Editor's note: A version of the article below appeared in Dutchess magazine, circa 1999.
The story of Native Americans in Dutchess County
By Steve Hopkins
It’s a beautiful slice of heaven on Earth, Dutchess County is; a place that seems as if it sprang whole from an artist’s imagination. Unfortunately, it did not. In fact, the beautiful English-style countryside we take for granted today had its beginnings in the greed, trickery, and disdain for human life of a conquering people as they performed North America’s first bit of ethnic cleansing. To know the truth about what happened to the Mahicans and Wappingers of Dutchess County is to look upon the beauty of these hills in a new and poignant light, with a heightened appreciation for the transitory nature of all things. In this article we will attempt to explore the truth, from a number of perspectives, and bring some of its light into the present.
The last of the Mahicans
James Fenimore Cooper’s epic “The Last of the Mohicans” is a work of fiction that purports to distill the story of the people who once called the Hudson River Valley home into a single, highly allegorical account. He felt his story was necessary because of the pronounced lack of a historical record regarding their fate, and he wanted to ensure that, at least, an emotional gap would be filled.
Cooper’s fictional legacy, although engrossing, has created a number of misconceptions. He chose the name “Mohicans,” he explains in his introduction, as a catch-all for a people who, through various misunderstandings, have gone by many names (Lucy Johnson, a professor of archeology at Vassar College, says that “many of the early tribal names that were recorded were given by their enemies, usually something like ‘those bastards on the other side of the hill’”). Cooper picked his name from among the following: “Lenni-Lenape, Lenope, Delawares, Wapanachki, … Mahicanni, Mohicans, and Mohegans.” His choice has led some today to believe that the Connecticut tribe of Mohegans, proprietors of the famed Mohegan Sun Casino, are made up of these Hudson Valley descendants of the Lenni-Lenape. They are not. For the purpose of this article, these original Dutchess County inhabitants will be called “Mahicans” and “Wappingers” – the closest thing to what they still call themselves.
The other misconception is that the “Mohicans” are gone from the face of the earth. They are not. Most of these tribes’ few descendants, scattered and hounded out of the fertile Hudson valley by the English during the 18th century, ended up joining with remnants of other tribes and relocating numerous times. The federally-recognized Stockbridge-Munsee tribe (made up mostly of people of Mahican and Wappinger ancestry) maintains a website containing a sketchy history from contact with the Dutch through the long Diaspora from their ancestral hunting grounds to central Wisconsin, where they still reside today. The unrecognized Schaghticoke tribe, a small reservation of five or so families hugging the western border of Connecticut near Webutuck, consists of people descended from the Pequot of Connecticut, with some Mahican and Wappinger ancestry. Another group of Mahicans and Fishkill Wappingers gave up the fight and were enfolded into the Mohawk and Seneca tribes in 1756, eventually losing their identity. Many more intermarried with their conquerors and simply blended over time into the new American landscape.
Searching for clues
In actuality the long, proud, eventful history of the Mahicans and their close cousins the Wappingers, both of whom populated what is now the Hudson Valley (including Dutchess County) for thousands of years, is mostly lost – particularly that which occurred before the coming of the white man. What little is left of their history is exceedingly difficult to re-construct, as the carriers of orally transmitted tribal lore were all but wiped out by the end of the barbaric 17th century, by the diseases, swords and musket balls of the Dutch.
From a fledgling researcher’s point of view, the story of Native Americans vanishing from the area is seriously under-reported, if you go by the slim number of volumes on the subject in local public libraries. Histories of the region commonly begin with the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609, casually mentioning the existence of the “Indians” he encountered along the river, some friendly – even worshipful of him and his giant “floating castle” – and some not so friendly, owing to their memories of encounters with Varazzano more than 50 years earlier. Documentation of their fate is limited, and usually involves a number of famously violent incidents, land sales, and other such footnotes to the march of white colonial history. As far as history from the perspective of local Native Americans is concerned, it’s as if they just faded away.
But they didn’t just fade away: they were dispossessed and dispatched as surely and nearly as swiftly as were the Kosovars, and some of their history is there, if you dig for it. The recent surge of ethnic awareness in the United States has created an environment conducive to study, and many of the gaps in our understanding of Native American history, before and after Hudson’s fateful trip, are beginning to be filled in.
The knowledge that exists is based on the work of a small minority of Americans over the past 200 years whose interest in Native American culture and history never flagged, even when it was considered unfashionable. A gentleman from Newburgh named E.M. Ruttenber in 1872 penned a comprehensive chronicle of what archeologists call “contact period history,” titled “Indian Tribes of Hudson’s River,” which was out of print and very hard to find until Hope Farm Press in Saugerties re-published it in 1992. The late great Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an absolute junkie for any documentation of Native Americans, especially those that lived in Dutchess. Much of this stuff is in the form of ancient, crumbling books and papers archived in the FDR Library in Hyde Park. DeCost Smith, who died in 1939, was a lifelong student of Native Americans and their customs and traditions. His “Martyrs of The Oblong and Little Nine,” published posthumously in 1948, is the story of the ill-fated Moravian attempt to Christianize Dutchess County’s remaining Mahicans at Shekomeko in Pine Plains during the mid-1700s. It is as well written as anything on the subject, and provides a disturbing look at the last gasp of Mahican life in the eastern U.S. During the ’50s and ’60s, state archeologist William A. Ritchie, followed by his successor Robert E. Funk (from 1971 until 1996), performed groundbreaking studies that are the basis for much of today’s work by college-based archeologists and their students. Today, people like Christopher Lindner at Bard College and Lucy Johnson at Vassar carry on the quest, at the same time disseminating the fruits of their knowledge to a new generation.
Culled from these and other sources, a brief synopsis of the Native American presence in Dutchess County goes something like this:
The first people
Nearly 10,000 years ago, a short time after a gigantic natural dam at the Hudson Highlands broke and most of the melted glacier called Lake Albany went gushing out to sea, the first Lenni-Lenape Indians began to move from the south and west into virgin riverfront real estate now known as the mid-Hudson Valley. Like people today when encountering the area’s charms for the first time, they must have thought they stumbled into heaven, especially along the river’s eastern bank with its lush deciduous forests blanketing the gently rolling hills, framed on the west by the wide sparkling river and sweeping views of the high mountains beyond. They were the first human beings to set foot on this land since before the ice age and, of course, they decided to stay.
These same Lenape people multiplied over the next 100 centuries and flourished, first living nomadically and subsisting off whatever the land and river provided, and later settling down in the most profitable, productive places. They eventually organized themselves into tribes and confederacies.
By 1600, Munsee Delaware lands extended from the Mahicanituk, the river that flows both ways, westward and south into Pennsylvania. On the river’s eastern shore, the Mahicans populated the valley from what is now northern Dutchess to Lake Champlain. Their cousins the Wappinger claimed the area between the Hudson and the Housatonic from central Dutchess through what is now Putnam, Westchester, the Bronx, Manhattan and parts of Long Island in New York, and much of western Connecticut.
The Mahicans and Wappingers were a woodland people who lived in villages consisting of long, semi-cylindrical wigwams and longhouses, as opposed to the familiar tall, conical tepees of the Plains Indians. A wigwam (which means “bark-dwelling” in Mahican) was constructed of a frame of wood poles covered by bark and rush matting. Inside, families slept on spruce boughs covered with deerskins and blankets. They used cornhusks, quillwork, feathers, beads and paint to decorate deerskin clothing, baskets and other ornaments with colorful, stylized renditions of plants, flowers, and semicircles depicting forest walking trails.
They subsisted on staples of corn, beans and squash – known as the “three sisters,” a diet augmented by fresh meat and fish (and, for river people, mollusks and other shellfish). There was maple sugaring each year in the spring. Men’s and women’s roles were sharply defined – women planted and harvested crops, and men spent much of their time away from the villages, hunting, fishing and trapping. Society was matrilineal, meaning that genealogy was established through the maternal line, and the opinions of female elders weighed heavily in the decision-making of the tribe. Children were never struck and, according to native lore, were allowed considerable autonomy. Prior to intervention from missionaries, spirituality involved belief in a good Great Spirit and an evil spirit or trickster. A number of feasts and fasts were observed, including the harvest feast we have transformed into our Thanksgiving.
Woodland people engaged in careful agricultural and forest management practices, clearing by burning and cultivating low brush on the edges of their fields to attract small game. These actions improved their chances for survival, and created some of the rolling topography we still treasure today. Mostly, however, being a people acting in concert with nature, they left few visible traces of their long existence in Dutchess County.
Known prehistoric settlements
Archeologists by nature are notoriously wary of questions posed by the lay person, especially when they involve the location of ancient encampments and villages. Zealous guardians of the past, they consider it part of their mission to protect these sites from degradation and harm from amateur collectors and clumsy tourists. For that reason, maps of explicit locations of ancient sites will not be part of this article. To publish them would, in the words of former Mid-Hudson Archeological Society President Elvin Wanzer, be “irresponsible.”
The knowledge archeologists gain as they sift through the ancient soil for arrowheads, pottery shards and telltale scraps of whatever ancient locals were cooking in their fires, is one of our few tangible connections to the ancestors of the Wappingers and Mahicans. It provides great insight into the lives of the region’s inhabitants through all periods, from the Archaic to the Late Woodland, which was interrupted by the coming of the Dutch. According to Lucy Johnson, “there is no evidence in this Northeast region of major population shifts,” meaning that 7,000-year-old remains found at the Sylvan Lake rockshelter were likely to have been left by the direct ancestors of Wappinger Chief Daniel Nimham, killed by a Hussar bullet in 1778.
According to archeologist Christopher Lindner of Bard College, there are four “prime” sites in Dutchess County, undisturbed by human encroachment. There is a fifth, which he is modest enough not to include (it’s on his own college campus), but which nonetheless would seem to belong with the others. The sites are:
• Sylvan Lake rockshelter in southern Dutchess, which contains “fairly undisturbed remains” dating back about 6,000 years. Based on findings here, Dr. Funk worked out the chronology of cultural changes among the Hudson Valley natives;
• Shagabak, near Hyde Park, which, according to Funk, “is often submerged” with the effect that its Archaic era deposits “are gradually washing into the adjoining cove;”
• The Bowdoin Park rockshelter in Poughkeepsie, a dig managed by the Mid-Hudson Archeological Society;
• South Cruger Island in the Tivoli Bays (recently expanded to include the adjacent Goat Island rockshelter), is an important ongoing site, where remains as much as 7,000 years old have been found.
• Grouse Bluff (on the Bard campus) is Lindner’s baby, which he discovered while scouting for sites on and near the campus. What he and his students have unearthed so far is a mother lode of sorts – a 100-square-meter area containing artifacts with a density of up to 3,000 per square meter. In one section they unearthed an ancient stove – a pit filled with burned rocks. “The question is, what were they cooking?” said Lindner during a recent visit to the site.
He subsequently answered his own question, with enthusiasm: “They were roasting hickory nuts! 2,300 years ago! This is important because in our excavations there has always been this gap that starts at 500 B.C. and goes to A.D. 400. This site is right in the middle – right before the big transition. It holds the key to a shift in adaptation.” Looking at the three-cubic-foot hole in the ground, Lindner exults: “Students ask me what’s the best thing I’ve ever found – this is it.”
Historically recorded native settlements in Dutchess
Native Americans chose areas to settle in for much the same reasons we have. Paralleling today’s settlement patterns in Dutchess County, the shore of the Hudson between the mouth of Wappinger Creek and Hyde Park, and the flatlands in the Fishkill and Wappinger watersheds, were the most densely populated during the Late Woodland period. There were villages along Wappinger Creek at New Hamburg, Wappingers Falls, Manchester Bridge, and Lagrangeville, and at least two in Pleasant Valley. In what is now the Town of Poughkeepsie they settled along the Casperkill, at its mouth and inland in two spots where Vassar College now stands. Along the Fishkill (then called “Matteawan,” a name that signified “magic furs,”), the wigwams of the Wappingers extended eastward to the Taghkanic Hills.
At what is now Poughkeepsie, a sheltered inlet at the mouth of the Fallkill (which the natives called the “Minnakee”) offered safe harbor for canoes navigating the “long reach” between Pollepel’s Island and Crum Elbow. The Wappinger name for the place was “Apokeepsing,” or “a place of shelter from the storms.” According to a romantic Native American legend, a group of Delaware warriors once came to the spot with some Pequot captives, one of whom was a young chief. This chief was “offered his life and honor if he would renounce his nation, receive the mark of the turtle on his breast, and become a Delaware brave.” The proud youngster spurned the offer, and was lashed to a tree in preparation for his being hacked to death with tomahawks, when his beautiful fiancée let out a shriek, startling the captors and setting them to debating the chief’s fate anew.
During the delay, some fierce Hurons interrupted the proceedings, giving the maiden the opportunity to release her boyfriend. However, during the melee the two became separated, and the victorious Huron chief grabbed the pretty girl as a trophy.
Undaunted the young Pequot chief, now lurking in the woods, devised a clever scheme to spring his beloved. Posing as a wizard, he entered the Huron camp. Simultaneously, the maiden became seriously ill, and he was retained as her physician while the Huron chief went out to battle Uncas, chief of the Mohegans, who was apparently in the area as well. At nightfall the two escaped in a canoe, with Huron guards in hot pursuit. He was able to squirrel her away at (where else?) Apokeepsing, while he fought the Hurons off singlehandedly, saving the day.
Further north, FDR famously claimed that his estate in Hyde Park was the site of a former Indian cornfield. As proof, he pointed to the ground-hugging lower branches of the giant, ancient oaks in a large field. The spreading branches, he said, “could have been developed only in open spaces, and the only open spaces in Dutchess County before the colonial period were Indian cornfields.” In his will, he specified that the ancient fields remain under cultivation, which, in a minimal way, they are. The trees, incidentally, are still there, on the lawn before the FDR Library.
The Sepascots, actually a clan of Munsee Delaware from the west side of the river, settled at Rhinebeck, and would follow a three-mile-long trail along the Landsman’s Kill to their principal seat at Sepasco Lake. It is unclear whether the Sepascots are related to the three Esopus Indians, Ankony, Anamaton and Calycoon (the Dutch term for “turkey”), who in 1686 sold some Rhinebeck property to Jacobus and Hendrick Kip.
More Wappingers lived near Red Hook Landing, where some time before the Dutch arrived an epic battle with the Iroquois was waged. Dutch chronicles tell of the bones of the dead scattered on the ground.
In Milan, Pine Plains and NorthEast, Mahican Wawyachtonocks resided for centuries before they were eventually reduced to a single village called Shekomeko (where the hamlet of Bethel exists now, under the shadow of Stissing Mountain). Here they were chosen by a group of Moravian missionaries to be converted to Christianity. Their story, so well documented by DeCost Smith, cannot be told in the space of a paragraph or two.
In Milan, Mahicans became embroiled in local disputes between Tories and Whigs during the Revolutionary era. Those friendly to the Tories plotted with them to do violence against the Whigs, while a woman among them who was friendly with the Whigs managed to tip them off, saving them.
In the mid 1700s in the Harlem Valley, in what is now Dover, a remnant of the Pequot tribe called the Schaghticoke, chased out of Connecticut after having aided the Mahicans in King Philip’s War, settled for a time near the Ten Mile River. Their sachem, a man soon to be christened Gideon by the Moravians, subsequently stumbled upon a clear stream and lush meadow in the adjacent Housatonic Valley (where the Village of Kent is now), fell in love with it and moved the tribe there. He then extended an invitation to other Hudson Valley Tribes to join him, and more than 100 Mahican and Wappinger warriors and their families did just that over a 10-year period. While most of them eventually moved on to Massachusetts to join the Stockbridge-Munsee, some of the original Schaghticoke stayed behind, where they remain today on a sliver of land between the river and the hills.
Native Americans being chased out of Connecticut historically found themselves slipping through the Taghkanics to Dover. In 1637, the once-mighty Pequot’s emperor Sassacus, an enemy of the Mahicans, fled Connecticut, his army decimated and his entire empire in flames at the hands of the English, led by one Captain Mason. Coming into Dutchess through the gap in the mountains made by the Ten Mile River with a dozen fellow survivors, he encountered a strong band of Mahican hunter/warriors. After a skirmish, he barely escaped and hid in the watery cavern known as the Dover Stone Church, until the Mahicans moved on. He was captured and scalped somewhat later west of Albany, after mistakenly seeking refuge with a group of Mohawk bounty hunters.
In Amenia, very little is known about the original inhabitants, except that they sold their lands to one of the first white settlers in Dutchess, a man named Richard Sackett. Sackett purchased his land in 1703, prior to the establishment of any patent. For years he and his family were the only white settlers between Poughkeepsie and New Milford, and seem to have gotten on quite well with the natives, without the benefit of a blockhouse or any defenses. That Native Americans were plentiful in South Amenia is a fact that can be verified by Ken Hoadley, the Amenia Town Historian and an amateur archeologist. Hoadley, who maintains a voluminous collection of arrowheads found in the area near Wassaic, has a theory based on the topology of the area. “I suspect the Indians drove the animals down that valley and slaughtered them in the gap,” he says.
Beekman is the home of beautiful Sylvan Lake, the site of Indian encampments from time immemorial. A Schaghticoke village once nestled in Noxon Meadow.
Fishkill probably was home to more Wappinger people than any other town in Dutchess. As late as 1700, there was a large tribe of 1,000 warriors holding out at a place called Fort Hill, and more than 100 resided in the town until 1756.
The first Dutchess land sale between the natives and the Europeans occurred in Fishkill. In February 1682, the English (actually Irish) governor of the province of New York, Thomas Dongan, approved a license for Francis Rombout and Gulian Ver Planck to purchase a tract of land from the Wappingers (Ver Planck died waiting for the deal to close and a man named Jacobus Kipp signed for his kids, and Rombout found a third partner in Stephanus Van Cortland). On August 8, 1683, the sale was closed, and on Oct. 17, 1685 King James the Second issued patent letters sealing the deal for all – 85,000 acres were sold to Rombout and his partners for: 100 royalls, 100 pounds of powder, 200 fathom of white wampum (and 100 more of black), 100 bars of lead, 30 tobacco boxes, 10 “holl adges,” 30 guns, 20 blankets, 40 fathom of “duffils,” 20 fathom of stroudwater cloth, 30 “kittles,” 40 hatchets, 40 horns, 40 shirts, 40 pair of stockings, 12 coats “of R.B. & b. C.,” 10 drawing knives, 40 earthen jugs, 40 bottles, 40 knives, four ankers of rum, 10 “half fatts” of beer, 200 tobacco pipes and 80 pounds of tobacco. The partners also had to come up with an annual tribute of “six bushels of good and merchantable winter wheat” for Gov. Dongan. Twenty-two Wappinger signatures are on the deed.
In the northeastern part of LaGrange is a wild, hilly area formerly known as “Jonah’s Manor,” Jonah being a Schaghticoke Indian who lived alone until a ripe old age in a cabin in the woods, well into the 19th century.
The 'contact period'
On September 3, 1609, Henry Hudson, operating under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company, sailed his ship “Half Moon” into a wide harbor and up a broad river past rocky heights, starry-eyed that he might have found an alternate route to the Orient. At the narrows, according to Ruttenber, the ship was met by a group of natives (probably Wappingers), who boarded “clothed in mantels of feathers and robes of fur, the women, clothed in hemp, red copper tobacco pipes, and other things of copper they did wear about their necks.”
Hudson and his men were highly suspicious of the natives, who were unarmed, and whose mission was peace, according to Ruttenber’s account. He quotes Hudson as repeating that he “durst not trust them.” In the ensuing environment of mistrust, violence was inevitable, and indeed happened the very next day when an exploring boat, far from the ship, was returning near dusk through a thick soup of fog and rain. Seeing what was happening, Indians embarked in canoes to help the crew. When the crew spied the approaching canoes, wrote Ruttenber, “fear seized them, the savage was more dreaded than the tempest, a falcon shot was hurled at the approaching canoes, the swift arrow replied,” hitting an English sailor named John Coleman in the throat, killing him. The Europeans managed to kill one of the rescue party and wound two more before returning to the Half Moon.
More than violence, by far the most devastating effect of “contact” was disease, from which the natives had no immunity. Between 1609 and 1710, about 90% of the county’s native population was decimated by a series of epidemics – 14 or so never-before-encountered scourges like tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc. According to Lucy Johnson, many natives were killed by disease before ever having met a white man, resulting in a “cultural morass.”
“Prime age adults and older adults carrying knowledge were hit first,” she says. “There were fewer people moving around, and more conflict. When there was nothing the shamans could cure, when the herbs and prayers and ceremonies didn’t do anything, there was a lot of blame – usually on the heathen across the valley.”
Many of the remaining adult males, as well as many non-combatant women and children, were killed in various wars and massacres up and down the Hudson. Those who stayed in the area faced a sharp reduction in resources – beaver and other game became exceedingly scarce through over-hunting brought on by trade with the voracious Dutch. Much of the trade involved alcohol, which further diluted the will of the natives to stand firm, and was a major factor in their being swindled in a number of questionable land deals. By 1750 most of the surviving families had been bought out and chased off the land by settlers whose definition of “ownership” was quite different than their own.
Relations between the Dutch and the Hudson Valley natives were rarely much more cordial than in the first encounter with Hudson’s men. Dutch cattle, roaming free, would flatten cornfields, angering the natives, who would kill the offending beasts (in turn angering the Dutch). Petty disagreements often flared into skirmishes, with atrocities attributed to both sides. Intertribal relations were confused by the presence of a misunderstanding third party (“The Europeans had their own ideas of how things were supposed to work – they had no such thing as an ethnographer,” says Johnson). In the winter of 1643, according to Ruttenber, a group of 80 Mahicans (there are some, he says, who wrongly assert they were Mohawks) went south and set upon some of the old Manhattan Wappinger chieftancies, “for the purpose of collecting tribute which had been withheld.” When approximately 110 of the assailed Wappingers fled to a Dutch shelter at Pavonia (near Hoboken), they were taken in and succored by a nice Dutchman named DeVries. However, Governor William Kieft was egged on by a mob of bloodthirsty New Netherlanders led by his provincial secretary, Van Tienhoven, to take action against the refugees.
On the night of Feb. 25, 1643, soldiers under the orders of Kieft moved in on the sleeping Wappingers and slaughtered them. DeVries himself was apparently an eyewitness, stating how “children were taken from the arms of their mothers and butchered in the presence of their parents, and their mangled limbs thrown into the fire or the water.”
Other sucklings were “fastened to little boards, and in this position they were cut to pieces. Some were thrown into the river, and when the parents rushed in to save them, the soldiers prevented their landing and let parents and children drown.”
Another source reports that soldiers played a game of kickball with their victims’ severed heads.
Hearing of the atrocity, the Wappingers joined forces with the Mahicans in what is now called Governor Kiefts' War. Although they enjoyed a victory in the war, which ended in 1645, they lost many men, which further depleted their population. According to Ruttenber: “The whole force of the Dutch was scarce 250 men, while the Indians were represented by 1,500 of their most expert warriors. … The position of the Dutch was perilous in the extreme. The Indians literally hung upon their necks ‘with fire and sword.’ Had they known their own strength, the last refuge of the colonists would have fallen before them, but judging from their own modes of warfare, they feared to attack the fort and contented themselves with sweeping off the exposed plantations and with the terror that their presence inspired.”
The Esopus Indians across the Hudson from Rhinebeck had their share of battles with the Dutch, beginning with the Peach War, which started when a Dutch farmer killed an Esopus woman who absconded with one of his peaches. Between 1655 and 1664, the Esopus managed to scare the pants off the Dutch in the area, sending them packing a number of times to the fort at New Amsterdam. By the time Governor Peter Stuyvesant took some Esopus children hostage and negotiated a truce, the Dutch were more worried about a far more deadly foe, sailing across the Atlantic. Colonel Richard Nicholls and a small squadron of English ships were proceeding with orders from the king to assemble a blockade of New Netherlands and wrest it from the Dutch for the Duke of York. By 1665, the Dutch were under control of the English. They were not gone, however, and the increased presence of both English and Dutch in the Hudson Valley tended to quicken the demise of the native population.
In the late 17th century, two additional smallpox epidemics and an outbreak of malaria once again decimated local tribes. According to a historian named Robert S. Grumet: “scarcely more than 3,000 Indian people were living in the Hudson Valley at the dawn of the 18th century.” He was counting everyone between Albany and New York City.
Starting in 1689, Mahicans, Schaghticokes, Esopus and Wappingers were enlisted by Governor Dongan to assist the English in their wars against the French. While the Wappingers were away fighting, a rapscallion named Adolph Phillipse fraudulently obtained a deed to their land in Putnam County, igniting a 50-year-long controversy. Between and after the long wars, the Wappingers gathered with a group of Mahicans in Massachusetts at Westenhuck (near Stockbridge). Many of them were converted to Christianity by missionaries during this period, forming a sort of schism within the tribe. The Wappinger leader, Daniel Nimham, later argued for their rights to lands in Putnam and Dutchess and even traveled to England in 1765, where he and a group of Connecticut Mahicans were well received. Their claims became stuck in the colonial courts, however, and were still unresolved when the American Revolution hit and blew their dreams to smithereens. A war hero to the end, Nimham was killed in Westchester in 1778, trying rejoin Washington’s troops with a group of 40 Wappinger and Mahican marksmen. His valiant story was not written by an American historian, but by British Lt. Col. Simcoe, leader of a unit of British and Hussar troops. Simcoe ambushed Nimham and his group from behind, but was nonetheless wounded and pulled off his horse by Nimham, upon which one of his Hussars mortally wounded the Wappinger chief. Nimham reportedly called out to his men to fly – “that he himself was old and would die there.” After the war, the Mahicans and Wappingers at Westenhuck accepted an invitation from the Oneidas to move to Augusta, in Oneida County, and, ironically, to nearby Stockbridge, in Madison County. In 1821 they purchased a tract of land on the Wisconsin and Fox rivers in Wisconsin and, as has previously been mentioned, have been there ever since.
Meanwhile, the Esopus had been able to resist encroachment onto their lands, with help from nearby allies. Settlers frightened by the sight of armed Indians were temporarily deterred. The fate of the Esopus, however, would be forever linked with that of isolated groups of Mahicans and Wappingers still residing in western Dutchess in 1755.
It was then that an incident involving the Esopus terrified natives on both sides of the river enough to force them to move west for good. White settlers, arriving to occupy land in the area, heard of an impending French and Indian attack upon the Ulster county frontiers. Taking the offensive, they massacred several Esopus families in their wigwams at Walden, in Orange County. Consequently, on May 22, 1756, the British superintendent of Indian affairs, Sir William Johnson, issued a proclamation that the Esopus clear out of Ulster and join the Mohawks to the west, for their own protection. A similar overture was made to the Mahicans and Dutchess County Wappingers. On May 28 that year, Johnson wrote: “The river Indians whose families are at Fishkill, have had a meeting with the Mohawk Indians, and it is agreed that they shall remove and live with the Mohawks.” When Johnson returned to his residence on July 9, he found that 196 “Mohicander, or river Indians,” were gathered there. He gave them clothing “from head to foot, gave them ammunition, paint, etc., in the presence of the Six Nations and the Shawanoes and the Delaware kings,” in exchange for their slipping unnoticed into history.
For many Native Americans, according to Lucy Johnson, their mode of survival eventually was to attempt to “pass” as white. The last known statement of the English administration in regard to the Hudson Valley natives, written by Governor Tryon in 1774, presages their eventual blending into the coming “melting pot” of the new American nation. “The river tribes have become so scattered and so addicted to wandering, that no certain amount of their numbers can be obtained,” wrote Tryon. “These tribes – the Montauks and others of Long Island, Wappingers of Dutchess County, and the Esopus, Papagoncks, etc. of Ulster County – have generally been denominated River Indians and consist of about three hundred fighting men. Most of these people at present profess Christianity, and as far as is in their power adopt our customs. The greater part of them attended the army during the late war, but not with the same reputation of those who are still deemed hunters.”
And so it went, on and on, until there was barely a trace left. Today, there are few Native Americans living in Dutchess County. One family of Oneida ancestry, the Chrisjohns, settled in Milan when their patriarch was working on building the Taconic Parkway. At the Dutchess County Fairgrounds there is an annual Iroquois Festival, celebrated by the ancestral enemies of the Mahicans and Wappingers. At New Age meccas in the woods like the Omega Institute, a rainbow of practitioners of many races – but few, if any, Native Americans – routinely take part in rituals and ceremonies derived from native culture: banging drums, singing spirit songs, ending prayers with the word “ho!” and so on.
But for this white man, 75% English and 25% Dutch, the only words that come to mind are: “I am so, so sorry.” Let us hope that someday, something significant will be done in every community across the land to redress the wrongs against Native Americans that were perpetrated by our forefathers. Until then, we are all living a lie – nowhere more than here in beautiful Dutchess County.