10. The Mohicans and New Netherland

Mohicans greet the Dutch

Around the turn of the millennium, 1600, the ‘Muh-he-ka-neew’ people (Or ‘Mohican’, which translates to ‘people of the continually flowing waters’) lived and thrived along the long river valley flowing into the Atlantic. They had a string of small settlements comprised of small-to-medium-sized longhouses, each with corn, beans, and squash gardens. Game and fish were plentiful, as were a wide variety of nuts and berries. They also knew how to tap the sap from Maple trees and render it into syrup and maple sugar. They traveled and traded along the river with large canoes, which could hold up to 14 people, along with a cargo of goods.

They named the river ‘Mahicanituck’ after themselves. However, it would soon become known as ‘the Hudson’ after Henry Hudson, an English navigator with a mixed crew working for the Dutch Republic and their Dutch West India Company. Living on the west side of the river were the Munsee, their close cousins, and a subset of the Lepape, whose territory stretched down into what is now called the Delaware Valley. The Mohicans stretched northward to their main concentration, ‘Pempotowwuthut-Muhhcanneuw,’ or what is now called the Albany area. It was also a border zone where the Mohican bumped into the domains of the Mohawk to the West and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to the North.

The Mohicans were a matrilineal society, with each village run by a council of female elders. The female-run councils chose a male Sachem, both a spiritual and military leader. But the women could revoke his position if he didn’t work out well. There had been conflicts with the Mohawks and the Iroquois, but relations were peaceful at this time.

The Mohicans knew about the ‘Great Canoes’ and bearded men from across the Ocean who were willing to trade goods with near-magical qualities–metal axes, knives, and pots, fine cloth of bright colors–for provisions and animal skins they considered relatively commonplace. They heard about one version, the French, from the Iroquois, and another, the English, from the people around Cape Cod. The French may even have had a small trading post near Albany, deserted in 1590.

In 1609 Henry Hudson encountered the Mohicans all along the river he was exploring. His ship’s log contains numerous accounts of the natives paddling out to his ship, the Half Moon, eager to trade. They mainly brought Maize, called ‘Indian Wheat’ by Hudson, furs, and other foods. Hudson gave them what he called ‘trifles’ and ‘trinkets’ for the food and provisions but held back the more intricate metal goods for the furs. Most of the exchanges went well, but Hudson noted that a small armed boat he sent out came back with one dead Englishman with an arrow through his neck. They buried him ashore and had a few more clashes with canoes of Mohicans, letting their arrows fly at the Half Moon. Hudson returned with gunfire and won those rounds. With a load of furs, he returned to Europe, landed in England, and immediately reported to his Dutch sponsors, the Dutch West India Company (DWI).

The DWI had been active in the New World as slavers and traders in and around the Caribbean and had resources at hand. In 1614, they sent several ships back up the Hudson and created Fort Nassau near present-day Albany, staking out the entire Hudson Valley, along with Long Island to the north and what is now New Jersey to the south, as ‘New Netherland.’ Thus, the Dutch took a slice of ‘Turtle Island.’

Where the Hudson River opened to the sea, the Dutch set up a fort on ‘Nut Island,’ today’s Governor’s Island. In 1625, however, Peter Minuit, the third governor, decided Manhattan (also the Lenape name for the island) was a better spot and ‘bought’ it for the legendary $24 worth of trinkets. (It was 80 guilders and worth several thousands of dollars in today’s money).

Slave market in early Manhattan

The Dutch tried their hand at setting up feudal estates along the Hudson. As well as Hollanders, They dropped off shiploads of Walloons and French Huguenots to be the farmers and lower classes for wealthy landed ‘patroons.’ They also brought African slaves to Manhattan to sell them and put them to work, building a walled encampment (where its northern edge, Wall Street, got its name). It’s also how what is now New York City got a polyglot, mixed population from the beginning.

As the Dutch expanded, they pushed the Mohicans eastward into Connecticut, and some westward, to be killed or absorbed into the Mohawks, who then became the main fur traders. The battles and defeats are sketchily and romantically depicted in ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ both the novel and ensuing films. The remnants of the tribe wound up in a reservation in Wisconsin, although new claims are being made in New York state in current times. Ultimately, the British took over, and ‘New Netherland’ became New York. But that gets us ahead of the story. More to come.

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