SCHENECTADY — If you’re tired of getting your Mohawks mixed up with your Mahicans, then William A. Starna is just the guy to see.
Starna, a retired anthropology professor at SUNY-Oneonta, will present a lecture, “Of Different Worlds: American Indian and Dutch Experiences in the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys,” on Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society on Washington Avenue in Schenectady.
Starna co-authored “A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634–1635: The Journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert,” with New Netherland scholar Charly Gehring back in 1991. The pair are coming out with a revised version of the book soon, and Starna put in a solo effort to produce “From Homeland to New Land: A History of the Mahican Indians, 1600-1830,” which will be published in May by the University of Nebraska Press.
“I’m going to talk about the native groups in the area, describe where they were located, and then bring in the Dutch and talk about their relationship with the natives,” said Starna, who grew up in St. Johnsville. “The Dutch didn’t seem like much of a threat to the Indians, and the Dutch didn’t seem to make a big fuss out of their relationship with the Indians. They were there to do business, and that meant they didn’t want to antagonize the natives.”
‘Of Different Worlds: American Indian and Dutch Experiences in the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys’
WHAT: A lecture by retired Oneonta professor and author William A. Starna
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5 for non-members
MORE INFO: 374-0263
Not mortal enemies
As for the Mohawks and the Mahicans, the idea that they were always at war with each other is overstated, according to Starna.
“There certainly were skirmishes between them, but the idea that there was this long enmity between the Mohawks and the Mahicans has been exaggerated,” said Starna, who was chairman of the Anthropology Department at Oneonta. “The reality is that the Mahicans were part and parcel of the New England Algonquians. They had a lot of hostility that was directed at the Mohawks, and the Mahicans were kind of caught in the middle.”
The Mohawks were part of the Iroquois Confederacy and keeper of that group’s eastern door, while the Mahicans were on the western edge of Algonquian territory. But to suggest that the Mohawks kept to the west side of the Hudson and the Mahicans on the east side is oversimplification, according to Starna.
“There are historians who say that the Mahicans seemed to have been on both sides of the Hudson, and I suspect that may be true at certain times,” said Starna. “But the whole area between the Hudson and Schoharie rivers was probably a contested area, and we also know that at times the Mohawks went down to the Hudson River. There was a lot of fluidity with these groups, and to actually work out specific boundaries is fraught with difficulty.”
Another problem hindering native American research in upstate New York is that for present-day archaeologists there is little to distinguish the two groups.
“The Mohawk material doesn’t look a whole lot different than the Mahican material, so it’s very difficult to shake out the differences archaeologically,” said Starna. “Archaeologists are hard-pressed to find any distinction.”
One area where you can draw a defined line between the two groups is their stance on the American Revolution. While the Mohawks and most of the Iroquois sided with the British, the Mahicans fought on the American side.
“The Mahicans were heavily Christianized, and by the time of the American Revolution there was never any real question which side they would fight on,” said Starna. “The Stockbridge Mahicans were thoroughly isolated and had been living in what they called ‘praying towns.’ Whether or not they were actually converted it’s hard to say, but they were deeply influenced by the Americans they were living next to. They had no reason at all to contemplate the British side, and the Stockbridge group was well known for their exploits during the war. They had their own regiment and fought on their own as a group, but in the end they took a real beating.”
Moved by government
In 1785, four years after hostilities between the motherland and the colonies ended and two years after a treaty formally ended the war, what was left of the Mahicans were moved to the Oneida reservation in central New York. In 1830, the remaining members were moved again by the U.S. government out to Wisconsin.
Growing up in the Mohawk Valley, Starna was always interested in the region’s history, and credits former University at Albany professors William Fenton and Dean Snow with really sparking his interest in native Americans. He began his schooling at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, got his undergraduate degree from the University at Albany, and then stayed there to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology.