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First Nations: Paths through the Wilderness

Projectile Points – Waterford Historical Museum and Cultural Center

Archaeologists refer to the route between the Upper Hudson through Washington County into Lake Champlain as “the Mohican Channel.” Contrary to the outdated notion that the Native Americans were constantly “on the war path,” the well-worn trails on which colonists later built their roads were primarily trade and migration routes enabling Native people to move through the landscape, seeking out the fish, animals, plants and trees that fed and clothed them. Stone, minerals and other natural material from as far west as Michigan have been found at sites in the Hudson-Champlain corridor, suggesting a broad network of trade among the Native groups, well before Europeans came to settle.

Early ancestors of Native Americans migrated through the area after the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, forming seasonal settlements according to the resources available. For the centuries prior to European exploration, the Mohican (also spelled “Mahican”), members of the Algonquian language group, were the predominant local tribe in the Upper Hudson River Valley. The Dutch called them the “River Indians.”

The rich natural resources of the area—particularly the late winter, early spring deer populations on the south-facing slopes in Washington County; and the salmon, herring and shad runs up the Hudson and its tributaries, also attracted the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy from the west and the Sokoki Abenaki, Algonquian speaking people of the coastal plain and lower St. Lawrence Valley. All of these groups were deeply connected to the seasonal migrations of wildlife—birds, mammals, fish, which helped sustain them through long, cold Northern winters.

Agriculture may have been practiced as early as 1000 A.D., but was not widely practiced until as late as about 1500. Recent research suggests that Native people cultivated the North American forests to provide the nuts and fruits that were an essential part of their diets. The forests weren’t planted by the Native people, but instead were managed to encourage the presence of beneficial and useful species of plants and animals. Native American silviculture resulted in park-like woods that were free of underbrush and that rained down an abundance of tree nuts, a marvel to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European chroniclers.

Despite the increasing European presence in the mid-1600s, Native people continued to inhabit their diminishing land holdings. But by the close of the eighteenth century, the remnants of once strong tribes, ravaged by European diseases, caught between wars of European conquest, and dispossessed of the majority of their lands, moved to western New York and beyond to join other tribes suffering similar fates. The areas they once called home are marked by place names throughout the Hudson-Champlain corridor. Schaghticoke, Hoosac, Horican, and Shodac were Mohican and Mohican-Abenaki town sites. Saratoga and Schaunactoda (Schenectady) were Mohawk settlements. Many of the region’s streams still carry variations of their Native names.