Peoples of the Hudson Valley

Life in the Hudson Valley during the Sixteenth Century: The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Hudson Valley was a unique area that was inhabited by diverse peoples that worked together to create a unified social and political landscape. The region is defined by the river, flowing north to south from the present-day cities of Albany to Yonkers, and was the homeland to between 20 and 25 distinct societies that can be broadly grouped by the Mahican and Munsee languages. These people, for the most part, maintained peaceful and beneficial relationships with one another through trade, gift giving, spiritual connections and other exchanges. Munsee and Mahican peoples maintained these relationships not only with each other, but also with Haudenosaunee, Susquehannocks and other neighbouring Indigenous peoples. They traded goods such as copper, corn, bone beads, and wampum, which they used to seal agreements. The necklace made from deer phalanges in the display case provides an example of the type of items that Hudson Valley peoples traded with one another in their interconnected environment.

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MAP: Indigenous peoples’ homeland Hudson Valley

The Arrival of the Dutch: The Dutch began to explore and colonize the Hudson Valley following Henry Hudson’s visit to the region in 1609. Very quickly, they were integrated into this system. Mahican and Munsee peoples provided the Dutch with goods such as corn, wampum and most importantly fur pelts. In return, the Dutch traded metal tools, which differed from similar instruments constructed from stone and animal by-products like bones, shells and horns. The Dutch also introduced weaponry, such as guns, cookware, like copper pots, cloth, and glass beads. The beaded necklace in the display case shows how European glass and shell beads were combined to build on earlier practices. This type of adaptation can also be seen in the axe in the display case. Before the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous axes were made by attaching a shaped stone to a wooden handle. After the arrival of the Dutch, they introduced the metal blade, making the tool much more robust. Though the Dutch believed this exchange made them central players in the fur trade, in reality they assumed a middleman position in an indigenous dominated system of reciprocity and exchange.

Dutch Settlement: Growing trade led the Dutch to create a permanent settlement in the Hudson Valley. In 1624, the Dutch West India Company founded the colony of New Netherland, which included the Hudson Valley territory. The first settlement was located just south of the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. This was Mahican territory, known as Pempotowwuthut-Muhhcanneuw, but to the Dutch it was Beverwijck, the Beaver District, where they built a fur trading post known as Fort Orange (present-day Albany). By situating a fur trade post just below the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, the Dutch were well situated to trade with both the Mahican peoples and the Mohawk, who lived further northwest along the Mohawk River. Dutch settlement created a frontier where European and Indigenous peoples interacted in complex ways as they struggled and competed for control over the land. The unified diplomatic structure that connected the diverse Indigenous peoples of the Hudson Valley, however, allowed them to maintain power during the early years of settlement. After the Mohawk defeated the Mahican peoples in a series of conflicts between 1624 and 1628, the Mahicans were forced out of their homeland to the Connecticut Valley. This resulted in a new Mohawk-Dutch relationship, embodied in the Kaswentha, or Two Row wampum belt, and allowing the Dutch to return to Fort Orange in 1631.

The English Conquest: Though the conflict between the Mahican and Mohawk led to their migration out of the region, for the most part, Indigenous peoples in the upper Hudson Valley maintained a defining presence in the valley. This began to change in 1664 when the English took over the Dutch colony. The English renamed the colony New York and brought with them policies more focused on occupying and controlling the land. The English aggressively seized the land along the Hudson Valley, demanding Indigenous peoples submit to their rule. After 1677, when the English and Haudenosaunee established what is known as the Covenant Chain, the majority of the Hudson Valley peoples migrated west to join larger Indigenous cultural groups. Nevertheless, a small population stayed in the region to live under English control. Importantly, this transition occurred in the waning decades of the seventeenth century. Throughout our period, the Munsee and Mahican peoples of the Hudson Valley maintained significant elements of their culture and worldview as Dutch, then English influence brought significant change.