Keepers of the “Eastern Door”: The Mohawk Tribe
Written by Jay Tagliani
Camper and Staff
Back in grade school I was always mildly interested in history class. My classmates dreaded history. Why learn about things that already happened and people that aren’t even alive? What’s the point? I didn’t have an answer then, but didn’t mind it. Only after graduating from high school did I realize my passion for history. Every event and every person that’s ever existed falls neatly into one massive timeline. At the end of this timeline, you and I are breaking new ground with everything we do. We’re at the very tip of an amazingly long story, so long that it’s sometimes difficult to understand. Here’s a thought: imagine that you’re related to someone in every event that’s ever happened. Maybe they once ruled an empire. One way or another, history has swept them away, but they’re still a part of our long timeline.
I learned that I loved stories as a camper at Adirondack Camp. My counselors would tell them to us before bed, even when I was a Ranger. My goal with this little piece of writing is to tell a story about the people who lived in the mountains in and around the lakes surrounding our present-day camp. They were still here just 200 years ago, living in villages of what were called “longhouses” which were large wood-framed buildings covered with sheets of elm bark and shaped like giant Snickers bars. Just one Mohawk longhouse could fit an entire clan - up to 60 people. Mohawk women sometimes wore special tiaras on their heads and Mohawk men sometimes wore a headdress with three eagle feathers on top. Men shaved their heads except for a crest down the center. This style is often called a Mohawk haircut because of them. They traveled in canoes made of elm bark which is light, fast on the water, and sturdy enough to carry many people. Mohawks would fill their drums with water to give them a distinctive sound, something different from other tribes. At the time of the first European contact in the 17th century, the Mohawk tribe was one of the most populous and well-organized within the region.
Camp ADK is right in the heart of what was once Mohawk territory. The Mohawk people were members of the Iroquois Confederation, also known as the Six Nations which was founded in 1142. It was an alliance of various tribes in the northeast region of America which banded together to defend their territory from hostile tribes and eventually European settlers and American colonists. The Mohawks came to be known as “Keepers of the Eastern Door” because their territories in the Adirondacks were closest to settlements growing in Boston and New York which were becoming threatening to the Iroquois Confederation.
A drive in your car from New York City to Camp Adirondack is only four hours. In the 18th century it could have been done on horseback in just a week. The Mohawk’s ability to endure as a tribe so close to European settlers is owed to their fearsome reputation as exceptional fighters. I would like to explore one particular event which cemented their legend. On September 8, 1755 1,500 French troops, including Frenchmen, Canadians and Abenaki People lay in a roadside ambush three miles away from present day Lake George Village under the command of Jean Erdman, known as Baron Dieskau, who had been sent south from French Canada. Dieskau’s ambush aimed to push back an advancing British force of 2,500 men which included 200 Mohawk fighters, all under the leadership of William Johnson. Both the French and British needed control of Lake George because of its northward connection to Lake Champlain. The British advance towards Lake Champlain threatened French control of the lake and of their city of Montreal.
The ambush Dieskau led that day against Johnson was a success overall - the British were indeed beaten back - but it also reinforced the reputation of the Mohawks as having extraordinary fighting skills. Johnson stumbled unknowingly into the waiting storm of French musketry and was killed in the intense fighting. His men began a desperate retreat south towards their fortified camp 14 miles away, many throwing down their weapons to run faster. However, in the course of events, all 200 Mohawks fighting alongside Johnson and his British troops decided to begin a “rear-guard action”, where the losing side of a battle partly sacrifices itself to protect their compatriots. The Mohawks lost half of their party, but reinforced their reputation as being highly competent in battle.
In 1779, only 24 years after this famous French ambush, American colonial frontier settlements created an expeditionary force with the goal of destroying the Iroquois Confederacy, including the Mohawks. George Washington, who would become the first American President ten years later in 1789, was the military officer in charge. His orders to his military leaders John Sullivan and James Clinton were to prevail over these tribes, noting that “our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.” This campaign became known as the Sullivan Expedition (or Sullivan-Clinton Genocide) and was basically a “scorched earth” campaign. A total of 40 Indian villages were burned to the ground and anyone who couldn’t flee was killed. The Mohawks were driven farther from their traditional lands. Destruction of their crops caused widespread famine among their populations. Regrouping to the west of the American colonial settlements, the Iroquois Confederation recreated themselves as the Northwestern Confederacy with the aim of resisting further American encroachment. However, military expeditions undertaken by Washington continued based on the same “scorched earth” strategies undertaken in the Sullivan Expedition.
And just like that, on that great big timeline of history, the line denoting the Mohawks in the Adirondacks just stops - through no fault of their own. Mohawks of today number about 30,000 and live in communities scattered around Canada and northern New York. What I’ve learned is that history’s timeline can be just as important for what‘s missing as what appears on it. In this case, what’s missing is a tribe of people called the Mohawks here in the Adirondacks, but who are remembered for many extraordinary things - especially their bravery.