctrine and preaching pacifism, the Moravians were not well received by the New Englanders. Paranoia on the part of New York and Connecticut colonials soared. The missionaries were despised for too closely resembling "papists" and laws were passed prohibiting "unorthodox" schools or unlicensed preachers. Repeatedly, posses arrived at Shekomeko searching for weapons and harassing the Moravian missionaries. Informed that they were suspected of being "disaffected to the Crown" , they were ordered to take two oaths, one to King George and the other against Catholicism. Their reply was that though they shared the sentiments of the oaths, they could not in good conscience swear to them. The Moravians were questioned repeatedly about their beliefs and intentions. They finally went to the governor of New York in an attempt to dispel suspicions regarding their objectives and loyalties. After examination, the governor gave a written acquittal but warned the Moravians to avoid suspicious behavior and get in step. The New York legislature passed an act declaring no "vagrant preacher, Moravian or disguised Papists, shall preach or teach either in public or private" without first swearing the oath and receiving a license. Intrigue and fear was the mark of Puritan New England frontier settlements, yet they all had their fair share of miscreants. Land acquisitions seemed to parallel charity. For the Stockbridge Indians, it must have been a paradoxical world to live in.

Despite the dark side witnessed by the Mohicans, they saw both good and bad in the colonial world, as well as the traditional native world. They attempted to mold a new society that blended the best of both. By the 1740s, Stockbridge had become the council fire of the Mohican nation, as well as the center of diplomatic councils for Mohicans and other northeastern tribes. It is an interesting scene; the seat of Hudson River valley Indian diplomacy and councils held in a tiny Housatonic village of a Christianized Mohican people, wigwams juxtaposed with Indian colonial homes, community corn fields skirting fenced gardens, revivalist sermons attended by the Sachem, and drunkenness shadowing an early temperance movement. In contrast to the violence and upheaval of the period, it is worthwhile to ponder this striking, if not idyllic, picture of colonial Stockbridge.

During this decade of Anglicization, the winds of war were on the horizon once again. England and France were preparing for its outbreak and both sought Indian support. Initiated by the Mohawk, a pact of neutrality was agreed to by the Mohicans, Wappingers, Schaghticokes, Norridgewocks, and Penobscots. Runners were sent to all the villages with the warning to remain neutral for "We only destroy ourselves by meddling with their wars." To frontier colonials, war meant Indian raids and anxiety levels rose. Prior to the declaration of war by King George on June 2, 1744, the Mohawk and Mohicans met in council. The Mohicans sought verification that the agreement between "French Mohawks" and "English Mohawks" of neutrality was true. Assured that it was, the Mohicans and others of the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys stayed out of the conflict, for a time. The following year, neutrality evaporated in those war winds. The Mohawk had a change of heart and now sent word to the Mohicans that they would join the fight and expected the Mohicans to do the same. They added an ultimatum; if they refused, the Mohawk would kill them all. The Mohicans found themselves in a no win proposition for it was not the French the Mohawk were to attack, but the English. The Mohicans had sworn allegiance to England, and they were living in the midst of English colonial settlements.

A three day council was held to determine what course the Mohicans would take. The Shekomeko Indians were divided as to whether they should remain where they were or seek protection at Stockbridge's fort. Two Shekomeko Indians met with the New York governor who used the opportunity to propagandize against the Moravians. Following this, several chiefs from Stockbridge met with Massachusetts governor William Shirley and a Mohican/English friendship was confirmed. An invitation to attend an Albany conference with the Six Nations was extended to the Mohicans. The conference was intended to allow the Iroquois to express their discontent and hopefully, regain their alliance to England. Mohicans from Stockbridge, Shekomeko, Scaticook, and Wechquadnach attended, as did Iroquois representatives, including the Mohawk chief Hendrick. In Albany, the Mohicans were ill treated, apparently their allegiance taken for granted. They were ignored and turned away while the Iroquois were given the floor. The result of the Albany conference was a renewed alliance between the English and the Iroquois and despite the Albany effrontery, the Mohicans remained true to the English.

By 1746, frontier settlements were perpetually braced for Indian attacks. Enemy tracks were discovered on several occasions around Stockbridge. It was time for the Mohicans to take steps for their own defense, for their lives as well as their reputations. As it were, many colonials were doubting Mohican loyalty. Failure to fight would only add to the suspicions. A war belt was sent to other villages declaring the Mohicans' intent to war against the French. It was noted that no warriors from Shekomeko responded. Another wampum belt was sent with a strong warning to send men. Suspicion against the Shehomeko Mohicans had escalated to such levels that settlers in nearby Rhinebeck requested permission to kill the Indians. The Rhinebeck judge declined his blessing and recommended they ask someone else. Yet another war belt was sent by the Stockbridge Indians and now some of the Shekomeko Mohicans decided to join in the fight. The Moravians, however, vainly preached against the war. The people were divided, many were tired of the suspicions against them, the threat of attack, and the constant dispute over land rights. Half defected to other Mohican villages, including Stockbridge. Within ten years, the Shekomeko village would be gone.

In August, another Albany conference was held to cement English/Indian alliances and to ask the Mohicans to join in an English/Iroquois strike against Canada. New York and Massachusetts officials reminded the Mohicans of the atrocities committed by the Canadian Indians and promised to furnish all provisions necessary for war. The Mohicans consented to aid the Iroquois. On the same day the conference began, 500 French and 200 to 300 Indians captured and burned Fort Massachusetts. The timely attack drove home the vulnerability of the Stockbridge settlement. The following year, Mohicans were outfitted for a Canadian expedition.

In the year's conflicts, mostly skirmishes of no consequence, the Mohicans and Mohawk both lost warriors; a fate that caused the Mohawks to question their English alliance. The Iroquois were angered that the Canadian expedition never materialized, which prevented them from rescuing captured kin. It was during this period also the Mohicans were acquainted with Sir William Johnson. Of Johnson they said, "We behold him as a strong tree with spreading roots standing fast having goodly limbs and leaves. Let us gather about him and stand around him and if he falls let us fall with him." This obvious admiration for Johnson is better appreciated when one considers the Mohican description of their own sachems; a great tree under whose shade the whole nation sits.

In 1749, John Sergeant died. The Stockbridge Mohicans became a people groping in the dark. It was Sergeant who had guided them on their path; now the shepherd was gone. Further pressure was bearing down upon the Stockbridge Indians in the way of land ownership. The colonials wanted the Indians to define property boundaries individually. The Mohicans resisted, sensing a short-end of the stick deal and suspicious of the colonials' intentions. Eventually, individual land allotments were recorded, though the Mohicans maintained common lands as well. Furthermore, the Mohicans had to contend with social vices. Just one month after Sergeant's death, a tavern was opened at Stockbridge and the floodgates were opened. The situation had deteriorated so much that the Wappingers were complaining to the Moravian missionaries that the Stockbridge Indians had become wild drunkards. The Moravians blamed the fall from grace on the Calvinist ministers who floated into Stockbridge from time to time. Thus, in 1751, in the lull of war, the Mohicans were in a state of temporal limbo. To the rescue came a fire and brimstone clergyman, Jonathan Edwards. Though characterized as stern and pompous, Edwards advocated fairly on behalf of the Stockbridge Mohicans. While Edwards himself received land in the process of ministering to the Indians, he vigorously championed the Indians' rights and dignity against the powerful Williams faction. Through a period of severe tribulation, the Stockbridge Mohicans were shepherded by Edwards. The minister remained until 1757, the Mohicans remained true to their word, and the English remained at war. The Mohicans soon would find themselves on the warpath again.


Next in the History Pages Series: THE MOHICANS ... War Comes to Stockbridge

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