Friday, May 27, 2011

Finding the ancient Mohawk village of Otstungo

A version of this post was published as In Search of Sacred Ground in the Albany Times Union June 12, 2011.

 Paul Keesler

 The late Paul Keesler was one of the great chroniclers of the Mohawk Valley and his descriptions of rambles and fishing expeditions are well worth reading. In his final work, Discovering the Valleyof the Crystals,  he tells of one of his classic expeditions, this time up the Otsquago Creek, a tributary that joins the Mohawk at Fort Plain, in search of a prehistoric Mohawk Village. Paul and Ron Gugnacki meandered “along the bottom of a steep-wooded bank, past a small tributary, around a sharp bend and along the bottom of an 80-foot high shale cliff.  Looking up at the top of the cliff, Paul says he knew “this had to be the site of the long ago Indian village. Located at this sharp bend in the creek---slate cliff  on one side, steep gully on the other---it was a high-ground peninsula, defensible on three sides.”  Respectful of the ancient people, Paul had no desire to disturb the ground, and  reports a real sense of awe as he thought about the lives that were lived here. But he and his friend did find some evidence that they were at the village site:

We had no interest in digging where so many others had cut away the topsoil, but it would be nice to find some evidence that this was indeed a village site. So, we climbed down into the gully on the side opposite the cliff. There was only a trickle of water in the  bottom of the gully, but we found a pool that had collected water and sediment. Here we discovered some mussel shells and a tiny piece of pottery.

Amish newcomers have revitalized farming
near Hallsville and Freys Bush

But after an initial visit to tiny Hallsville and the Otsquago gorge, we could not find the topography Paul described. The Amish farm folk with whom I spoke are newly arrived in the area and knew nothing of “Indian Hill,” as local people once called the village site. So we left, disappointed but not discouraged in our search, and turned to an often reliable old source, the 1925 History of the Mohawk Valley:Gateway to the West, edited by Nelson Greene, which contains this intriguing comment from Douglas Ayers:

Otstungo was one of the first Indian village sites to be investigated and, while it has been dug over for a century, it still yields an occasional relic of interest. Some very fine stone axes, pestles, arrowheads, spears and bone implements have been excavated from this Mohawk fort. The castle site is remarkably well adapted for defense and is one of the most picturesque and interesting of the Mohawk locations. It is situated on a beautiful winding stream and the gorge of the Otstungo is well worth a visit.

 The Otstungo prehistoric site embraces about six acres situated on the top of a high perpendicular cliff of Utica shale, overlooking the Otstungo Creek. The primeval forest on Otstungo was pine, as is the second growth today. We work around the virgin pine stumps and strike shallow trenches six feet wide and six inches deep between them. We cut a root. Out from under it tumbles a decoration of a pipe. It is an imitation of a great horned owl. There are the large round eyes, the facial disks, the ear tufts, the beak — crude, but easily recognizable as the silent-winged forest hunter whose hunting-cry must have often boomed through the Otstungo woodland.

Then I turned to the professional archeologists, whom Paul said had studied the site in 1985-87. After decades of ransacking by souvenir hunters, it might seem that the Otstungo site would have little to offer to serious research, but Dean Snow, a leading authority on Iroquois pre-history now at Penn State after many years at SUNY Albany, thought differently. When his team carefully excavated the site, a variety of fragments of ceramic and stone fragments was found, as well as evidence of cook fires. He found this surprising after a century and a half of looting, but notes that the hilly ground was never plowed. Those artifacts from the site which have not vanished can be found at the Smithsonian, the University at Albany, the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum and other locations.
Snow  placed the site in the Chance Phase of the Late Woodland Period, well before the ultimately devastating contact with Europeans. Radiocarbon dating indicates the site was first settled around 1450 and abandoned around 1525. He says that,  “The single excavated longhouse here is probably understood in greater detail than any other Iroquois longhouse.” The well-defended location, distant from the rich soil and transportation of the river, is a clear indication of the insecurity of the Iroquoian-speaking Mohawk people at that stage, surrounded as they were by hostile Algonquin-speaking tribes. 

 Dean Snow

After studying the map provided in Snow’s report, we set out for a second try at finding the ancient village of Otstungo. As it happened, his map was more than two miles off. Perhaps this was deliberate, to prevent more souvenir-hunters from ravaging the site.

After more fruitless searching along the Otsquago Creek north of the hamlet of Hallsville, we encountered an old-timer named Pete who told us we were on the wrong creek. “Go back to the bridge,”  he said, “and you can follow the creek straight down to Indian Hill.” 

Plunging into the woods full of poison ivy and ticks, we soon decided to switch to wading along the Otstungo Creek.

 Navigating with care along the slippery shale that formed the creek bottom, we saw ahead a cliff that exactly matched the photograph from Paul’s book, and the even older one from Nelson Green’s history. The geography matched the description in Joseph Bruhac's October 1991 National Geographic article, "A Mohawk Village in 1491:"

This village at Otstungo is sited on a neck of land whose walls of shale fall away to a creek on three sides. A trench and a stockade protect the landward entrance.

This cliff, about eighty feet high, would certainly have presented an impassable barrier to the enemies of the village, and it took us a while to locate what may have been the landward entrance, across a tiny stream. A trench and stockade at this point would complete the village’s defenses, and if they were penetrated, the steep slope was a final barrier to enemies, who would have faced a fusillade of arrows and rocks as they struggled upward.

The slope was steep but could be climbed. Somewhat winded, we reached the level space on top of this impressive mount, just about six acres in extent, as Greene had described it.  There was ample space here for the longhouses studied by the SUNY Albany expedition 24 years ago, as well as for crop land. 

The village site was densely overgrown and it required imagination to see it peopled with the 400 to 600 people believed to have lived here five centuries ago. 

 Imagined aerial view of the village, courtesy National Geographic

We pictured the village life, particularly the life of the women,  as Bruhacs had described it:

Inside the turtle Clan Longhouse in, Otstungo, more than 120feet long and 20 feet wide with six central hearths is home to 12 families. The women do not have many children, usually three. Infant mortality is far lower than in Europe where childhood diseases yet unknown in America take a dread toll and nutrition is excellent. Maize, the Indian corn, is a food close to ideal for both young and old. The women valuing their freedom would not like to be tied down with more children than they have, with help of other clanswomen, can conveniently care for. So they practice abstinence while nursing and take medicinal birth -control herbs.

Good archeologists that they were, the SUNY team had left no trace of their work. Their notes reveal a painstaking study of the ground. They located longhouse sites and evidence of cooking fires, but found few artifacts. The 19th century souvenir-hunters had done too much damage to the site to allow an even more comprehensive analysis of the way these people had lived.

 Artist's depiction of longhouse, courtesy National Geographic

Like Paul Keesler eleven years ago, we could not help but experience a sense of awe in this sacred place. Descending from the village, we briefly searched in the stream directly below, as he did, and found a couple small fragments that may be a piece of pottery and a sinker for an ancient fishing net. Or perhaps they were simply pebbles.

  A fragment of ancient pottery? Or not.

So much is lost in the mists of time, but the village site does reveal some facts about life a century before Henry Hudson’s Half Moon sailed up the river that now bears his name. Clearly, the people who lived here were in great fear of enemies. The site is far from the rich soil and easy transportation afforded by the Mohawk River, and would be invisible to all but the most determined enemy. Perhaps villagers even waded to and from the village to avoid footprints.  Although safe, the site was inconvenient in many ways. Many villagers, from the elderly to children and new mothers, would have been confined to the hilltop most of the time. Water would have to be carried from the stream up the steep slope. (An enemy raid was to be feared but a long siege was not, so the lack of water on the hilltop would not present a major risk.)

 A storyteller at Otstungo, courtesy National Geographic

Who were the enemies who drove the villagers to take so much care for their own safety? In all probability, the Algonquin-speaking tribes who surrounded on all sides the small Iroquoian-speaking cultural island in what is now central New York state. It was not until the 17th century, when the Mohawks gained firearms from the Dutch that they were able to extend their sway in all directions, even into Ontario and the Ohio valley. By then they had  moved to the banks of the river and established the string of powerful villages first visited by Harmen van den Bogaert in 1634. But they may also have lived in fear of their own related tribes, the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Seneca, and the Cayuga.

It was not just the possession of European technology that transformed the fearful villagers of Otstungo into a virtual empire, whose friendship the Dutch and then the English eagerly sought. It was their own creation of the continent’s first republic, the Iroquois Confederacy, which took place near the time that Otstungo was inhabited. Bruhacs describes the genius of the leader known to whites as Hiawatha, and it is intriguing to imagine the Peacemaker’s visit to this very hilltop:

The Great League began, Haudenosaunee tradition explains, with the coming of the Peacemaker . He was a human messenger sent by Tharonhiawakon, the Creator, at a time when the five nations were engaged in blood feuds, cousin killing cousin, worse than the man eating monsters in stories. The Peacemaker joined forces with a woman named Tsikonsaseh an elder who always tried to counsel her people toward peace, and the man Aiontwatha, known to later generations as Hiawatha. Together they went from nation to nation bearing the Creator's message of peace.

 Tsikonsaseh and Hiawatha, courtesy US History Images

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