European Contact

Part of the Map of New York and New England in Montanus's "Nieuwe Weereld," 1671

Part of the Map of New York and New England in Montanus's "Nieuwe Weereld," 1671. From the Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, 1679-1680.

In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed his ship, the Half Moon, up the river from the Atlantic Ocean north to Albany. Along the way, on the east bank of the river, Hudson encountered the Wappingers and Mahicans that inhabited what is now Dutchess County. At the time of his arrival, it is estimated that the Mahican population was around 8,000 persons. The Mahicans and Wappingers resided in wigwams and longhouses, as opposed to the tipis of the western Native Americans. Wigwam means "bark dwelling" in Munsee and these structures were made of arched wood poles thatched with bark and rushes. Robert Juet, Hudson's first mate, kept a journal, in which he describes the practice of growing corn along the riverbanks, a technique employed on the floodplain of the Tivoli Bays. Hudson's journey marks the Wappingers' and Mahicans' first encounter with Europeans, an undoubtedly jarring experience.


Before European contact, the concept of individual ownership was absent from Native American life. What could be possessed was held collectively, with the best interests of the group in mind. This meant that Native Americans abided by Liebig's law of the minimum: to avoid food shortage, social groups were based on the availability of resources in the leanest of times and harvesting of plants, animals, fish, and birds was conducted conservatively. As William Cronon writes, "by keeping populations low, the food scarcities of winter guaranteed the abundance of spring, and contributed to the overall stability of human relationships to the ecosystem." Native Americans took only what they needed and provided the stewardship to maintain healthy habitats for themselves and their nonhuman neighbors. For this reason, their relationship with the land is often described as 'harmonious.' This notion is saturated with romanticism but it is not wholly inaccurate. Native American subsistence practices evolved slowly over thousands of years and it was an evolution dictated by what nature could offer. After the arrival of the Europeans and the concept of ownership, this began to change.


When something is owned, it can be exploited. In the Hudson Valley, patents (rights to ownership) were awarded for purchases of land and before long the valley had been logged and planted with crops almost completely. In fact, one of the Hudson Valley's few remaining old growth patches of forest is in the North Tivoli Bays DEC area. Native Americans had entered willingly into contracts with Europeans but it is unlikely that the terms of these contracts were equally understood. For Europeans, owning land meant that it could (and should) be "improved" and held indefinitely. This dominance of land, spatially and temporally, was foreign to Native Americans and aided the takeover that ensued.

Portrait of Pieter Schuyler

Nehemiah Partridge, Portrait of Pieter Schuyler, oil on canvas, ca. 1710-18. Courtesy of the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Etow Oh Koam, King of the River Nation

John Verelst, "Etow Oh Koam, King of the River Nation," 1710.

The first official owner of the land that is now Bard College was Pieter Schuyler (1657-1724), the first mayor of Albany, New York and the head of the Albany Commissioners for Indian Affairs. Schuyler was a wealthy fur trader and was well respected, especially among the Iroquois. He acted as the primary intermediary between Native Americans and the colonial government. In 1680, he purchased a large piece of land at Cruger's Island from the local tribes. In the same year, many Mahicans travelled east to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, leaving the land to be exploited by the Dutch. Thus ended the thousands of years of land-dictated human engagement with the Tivoli Bays.


In 1710, three Mohawk chiefs and one Mahican, Chief Etow Oh Koam, accompanied Pieter Schuyler on a diplomatic voyage to London. There, they met with Queen Anne to request aid against the influence of the French in Canada. French Jesuits had been attempting to convert the Mohawk to Catholicism and Schuyler arranged to counter this presence by building a chapel at Fort Hunter on the Mohawk River. This was a politically-motivated move for Schuyler, who sought to strengthen his position in the colonies, and it was an act of resistance for the chiefs. They arrived, dressed in exotic clothing, and made a large impression. To mark their visit, Queen Anne commissioned John Verelst to paint portraits of the men. Etow Oh Koam is depicted holding a ball-headed war club and an English dress sword.


This visit came directly at the tail-end of the massive outbreak of epidemics. Fourteen or so foreign diseases, including tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, mumps, and chicken pox, were introduced to the Hudson Valley and, between 1609 and 1710, roughly 90% of the Valley's Native American inhabitants fell victim. This marked a cultural disaster and tribal conflicts emerged, each group blaming one another for the illnesses.  Tensions were compounded heavily by the scarcity of trade resources brought on by overhunting and overly-aggressive Dutch trading.  Trades also usually involved alcohol which increased the already heightened stresses.


In addition to debilitating shortages of beaver and other fur-bearing mammals (for trading), sturgeon and shad populations also began to suffer greatly. Since the arrival of the Dutch, the settlers prized these two species and harvested them intensively, to the point of overfishing. Shad was considered the perfect commercial fish and sturgeon even earned the epithet "Albany beef" due to its popularity.  By this point, Mahicans and Wappingers were scattered in small, isolated groups across Dutchess County and many had moved east across the Taconics to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. European "ownership" of land had been fully established and the Native Americans of the Hudson Valley were drifting away. Before long (estimates say 1750), the Valley became the exclusive domain of European settlement. The Revolutionary War offered hope for a restructuring but the Mahicans were not fully allied with either side and did not stand to benefit from either's success. Mahican warriors are the heroes of several wartime legends but their impact could not help them regain their lost rights. After the war, the Mahicans and Wappingers at Stockbridge accepted an invitation from the Oneida and moved west. In 1821 they purchased land on the Wisconsin and Fox rivers and they remain there today as the federally-recognized Stockbridge-Munsee Community.

European Contact