Focus on History: Edmund Wilson and the Mohawks

Four months after the Mohawk Indian encampment began on farmland off Route 5S, adjacent to the Schoh
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Four months after the Mohawk Indian encampment began on farmland off Route 5S, adjacent to the Schoharie Creek in 1957, world-renowned man of letters Edmund Wilson paid a visit to Chief Standing Arrow and his followers.

Wilson wrote about the October encounter in his 1959 book, “Apologies to the Iroquois.” Amsterdam native Tom Pikul provided this interesting lead on the story of the encampment.

Wilson found that Standing Arrow was part of an Iroquois nationalist movement with adherents at the Onondaga reservation in the Syracuse area and at reservations in northern New York and Canada. In other chapters of the book, Wilson describes meetings with other Indian nationalists.

Descended from an upstate New York family named Talcott, Wilson maintained a summer home at Talcottville, north of Utica in Lewis County between the Adirondacks and the Tug Hill Plateau.

Before going to the Mohawk encampment, Wilson met with reporters from the Recorder in Amsterdam, apparently including historian Hugh Donlon. Wilson also gathered information from the county archivist.

When Wilson arrived, the chief was away and his family not too willing to communicate. On a second visit, Wilson knocked at the door and no one came to answer it. When the author was getting back in his car, Standing Arrow appeared in the doorway and waved to him.

Wilson said, “It was a characteristic of an Indian that not being up and dressed, he should not shout that he would be out in a minute but should wait until he could present himself with dignity.”

Inside, the hut was “small but not ill-kept.” There was a landscape of a lake hanging on the wall, along with a feathered headdress and a rattle made from the shell of a snapping turtle. Wilson said Standing Arrow, a former chief from the St. Regis Reservation also known as Frank Johnson, was a charismatic figure.

Wilson wrote, “A Mohawk who disapproved of Standing Arrow told me that his eloquence in English — of which his command was imperfect — was nothing to his eloquence in Mohawk.”

Although Wilson had heard unfavorable things about Standing Arrow, he was “won over” by the chief saying, “He appealed to the imagination.” Wilson said Standing Arrow’s features reminded him of the young Napoleon, even though he had “a slight cast in one eye.”

“He had also, as I could see, some of the qualities of the Mussolinian spellbinder,” wrote Wilson.

Wilson learned that some of the men in the settlement were high steel workers who had labored that year on the Thruway bridge over the Schoharie Creek. Most of them had gone back to Brooklyn after the summer construction season.

The Mohawks are excellent working on tall construction projects — walking on a narrow beam is not difficult for them. Wilson’s book includes “A Study of the Mohawks in High Steel” written by Joseph Mitchell in 1949, describing the lives led by Mohawks in New York City.

Standing Arrow had put a sign on Route 5S outside the encampment that said Indian Village. During the previous summer, the Indians sold souvenirs to tourists.

In the conversation with Wilson, Standing Arrow produced a document from American attorney E.A. Everett in 1924 backing the chief’s claim that the Mohawks still owned the land around the Schoharie Creek. Everett credited the Iroquois Confederacy with creating the only pre-European government in America.

The Schoharie Creek encampment was gone by the summer of 1958. Eviction orders were served following court action in March. Some of the Mohawk huts were burned. The Mohawks were offered land in the town of Fulton in Schoharie County, but if there was a settlement there, apparently it was short-lived.

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