This post is a conglomeration of lecture notes, slides, and other information. I compiled all of this as part of my preparation for my OLLI course on Berkshire History, in which I talked about six different preserved properties that all have walking/hiking trails on them.
An overview of the course can be found here.
From my syllabus:
The Mahican-Mohawk Trail is an imagined re-creation of the original “Indian Trail” (as the English called it) that was a trading route between the Connecticut River (near Deerfield) and the Albany area.
- When I was a kid, we all knew that “Indian file” referred to walking through the woods in single file. Based on my hiking experience in general, and after seeing the section of this trail that is known to have been in existence since before the English arrived, I’d say that was the easiest way to walk through difficult places.
- I have long wondered why the auto route that goes from Greenfield to North Adams is called the “Mohawk Trail.” I knew from the stories my grandmother told me that the Mohawks did not live around here, but were over on the other side (to the west) of Albany.
To be Discussed:
- Where is the Mahican-Mohawk Trail?
- What was its original purpose?
- Who are the Mahicans?
- Who are the Mohawks?
- Are there other, similar, trails, and if so, where?
- What was Berkshire County like before it was Berkshire County?
- How and when did Berkshire County come into existence?
- Why do I have so many questions?
We can only touch briefly on most of these questions, and we will have an opportunity to learn more about these topics in later sessions, especially when we discuss the origins of Stockbridge and The Bidwell House. I will try to address all of these questions, though not as neatly nor necessarily in the order shown here. My brain doesn’t work that way. If you want linear thinking, you’re in the wrong course. But you’ve probably already figured that out…
Where is the Mahican-Mohawk Trail? and what was its purpose?
I have long wondered why the auto route that goes from Greenfield to North Adams is called the “Mohawk Trail.” I knew from the stories my grandmother told me that the Mohawks did not live around here, but were over on the other side (to the west) of Albany.
Each one of you will receive (if you so desire — no obligation to take one) a map of the Mahican-Mohawk Trail. As is pointed out on the front of the map, this Trail is intended to recreate the route of “the original American Indian trail” that was used as a trading route by the indigenous people. The re-creation of a footpath on or near the original can only be an approximation, because some sections were paved over in the 20th-Century as automobile roads, as you know if you read Lauren Steven’s article on the subject.
A few comments on Stevens’s article:
- “In Colonial days, almost all European arrivals in Berkshire County came from the south…”
- I would say that’s an overstatement — although many people came from Connecticut (if you consider that “the south”) most of those folks could trace their origins back to the Boston area.
- “… a Mohawk raid on the Pocumtucks … in timely fashion for the arrival of settlers of European extraction.”
- In class, I told the story of the 1664 Mohawk war party that wiped out the Pocumtucks, which may have been in response to an English rumor, since they had their eyes on the desirable farmland to the north of Deerfield, occupied by that tribe (already greatly reduced in number by disease).
- “… the closing of the American frontier. ‘Wyoming Bill’s Wild West Show’ …”
- I’m sure he meant to say “Buffalo Bill” (who was from Wyoming). Again, I told the story in class — John L.E. Pell, a friend of my grandmother’s, send me a photo of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, and on the back he wrote “to Michael Wilcox, age 8, from John L.E. Pell who saw Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull when he was 8 years old”
Speaking of wilderness, here is a passage from the essay I shared, The Trouble with Wilderness, by Bill Cronon.
Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its otherness requires a conscious, willed act on our part. The romantic legacy means that wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder.https://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html
Now since it is but foode and rayment that men that live needeth (though not all alike,) why should not the Natives of New England be sayd to live richly, having no want of either?”Thomas Morton 1632
The practice of land management by controlled burning of undergrowth and detritus (there were no earthworms in North America before the Europeans arrived) was widespread, not at all confined to the forests of the Northeast.
I have walked a goodly portion of sections 4 and 5. A couple of resources to help you find your way, as well as some background information, are at
When I was a kid, we all knew that “Indian file” referred to walking through the woods in single file. Based on my hiking experience in general, and after seeing the section of this trail that is known to have been in existence since before the English arrived, I’d say that was the easiest way to walk through difficult places.
A group of 8 (I’m taking the photo) tackled most of Section 4 last December. It was an extremely difficult hike (not recommended for casual walkers).
One of the many views from the outlooks along the BNRC’s Hoosac Range Reserve (part of Section 5), this one looking west. That’s me in the red cap.
There are a few instances on this otherwise wonderful map where the wording needs to be improved. That will happen. The most glaring error occurs here, in locating the Mohawks in this area, which they were not. This is perhaps a common misconception, not at all helped by the naming of the Mohawk Trail auto route — as Lauren’s article points out — for marketing purposes, it would seem, and perhaps based on a flimsy bit of historical lore.
But before we get further into indigenous names and languages, allow me to share a couple of more graphics to put this Trail in perspective. Here is a present-day map to show that the general route of the M-M Trail, from Deerfield to the Albany area, goes nearly directly west, ending only slightly to the north of where it begins.
As mentioned, the text says, in part, “… to honor the Mohawk Nation that inhabited Western Massachusetts and New York State.” Wrong! This is as good a place as any to discuss the various names of indigenous peoples, and some of the other language that goes with that. While I’m at it, let me warn you about another source that seems to have some trouble with this very topic. If you have (or see) this book, be very careful of ascribing accuracy to its descriptions. The author makes a big deal, for example, about the difference between Mahican and Mohican, ignoring the advice of experts, and coming to his own unsubstantiated conclusion that these were two different peoples. He also talks about the casinos in eastern Connecticut as though there are somehow connected with the Berkshires. He seems to be confusing the Mohicans with the Mohegans.
The similarity between their names is due to coincidence and European mispronunciation–“Mahican” comes from the word Muheconneok, “from the waters that are never still” (the Hudson River), and “Mohegan” comes from the word Mahiingan, “wolf.” Today there are about 3000 Mahican Indians in Wisconsin, where they were forced to emigrate, and many Mahican descendants scattered throughout New England.
Well, not quite…
In addition, the French called the Mohicans “Les Loups” or “Wolves” because that was their totem animal. The Pequods split apart over a dispute about whom to form an alliance with (the French or the English), and one group, under Uncas, took the name Mohegan. This group may have come, in part, from New York State. It’s hard for me to sort out all the disruptions caused by the colonists among the natives in places of origin and in affiliations.
A few words of caution when dealing with Native words and spellings. All of this can be very confusing and controversial. Even what to call the people who originally occupied these lands brings out fierce debates. Many of their descendants prefer the term “Native American” to “Indian” but, for others, it is the other way around. And some use “First Nations” or “Indigenous People” or any number of other variations. Language is our primary form of communication, and, as such, clarity is important, so context will often determine which is the best terminology to use. At the same time, language can also convey and even shape our values. As with the rest of life, there are always tradeoffs.
To add to the confusion, the Europeans seem to have attached names to groups of Indians that were actually the Indian names of places that were in their territory. I have, for example, seen the Munsee Indians referred to as the Minisink Indians, but that is the name of one of their council fire places, at the end of the estuary on the Susquehanna River, which is more or less where Trenton New Jersey is located.
So, back to the Mahican-Mohawk Trail (Deerfield to Albany over northern Berkshire County), as an example of the evolution of transportation modes from pre-contact footpaths to the automobile/train passages of today. Many of the auto routes we now use closely follow ancient footpaths, which were developed over hundreds or even thousands of years as the easiest/fastest/safest routes to travel.
The original footpath ran for about 100 miles between the Connecticut River (near Deerfield) and the Albany area, mostly along the Deerfield and Hoosic Rivers. The original inhabitants of this area did not have wheeled vehicles or beasts of burden (such as oxen, mules, or horses). For transportation, they relied on foot-power and water-borne transport.
Specifically, on the water, they used canoes, a craft not known to the Europeans when they first arrived. (Europa was a consort of Zeus and the mother of Minos, King of Crete. The concept of Europe, as we know it today, is fairly recent, having developed in the 17th Century. In the early days of colonization of the Americas, people identified only with their country of origin.) Canoes were long and narrow, and, as a result, fast. In the northern and inland parts of what is now New England, birch bark canoes were common. They were lightweight and sturdy, made waterproof by being sealed with pine pitch. The English happily copied their design, although they often used alternative materials to construct them. The standard length of a colonial canoe was one English rod (also known as a perch or pole — 5½ yards, or 16½ feet). By coincidence, an English rod was approximately the length of most Indian birch bark canoes. The original rod, from which the standard measure took its name, was one that was used by farmers to prod their oxen while plowing, so it had to be long enough to reach over the plow. But I’m getting ahead of the story here. We’ll talk more about the English measurement system when we discuss the colonists’ agricultural practices. Rods, chains, furlongs, and acres are all related, and we’ll need to understand them in order to make sense of old deeds and other documents. But don’t worry, these terms will not be on the final exam.
Since we’re talking about canoes, here’s a bit of related trivia. The term “nautical” comes from the Greek nautikos/nautes (sailor) which in turn comes from naus (ship). A nautical mile is one minute of latitude (1.1508 statute miles). One knot (a similar sounding word having a totally different derivation) is one nautical mile per hour. In colonial times, ship speed was measured by dropping a knotted line into the water and letting it reel out freely for 30 seconds, then reeling it back in while counting the knots.
In the southern part of New England, along the major rivers and the seacoast, dugout canoes were more common. They were made from chestnut or tulip (magnolia) trees, because of their resistance to rot and saltwater. These canoes were not as easy to maneuver as the birch-bark canoes, and the largest ones required several people to propel them, but they were more useful for carrying large loads and for fishing. Ocean fishing was often done at night, using torches to lure the fish to the surface, where they would be speared and brought onto the boats.
The Taino people, who inhabited much of the Caribbean, were known as whalers. It appears that some of them followed the whales to the waters just off the coast of Lange Eylandt (as the Dutch called it), and some of them settled and intermarried with the Algonquins. The Canarsie Indians, who occupied what is now Brooklyn, evidently spoke a language that was not entirely a dialect of Algonquian, but was perhaps mixed with Taino. And their culture may have mixed with or influenced the Wappingers, who occupied the eastern bank of the river above Brooklyn. All of this, like so much else about this period, is partly speculation, since contemporary accounts are sparse, though it is based on the study of the languages and on archaeological finds.
In any case, ocean fishing in the large dugout canoes was a thing, and could be dangerous as well. The boats would go out as much as a mile or more from shore. To help guide them back home, council fires were kept burning at strategic promontories. One such fire was located at Navesink (sometimes spelled Navasink on old maps) in what is now Highlands, New Jersey, where in later years the Twin Lights Lighthouse was built. This promontory is near the mouth of what is now called the Navesink River, although the name seems to have meant something like “the place of the high cliffs” — the “ink” ending was similar to the “ic” ending that we find around here, and meant “the place of” — such as Taconic, meaning the place of the forest, or Housatonic, meaning the place of the bend in the river (although if you know that river, there are about 400 places that could claim that name!). The Navesink River seems to have defined (more or less) the southern border of Munsee territory, and below (to the south of) that is Unami. I’ll show you some maps that will make all of this crystal clear, but I realize I’m getting a bit far afield. Let me just mention that the Navesink council fire may have been the first sign of habitation that Henry Hudson saw as he sailed up the coast on his way to “discover” the Muhecannituck, which now goes by another name — that river now bears Hudson’s name.
Most of the peoples I have named so far were closely related, and were members of the larger Algonquin (sometimes pronouned Algonkin), or Algonquian language group. There is a science (some would say a pseudoscience) called glottochronology. It is a study of how related languages have diverged, in order to estimate how long ago they became separated. Based on this study, the Mohican language became a distinct dialect about 3,000 years ago. The Algonquian language group as a whole dates back at least 6,000 years, and archaeological evidence suggests there may have been human habitation in the Berkshires as much as 7,000 years ago. The glaciers of the Ice Age retreated from this area about 10 or 12 thousand years ago, and it would have taken some time for plant life to become re-established.
As people spread out and populations became more dense, dialects developed, although most of the Algonquian peoples could understand each other. There is no sign of word borrowing that would suggest that any other language was resident before the Algonquins arrived. There are some instances of later mixing, such as was mentioned in dialects of Canarsie and Wappinger, which appear to be Mohican combined with some Taino influences, happening perhaps a couple of hundred years before the Europeans arrived.
Things to note about this map:
- Fort Orange is the original (Dutch) colonial name of Albany
- The Dutch had originally tried to establish a fur-trading fort on Schodack Island, named Fort Nassau. They abandoned this in favor of Fort Orange after a year or two of dealing with frequent flooding. There is still a NY town named Nassau that is nearby.
- The Pequots are the center of many stories. They were the dominant nation in the southern parts of this map, and had been extracting tribute from the Podunks. (Another example of a people being named by the colonists after a location — “podunk” means something like “the place where you sink in” or a marshy area.) My town, Alford, used to be named Podunk, which I can understand, because there are many very wet areas (and were probably more when there were more beavers) in the center of the valley, where the Alford Brook — formerly called the Seekonk (“wild geese”) River — flows, at one time supporting several mills.
- The Mohegans (not to be confused with the Mohicans) split off from the Pequots over a dispute as to which colonial group — Dutch or English — to support.
- The Dutch had been the first colonists to establish a trading fort on the Connecticut River, near what is now Hartford. They eventually had to cede their claim to the River to the English, who outnumbered and outgunned them. For a time, the English claimed sovereignty over the land from the Atlantic coast west to the Hudson River, and the Dutch from that river east to the Connecticut River. They both seem to have been able to conveniently ignore the fact that there were already people living there.
- The Podunks were feeling squeezed by the encroaching Dutch, and were not pleased about having o pay tribute to the Pequots, so they appealed to the English in the Boston area to send colonists to their area. Thus began the invasion later to result in Connecticut Colony. One of my ancestors was the first Governor of that colony, and I can trace both of my father’s parents’ lineages back to Founders of Hartford, John Bidwell and John Wilcox. And there is the Bidwell House connection. Stay tuned.
These next two maps show examples of the vast networks of trails that existed prior to the arrival of the European colonists. Many of our present-day roads and highways follow (more or less) these trading routes, since the Native People had figured out the best routes through hundreds or even thousands of years of experience.
Some Factoids About the Origins of Berkshire County
Many of these facts come from Indian Deeds of Hampden County, by Harry Andrew Wright, 1905, provided to me by Rob Hoogs.
- Hampshire County was created March 7, 1662 O.S., It included all of what are now the western four counties, as well as part of what would become Worcester County. For a time, Massachusetts claimed all the land west to the Hudson River, and the Dutch claimed all the territory east to the Connecticut River. What is now Berkshire County was in the middle of this disputed area, and had very few European colonists.
- Worcester County was organized July 10, 1731, leaving Hampshire County with the present boundaries of the western four counties.
- Berkshire County was created on June 30, 1761, although its eastern boundary would be adjusted several times as new towns became incorporated.
- 50 years later, Franklin and Hampden Counties were split off from Hampshire (which had originally included only two towns; Hadley and Springfield); Franklin on June 24, 1811, and Hampden on February 20, 1812.
The map below is from 1796, after Berkshire County was created, but before Hampshire County was split into the three counties that now exist.
The Turnpike Era and the Hoosac Tunnel
One aspect of the Trial we did not discuss yet was the development of the Mohawk Trail as a colonial transportation route in the interim between the original Indian Trail (prior to 1600) and the paved auto route (1914).
The English colonists established Fort Massachusetts in 1745 in East Hoosac (now North Adams) to help fend off encroachment by the French from the north. Prior to that, in the 1720s, the area had served as the staging area for a series of attacks by a band of Abenaki Indians on the English settlements along the Connecticut River, from Northfield and Rutland in Vermont, down to Deerfield, Northampton, and Westfield. These raids were organized and led by a guerrilla leader of Waranoak/Woronoco birth. He was known to the English as Gray Lock, and he eluded capture for over two decades, conducting raids even after people treaties had been signed by the Abenaki. He died around 1750 without ever having been captured, hiding out on or near the mountain that now bears his name (or so it is said, though there seems to be no documentary evidence of the origin of the name Mount Greylock). Gray Lock was legendary among the Indians, and was known as Wawanolet (or Wawanolewat, or Wawanotewat), which means roughly “he who fools the others, or puts someone off the track.”
In any case, a road was needed to provision Fort Massachusetts, and, later, for commerce with the new towns of East and West Hoosac. In addition, this road opened up a route to northern New York state and Canada for trading, and military expeditions. After the Fort was closed, around 1754, some of the soldiers were given, in lieu of back pay, large plots of farming land in the township of West Hoosac, which would later come to be known as Williamstown.
What had been a footpath, suitable for the single-file travel of the Indians, became a road for the English wheeled vehicles. The English military also required wide roads, since their style of warfare involved, among other things, a marching formation of four soldiers abreast. Fortunately for our enjoyment, some of the most beautiful segments of the original trail could not be adapted for these requirements, so the English instead followed the river beds, which were not as direct but were less steep.
Eventually, the Turnpike Era, as it is known, came to western Massachusetts. In the early 1800s, dozens of privately-financed turnpikes were built in the state (which then included Maine). As mentioned in this article, some 50 years or so later, a railroad tunnel was begun, to bypass the need to go over the high peaks of the Hoosac range. That tunnel has a storied history, which will not be recounted here, and took 25 years to complete. Although it certainly was an eventual success by many standards, it did not have nearly the impact on Berkshire County that was effected by the completion of the Railway to the Moon (on which, more to come).
A Coda to Our Discussion(s): My Perceptions of Injustices Done to the Native People
I wish to avoid moralizing and hand-wringing. In preparing my lectures, and in thinking about readings to recommend, I have encountered many causes for sadness. I do not expect my sorrows to be your sorrows, or my family pride to be shared by you.
As I said earlier, this is my story. I am trying to share with you information that I have found useful in trying to understand and picture the people who came before us. Some of these people I feel a direct connection with; others, I have only read or heard about. I want to understand how my ancestors fit in (or didn’t) with the dominant culture, and how they perceived the landscapes, both literal and figurative, which they encountered. As we go farther back in time, details and individual actors become fuzzier, and we begin to make generalizations about groups of people.
With perfect hindsight, it seems to me that during the process of melding two very different cultures, many mistakes were made and opportunities were missed. The devastation of European diseases was perhaps beyond anyone’s control, but other things were not. The Native Peoples were unceremoniously escorted off the land that had been their home for thousands of years. The colonists, as a whole, failed to appreciate and learn the land management system that the Indians had successfully used to preserve an ecological equilibrium in their sustainable and renewable cycles of forest burning and succession agriculture.
In my present state of awareness, it is easy for me to become maudlin over what I perceive to be past tragedies, but I don’t want to stop there. I am not responsible for the actions of my ancestors, and I cannot undo the damage they did. My job, and yours, too, if we choose to take it on, is to do good here and now. We can reach out to our Mohican brothers and sisters, and tell them they are not forgotten. We can invite them to help us appreciate the sacredness of their homeland, and we can work to preserve it in ways that meet their approval. We can learn much from them if we have the patience to listen.
The evil deeds of the past will not live on if we counter them with proper actions. Indians were enslaved by the colonists before the native population plummeted from disease and other causes. The colonists then turned to Africa for a larger supply of slave labor. Eventually, slowly, painfully, slavery was ended in this country. In an essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, talking about the failure of Reconstruction to bestow full citizenship on former black slaves, says
When the right side loses, it does not always mean that the truth has not been heard.
In another example, we have to remember that it was only about one hundred years ago that war was outlawed, by the Treaty of Paris. The cynics among you, if there are any, are probably looking around the world and thinking, “Yeah, and look what that has done for us.” But it has, in fact, changed the conversation. We now talk about War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. These concepts didn’t exist in the period we are discussing in this survey of early history. In most, if not all of the world, might made right. To the victor go the spoils, and all that.
My ancestor, the Reverend Adonijah Bidwell, about whom you will be hearing much more when we get to our session on The Bidwell House, served as chaplain in the English colonial expedition that captured the French fortress at Louisbourg in 1745. Part of his compensation was £39 of “prize money” which he called “plunder.” Yes, wars still happen, but our view of their morality has shifted enormously since those days.
The point of all of this is that speaking up for justice, and taking loving actions, all of the ways we can think to do good — none of that is a waste of time and energy. The truth may not set us free, but it will be heard, and it will last.
But, as I say, I don’t mean to moralize. I’m just sharing my thoughts, and telling you how I feel.