FOCUS ON HISTORY: Edmund Wilson and the Mohawk encampment


Edmund Wilson, a famous journalist and man of letters, visited Chief Standing Arrow at the 1957 Mohawk Indian encampment on farmland adjacent to the Schoharie Creek in Fort Hunter. Wilson wrote about the encounter in his book, “Apologies to the Iroquois.”

Standing Arrow put a sign on Route 5S that said “Indian Village.” During the previous summer, the Mohawks sold souvenirs to tourists.

The encampment was an attempt to repossess part of an 8,000 acre tract the Mohawks said was not included in land ceded to the U.S. government by the Iroquois Confederacy in the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1784. According to historian and newspaper reporter Hugh Donlon, there was talk of 3,000 Mohawks coming to the settlement from the reservation on the Canadian border with northern New York.

When Wilson arrived, the Chief, also known as Frank Johnson, 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 Wilson 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.”

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 Tug Hill Plateau. 

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. 

Inside, Standing Arrow’s 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 chief from the St. Regis Reservation, was a charismatic figure. 

Although he had heard unfavorable things about Standing Arrow, Wilson was “won over” by the Chief saying, “He appealed to the imagination.” Standing Arrow’s features reminded Wilson 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 added, “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.”

Standing Arrow produced a document from 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.

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. That bridge collapsed during flooding 30 years later killing 10 people. 

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, describing the lives led by Mohawks living in New York City.

After a harsh winter, the Schoharie Creek encampment was gone by the summer of 1958. Eviction orders were served by Sheriff Alton Dingman 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.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Opinion

Leave a Reply