This page conforms to the XHTML standard and uses style sheets. If your browser doesn't support these, you may not see the page as designed, but all the text is still accessible to you.


Bringing the heritage of Schenectady County, New York to the world since 1996

You are here: Home » Resources » MVGW Home » Chapter 14

History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 14: The Mohawks and Their Country.

[This information is from Vol. I, pp. 240-251 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Biographies | Illustrations | Maps | Portraits

Go back to: Chapter 13 | ahead to: Chapter 15

A description of the Mohawk Indians, their country and that about Fort Orange, written in 1644 by Dominie Johannes Megapolensis, Reformed Dutch pastor of the colony of Rensselaerwyck — Entire strangers to all religion.

It was Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the patron, Amsterdam jeweler and a director of the West Indies Co., who sent Dominie Johannes Megapolensis to his colony of Rensselaerwyck (about Fort Orange) in 1642. As mentioned elsewhere the colony embraced present Albany and Rensselaer counties with a total area of 700,000 acres.

The Dominie arrived at Fort Orange, August 13, 1642. His contract called for six years' service at Rensselaerwyck at a salary of 1,000 florins the first three years and 1,200 the last three years. The Dominie took up his residence at Greenbush (now Rensselaer) opposite Fort Orange (present Albany). It was planned to have a church built for him there, but it never materialized.

In 1643, Megapolensis began to preach to the Indians, a year after Jogues entered the Mohawk country and three years before John Elliot began his missionary work among the Massachusetts Indians. Megapolensis aided Father Jogues in his escape from his terrible bondage among the Mohawks of the Lower Castle. Jogues seems to have felt most kindly toward the Dominie and the Dutch of Fort Orange. A memorial tablet to Megapolensis has been placed on the base of the statue of Father Jogues at the Auriesville Shrine, commemorating his services in aiding Father Jogues' escape.

Johannes Megapolensis was born in 1603. He says of his youth, "I renounced Popery and was thrust out from my inherited estate." He preached thirteen years in North Holland, came to Fort Orange in 1642, and started back to Holland at the end of his six years' pastorate. He left Rensselaerwyck and went to New Amsterdam on his way home. Here the Director and Council persuaded him to remain, and he spent the rest of his life as a pastor in the New Amsterdam of 1649-1664 and the New York of 1664-1669, when he died. Megapolensis was a man of fine character and of great influence for good in New Netherland. His account of the Mohawks is written in a clear, natural style (characteristic of the Dutch chroniclers) which gives us a wonderful savage picture.

The description of the Mohawks by Megapolensis was published as a pamphlet in Alkmaar in 1644 with the following Dutch title (which is translated under the heading of the Journal).

"Een kort Ontwerp vande Mahakvase Indiaenen, haer Landt, Tale, Statuere, Dracht, Godes-Dienst ende Magistrature, aldus beschreven ende nu kortelijck den 26 Augusti 1644 opgesonden uyt Nieuwe Nederlant, door Johannem Megapolensem juniorem, Predikant aldaer."

A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians, by Reverend Johannes Megapolensis, Jr., 1644

A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians, their Country, Language, Stature, Dress, Religion and Government, thus described and recently (August 26, 1644) sent out of New Netherland, by Johannes Megapolensis the younger, Preacher there.

The country here is in general like that in Germany. The land is good, and fruitful in everything which supplies human needs, except clothes, linen, woolen, stockings, shoes, etc., which are all dear here. The country is very mountainous, partly soil, partly rocks, and with elevations so exceeding high that they appear to almost touch the clouds. Thereon grow the finest fir trees the eye ever saw. There are also in this country oaks, alders, beeches, elms, willows, etc. In the forests, and here and there along the water side, and on the islands, there grows an abundance of chestnuts, plums, hazel nuts, large walnuts of several sorts, and of as good a taste as in the Netherlands, but they have a somewhat harder shell. The ground on the hills is covered with bushes of bilberries or blueberries; the ground in the flat land near the rivers is covered with strawberries, which grow here so plentifully in the fields, that one can lie down and eat them. Grapevines also grow here naturally in great abundance along the roads, paths, and creeks, and wherever you may turn you find them. I have seen whole pieces of land where vine stood by vine and grew very luxuriantly, climbing to the top of the largest and loftiest trees, and although they are not cultivated, some of the grapes are found to be as good and sweet as in Holland. Here is also a sort of grapes which grow very large, each grape as big as the end of one's finger, or an ordinary plum, and because they are somewhat fleshy and have a thick skin we call them Speck Druyven. If people would cultivate the vines they might have as good wine here as they have in Germany or France. I had myself last harvest a boat-load of grapes and pressed them. As long as the wine was new it tasted better than any French or Rhenish Must, and the color of the grape juice here is so high and red that with one wine-glass full you can color a whole pot of white wine. In the forests is great plenty of deer, which in autumn and early winter are as fat as any Holland cow can be. I have had them with fat more than two fingers thick on the ribs, so that they were nothing else than almost clear fat, and could hardly be eaten. There are also many turkeys, as large as in Holland, but in some years less than in others. The year before I came here, there were so many turkeys and deer that they came to feed by the houses and hog pens, and were taken by the Indians in such numbers that a deer was sold to the Dutch for a loaf of bread, or a knife, or even for a tobacco pipe; but now one commonly has to give for a good deer six or seven guilders. In the forests here there are also many partridges, heath-hens and pigeons that fly together in thousands, and sometimes, ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty and fifty are killed at one shot. We have here, too, a great number of all kinds of fowl, swans, geese, ducks, widgeons, teal, brant, which sport upon the river in thousands in the spring of the year, and again in the autumn fly away in flocks, so that in the morning and evening any one may stand ready with his gun before his house and shoot them as they fly past. I have also eaten here several times of elks, which were very fat and tasted much like venison; and besides these profitable beasts we have also in this country lions, bears, wolves, foxes, and particularly very many snakes, which are large and as long as eight, ten and twelve feet. Among others, there is a sort of snake, which we call rattlesnake, from a certain object which it has back upon its tail, two or three fingers' breadth long, and has ten or twleve joints, and with this it makes a noise like the crickets. Its color is variegated much like our large brindled bulls. These snakes have very sharp teeth in their mouth, and dare to bite at dogs; they make way for neither man nor beast, but fall on and bite them, and their bite is very poisonous, and commonly even deadly, too.

As to the soil of this country, that on the mountains is a reddish sand or rock, but in the low flat lands, and along the rivers, and even in the jutting sides of the mountains for an hundred or two hundred paces up, there is often clay. I have been on hills here, as high as a church, to examine the soil, and have found it to be clay. In this ground there appears to be a singular strength and capacity for bearing crops, for a farmer here told me that he had raised fine wheat on one and the same piece of land eleven years successively without ever breaking it up or letting it lie fallow. The butter here is clean and yellow as in Holland. Through this land runs an excellent river, [the Mohawk] about 500 or 600 paces wide. This river comes out of the Mahakas country, about four leagues north of us. There it flows between two high rocky banks, and falls from a height equal to that of a church, with such a noise that we can sometimes hear it here with us. In the beginning of June twelve of us took a ride to see it [Cohoes Falls]. When we came there we saw not only the river falling with such a noise that we could hardly hear one another, but the water boiling and dashing with such force in still weather, that it seemed all the time as if it were raining; and the trees on the hills near by (which are as high as Schoorler Duyn) had their leaves all the time wet exactly as if it rained. The water is as clear as crystal, and as fresh as milk. I and another with me saw there, in clear sunshine, when there was not a cloud in the sky, especially when we stood above upon the rocks, directly opposite where the river falls, in the great abyss, the half of a rainbow, or a quarter of a circle, of the same color with the rainbow in the sky. And when we had gone about ten or twelve rods farther downwards from the fall, along the river, we saw a complete rainbow, like a half circle, appearing clearly in the water just as if it had been in the clouds, and this is always so according to the report of all who have ever been there. In this river is a great plenty of all kinds of fish — pike, shad, bass, etc. In the spring, in May, the perch are so plenty, that one man with a hook and line will catch in one hour as many as ten or twelve can eat. My boys have caught in an hour fifty, each a foot long. They have three hooks on the instrument with which they fish, and draw up frequently two or three perch at once. There is also in the [Hudson] river a great plenty of sturgeon, which we Christians do not like, but the Indians eat them greedily. In this river, too, are very beautiful islands, containing ten, twenty, thirty, fifty and seventy morgens of land. The soil is very good, but the worst of it is, that by the melting of the snow, or heavy rains, the river readily overflows and covers that low land. This river ebbs and flows at ordinary low water as far as this place, although it is thirty-six leagues inland from the sea.

As for the temperature in this country, and the season of the year, the summers are pretty hot, so that for the most of the time we are obliged to go in just our shirts, and the winters are very cold. The summer continues long, even until All Saints' Day; but when the winter does begin, just as it commonly does in December, it freezes so hard in one night that the ice will bear a man. Even the rivers, in still weather when there is no strong current running, are frozen over in one night, so that on the second day people walk over it. And this freezing continues commonly three months; for although we are situated here in 42 degrees of latitude, it always freezes so. And although there come warm and pleasant days, the thaw does not continue, but it freezes again until March. Then, commonly, the rivers first begin to open, and seldom in February. We have the greatest cold from the northwest, as in Holland from the northeast. The wind here is very seldom east, but almost always south, southwest, northwest, and north; so also the rain.

Our shortest winter days have nine hours sun; in the summer, our longest days are about fifteen hours. We lie so far west of Holland that I judge you are about four hours in advance of us, so that when it is six o'clock in the morning with us, it is ten in the forenoon with you, and when it is noon with us, it is four o'clock in the afternoon with you.

The inhabitants of this country are of two kinds: first, Christians — at least so called; second, Indians. Of the Christians I shall say nothing; my design is to speak of the Indians only. These among us are again of two kinds: first, the Mahakinbas, [Mohawks] or, as they call themselves, Kajingahaga [Canienga]; second, the Mahakans [Mahicans], otherwise called Agotzagena. These two nations have different languages, which have no affinity with each other, like Dutch and Latin. These people formerly carried on a great war against each other, but since the Mahakanders [Mahicans] were subdued by the Mahakobaas [Mohawks], peace has subsisted between, and the conquered are obliged to bring yearly contribution to the others. We live among both these kinds of Indians; and when they come to us from their country, or we go to them, they do us every act of friendship. The principal nation of all the savages and Indians hereabouts with which we have the most intercourse, is the Mahakuaas, who have laid all the other Indians near us under contribution. This nation has a very difficult language, and it costs me great pains to learn it, so as to be able to speak and preach fluently. There is no Christian here who understands the language thoroughly; those who have lived here long can use a kind of jargon just sufficient to carry on trade with it, but they do not understand the fundamentals of the language. I am making a vocabulary of the Mahakuaas' language, and when I am among them I ask them how things are called; but as they are very stupid, I sometimes cannot make them understand what I want. Moreover when they tell me, one tells me the word in the infinitive mood, another in the indicative; one in the first, another in the second person; one in the present, another in the preterit. So I stand oftentimes and look, but do not know how to put it down. And as they have declensions and conjugations also, and have their augments like the Greeks, I am like one distracted, and frequently cannot tell what to do, and there is no one to set me right. I shall have to speculate in this alone, in order to become in time an Indian grammarian. When I first observed that they pronounced their words so differently, I asked the commissary of the company what it meant. He answered me that he did not know, but imagined they changed their language every two or three years; I argued against this that it could never be that a whole nation should change its language with one consent; — and, although he has been connected with them here these twenty years, he can afford me no assistance.

The people and Indians here in this country are like us Dutchmen in body and stature; some of them have well formed features, bodies and limbs; they all have black hair and eyes, but their skin is yellow. In summer they go naked, having only their private parts covered with a patch. The children and young folks to ten, twelve and fourteen years of age go stark naked. In winter, they hang about them simply an undressed deer or bear or panther skin; or they take some beaver and otter skins, wildcat, raccoon, martin, otter, mink, squirrel or such like skins, which are plenty in this country, and sew some of them to others, until it is a square piece, and that is then a garment for them; or they buy of us Dutchmen two and a half ells of duffel, and that they hang simply about them, just as it was torn off, without sewing it, and walk away with it. They look at themselves constantly, and think they are very fine. They make themselves stockings and also shoes of deer skin, or they take leaves of their corn, and plait them together and use them for shoes. The women, as well as the men, go with their heads bare. The women let their hair grow very long, and tie it together a little, and then let it hang down their backs. The men have a long lock of hair hanging down, some on one side of the head, and some on both sides. On the top of their heads they have a streak of hair from the forehead to the neck, about the breadth of three fingers, and this they shorten until it is about two or three fingers long, and it stands right on end like a cock's comb or hog's bristles; on both sides of this cock's comb they cut all the hair short, except the aforesaid locks, and they also leave on the bare places here and there small locks, such as are in sweeping-brushes, and then they are in fine array.

They likewise paint their faces red, blue, etc., and then they look like the Devil himself. They smear their heads with bear's grease, which they all carry with them for this purpose in a small basket; they say they do it to make their hair grow better and to prevent their having lice. When they travel, they take with them some of their maize, a kettle, a wooden bowl, and a spoon; these they pack up and hang on their backs. Whenever they are hungry, they forthwith make a fire and cook; they can get fire by rubbing pieces of wood against one another, and that very quickly.

They generally live without marriage; and if any of them have wives, the marriage continues no longer than seems good to one of the parties, and then they separate, and each takes another partner. I have seen those who had parted, and afterwards lived a long time with others, leave these again, seek their former partners, and again be one pair. [Here Megapolensis tells further of the moral laxity of the Mohawks which was common to both the Iroquois and Algonquins.]

The women, when they have been delivered, go about immediately afterwards, and be it ever so cold, they wash themselves and the young child in the river or the snow. They will not lie down (for they say that if they did they would soon die), but keep going about. They are obliged to cut wood, to travel three or four leagues with the child; in short, they walk, they stand, they work, as if they had not lain in, and we cannot see that they suffer any injury by it; and we sometimes try to persuade our wives to lie-in so, and that the way of lying-in in Holland is a mere fiddle-faddle. The men have great authority over their concubines, so that if they do anything which does not please and raises their passion, 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, but hunt, fish, and make war upon their enemies. They are very cruel towards their enemies in time of war; for they first bite off the nails of the fingers of the captives, and cut off some joints, and sometimes even whole fingers; after that, the captives are 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 the common people eat the arms, buttocks and trunk, but the chiefs eat the head and the heart.

Our Mahakas carry on great wars against the Indians of Canada, on the River Saint Lawrence, and take many captives, and sometimes there are French Christians among them. Last year, our Indians got a great booty from the French on the River Saint Lawrence, and took three Frenchmen, one of whom was a Jesuit [Father Jogues]. They killed one, but the Jesuit (whose left thumb was cut off, and all the nails and parts of his fingers, were bitten), we released, and sent him to France by a yacht which was going to our country. They spare all the children from ten to twelve years old, and all the women whom they take in war, unless the women are very old, and then they kill them too. Though they are so very cruel to their enemies, they are very friendly to us, and we have no dread of them. 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 as if we met with a Christian. They sleep by us, too, in our chambers before our beds. I have had eight at once lying and sleeping upon the floor near my bed, for it is their custom to sleep simply on the bare ground, and to have only a stone or a bit of wood under their heads. In the evening, they go to bed very soon after they have supped; but early in the morning, before day begins to break, they are up again. They are very slovenly and dirty; they wash neither their face nor hands, but let all remain upon their yellow skin, and look like hogs. Their bread is Indian corn beaten to pieces between two stones, of which they make a cake, and bake it in the ashes: their other victuals are venison, turkeys, hares, bears, wildcats, their own dogs, etc. The fish they cook just as they get them out of the water without cleansing: also the entrails of deer with all their contents, which they cook a little; and if the intestines are then too tough, they take one end in their mouth and the other in their hand, and between hand and mouth they separate and eat them. So they do commonly with the flesh, for they carve a little piece and lay it on the fire, as long as one would need to walk from his house to church, and then it is done; and when they bite into it so that the blood runs along their mouths. They can also take a piece of bear's fat as large as two fists, and eat it clear without bread or anything else. It is natural to them to have no beards; not one in an hundred has any hair about his mouth.

They have also naturally a very high opinion of themselves; they say Ihy Othkon ("I am the Devil"), by which they mean that they are superior folks. 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 kouanne Jountuckcha Othkon; that is, "Really all the Mohawks are very cunning devils." They make their houses of the bark of trees, very close and warm, and kindle their fire in the middle of them. They also make of the peeling and bark of trees, canoes, or small boats, which will carry four, five and six persons. In like manner they hollow out trees, and use them for boats, some of which are very large. I have several times sat and sailed with ten, twelve and fourteen persons in one of these hollowed logs. We have in our colony a wooden canoe obtained from the Indians, which will easily carry two hundred schepels of wheat. Their weapons in war were formerly a bow and arrow, with a stone axe and mallet; but now they get from our people guns, swords, iron axes and mallets. Their money [seawan or wampum] consists of certain little bones, made of shells or cockles, which are found on the sea-beach; a hole is drilled through the middle of the little bones, and these they string upon thread, or they make of them belts as broad as a hand, or broader, and hang them on their necks, or around their bodies. They have also several holes in their ears, and there they likewise hang some. They value these little bones as highly as many Christians do gold, silver and pearls; but they do not like our money, and esteem it not better than iron. I once showed one of their chiefs a rix-dollar; he asked how much it was worth among the Christians; and when I told him, he laughed exceedingly at us, saying we were fools to value a piece of iron so highly; and if he had such money, he would throw it into the river. They place their dead upright in holes and do not lay them down, and they then throw some trees and wood on the grave, or enclose it with palisades. They have their set times for going to catch fish, bears, panthers, beavers and eels. In the spring, they catch vast quantities of shad and lampreys, which are exceedingly large here; they lay them on the bark of trees in the sun and dry them thoroughly hard, and then put them in notasten, or bags, which they plait from hemp which grows wild here, and keep the fish till winter. When their corn is ripe, they take it from the ears, open deep pits and preserve it in these the whole winter. They can also make nets and seines in their fashion, and when they want to fish with seines, ten or twelve men will go together and help each other, all of whom own the seine in common.

They are entire strangers to all religion, but they have a Tharonhijouaagon (whom they also otherwise call Athzoockkuatoriaho), that is, a Genius, whom they esteem in the place of God; but they do not serve him or make offerings to him. They worship and present offerings to the Devil, whom they call Otskon, or Aireskuoni. If they have any bad luck in war, they catch a bear, which they cut in pieces, and roast, and that they offer up to their Aireskuoni, saying in substance, the following words: "Oh! great and mighty Aireskuoni, we confess 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." Also when the weather is very hot, and then comes a cooling breeze they cry out directly, Asoronusi, asoronusi, Otskon aworouhsi reinnuha; that is, "I thank thee, I thank thee, devil, I thank thee, little uncle!" 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; so that they attribute to the Devil at once the accidents which befall them; they have otherwise no religion. When we pray they laugh at us. Some of them despise it entirely; and some, when we tell them what we do when we pray, stand astonished. When we deliver a sermon, sometimes ten or twelve of them, more or less, will attend, each having a long tobacco pipe, made by himself, in his mouth, and will stand awhile and look, and afterwards ask me what I am doing and what I want, that I stand there alone and make so many words, while none of the rest may speak. I tell them that I am admonishing the Christians, that they must not steal, nor commit lewdness, nor get drunk, nor commit murder, and that they too ought not to do these things; and that I intend in process of time to preach the same to them and come to them in their own country and castles (about three days' journey from here, further inland), when I am acquainted with their language. Then they say I do well to teach the Christians; but immediately add, Diatennon jowij Assironi, hagiouisk, that is, "Why do so many Christians do these things?" They call us Assirioni, that is, clothmakers, or Charistooni, that is, iron-workers, because our people first brought cloth and iron among them.

They will not come into a house where there is a menstruous woman, nor eat with her. No woman may touch their snares with which they catch deer, for they say the deer can scent it.

The other day an old woman came to our house, and told my people that her forefathers had told her "that Tharonhij-Jagon, that is, God, once went out walking with his brother, and a dispute arose between them, and God killed his brother." I suppose this fable took its rise from Cain and Abel. They have a droll theory of the Creation, for they think that a pregnant woman fell down from heaven, and that a tortoise (tortoises are plenty and large here, in this country, two, three and four feet long, some with two heads, very mischievous and addicted to biting), took this pregnant woman on its back, because every place was covered with water, and that the woman sat upon the tortoise, groped with her hands in the water, and scraped together some of the earth, whence it finally happened that the earth was raised above the water. They think that there are more worlds than one, and that we came from another world.

The Mohawk Indians are divided into three tribes, which are called Ochkari, Anaware, Oknaho, that is, the Bear, the Tortoise, and the Wolf. Of these, the Tortoise is the greatest and most prominent; and they boast that they are the oldest descendants of the woman before mentioned. These have made a fort of palisades, and they call their castle Asserue [Osseruenon]. Those of the Bear are the next to these, and their castle is called by them Banagiro [or Andagoron]. The last are a progeny of these and their castle is called Thenondiogo. These Indian tribes [clans] each carry the beast after which they are named (as the arms in their banner) when they go to war against their enemies, and this is done as well for the terror of their enemies, as for a sign of their own bravery. Lately one of their chiefs came to me and presented me with a beaver, an otter, and some cloth he had stolen from the French, which I must accept as a token of good fellowship. When he opened his budget he had in it a dried head of a bear, with grinning teeth. I asked him what that meant? He answered me that he fastened it upon the left shoulder by the side of his head, and that then he was the devil, who cared for nothing, and did not fear anything.

The government among them consists of the oldest, the most intelligent, the most eloquent and most warlike men. These commonly resolve, and then the young and warlike men execute. But if the common people do not approve of the resolution, it is left entirely to the judgment of the mob. The chiefs are generally the poorest among them, for instead of their receiving from the common people as among Christians, they are obliged to give to the mob, especially when any one is killed in war, they give great presents to the next of kin of the deceased; and if they take any prisoners they present them to that family of which one has been killed, and the prisoner is then adopted by the family into the place of the deceased person. There is no punishment here for murder and other villainies, but every one is his own avenger. The friends of the deceased revenge themselves upon the murderer until peace is made by presents to the next of kin. But although they are so cruel, and live without laws or any punishments for evil doers, yet there are not half so many villainies or murders committed amongst them as amongst Christians; so that I oftentimes think with astonishment upon all the murders committed in the Fatherland, notwithstanding their severe laws and heavy penalties. These Indians, though they live without laws, or fear of punishment, do not (at least, they very seldom) kill people, unless it may be in a great passion, or a hand-to-hand fight. Wherefore we go wholly unconcerned along with the Indians and meet each other an hour's walk off in the woods, without doing any harm to one another.

Johannes Megapolensis.

[Photo: The Mohawk Near Auriesville]

Go to top of page | back to: Chapter 13 | ahead to: Chapter 15

You are here: Home » Resources » MVGW Home » Chapter 14 updated March 30, 2015

Copyright 2015 Schenectady Digital History Archive — a service of the Schenectady County Public Library