By 1642, the number of inhabitants of Rensselaerwyck (spelled Rensselaerswijck in Dutch), at the time basically what is now Albany and Rensselaer Counties, had grown and Patroon Kiliaen Van Rensselaer willingly complied with a requirement of the Dutch West India Company to secure a clergyman for a Dutch Church to conduct services for the settlers.
Johannis Megapolensis (1603–1670), the dominie (pastor) of the congregation of Schorel and Berg, belonging to the classis of Alkmaar in Holland, was selected and accepted the call. He was to serve for six years at a salary of one thousand guilders per year (about $500 today). He was also to receive a yearly donation of thirty schepels (22 ½ bushels) of wheat and two firkins of butter.
The ship De Hoattuyn arrived in New Netherland on August 13, 1642, carrying Dominie Megapolensis and his family, Abraham Staes (Abraham Staats) – a surgeon, Evert Pels – a brewer, and 16 other immigrants. Hoping to form a compact settlement, the patroon drew a small map showing how he wanted the settlement laid out. The proposed church, parsonage and manor house were to be surrounded by dwellings of the traders and mechanics. He wanted the widely spread homes of the earlier settlers brought together for protection.
Hendrick Albertson, who also arrived on the De Hoattuyn, was instructed to construct a ferry crossing what is now called the Hudson River, connecting the eastern (now Rensselaer County) and western portions (now Albany County) of the patroonship. These instructions were sent in writing to Rensselaerwyck’s director, Arent Van Curler. Van Rensselaer directed that “with the exception of the farmers and tobacco planters” all other residents were to restrict their houses to the church neighborhood as per the drawing he had sent.
A new house was purchased for Megapolensis and his family and they moved in before Christmas.
A small village in Rensselaerwyck, called Oranje / Beverwyck, had sprung up adjacent to Fort Orange. The village was frequently visited by Indigenous People from the two native nations, the Mohawks and Mahicans. They walked the streets and visited the shops freely. Both tribes had traded successfully with the Dutch at Fort Orange, or previously Fort Nassau, since a least 1612. This trade substantially benefited both, and a friendly relationship had developed. From his arrival, Megapolensis sought to include the Mohawks and Mohicans in his religious instructions.
In order to preach to the Mohawks and Mohicans, Megapolensis began to study their language. Megapolensis said that in their own tongue the Mohawks or Maquaes called themselves “Kajingahaga.” The Mahicans or Maykans called themselves “Agotzagena.”
In his diary, Megapolensis said that the Mohawks were divided into what he called three tribes (actually clans), which he said were the Ochkari, Anaware and Oknaho or bear, tortoise (turtle) and wolf. He said the tortoise was the largest and oldest clan and was considered the most important. They lived in houses of woven branches spaced evenly inside a wooden palisade, which the Dutch and others at this time called castles.
Megapolensis said the tortoise clan lived at Asserue (identified as Onekkahoncka by Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogart and Ossernenon by French Jesuit Missionary Isaac Jogues, also known as the Lower Castle); the bear tribe’s castle was Banagiro and the wolf castle was Thenondiogo. These latter two communities were possibly Andagaron (the Middle Castle) and Tionontoguen (the Upper Castle) or their previous locations). All were located weest of Fort Orange in the Mohawk Valley.
Indigenous People at this time and place were still largely hunter-gatherers who used tools made from various stone (often chert), bone and other natural materials. Their clothing was largely made of the pelts of local animals sewn together with strips of hide. Megapolensis said one of their most effective tools was their fingernails, which they allowed to grow long and kept very sharp. Fingernails and sharp stones could be used as knives and scrappers and were used as both tools and weapons. (One should recall Europeans own history of sharpened fingernails into the 19th century).
“These two nations [the Mohawks and Mahicans] have different languages [Iroquois and Algonquin] that have no affinity for each other, as the Dutch and the Latin. These people formerly carried on a great war against each other [in 1628], but since the [Mahicans] were subdued by the [Mohawks] a peace has existed between them and the conquered are obliged to bring an annual contribution to the other.
“The principal nation of all the savages and Indians in this neighborhood with which we are acquainted are the [Mohawks] who have laid all the other Indians near us under contribution.”
Megapolensis noted that he had a very difficult time learning their language. He said that he was making a list of their words so that he could preach to them. Megapolensis could find no one who could speak the Mohawk language fluently even though some of the Dutch traders had been trading with them for over 20 years.
When he asked local representatives of Dutch West India Company what certain words meant, they said that they believed the Mohawks changed their whole language every two or three years. Megapolensis said that this was impossible.
Although Dominie Megapolensis, could not speak their language and didn’t know their traditions and means of survival well, he described the Dutch settler’s life with the Mohawks as he saw it:
“We go with them into the woods; we meet with each other, sometimes at an hour or two’s walk from any houses and think no more about it than if we met with a Christian. They sleep with us too in our chambers before our beds. I have had eight at once, who lay and slept upon the floor near my bed, for it is their custom to sleep only on the bare ground and to have only a stone or a piece of wood under their heads.”
Megapolensis said that the local indigenous people harvest their ripe corn and store it in deep pits to survive the whole winter. They reported they fished with nets with ten or twelve men working together who then split the catch.
“They generally live without marriage, but if any of them have wives, the marriage continues no longer than they think proper and then they separate and each takes another partner. On the birth of a child the women go about immediately afterward and be it ever so cold it makes no difference; they wash themselves and the infant in the river or in the snow. They will not lie down for they say that if they did they should soon die but keep going about.
Megapolensis misunderstood the power of women in Mohawk culture and often repeated disparaging stories he had heard secondhand:
“The men have great authority over their wives so that if they do anything which affronts them and makes them angry, they take an axe and knock them in the head and there is an end of it. The women are obliged to prepare the land, to mow, to plant and do everything. The men do nothing except hunt and fish and go to war against their enemies.
“They are very cruel to their enemies in time of war. They first bite off the nails of the fingers of their captives (which they consider to be weapons) and cut off some joints and sometimes all the fingers. The captives are afterwards forced to sing and dance before them stark naked and finally they roast their prisoners dead before a slow fire for some days and then eat them. The common people eat the arms, the rump and the trunk but the chiefs eat the head and heart.
“They have also naturally a great opinion of themselves. They say, ‘I hy Othkon’ (I am the devil), by which they mean that they are unequaled. In order to praise themselves and their people, whenever we tell them they are very expert at catching deer or doing this and that, they say, ‘Tkoschs ko, aguweechon kajingahaga kouaane Jountuckcha Othkon” that is: ‘Really all the Mohawks are very cunning devils.’
“The arms used by them in war were formerly a bow and arrow with a stone axe and clap – hammer or mallet, but now they get from our people guns, swords, iron axes and mallets.
“They place their dead upright in holes and do not lay them down and then they throw some trees and wood on the grave or close it with palisades.
“They are entire strangers to all religion but they have a Tharonhijouaagon (whom they otherwise call Athzoockkuatoriaho) that is a Genius whom they honor in the place of God but they do not serve or present offerings to him. They worship and present offerings to the devil whom they call Othkon or Aireskuoni. If they have any bad luck in war, they catch a bear, which they cut in pieces and roast and these they offer up to their Aireskuoni saying the following words: ‘O great and mighty Aireskuoni, we know that we have offended against thee, inasmuch as we have not killed and eaten our captive enemies, forgive us this. We promise that we will kill and eat all the captives we shall hereafter take as certainly as we have killed and now eat this bear.’
“If they are sick or have a pain or soreness anywhere in their limbs and I ask them what ails them, they say that the devil sits in their body or in the sore places and bites them there and they always attribute to the devil the accidents that befall them; they have no other religion than this. When we pray, they laugh at us. Some of them really despise praying and some when we tell them what we do when we pray, stand astonished.
“They call us Assyreoni, that is cloth makers, or Charistooni that is iron workers, because our people first brought cloth and iron among them.”
Just a few weeks before the arrival of Dominie Megapolensis at Fort Orange, about 70 Mohawk warriors set out on a foray. On the fourth of August 1642, they attacked a party of Canadian Indigenous People and French missionaries on the St. Lawrence River in New France. Twenty-two prisoners were taken and some were subjected to cruelties on the march south to the Mohawk River.
“Scarcely had I begun to breathe when some others attacking me tore out by biting almost all of my fingernails and crunched my two forefingers with their teeth, giving me intense pain. No trial however came harder upon me than to see them … approach us … with minds no wise excited by passion [and] pluck out our hair and beard and drive their nails, which are always very sharp, deep into parts most tender and sensitive to the slightest impression.”
Upon arrival at the Mohawk village, the naked captives were forced to run between two rows of Mohawks with clubs who beat them around the head and shoulders. They burned one of Jogues’ fingers and crushed another with their teeth. Two more nails were torn out with the flesh below cut through to the bone. Jogues said an older man approached him and compelled an unwilling woman to cut off his left thumb.
This news shocked the residents of Fort Orange, who had not known the Mohawks to be brutal. The number of Mohawks greatly outnumbered the settlers at Fort Orange and the fear they could be so brutal increased among them.
Arendt Van Curler, the Rensselaerwyck Patroon’s manager, decided to present the Mohawks with some significant token of their friendship and offer a large ransom for the captives. Van Curler, Jacob Jansen and Jan Labatie, a French settler who could speak to the captives, traveled three hours west on the Mohawk River to the three Mohawk castles near today’s Auriesville.
On their arrival they were received very hospitably. The Mohawks conducted a ceremony of firing their muskets to greet them. The Mohawk leaders sent hunters out to catch turkeys for a dinner. They readily agreed to remain at peace with the Dutch at Fort Orange but would not accept the ransom offer. They told the representatives from Fort Orange that on this issue of dealing with the French and their Native allies the Dutch “must remain silent.” Van Curler asked the Mohawks not to kill the captive Frenchmen.
As the three Fort Orange representatives began to leave, the three Frenchmen ran screaming after them and “besought us to do all in our power for their delivery from the savages, but there was no chance for it. On my return they (the Mohawks) gave me an escort of ten or twelve armed men who conducted us home,” Van Curler reported in a letter back to the Patroon.
The Mohawks did not free the captives, but also did not kill them.
Months later Jogues, now in the role of a servant, accompanied a party of Mohawks on a fishing trip down the Mohawk River to just south of Fort Orange, where they fished. On the return trip, the group was hosted at a grand dinner, most likely given by Van Curler at Schuyler Flatts on the Hudson River just north of Albany (now Watervliet). They slept in his barn and locked the barn doors themselves from the inside.
Toward daybreak, one of Van Curler’s servants managed to enter through a secret door and help Jogues escape to a canoe. The missionary paddled downstream several miles to Fort Orange where he obtained clothing and boarded a ship bound for Amsterdam, in The Netherlands. From there he found his way back to France.
Dominie Megapolensis conducted church services for the Dutch settlers in his house until the church was constructed in 1646, a short distance northwest of the fort near the line of Church Street, between Pruyn and Lydius streets.
In 1648, Megapolensis’ term was up and he requested permission to return to The Netherlands. He was earnestly solicited by Director General Peter Stuyvesant however, to become dominie of the congregation at New Amsterdam (now New York City) to replace Dominie Edwardus Bogardus who had been lost at sea. He accepted the call and remained at the pastorate in New Amsterdam until his death 20 years later.
In the 1683 list of members of the Dutch Church in Albany, 28 members were Indigenous converts. They are differentiated by the fact that they have a single name (i.e. Abraham) followed by the notation: “proselytes from among the heathen, having been instructed by us in the mysteries of faith and of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, and after making a public confession received baptism and were admitted to the Lord’s Supper.”
The Dutch Church lists another 10 Indigenous People admitted over the next several years. Each of the converts had taken a Dutch name, causing their nationality to become invisible in later documents and census surveys.
You can learn more about the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (the Iroquois) at the website of the Oneida Nation.
Illustrations, from above: First Dutch Church at Albany as it appears in several of the works of James Eights; Detail of Map of New Amsterdam from Beschryvinge van Nieuw-Nederlant, t’Aemsteldam: Evert Nieuwenhof, 1655; A map of Iroquois expansion during the Beaver Wars; statue of Isaac Jogues at the south end of Lake George at Lake George Battlefield Park; and the Dutch Reformed Church of Johannes Megapolensis in Beverwyck (Fort Orange, now Albany), erected in 1656.