From the time Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River in 1609, the area that is now Albany, NY was considered the focal point of trade with Indigenous People. For over a hundred years, Albany was the trading post furthest west and most remote in the colonies. Most of the other colonies were English; New Netherland was Dutch and settled for the purpose of trade.
With a moderate climate, abundant rainfall, a lake and river system for good transportation and plentiful natural resources, New Netherland was well-positioned. The fur trade significantly raised the standard of living of many European settlers and Native People. Arriving at Albany with a catch of furs, an native person could trade would usually trade with a representative of the Van Rensselaers, or one of his agents.
Thousands of pelts began to flow into Albany in return for Dutch, and later English, trade goods. News of the Dutch market spread and before long Native People from as far away as today’s Minnesota and Illinois were traveling across the Great Lakes and Mohawk River to Albany to obtain manufactured goods with animal pelts.
The trade was very beneficial to both parties and continued until about the time of the American Revolution. For most of the years, Indigenous People could have wiped-out the settlers at Albany whenever they wanted. Instead, they largely protected the trade to protect their market. The traders were always significantly outnumbered and they knew it.
Albany was the focal point of trade with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, comprised (from east to west) of the Mohawk, Oneida, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca people. Due to their location closest to Albany, the Mohawk became the primary contact settlers had with these Indian Nations.
Sometimes boschloopers (bush runners) tried to undermine the patroon’s control of the fur trade. They would try to meet the Native People on the trail before they got to Albany and conduct their sale there. The boschloopers were also known as “drum beaters” because they would beat a drum to make it easier to be found. The Patroon countered this by putting soldiers on Bearen Island in the Hudson River to intercept any ship going downriver and inspect it for furs. Only the Patroon was allowed to legally export furs or import trade goods under his grant from the Dutch West India Company.
The system became more complicated when the director-general of the colony of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant took control of Beverwyck (the community outside Fort Orange that predated Albany) from the Van Rensselaers, but the Van Rensselaers were still the only party that could legally export and import trade goods.
The Haudenosaunee frequently told the story of the Covenant Chain, which began when the first European ship arrived at Fort Nassau (later Fort Orange, Beverwyck and Albany) and they planted the Tree of Peace at Fort Orange. As the tree and branches grew, the trade agreement expanded to include other colonies and other Indian Nations, but their main commitment generally always with Albany. The Covenant Chain was an agreement to trade peacefully for the benefit of both parties.
After the English took over New Netherland from the Dutch in 1664, the English governors in the Province of New York never really understood the Covenant Chain. The English officials felt that the entire land area that had previously been New Netherland was now New York and part of England. They wanted to believe that the Indians were English subjects and felt that the Covenant Chain was an agreement by which the Haudenosaunee had joined the evolving British Empire.
In the late 1600s, both Governor Thomas Dongan and Governor Edmund Andros ran into objections for addressing the Native People as their “children.” In 1713, in the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht between England and France, England demanded, and France agreed, to identify the Haudenosaunee as subjects of the English monarchy. The Great Seal of the Province of New York depicted two native people kneeling before the King and offering gifts in return for protection and Christianity.
William Johnson & Colonial Conflict
William Johnson arrived in the Mohawk Valley in 1738 to oversee land owned by his maternal uncle Peter Warren. By building his house on the Mohawk River, the main highway of trade west of Albany, Johnson grew wealthy by intercepting traders headed to Albany. Johnson was quick to realize that the Haudenosaunee held the key to power and financial success. If they traded with him, he benefited; if they bypassed him and traded with Albany, Albany benefited. Johnson sought to have them deal with him directly, cutting Albany out of the picture.
Johnson took settler relations with the Haudenosaunee to a whole new level, becoming far more personally involved. He lived closely with them and learned their customs and practices intimately. Johnson knew they took ceremony seriously and was careful to embellish even common meetings and activities with proper ceremony. He became a close friend of Hendrick Theyanoguin, a leader of the Mohawk, and used his influence with Theyanoguin to try to control trade.
Johnson’s 1746–1747 expense account shows that he spent 3,500 British pounds on gifts to Haudenosaunee people. This was considerably more than the 570-pound annual allocation by the New York Assembly for gifts from the Governor and the Albany Indian Commissioners. One sachem is said to have told Governor George Clinton, “one half of Colonel Johnson belongs to his Excellency and the other [half] to them [the Mohawk].”
England and France were at war on and off from 1688 (at the start of King William’s War) until the end of the American Revolution in the mid-1780s. The fact that England was Protestant and France was Catholic played a large role. At times it wasn’t clear if the royalty ran the countries or the churches did, and the constant intermarriage of royalty in Europe meant that if a king died childless, many of Europe’s monarchs could claim to be next-of-kin. King William’s War (1688-1697) began when French King Louis XIV and a coalition of European countries called the Grand Alliance attacked Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I. Louis XIV had been promised help from England’s King James II, who had converted to Catholicism. James tried to promote the Catholic Church in England and partner with France, leading to his overthrow and a subsequent war between his successor, Protestant King William III and Catholic France.
As a result of King William’s War, the first of the so-called French and Indian Wars in America resulted and Schenectady, New York, just outside Albany, was sacked and many were murdered and carried off to Canada as prisoners. Salmon Falls, New Hampshire; Wells, Maine; Portland, Maine; Durham, New Hampshire and Haverhill, Massachusetts, were also attacked. British troops attacked Nova Scotia and Quebec and many more raids resulted. The Treaty of Ryswick ended the war in pretty much of a stalemate.
Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) was called the War of Spanish Succession in Europe. The war occurred when Spain’s King Charles II died childless and France’s King Louis XIV claimed the title on behalf of his oldest son, whose mother was the daughter of Spain’s King Louis IV. Several others also claimed the title and war broke out to prevent Catholic France from merging with Catholic Spain.
In the colonies the repercussions were heavy. The French destroyed Deerfield, Massachusetts killing about 50 people and took about 100 captives. The French also destroyed Haverhill, Massachusetts. British attacked Nova Scotia, Quebec and St. Augustine, Florida where they destroyed 13 of 14 Catholic missions. The Treaty of Utrecht ended the war. France ceded Hudson Bay, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to England.
In 1715, just at the end of Queen Anne’s War, the English and colonists built the large stone castle-like Fort Frederick at the head of Jonker (State) Street in Albany replacing the earlier wooden fort. The stone Fort Frederick was finally completed in 1738.
By 1746, England was again at war with France ending 30 years of peace. King George’s War (1744-1748) was the third of the French and Indian wars, known as the “War of Austrian Succession” in Europe. The war began when Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Hapsburg lands died and Archduchess Maria Teresa succeeded him but there again were counter claimants. Most of the European nations became involved in the war in a complicated series of alliances.
Again, hostilities began in the Northeast and it became critical for the American colonists to secure the commitment of the Haudenosaunee, especially the Mohawks, to help guard against attacks from New France. At minimum, the American colonists had to prevent the Iroquois from allying with French Canadians, or the colonists could be wiped out.
Albany was controlled by British officials, but was still mostly Dutch, not English. It had been 80 years since the English took over New Netherland from the Dutch, but the Dutch Albanians never looked on a war between England and France as something that should prevent them from continuing trade with the French in Canada. Albany’s trade with New France and Indigenous People in Canada was probably what had protected them in previous wars and led to the destruction of Schenectady and not Albany in 1690.
The English in Boston knew this and did not trust Dutch Albany to help win the war against France, a war that most likely neither the Albanians nor most of the residents of Boston understood at all. Why should some religious disagreement in Europe prevent an Albany farmer, whose vegetables were now becoming ripe, from selling them to someone from Montreal? If a Canadian native person brought in his furs and wanted to buy clothing, why should Albany pass up this opportunity to trade because Queen Anne, her ministers and the Church of England didn’t want Catholic Spain to merge with Catholic France?
So in 1746, British officials in Boston and the city of New York did not trust the Albany Dutch, William Johnson was trying to undermine the Albanians with both the Haudenosaunee and the British officials, and the French and their allies might attack at any time. In the past, the Albany Indian Commissioners would have met with the Iroquois sachems, given them gifts of trade goods, renewed the Covenant Chain, and received a guarantee that the Haudenosaunee would remain allied with their trading partners in Albany and warn them of any impending attack from New France.
Now, probably at the suggestion of his close “brother” William Johnson, Hendrick Theyanoguin decided to bypass the Albany commissioners and shop around for the best trade deal available for his alliance. He met with New York Governor George Clinton and commissioners from Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut in Albany in 1744 and then went to Boston and Montreal. Each time, he also used the meeting to complain about the Albany commissioners. He may have had legitimate complaints, or he was influenced by Johnson, who was always trying to undermine the Albany traders.
Hendrick supposedly told Pennsylvania Indian Agent Conrad Weiser that “the Albany people did intend to hurt us and have in a manner ruined us and would … destroy us if they could. They have cheated us out of our land, bribed our chiefs to sign deeds for them and treated us as slaves.” He also complained that the Albany people were showing preference to the Caugnawagas (Native People at Kahnawake who had converted to Catholicism). Hendrick felt the Haudenosaunee had been cheated out of land by settlers who “bribed our chiefs to sign deeds for them.”
In 1745, Governor Clinton again met with the Mohawk and presented them with a large wampum belt with the figure of a hatchet on it and asked them to join the colonists in the war against Canada, but the Mohawk were non-committal. During King George’s War, four conferences took place in Albany in five years. Conferences of this magnitude had not occurred since 1724. Four hundred sixty-two Haudenosaunee attended the conference in 1745, 163 were Mohawks. After they left Albany, they said they were going to Montreal. The Albany Commissioners said that the Haudenosaunee were delaying making a commitment until they could get the best deal.
The Haudenosaunee did, however, eventually agree to ally with the English and their colonists. Johnson enlisted their aid and sent them against the French resulting in the French retaliating with the burning of Saratoga on November 28-29, 1745. French and their Native allies also raided towns in Maine and colonial troops from Boston and naval forces from Long Island retaliated, capturing Fort Louisburg, Nova Scotia from the French.
In 1746, Governor Clinton scheduled yet another conference. This time William Johnson arrived at Albany with a party of Mohawk. He and his accompanying Mohawks arrived dressed in war paint. They had probably come by canoe down the Mohawk River, disembarking near Schenectady and following the King’s Highway (now Washington Avenue) into Albany. They fired their guns in the air in a rolling sequence as they approached the stockade at the top of Jonkers Street (State Street) and the Albany fort responded with its cannon salute.
Johnson told Clinton that the Albanians had not been close enough to the Haudenosaunee and had not participated in the required ceremony. He said that only he could negotiate with them because only he knew and followed the proper ceremony. He accused the Albany agents of just giving presents without proper regard to form. He also told Clinton that the Albany agents had not been sufficiently generous in their dealings with Native People.
Johnson’s camaraderie with the Mohawks so impressed Governor Clinton that he appointed Johnson his exclusive Indian Agent and dismissed the Albany agents. To return the favor, Johnson convinced the Mohawk to attack the French.
Of the 3,437 British pounds Johnson spent on negotiations with Native People in 1747, about 30 percent was spent on food and drink including “provisions for scouts and war parties,” 27 percent for clothing almost half of which went to native leaders, over 12 percent or 419 pounds went for “scalp and prisoner bounties.” While warriors received ribbons and paint to dress for battle, leaders received a ruffled shirt, laced hat, dress coat, knives and boots. They also received silver medals to ornament their jackets.
On May 26, 1747, Johnson recorded various payments to the Mohawk including “A treat to the Conajohees Mohawks when they brought in, in one day, 15 prisoners and scalps and stayed 3 days.” Hendrick received special treatment. He was presented with all the accoutrements of a normal Native leader, but also medicine, cash, provisions, transportation and entertainment for his relatives, as well as a mysterious “private present,” possibly one of the prisoners.
When Governor Clinton and Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts met with the Iroquois at Albany in 1748, the Mohawk were angered to find out that the English and French had agreed to a truce. The Mohawks had been urging a full-scale invasion of Canada. They were not happy to hear that their raids against the French and Native allies were to stop, without the desired effect. The Mohawks threatened to switch their trade to Canada.
Johnson was subsequently given credit for preventing the loss of the Mohawk trade to New France, however, it’s difficult to understand how the Mohawk could suddenly become close allies with a group they had been attacking for four years and travel all the way to Montreal to trade their furs.
In 1748, Clinton distributed food to the Mohawk as he was told that their crops had failed because they were spending their time engaged in the war. However, with the coming of peace, the situation did not improve. Christian missionaries were sent to live with them and the missionaries began providing food and shelter to the poorest Mohawks.
In 1750, Johnson resigned as Indian Agent just before an inter-colonial treaty conference was to be held. He had submitted expenses of 7,177 pounds to the New York Colonial Congress and they had refused to reimburse him, feeling Johnson’s expenses were getting out of control. He then directly solicited the British authorities in England for a royal appointment and stipend bypassing the New York colonial government, but he had not received a response. (He would in fact be appointed Indian Agent by the King in 1758.)
Realizing that Johnson’s expenditures might be a bottomless pit, Governor Clinton reinstated the Albany Indian Commissioners in 1752 but the Albany commissioners were not sympathetic to the Mohawk who remained close to Johnson. Negotiations evaporated and the Albany commissioners did not schedule any immediate conferences.
In 1753, Hendrick and 16 other Mohawk leaders bypassed Albany and went directly to the city of New York to meet with Governor Clinton. They told him that they would terminate the Covenant Chain because of the indifference shown to them by the Albany Commissioners. Hendrick told Clinton that the Covenant Chain had kept “the roads amongst our nations open and clear.”
Clinton listened to their claims. The Mohawks said that there had been many cases of land fraud in which the Dutch at Albany and the Palatines in the Schoharie and Mowhak Valley had taken more land than the they had agreed to sell. Clinton asked for specific instances and allegedly investigated each claim, including obtaining copies of the land patents and sending his own surveyors to investigate. He told the Mohawks that the claims were in order and if they wished to pursue the matter further, they should bring it to the Albany Indian Commissioners. This did not please the Mohawks.
Hearing Clinton’s response, Hendrick said that if “any accident happens” to surveyors working near Canajoharie, “we hope you Brother will not expect any satisfaction from us.” The Mohawks said that, when they returned home, they would advise the other members of the Six Nations that the Covenant Chain had been broken. They threatened to block the path of any colonists heading west from Albany and prevent any trade or interaction between the colonists and the Indian Nations further west.
Clinton discussed the situation with the New York Assembly and the general consensus was that William Johnson, and Hendrick’s desire for better compensation, were behind the problem. Suggestions were made to give Hendrick 20 Spanish dollars and 200 British pounds worth of goods. They said that they expected that Johnson would bypass the New York Assembly and appeal directly to London and then try to take credit for repairing the Covenant Chain. Nonetheless, the Covenant Chain was apparently broken and trouble was anticipated.
When news of Hendrick’s angry speech threatening surveyors and travelers reached London, the Board of Trade instructed that the colonial governors meet with the Haudenosaunee and enter into a general treaty with them. Tensions were again heating up with France and war was expected again. Plans were made for a formal meeting in Albany in 1754. This seminal meeting – now widely known for Ben Franklin’s presentation of a plan for the colonials to join together in a union (the Albany Plan) – would have far ranging affects on colonial-native relations and on colonial relations with the Monarchy.
Illustrations, from above: A map of New Netherland (1685); Map of the Province of New York, 1664-1777; William Johnson hosting an Iroquois conference at Johnson Hall in 1772 (painting by E. L. Henry, 1903); Henderick Peters Theyanooguin (King Hendrick), wearing the English coat he wore on public occasions and his distinctive facial tattoo. This print published just after his death and titled “The brave old Hendrick, the great Sachem or Chief of the Mohawk Indians” is considered the most accurate likeness of the man; and a map of Mohawk communities from History of the Mohawk Valley- Gateway to the West 1614-1925, Nelson Greene (1925).