A Catskill Catalog: March 26, 2008
For a while I‚Äôve wanted to write a column about the native people who inhabited our mountains 400 years ago when Henry Hudson‚Äôs Half Moon first opened our region to European ways. The problem is that the very idea of ‚ÄúThe Native People of the Catskill Mountains‚Äù is framed in a particularly non-native way of thinking.
Living in the mountains is a comparatively recent thing. For Americans, mountain living was romanticized in the nature-centered artistic and literary consciousness of the 1800s. Before that, people just took it for granted that the best places to live were in lowlands, near water, and flat fertile fields. It‚Äôs tough to make warm secure shelter in the mountains, the ground is rocky, and the growing season short. Mountaineers must sacrifice easy communion with people at great distances because travel in the mountains is difficult. Most people would rather live in the valley.
That was true of the native people of our region, as well. When we were in school, we learned about the early river-valley civilizations along the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, or along the Nile in Egypt. Civilization developed the same way here ‚Äì in the valleys, along the streams and rivers. That‚Äôs where native people lived.
The Lenni Lanape were called the Delaware Indians by European settlers after the bay and river along whose shores they lived, a bay and river named in honor of Lord De La Warre, Thomas West, third colonial governor of Virginia. Lenni Lanape means something like Common People in the Algonquin language spoken in three different dialects along the river. The northernmost dialect was called Minsi or Munsee, and the people who lived upriver were often referred to as Munsee Indians.
Sane people seek lower ground when the winter wind blows heavy mountain snows our way. The Munsee Lanape were exceedingly sane. They came up river as far as the flats where Arkville now stands and camped for the warm weeks when berries and nuts abound, the trout ran, and game was plentiful.
Summer and fall have always attracted people to this place. When they broke camp and left, they traveled downriver toward present-day Pennsylvania and New Jersey for the cold months.
Representatives of the Delaware Tribe, headquartered today in Oklahoma, visited Arkville some years ago and authenticated some cave drawings and inscriptions located somewhere on a side hill. The guy who told me was told by a guy who told him. I believe both of them. Old maps and other documents point to an Indian camp ‚Äì a kind of movable village ‚Äì called something like Pakatakan - on the East Branch, often called, back then, the Pepacton. The winding river flat behind the Delaware & Ulster Rail Ride grounds would be a logical spot for that camp, as would the big field stretching from Route 30 to the river, called, since I‚Äôve been here, Howdy Davis‚Äô Flat.
A more permanent Indian castle, or village, was situated on the Esopus Creek, down at the Hurley Flats, near present-day Kingston. These Esopus Indians were also Algonquin speaking Munsees of the Lanape People. They controlled and were nourished by the rich valley of the Esopus from where it empties into the big river at Saugerties, to its sources in Shandaken, up the Woodland and Oliverea valleys.
The Lanape‚Äôs major enemy was the Iroquoian speaking Mohawks who controlled all the lands of the river named for them, and all the streams draining into that river. The Schoharie Creek runs northward into the Mohawk. Hence, lands in the Schoharie Creek‚Äôs watershed were Mohawk lands, fiercely protected by the aggressive and powerful Keepers of the Iroquois Confederation‚Äôs Eastern Door.
A couple of major Iroquois sites are up on the Schoharie just outside the present-day villages of Midldleburgh and Schoharie in big cornfields along modern Route 30.
The boundary between the Algonquin Munsee and the Iroquoian Mohawk is right here in the Catskills. It was the east-west ridgeline that runs north of present-day Route 28, a ridgeline that stretches from Plateau Mountain in the east through West Kill and North Dome mountains to Halcott Mountain, then pivots northward at the head of the Halcott, Red Kill, Denver-Vega, and Roxbury valleys, then west along the southerly side of present-day Route 23 all the way to Mount Utsayantha at Stamford. To the south of that ridge: Munsee lands, Lanape. To the north, Mohawk, Iroquois. That made our mountains an important border, between two significant and unfriendly nations.
I‚Äôve often wondered about the Tuscarora, the sixth tribe adopted into the Iroquois Confederation. These people moved from what is now North Carolina to an area around the Unadilla River, to our west. But evidence seems to point to some Tuscarora activity or settlement nearer to the Delaware. The venerable private fishing club in Millbrook is called The Tuscarora Club, and some sources claim a Tuscarora camp or settlement on the East Branch.
With Mohawks to the right of them and Tuscarora to the left, the Munsee speaking Common People of the Delaware River Valley must have felt a bit pinched, up here at the headwaters.