Evidence of native cultures widespread in Adirondacks

In last week’s column, I attempted to trace the history of the first Europeans to venture into the Adirondack region in an effort to determine the source of the name “Adirondack.”

The most commonly accepted translation for the term is “barkeater,” which was used to describe those “who eat bark.”

Numerous authors have claimed the term was intended as an insult to describe the original inhabitants of the region who were not capable of providing fish or game, and were therefore reduced to subsisting on bark.

I believe it’s more likely that the term was used to describe the most prominent, and the most important, natural feature of the region: the beaver.

These wide-tailed, buck-toothed rodents were by far the most common homegrown species in the Adirondacks, and they primarily eat bark. Thus, it would be reasonable to expect original inhabitants of the region to use a prominent natural feature such as the beaver to describe the territory that encompassed the Adirondacks.

It would only make sense that the region was named as the Land of the Beaver. Beaver pelts were North America’s first major commodity of exchange. The trade eventually led to the Beaver Wars, which became the first major international conflict on the new continent.

The Haudenosaunee, “People of the Long House,” roamed the forests and lakes of the Adirondack region for more than 10,000 years. In that time, it would become quite obvious that beaver – which are barkeaters – were the most common natural feature of the land.

Mohawks call themselves Kanienkehake, which translates to “People of the land of the Flint,” which was a common mineral found throughout their homelands in the Mohawk River valley. It was used for tools, weapons and fire making, which made it a valuable trade commodity.

Native people identified with the natural landscape and considered themselves to be a component of it. Unlike Europeans, they did not believe in ownership of the land; they believed the land owned them. The land provided for them just as it had for their ancestors, and their oral history reflected this understanding.

A recent doctoral thesis by Mellissa Otis, titled “At Home in the Adirondacks – A Regional History of Indigenous and Euroamerican Interactions, 1776-1920,” argues that the Adirondack region has always been an indigenous homeland for Iroquois and Algonquian people.

Ms. Otis describes the Adirondack region as a “location of exchange,” a term used to define a purposeful and occupied place where reciprocal acts occurred, which created opportunities for entangled exchanges between people and the land.

There has always been ample evidence of this notion, and there are plenty of facts to back it up.

Otis grew up in Elizabethtown. Her father was a supervisor with the state Department of Transportation, and reportedly, he often came across native artifacts during the course of his work.

During the summer of 2012, New York archeologists uncovered thousands of artifacts, including arrowheads, pottery and spear points near Lake George. The discovery came about while they were completing a routine inspection as part of a plan to re-surface roads and parking lots at the popular Million Dollar Beach in Lake George Village.

Through the process of carbon dating, the find was dated back to 8000 BC.

The village of Kahnawake is one of the oldest Kanienkehake settlements. It is located just south of Montreal near the site of where natural rapids once roared, before they disappeared as a result of construction on the St. Lawrence Seaway canal.

Located about 80 miles upriver near Massena is the village of Akwesasne, which was settled in the 1750s, not far from the confluence of the St. Lawrence River and the St. Regis River.

Akwesasne which translates to “land where the partridge drums” has always been considered a prime location for fishing and hunting. There is evidence the region was regularly traveled by people of the Algonquian, Abenaki, Mahican and Iroquois nations. They used the Adirondack region to hunt, trap and fish, as well as for spiritual purposes and exploration.

Although the region has been considered part of the vast Iroquois Confederacy and a favored hunting ground of the Haudenosaunee, eventually the region became a place of refuge for displaced Algonquian-speaking people who departed from New England and southern New York for a variety of religious, economic and political reasons.

Following such European-American conflicts as the Beaver Wars among the Dutch, the French and Indian Wars and finally the American Revolution, the Adirondack region morphed into a state of confusion.

Ms. Otis describes the Adirondack region of the late 1700s to be a “shatter zone,” which is a term of political geography used to denote locations where members of refugee populations migrate to escape warfare and political pressures.

Shatter zones are often found in borderlands, places beyond the direct control of the state where the most destructive aspects of state-making, warfare and governance can take place.

While often ignored or dismissed by historians, shatter zones are where state, ethnic and human interactions have the most dangerous and dramatic effects.

Twenty first century shatter zones include such borderland places as the Balkans, Yugoslavia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to comprehend similar conditions existing in such a peaceful region as the Adirondacks.

Evidence of native cultures has been discovered throughout the region, and remains in many place names to this day.

Artifacts have also been uncovered along the shores of many Adirondack lakes and rivers, as well as along the popular carries and in many farm fields.

Several historic Adirondack resorts had collections of native artifacts, including Rainbow Court Lodge proprietor James Wardner who collected “thousands of pieces from the lands surrounding Rainbow Lake.”

Alfred B. Street’s “Woods and Waters,” published in 1866, describes “a large tribe of the Saranac Indians” who lived at the “Indian Carrying Place (Indian Carry in Coreys” during the mid-1700s. The site of the clearing reportedly held their village and council places.

Jesse Corey, proprietor of the Rustic Lodge in Coreys, amassed a collection of Indian artifacts that ranged into the thousands. Reportedly, he built the lodge in 1850 on the site of a pre-existing Algonquian village.

Indian Carry served as a major crossroads of water routes. The area continued to attract native people well into the the 21st century, with basket makers and canoe builders maintaining roadside shops to sell their wares to tourists.

Although a 1985 survey conducted by Hartgen Associates for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites lists more than 350 prehistoric sites within the Blue Line, only a handful of which have been examined or dug up by professional archaeologists.

Artifacts continue to be discovered along the shores of many Adirondack lakes and rivers, as well as near the “carries” and at former farms.

There have been more than a half-dozen dugout canoes discovered in the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid region alone, including one found on the bottom of Mirror Lake in the late 1960s.

In addition, there have also been numerous discoveries of tools, weapons and pottery throughout the region. Many of these discoveries can be found at the Six Nations Museum in Onchiota, which offers outstanding opportunities for those seeking further information on this topic.

Despite such obvious evidence of native cultures in the Adirondack region, many are left to wonder why there remains so little evidence of permanent villages? The answer is actually quite simple.

The Haudenosaunee were very mobile and they moved with the seasons to take advantage of the climate for farming purposes and timing for the availability of fish and game.

They lived in buildings constructed primarily of wood and bark. Their tools were wooden and their containers were mostly baskets, which again were made of wood.

Their boats were also made of wood and bark, as were many of their weapons.

A simple walk through the local woods will provide an answer to the mystery of the missing villages. Wood rots and it returns to the earth, as did their villages.

However, there remains ample evidence in the way of old footpaths, many of which are now traced by current day highways such as state Route 9 and the Old Military Road.