For many people, “American” history begins with European exploration of the continent. From there, the narrative invariably centers on the colonial perspective and, after 1776, the perspective of the United States.
Consequently, the general public is generally uninformed about the history of Indigenous People that both predates New Netherland and the Pilgrims and persists to the present. And this article is by no means capable of addressing this broad historical issue. So let’s turn from this historical macrocosm to the microcosm of one city, Schenectady.
For the first century and a half of its existence, Schenectady shared a unique relationship with its neighbors to the west, a people known colloquially as “the Iroquois.” In my interactions with the public, I find most people misunderstand that relationship. Some visitors tend to imagine the Iroquois as a nebulous threat to the European settlers of Schenectady. Other younger visitors might think of the Iroquois as victims of the inexorable colonial and American conquest of the continent. Both conceptions are too simplistic.
And so, in this article I will try my hand at describing the connection between the Iroquois and Schenectady. I’ll begin with a very basic introduction to who the Iroquois are. I’ll proceed to show how our city started as a small trading town, the vital point of contact between the Iroquois and the British colonial world. We’ll see how Schenectadians of the time were intimately familiar with the Iroquois and vice-versa. Indeed, the economic and military alliance forged between these two parties lasted through the 1600s and early 1700s.
Lastly I’ll discuss how, by the second half of the 1700s, the Iroquois-British alliance shifted to favor the latter group. Schenectady inevitably served as a staging ground for demographic and military movements that broke the power of the Iroquois Confederacy by the end of the American Revolution.
Who are the Iroquois?
To avoid any later confusion, let us begin with the most basic description of who the “Iroquois” are, and the various groups that might fall under that label. Today, it’s most common to hear of the “Iroquois” as a political entity. This definition of the term refers to a specific confederacy of five native nations that lived in what is now Upstate New York. The Mohawk were the easternmost of these nations, and lived just west of where Schenectady is today. Not only were they one of the most influential and powerful nations, they were also the most directly involved in the history of Schenectady. Moving westward past the Mohawks were, in order, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca. Archaeologists still debate exactly when these various nations came to the lands with which we now associate them. It is even a matter of controversy as to when the Confederacy itself was founded.
Many scholars argue a date in the mid 15th century, but I’ve seen arguments for as early as the 12th or even as late as the 16th. Whenever the Confederacy was created, it had been long established by the time Schenectady was founded by Europeans in 1661. The five member nations would send delegates known as hoyenah to a common council fire kept by the centrally located Onondoga. This council dealt with issues affecting the entire Confederacy. This grand council would only take concrete actions if all delegates could come to a unanimous agreement. As such, the confederate council functioned less like a unitary government and more as a peaceful means to resolve disputes and direct diplomacy beyond the member nations. Individual Iroquois nations enjoyed a large degree of autonomy in their internal affairs and kept their own national councils as well. Ultimately, daily life would be coordinated by local village leaders like chiefs and clan mothers without direct oversight from the national or confederate councils. With its unique and adaptable system of government, the Iroquois Confederacy established itself as one of the most powerful political forces in 17th century North America.
However, we can also understand the term “Iroquoian” to have a linguistic and cultural definition. As a cultural label, Iroquioan refers to several groups of people living in North America prior to and contemporary with the first European explorations of the continent. Of course, the Five Nations of the Confederacy are part of this linguistic and cultural group.
However, there were other Iroquoian nations living around the Great Lakes that never joined the Confederacy. These groups include the Wyandot (Huron), Laurentian, Erie, Menro, and a group known to history only as the Neutral nation.
Furthermore, there were several Iroquoian peoples living to the south. These include the Susquehannock in modern Pennsylvania, the Nottoway in modern Virginia, as well as the Tuscarora, Meherren, and Cherokee in modern North Carolina.
On the one hand, there were broad similarities in the cultures of these different peoples, a subject we won’t explore too deeply in this article. But we can, at least, observe that when the English drove the Tuscarora from their homes in North Carolina, the Five Nations recognized a shared heritage with these new refugees. In 1722, the Tuscarora were officially adopted into the Confederacy and the Five Nations became the Six Nations. That all being said, we must also acknowledge that cultural and linguistic differences existed between all Iroquoian peoples, even amongst the Five Nations themselves.
As for political differences, there were many of those as well. In many cases, the people of the Confederacy would come into direct conflict with their Iroquoian cousins.
With all that potential for confusion, I’d like to clearly define the terms I’ll be using through this article. Firstly, we must acknowledge that the word “Iroquois” is of dubious historical origin. There are various theories as to where the name originates. None of them are flattering. As a token of respect, when speaking about the “Iroquois” as the political entity described above, I will use terms like “the Confederacy,” “the Five Nations,” or “the Six Nations” after 1722. I might also use the term, Haudenosaunee, which means “people who build a [long]house.” This is the default way in which members of the Six Nations refer to their Confederacy today, and I encourage you to adopt the term yourself. The extended family, living together in a longhouse, served as the basic building block of Iroquoian society.
If I use the term “Iroquoian,” by the way, I use it strictly in the cultural or linguistic definition described above. I’d like to further acknowledge that the names I use for the Five Nations are Anglicized terms, often bearing little resemblance to how the individual nations referred to themselves. The Mohawk, for instance, historically referred to themselves as Kanienkehaka, “the people of the flint.” I’m using these names only as an editorial decision meant to make this article more accessible. Just know that we’re only scratching the surface of a culture with immediate significance to the history of our area. I strongly encourage you to seek more information on your own.
The Covenant Chain
The Haudenosaunee, the Mohawk in particular, received an abrupt introduction to the European world in the person of Samuel de Champlain. As “keepers of the eastern door” to the metaphorical longhouse that was the Confederacy, the Mohawks were no strangers to conflict. The diplomatic breakdowns involved here may be lost to history, but, at the turn of the 17th century, the Mohawks were at war with their northern Wyandot neighbors, and eastern Algonquin neighbors. In 1609, Champlain intervened on behalf of the latter combatants and, with a sudden flash and roar, French firearms forever changed warfare on the American continent.
Champlain’s bullets pierced the wooden armor worn by the Mohawks, and contributed to their defeat in these first violent encounters. The Mohawks wouldn’t forgive the French for another century, and must have realized right away that they would need to adapt to survive.
By the 1620s, the Dutch were building trading posts along the river which now bears Henry Hudson’s name. The English, meanwhile, were establishing themselves in Massachusetts Bay and along the Connecticut River. Even the Swedish established a small colony on the Delaware River which was promptly taken over by the Dutch.
These European powers were lured here not by promises of gold or exotic spices, for there were none of those to be found. Instead, they came for beavers. Essentially extinct in Europe, a beaver pelt could fetch an incredibly high price on the continent to produce fashionable hats and coats. A new trans-Atlantic trade regime was quickly established. Native nations competed amongst themselves to supply furs to European trade posts while the European merchants vied amongst themselves to be the dominant supplier back in Europe.
As early as 1613, the Haudenosaunee entered into a covenant with some Dutch traders, an agreement that served as the foundation for all subsequent relations with colonial powers.
Haudenosaunee tradition formalized such agreements with belts of wampum made from seashell beads. In this case, the Two Row Belt was designed to symbolize Five Nations’ understanding of this new relationship. Two purple lines run cross a background of white, representing both the native canoe and the European ship. The lines run parallel and do not interfere with one another, just as the Five Nations hoped their culture might coexist with that of the newcomers. For more than a century thereafter, that arrangement remained perfectly plausible.
But why would the Confederacy want any dealings with Europeans in the first place? Well, for starters, traditional Iroquoian methods of producing material goods were time and labor intensive. It was a more practical option to simply trap beavers and exchange them for a greater value in European textiles and ironware. And certainly, the Five Nations were keen to acquire as many firearms as possible to fight off both their traditional rivals and the new French threat.
Thus every year from the 1620s through the 1650s, the Five Nations funneled tens of thousands of pelts through their territory to the Dutch at Beverwyck. As they depleted the furs of their own territory, the Confederacy sent war parties against neighboring native nations to establish control over new hunting grounds. This series of conflicts is known today as the Beaver Wars. In a sort of imperialist cycle, the wealth brought about by the fur trade both enabled and demanded further expansion of the Confederacy’s territory. By the end of the 1600s, the Five Nations effectively cornered the fur market from the St. Lawrence River to the Potomac River, and from the Hudson River to the shores of Lake Erie. The Haudenosaunee were the preeminent political and military power in the Native American world, perfectly able to hold their own against their European neighbors.
It is only with this context in mind that we can understand the founding of Schenectady itself. In July of 1661, we know the three Mohawk men, chiefs Cantuquo, Sonareetsie, and Aidane, sold the great flat that would become our town to Arent Van Curler. Much has been written as to why Van Curler would be inclined to purchase the land, but the more important consideration is why the Mohawks would be inclined to “sell” it in the first place. Make no mistake, the Dutch were in no position to deceive or pressure the Mohawks into selling against their will. While the Dutch had previously fought brutal wars against the Lenape and Esopus of the mid-Hudson, the Five Nations were likely strong enough in the mid-1600s to drive the Dutch from the Hudson River altogether.
Instead, we might consider that Schenectady was able to be founded only because the Haudenosaunee, the Mohawks in particular, found it convenient. The Haudenosaunee moved furs through their territory via navigable waterways. For them, the Mohawk River was a key gateway east, which ran nearly to the stockade gates of Beverwyck (the Dutch name for Albany).
But alas, the Mohawk River becomes unnavigable east of the “Great Flat” where Schenectady now sits. And so the last leg of the long journey east was an 18 mile one-way hike through the sandy, hilly Pine Bush forest. A round trip would take at least two days. It would be far easier for the Mohawks if the Dutch had a depot in the “place beyond the pines” where trade might happen, without the excessive overland journey.
We might also consider that, although Schenectady was built in territory nominally belonging to Mohawks, this land parcel was not vital living space for them. I have seen it suggested that there was a Mohawk settlement where Schenectady now stands, but I must argue against this idea.
To be fair, Iroquoian peoples relocated their villages every ten to twenty years and it can be hard to keep track of all of that movement. But I would argue that in the mid 1600s, the heartland of the Mohawks — where their people actually lived — would be closer to modern day Fonda. For instance, our archive contains a fascinating 1635 description of Mohawk territory written by a Dutch trader named Harmen Meyndertsz van der Bogaert. While his account is certainly filled with cultural misinterpretations of what he sees, I believe his geographical notes are worth taking seriously. On his journey, he finds nothing more than a hunting cabin at the great flat and doesn’t see a substantial settlement until he has walked more than 20 miles above it. Crucially, he notes that the easternmost structures he saw were burned ruins, a village that had fallen victim to a recent Algonquin attack.
Indeed, the land between the Mohawk and Hudson rivers was still being contested between the Five Nations and Algonquins to the east. As late as 1669, the Algonquins attacked the Mohawks again, besieging their easternmost settlement which, at that point, was still 20 miles above Schenectady.
The Mohawks defeated the invaders at Wolf Hollow and finally settled the question as to whose territory this was. But, this was eight years after Schenectady was “sold” to the Dutch.
So while it’s technically possible the Mohawks had built something on the great flat between these two dates, I’m disinclined to believe that they would. Such a village would be far removed from their base of strength and vulnerable to attack. Instead, it seems to me the Mohawks bartered away land to which they had only a tenuous claim in 1661. The easier access to European trade might be motivation enough, but the generous quantities of wampum, cloth, lead, and gunpowder that they received must have surely sweetened the deal. Interestingly, more Mohawks would live at the great flat after Schenectady was built than they ever did before.
Thus, Schenectady was founded as a vital point of contact between the Haudenosaunee and European worlds. This role only gained increased importance as the Dutch colony fell into British hands in 1664. The Five Nations were happy to continue trading with the people of Schenectady and Albany, who remained much the same even with the transfer of power. The British, meanwhile, recognized the strength of the Five Nations and eagerly sought an alliance with them against the French and Indian populations of Canada. This alliance became known as the Covenant Chain, a metaphorical bond that linked the Confederacy to the English colonies.
For the first century of its existence, Schenectady maintained crucial economic ties to the Confederacy, and to the Mohawks in particular. The logistics of the fur trade ensured there was an almost constant Mohawk presence camped in and around the town; dozens of men at time. Even as Albany merchants sought to keep early Schenectadians out of the fur trade, these frontier folk were hardly dissuaded and had the easiest access to the trade.
Furthermore, it was not uncommon for Mohawk women to marry Dutch men in Schenectady. For both natives and Europeans, having family ties to the other culture provided a valuable advantage in securing favorable deals. The Dutch Church here commonly baptised Mohawks interested in Christianity. In 1710, a native delegation of chiefs traveled to London in a much-publicized diplomatic mission. One of those chiefs, Hendrick Tejonihokarawa, was a member of the Schenectady church. Whenever English authorities needed interpreters or agents to work among the Five Nations, the natives asked for Schenectady men they had learned to trust.
Let us also consider that Mohawk men and women were at the heart of the most famous event in Schenectady’s history, the 1690 Massacre. This story is so often bandied about our historical society, and yet the Mohawks are erased from most tellings. In fact, the year prior, the Mohawks had destroyed the Canadian town of Lachine as part of their long standing feud with the French. The French and Indian expedition that marched on Schenectady was very much motivated by a desire for revenge. But, rather than counterattack the Mohawks in their villages, and further antagonize them, the Canadians hoped that an assault against the English colony would intimidate the Five Nations to cease hostilities.
Indeed, there were twenty Mohawk people in Schenectady on the fateful night it was destroyed. All twenty were spared. The morning after the attack, as the embers of the Stockade smoldered against the winter skies, Mohawks staying in Albany went to see the damage. This party, including the now-famous “Lawrence,” were apparently greatly affected by the destruction of this town and the slaughter of so many people they knew so well. Couriers were sent upriver to raise the alarm and gather warriors, while Lawrence and 140 of his kinsmen pursued the retreating Canadians, killing nineteen of them. Only a few weeks later the Mohawks met with the leaders of Albany, assuring the English that “we Esteem this evil as if done to ourselves being all in one Covenant Chain.”
The Mohawks went on to offer their full military support and encouraged the people of Schenectady to rebuild. The Five Nations and English would fight this war, known as King William’s War, side by side until its end in 1697. This represents perhaps the zenith of the relations and mutual co-dependence between the Mohawks and the European colonists.
Breaking the Chain
While it may have begun as mutually beneficial, the relationship between the Haudenosaunee and British would begin to favor the latter by the middle of the 1700s. It should be noted here that, dating back to the Two Row Belt, the Five Nations had always thought of themselves as equal partners in their dealings with Europeans. The English had other ideas.
This dissonance can be surmised by a meeting of the allies in 1692: “You [the English] say that you are our father and I am your son…” noted a representative of the Confederacy. “We will not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers.”
However, as the fur trade depleted beaver populations, the Five Nations had to travel ever westward and assert control over new hunting grounds. More than a century of warfare over the precious pelts, combined with periodic outbreaks of European disease, had sapped the manpower of the Confederacy. The English colonies, however, only grew in population and economic strength. The colonists still valued their military alliance with the Confederacy, but could be increasingly exploitative in their dealings.
The Mohawks were particularly incensed as new generations of colonists penetrated deeper into their territory through fraudulent land deals, west of Schenectady. By 1753, the Six Nations would no longer tolerate these trespasses, and announced the dissolution of the Covenant Chain. Mohawk Chief Hendricks broke the news to the English governor of New York.
”Brother when we came here to relate our Grievances about our Lands, we expected to have something done for us, and we have told you that the Covenant Chain of our Forefathers was like to be broken, and brother you tell us that we shall be redressed at Albany, but we know them so well, we will not trust them, for they are no people but Devils.”
At least one man from Schenectady, Arent Stevens, seems to be included in the ranks of “Albany Devils.” Hendricks specifically mentioned Stevens buying a piece of land from the Mohawks, only to have two separate surveyors measure out tracts far larger than what was negotiated. Sir William Johnson, the superintendent of Indian Affairs, was barely able to paper over this diplomatic rift by the time the French and Indian War erupted. But at this point, the Six Nations knew to treat their eastern neighbors with apprehension.
Native grievances simmered until the American Revolution brought the Five Nations into open conflict with colonial New York for the first and only time. While the Council of the Six Nations tried to remain neutral at the start of the war, many individual warriors elected to join British loyalist militias in fighting the American rebels. The lands west of Schenectady quickly devolved into an ugly series of raids and reprisals.
While Schenectady itself was never a battlefield, there were many occasions in which the fires of war were literally visible from the Stockade. In a party of loyalists, as Seneca and Mohawk warriors massacred the rebel settlement at Cherry Valley, even George Washington took notice. He responded in the most severe manner possible, sending a punitive expedition of 3,000 troops under James Clinton and John Sullivan.
As always, Schenctady was the gateway to the west, and Clinton’s brigade began its march here in 1779. Our town furnished 100 batteaux to carry Clinton’s troops, and the Schenectady militia cleared the way for Continental troops up to Lake Otsego. The Clinton-Sullivan campaign burned its way through the entirety of the Confederacy, destroying at least 44 villages. Thousands of Haudenosaunee civilians were forced to flee to British lines in Niagara. There is no record of how many of these people died of hunger or exposure, but we can assume the casualties were staggering. Indeed, it’s hard to be proud of Schenectady’s contribution to this episode in American military history.
The wanton destruction by the Clinton-Sulivan campaign had succeeded mainly in causing human misery, but it also drove most of the Six Nations to declare open support for the British cause. Even at this late date, the Oneida retained close ties to patriot settlements and chose to side with them. Considering this an act of treason, Mohawk leader Joseph Brant drove 406 Oneida men, women, and children from their village.
In 1780, these people arrived at Schenectady, not as the proud traders of previous decades, but as desperate refugees. With nowhere to go, they were quartered in the Schenectady barracks alongside Continental troops. It was an unhappy cohabitation inside the dangerously crowded barracks and the unarmed Oneida could do little to defend themselves. Phillip Schuyler noted that at least one Oneida was murdered and several others assaulted and wounded by the garrison. And so the Oneida were sent to the woods at the outskirts of town where they built a ramshackle camp for themselves. They would remain there in destitute conditions for the rest of the war.
When the Revolutionary war ended, the Haudenosaunee found themselves at the mercy of the new American government. They were politically and demographically devastated, with many of their people, including most of the Mohawks, removing themselves permanently to British Canada. In 1794, representatives from the Six Nations met with Timothy Pickering, acting on behalf of President George Washington. There, they worked out the terms of the Canandaigua Treaty, which promised perpetual friendship between the two peoples.
The American government would recognize reservations for the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga, and the United States “will never claim the same.” Another belt of wampum was created to formalize this agreement. The George Washington Belt, as it’s known, is massive at six feet long. It features fifteen humans holding hands in friendship, echoing still the imagery of the Covenant Chain. The thirteen larger figures represent the thirteen original states, while two small figures represent George Washington and Tadodaho, the name given to the ceremonial leader of the Confederacy. At the heart of the belt is a time-honored image of a longhouse, to represent the Confederacy.
Alas, it’s hard to say the United States has lived up to its end of the bargain. State and federal agents were continually involved in land purchases that reduced the reservations to fractions of their former size.
At our historical sites, we often celebrate Schenectady as “the gateway to the west.” In the years after the Revolution, new generations of Americans would indeed set out from our town to start new lives for themselves in the west. Perhaps they traveled by Durham boat along the Mohawk, or later by packet boat along the Erie Canal. Or perhaps they traveled via the great railroads and powerful locomotives that steamed west in the middle of the 19th century. But no matter how or why they moved west, we mustn’t forget their land of opportunity was someone else’s lost homeland. And ultimately, Schenectady participated in and profited from a process that gradually pushed the Haudenosaunee to the margins of New York State.
You simply cannot know Schenectady’s history without a basic understanding of the Haudenosaunee, and their role in our region’s past. And yet, if you look through our archives, you’ll find nothing written by them. If you look through our city streets, you’ll find no monument to them having ever been here at all. Sure, you might see “Lawrence the Indian” standing watch on Front Street, but that’s not actually a likeness of him. It’s not even a plausible depiction of a Mohawk man.
In truth, as you may already know, it’s a Native American caricature mass produced by a New York foundry in the 1870s to be placed outside tobacco shops. You might see a sign at the intersection of State and Church Streets. Its gold lettering welcomes you to Schenectady, but, if you ever care to look above, a fictitious scene from the Schenectady Massacre is depicted with all the nuance of a spaghetti western. Dutch men and women desperately try to fight off a horde of native warriors as flames consume the town. It’s a scene of civilization besieged by savagery. It probably made perfect sense in 1925 when it was made. If our options here are misrepresentation or no representation at all, it’s no wonder we are often ignorant of this part of our history.
And our ignorance of Native American history incurs a cost; mostly for Native Americans themselves. This might take the form of oil pipelines running through the land of sovereign nations. Or it might look like an American president invoking our Manifest Destiny during a July 4th celebration held at a site sacred to native people. You might even find these issues alive and well in the State of New York.
The Haudenosaunee are still here, by the way, they’re still our neighbors. Many of them are currently seeking legal redress for what they allege were fraudulent land deals in the wake of the Treaty of Canandaigua. Do you know enough to have an informed opinion on that issue? I certainly don’t. I’m not saying we have a moral responsibility to become academic authorities on all of the diverse native cultures and histories of this continent.
Obviously, that’s an impossible standard. But we do have an obligation to try to learn more. How else can we deal fairly with our fellow Americans?
Mike Diana is the Education & Programs Manager for the Schenectady County Historical Society. This article first appeared in Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 65. Become a member online at schenectadyhistorical.org.
Illustrations, from above: Mohawk “squaw,” watercolor, Native American Civilization courtesy De Agostini Picture Library; detail of a certificate distributed by Sir William Johnson c. 1770, showing a treaty negotiation courtesy The Fort Pitt Museum; portrait of Chief Joseph Brant courtesy Library of Congress, Hiawatha Belt from the Onondaga Nation; Two Row Wampum from the Onondaga Nation; and Onondaga leaders Tadodaho Sidney Hill and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons carrying the George Washington Belt in protest.