edited: Sunday, June 24, 2007
By David C Minor
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2007
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Across New York State in 1600
Setting the Stage
In 1600 the land that will one day become the state of New York lies like a thick, tipped-over "T" athwart the upper reaches of the Appalachian mountain chain. Thick, long-vanished sheets of ice and scraped, shattered rock have formed the land as they retreated into northern Canada. To the north a great river slices its way from the easternmost of five inland seas, north by east for 800 miles, to empty into the North Atlantic. On the north-south axis a valley cuts down from the upper reaches of the river, cradling a long, narrow lake. Beyond it to the south, a river uncoils out of the bordering Adirondack mountains. It straightens and flows on past an older mountain group, the Catskills. Twisting its way through rocky highlands it reaches the Atlantic, becoming a submerged fjord, cutting out through the continental shelf. As the vast, mile-high slabs of ice have retreated, plant life has moved in from the south to fill the void, succeeded by game and then the hunter man. Mimicking the shape of the land, groups of these first settlers stretch from the eastern end of Lake Erie across the land to the Hudson. Another line of tribes extends across at right angles, down the long lake and the mountain-born river, reaching the deep natural harbor on the Atlantic, where the 119-mile-long island, also formed by the glaciers, nudges the land. This island is itself home to other tribes.
In the west, along the river that flows over the great cataract at Niagara, the nations of Wenro, Neutral and Erie "Indians" (to use a European-coined phrase) speak a group of languages that future foreigners will categorize as Algonkin. Related languages are spoken in the peoples - the Mahican, the Wappinger, the Esopus, and the Pequot-Mohegan - along the Champlain-Hudson axis. Also related are the languages of the island's tribes, the Canarsie, the Shinnecock and the Montauk. The five nations between these main bodies of the Algonkin speak an entirely different group of languages.
At some unknown date in the last few centuries the five tribes had been constantly warring with each other, making them easy prey for their enemies. Many felt that they had lost their way. It was then that an emissary of The Creator called Dekanawideh, or The Peacemaker, came to the tribes to convince them to work together to settle their differences without violence. Along with two disciples, a Huron named Hiawentha (or Hiawatha) and the woman Jikohnsaseh of the Neutral tribe, he traveled from Lake Erie to the Hudson, cultivating the Good Mind, a harmony with man and nature, and establishing the first representative government recorded in North America. The five peoples were divided into nine clans, each with its animal totem. Each clan was given not only Chiefs and Faithkeepers, but Clan Mothers as well, for the new government counted the voices of women equally with those of men. (It would take the Europeans a far greater length of time to see this wisdom). The Peacemaker used the metaphor of the longhouse to describe the League. The Seneca, nearest Lake Erie, were Keepers of the Western Door. The Mohawk watched over the Eastern Door. And in the center, the Onondaga hosted the seat of government, serving as the Keeper of the Fire. It is here that those wishing to deal with the Haudenosaunee, including the foreigners from France and England, must come to present their appeals and claims. It is here that every adult will listen, consider and make their will known. No nation (or Fire) will go to war unless all five agree to do so. The nations are united. Their strength is in their league.
The other tribes that now inhabit the future state's perimeter will have no such protection. Within the next fifty years the Wenro will be forced west of the Niagara River and become assimilated into the Huron tribes. Tribes to the east will also decline from this year's numbers. A Mahican confederacy, 8,000 strong in the Albany area, will dwindle and disperse. The approximately 5,000 Pequot-Mohegan south of them will, in another century shrink to 750, mostly in Connecticut. A inter-tribal conflict in the 1640s, along with alien European diseases, will reduce the Wappingers of the lower Hudson from a population of 8,000 to a few hundred, mostly dispersed among other tribes, including the Iroquois. And out on the long, roughly fish-shaped island nosing into the mainland, the Algonkin-speaking peoples (Montauks, Shinnecock and Canarsie) will also become greatly diminished. It is the Haudenosaunee who will rule New York in the coming decades.
However, just beyond the world they know, forces are looming that will challenge the Haudenosaunee. Forces in lands called England, France and Holland will challenge, change, and even rename them.
Entrance of Strangers
A few of France's sixteen million inhabitants are making their first tentative forays down the northern river and setting up a trading post to barter for beaver and marten pelts with the Algonquin. One of them is a newcomer to the region, but not to this half of the world. This young Frenchman earlier crossed the Atlantic on a Spanish fleet that visited the Caribbean and Central America. He observed Spain's despotic treatment of the Indians, and considered the feasability of digging a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. When he returns home and presents his notebooks to Henri IV, he will be given a title as a reward and return to the New World. He will trade with the Algonquin and, on the long lake below the northern river throw deadly fire from a stick at the Iroquois and earn their hatred. Samuel Champlain will leave his name on this lake. The French will also affect many New York names. Because their word order convention places the individual name after the descriptive name we will have "Lake Ontario" instead of "Ontario Lake". They will also adopt an overheard native word or two, tag on their own "ois" ending, and name the five tribes the Iroquois.
Indian legend tells that their people had come from the south and the east. Shortly after the French had arrived from the northeast, another wave of Europeans entered New York from the southeast. Like most infestations, it began modestly, as a few individuals began probing the bays and inlets of the eastern coastline. Such as the Englishman Henry Hudson who arrived in 1609 and spent most of the month of September exploring the river (later named for him) as far as the Mahican lands where the Mohawk River empties into the larger river. Such as the Dutch explorer Adrien Block who arrived on Manhattan Island two years later and came there again in 1613. He and companion Hendrick Christaensen lost their ship to fire and wintered over while they built another. The two Dutchmen were just the advance scouts. And they discovered the beaver. Until now their countrymen had just looked on New York as an obstacle blocking the passage to Asia. Suddenly the goal became profits. And the Dutch liked profits extremely well. They formed the East India Company in 1602 to harvest the Old World lands surrounding the Indian Ocean (with much competition from the Portuguese). Hudson and Block had been their advance agents. Their sponsors had been successful enough to want to diversify and follow the same plan for the New World, formally creating the West India Company in 1621. Block had already begun trading for furs with the Iroquois in 1614. Meanwhile a three-year monopoly is granted to a group calling themselves the United New Netherland Company and trading posts are established at the mouths of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers.
On 1620, even as Dutch trading groups vie with each other for a share of future markets, Englishmen, who have little time to spare for the hot new plays in London such as Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor, are making their own projections of wealth to be gained. They send out settlers who land on a Massachusetts beach and decide to settle there, even when offered New Netherland land near Governor Peter Minuit's brand new colony on Manhattan. The first Dutch settlers arrive in 1623, sent because planting colonists and crops here is more cost effective than shipping the provisions over from Europe. They are proved correct the following year their ships return carrying furs worth 50,000 guilders.
But English interest in the area will not remain dormant. Massachusetts governor William Bradford makes friendly overtures to the Dutch in 1627, even as his subjects expand toward the Connecicut River valley and push across the sound separating the long island from the mainland. And England's king, James the First, begins bestowing New World lands. Mostly to his grandson, the Duke of York.