Home was a relative term among early Adirondackers

For the past few weeks, I have used this space to review historic evidence of native peoples in the Adirondacks in an effort to consider the long-held notion that the Adirondack region has always been too inhospitable to allow for any permanent indigenous presence.

Central to this story is the tale of “barkeaters,” a mythical group of native people who could not survive by traditional hunting and fishing methods, and had to eat bark in order to survive.

According to legend, the Adirondack region was known as “land of the barkeaters,” due to rough terrain and harsh climate. The country was considered unsuitable for permanent settlement.

However, recent research at the University of Toronto has raised questions regarding the concept of occupation being defined by the establishment of permanent villages and settlements.

“The variety of labor, and the regularity of seasonal rounds into the area combined with political and cultural connections, clearly show the Adirondacks were an indigenous homeland prior to European contact,” the study explains.

Melissa Otis, author of the study, seeks to change the perception of indigenous occupation as being defined exclusively by the establishment of permanent village life. She contends that a space can be occupied in different manners that serve to define it as being part of an ancestral homeland.

There is ample evidence to indicate that prior to European contact, both Iroquoian- and Algonquian-speaking peoples regularly journeyed to the Adirondack region for extended periods. They came for religious and spiritual purposes, for trade and procurement of natural resources and to protect historic territory.

The author explains the concept of home was a “relative term” among native peoples. Often they had a “home base” where they spent much of the winter and part of the early spring, but they were known to move to other regions throughout the year in search of fish, game and other natural forage.

In fact, the eastern-most members of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk and Oneida) maintained permanent villages along the Mohawk River and on Oneida Lake.

For generations, they would venture into the Adirondack region for months at a time in order to hunt, fish, trap and forage. Evidence of their camps has been found near Sabel, Indian Lake, Long Lake, Saranac Lake and Raquette Lake.

Eventually, many integrated into local Adirondack communities and functioned as guides and woodsmen. In many cases, their descendants can still to be found today.

In later years, the Onondaga, Cayuga and the Mohawk traveled to Catholic mission villages along the St. Lawrence River, as did many of the Algonquian groups who were often more mobile than the others.

Yet, for much of the year they would often be on the move to target specific territory during different seasons for purposes of hunting, trapping, fishing or to forage berries, nuts, fruits and tubers.

As the Adirondack tourist trade burgeoned in the late 1880s through the middle of the 20th century, native peoples often ventured into the park to work as guides, perform in Indian pageants and to sell baskets and other Native wares. Eventually, theme parks picked up on the public interest, and native performers soon became major attractions in the tourist towns of Old Forge, Lake Placid and Lake George.

Over the years, there have been numerous discoveries that provide an indication of the extent of the original settlers of Adirondack lands.

There is irrefutable evidence of historic hunting and fishing camps that include cultivated farm fields, clearings, orchards, council grounds, mines, foot trails, work sites and on the many ‘carries” that connect various water bodies. There have also been discoveries of tools, flint, shards and more.

According to John Fadden, curator of the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, the evidence of pottery is often of special significance, as it suggests the presence of women who typically made the pottery on site. This locally made pottery was often too large, too heavy or too fragile to transport for any great distance. As a result, the pottery was often stored for the next user, and to inform others the land was part of their territory.

It is interesting to note that Adirondack hunters have been responsible for the discovery of numerous clay pots over the years. Pots are often discovered in caves, slant rock shelters or at the base of cliffs in places such as Silver Lake, Lake Placid and St. Regis Mountain.

Pots have also been discovered where they were left at hunting and fishing camps as part of a supply chain used to send meat and skins back to villages in the Mohawk Valley.

There are also a number of dugout canoes that have been discovered at the bottom of lakes in St. Lawrence, Franklin, Hamilton and Essex counties.

In last week’s column, I attempted to define the geopolitical concept of “shatter zones” in an effort to explain the political instability and human suffering that occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries in the marginal areas of colonial North America.

Indigenous populations suffered greatly during this period of cultural warfare due to the lack of advanced weapons and a limited resistance to a variety of diseases such as small pox that were introduced by the Europeans.

This was a period full of strife that was carried over from European conflicts. It led to the Beaver Wars, the French and Indian War and ultimately to the American Revolution.

It was also a time of great cultural and military turmoil, as old customs deteriorated and geopolitical issues destroyed many of the old alliances. For most indigenous populations, the entire northeast morphed into a “shatter zone,” which is a marginal area where people were forced to leave their ancestral homelands and seek shelter and refuge in efforts to escape the violent effects of colonization.

They fled to marginal areas, which have been described as “zones of refuge” that are typically defined by their inaccessible and isolated landscapes. The Adirondack region certainly served as one such place, as did the Catholic missions at Akwesasne, Kahnawake and Odanak.

It is interesting to note phonetic pronunciations in the Mohawk language for bark eater, which is a-non-daks.

Porcupine or “they eat bark” is la-dee-loon-daks.

Beaver is ja-nee-doh.

It appears the word Adirondacks (la-dee-loon-daks) is much closer to the Mohawk word for porcupine than for the beaver (ja-nee-doh). (These translations were provided by John Fadden, curator of the Six Nations Indian Museum.)

Of course, porcupines are also notorious barkeaters.

For further information regarding native peoples of the Adirondacks and the Northeast, please visit the Six Nations Indian Museum in lovely downtown Onchiota. It is one of the finest small museums in the Adirondacks. The facility is open seasonally or you can visit online at