SO MUCH FOR THE MYTH OF THE “TRACKLESS WILDERNESS”: Turns out people have been coming to the region we now call the Adirondacks practically since it was habitable. Paleo-Indian hunters camped on the tundralike shores of an inland sea, now Lake Champlain, and left their spearpoints some eleven thousand years ago. Between 3500 and 1300 B.C., other peoples (called Late Archaic) moved into the drainage areas of the mountains. The points of their projectiles, smaller and more compact than those of the Paleo-Indians, were designed to kill the elk, deer and bear that succeeded the mammoth, caribou and bison after their extinction, sometime around 8000 B.C. The Archaic peoples were followed by Woodland cultures that brought pottery and the bow and arrow into the forest. A story told from fragments of worked stone and clay, the prehistory of the Adirondacks is little thought of and little known. The presence of Native Americans in the region in relatively recent times is also an untold tale, shrouded in silence and misinformation. Amid the ignorance and uncertainties, however, one absolute fact does emerge: native peoples have been coming into the Adirondacks in a continuum that stretches from thousands of years ago to the present day. The culture of buckboards, guideboats, lumber camps, mines, Great Camps, hotels and motorboats—what we think of as the solid strata of Adirondack history—is a mere sliver in the mile-long slice of time representing Indian occupation.
I AM STANDING AT A TABLE IN BOB EVANS’S BASEMENT, THE DIM LIGHT REVEALING walls crammed with tools, antlers, books and yawning fish jaws. Evans, a retired corrections officer who lives in Long Lake, opens the lid of a small cedar chest. Inside is a clutter of pottery fragments, arrowheads and broken stones, some loose, others wrapped in fabric or small plastic bags. “Look at this,” he says as he unwraps a small flat object from a white shroud, a tremor of excitement in his voice. It is an ovate knife of shiny black stone, flawless and shaped like a beech leaf. He picks out the fragment of a stone pipe, reddened pottery shards embossed with dots or patterns of lines, and quartz chips from some ancient toolmaker’s kit, and lets me feel the polished rounded blade and sharp edge of a stone gouge. He tells me he found the artifacts on Tupper Lake, at a place along the shore where an eroding bank yields up a harvest of projectile points, potsherds and stone tools under the hammering waves each spring. Tucked in comets of the room are crates of other relics from Upper Saranac, Piseco and Long lakes and the Raouette River.
My fascination is accompanied by frustration. I have questions only an archaeologist could answer. How old are the artifacts? Where were they made, and how did they get here? How were they used? In short, what clues do they offer about the native peoples who came to these lakes and mountains long before white people set foot in them? Evans is one of dozens of people who have found remnants of ancient cultures in the Adirondacks. For the last century and a half, projectile points made of flint (actually a flint-like stone called chert, but archaeologists use the terms interchangeably), stone gouges for shaping wood, celts (stone axheads), massive pestles—some still bearing peck marks from generations of pounding acorns or other nuts in large wooden mortars—fire-cracked stones, potsherds, pipes and other prehistoric artifacts have been uncovered along the shores of most Adirondack lakes and rivers, as well as on carries and former farms. (Collector Spencer Cram, who died this past summer, found a trove of relics on sites around the hamlet of Keene.) Ruth Timm, writing in Raquette Lake: A Time to Remember, describes the discovery in the nineteenth century by guide Alvah Dunning of three earthen pots and “a very beautiful ax of greenish stone” under the roots of a big cedar he had cut down on the site of his camp. In more recent years, people have inadvertently found objects during swims along a propitiously located sandy beach or while digging up a house foundation or a garden. And, in some cases, artifacts are picked up by avid collectors who systematically search the park, hand-drawn maps at the ready. Although a 1985 survey conducted by Hartgen Associates for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites lists more than 350 prehistoric sites within the Blue Line, only a handful have been examined or dug up by professional archaeologists. Avocational archaeologist Tom Weinman, who lives in Manlius and owns a summer home on Lake George, has excavated fourteen sites since the day in 1962 he discovered four layers of arrowheads, pottery, stone tools and refuse pits on his property while transplanting some trees. Weinman, a fellow of the New York State Archaeological Association who has worked with former state archaeologists William Ritchie and Robert Funk, is the only archaeologist consistently scouring the area mr prehistoric artifacts. He hasn’t had company since the late 1970s, when Dean Snow, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York in Albany, dug up a site near Warrensburg.
Why have archaeologists avoided the Adirondacks? To be truthful about it, the pickings are richer elsewhere. “It was a boundary land for the people all around them. Everybody tends to work where the concentrated villages are and work out from there,” says Snow, who has been digging in the Mohawk Valley since 1982. No archaeological evidence has been found indicating the presence of permanent prehistoric settlements in the Adirondacks, and archaeologists pretty much rule out the possibility simply on the basis of climate. “You might find little pockets within the Adirondacks where local conditions are such that you could farm, but I think it’s highly unlikely because of the altitude,” notes George Hamell, an anthropologist at the New York State Museum, in Albany. Another reason why the remains are sparse compared to other regions of the State is the high acidity of the soil. “We might get food-bone refuse in the Mohawk Valley, but a few miles north, where the underlying rock is igneous, chances are you wouldn’t find anything except tooth enamel after a few centuries,” says Snow.
However, David Starbuck, a Yale-educated archaeologist from Chestertown who teaches at Plymouth State College, in New Hampshire, says lack of artifacts alone doesn’t account for the vacuum. “Upland sites are not quite as rich or occupied as sites along major waterways, but there are probably lots of short-term communities” in the region, he says. “There are thousands of sites in the Adirondacks waiting for a sponsor. It’s unknown territory.” The problem, according to Starbuck, is that there are relatively few educational institutions in the North Country. “Most professional digs are sponsored by major universities or museums. In this region we don’t have many.” The exception is Adirondack Community College, which has been sponsoring Starbuck’s excavation of a French and Indian War barracks on Rogers Island, in the Hudson River, located about ten miles south of the Blue Line, for the past four summers. (Interestingly, the dig has yielded a wealth of prehistoric artifacts. Among the finds, most of which date from A.D. 1200 to 1400, are a fire pit containing a pair of deer antlers, which were either part of a ceremonial object or used as a support for a pot or other cooking utensil; shell middens; clay tobacco pipes; burnt walnut shells; a “Bare Island” point dating from 2200 B.C.; and a flint drill, believed to have been used for making holes in leather.)
If most of us think human occupation of the Adirondacks began with log cabins and frame hotels, perhaps we can be forgiven, considering the dearth of prehistoric and Native American artifacts on display in public institutions. At the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, one small display case is dedicated to prehistoric artifacts—and the authenticity of one item is apparently questionable. At the state museum only a fraction of the one million prehistoric artifacts in its collection is from the Adirondacks, and almost all of the Adirondack pieces are in storage.
To learn about native peoples in the Adirondacks you have to travel to the Six Nations Museum, in out-of-the-way Onchiota. Run by Mohawk teacher and illustrator John Fadden and his family, the small museum is crammed with artifacts, some donated by Adirondack collectors, and including such one-of-a-kind items as a 1787 prayer book translated into Mohawk by Joseph Brant, a tum-of-the-century cradleboard, a Tuscarora war club and a rattle made from an animal bladder. Pictographs lining the walls, drawn by John’s father, Ray, who founded the museum thirty-some years ago, illustrate Iroquoian stories that John recites to attentive visitors; reproductions of wampum belts, also made by Ray, record seminal events in the history of the Six Nations Confederacy. Outside, stick trail blazes and different types of campfire arrangements show how Indians communicated and kept warm in the woods. Chimney Point State Historic Site, in Vergennes, Vennont, a former eighteenth-century tavern located in the shadow of the Lake Champlain bridge, has a small but comprehensive exhibit on prehistoric peoples in the Champlain Valley. An impressive array of post-contact silver pins, iron tomahawks and other items traded with white people are on display at Fort Ticonderoga’s “Indian Room,” but there is a frustrating lack of information here. The Clinton County Historical Museum, in Plattsburgh, has a respectable collection of prehistoric points and tools, including Paleo-lndian points; the museum’s catalog The Original People, from a 1988 exhibit, provides a fascinating overview of Native Americans in the Champlain Valley, from Paleo-Indians to the present day.
With these exceptions, Native Americans in the Adirondacks have been pretty much ignored. One problem is that many private collections have been dispersed. According to A History of the Adirondacks by Alfred L. Donaldson, James Wardner, a pioneer who settled on the shores of Rainbow Lake in 1858 and ran a hotel there for the next forty-five years, had “a most extensive and valuable collection of Adirondack Indian relics.” While on display in a state building in Albany just after the Civil War, the collection was sold off by the exhibit’s unscrupulous organizers. Another nineteenth-century collector mentioned in Donaldson’s history was Jesse Corey, who built a lodge on the Indian Carry, located between Upper Saranac Lake and Stony Creek, in 1850. The artifacts he found on his property disappeared over the years as the maddeningly generous innkeeper gave them away to passing visitors. Shuyler Miller, in an article in the Februrary 1942 issue of Cloudsplitter, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, describes relics, including a “ground slate knife” and “triangular arrows buried beside deserted fireplaces,” found on a trail near Lincoln Pond “which must have run from the Hudson up the Schroon River and through the passes into the Bouquet drainage and Champlain.”
Miller writes: “Occasionally an unbroken pot may be found, tucked away in a rock shelter—the Indian equivalent of hanging up a coffee-pot beside the lean-to for the boys who will use it next week. One came out of a rock shelter on the Cedar River, only to be broken by playful lumberjacks.”
In the minds of some archaeologists, precious knowledge about the Adirondacks’ prehistory continues to be lost forever due to site depredations by both amateur hobbyists and profit-motivated treasure hunters. “Collectors think they’re rescuing things by taking them out of the ground, but in fact they’re destroying the site,” says Starbuck. The depth and position of an artifact in the ground, its location relative to a body of water or other geographical feature, and the debris surrounding it—including certain kinds of organic matter that could be carbon-dated—are crucial to deciphering its meaning. “With historic resources, everything is unique,” Starbuck says. “If we don’t start cracking down, we’ll lose everything.” (It is illegal to remove an artifact found on state land, which includes most underwater sites. People who collect prehistoric objects from their property are advised to leave them on the site, or, at the very least, take careful notes as to where they were found. Experts strongly recommend contacting the state museum to have the object identified and recorded.)
Enough has been found and examined for us to be conscious of what a tragedy that loss would be. Archaeologists say the bulk of the artifacts found in the Adirondacks are from the Late Archaic period—somewhat surprising to a layperson, considering their much greater antiquity compared to those from the Late Woodland Period (AD 1000 to 1600). Snow says this reflects a general trend in the Northeast, although the Archaic peoples’ greater reliance on hunting—combined with the gathering of wild plants and fishing—may have meant they were in the Adirondacks for more protracted periods than the Iroquois. (Whether the Iroquois somehow evolved out of these ancient cultures or were a separate group that migrated to the region is a hotly debated issue beyond the scope of this article.) The Iroquois were an agrarian society, with a pattern—established sometime after A.D. 1000—of settlement in the warmer, more fertile valleys of central and western New York. The evidence in the Adirondacks points to small temporary hunting camps.
That’s not to suggest the Adirondack hunting grounds weren’t important to the Indian societies that used them. The resources of the forest helped the hunters to fill their winter larders, perhaps played a part in their folk and ceremonial traditions, and, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (by which time the beaver had been extirpated outside the region), enabled them to conduct a lucrative business in the fur trade. The old adage that “the Indians didn’t live here,” with its insinuation that the Adirondacks were therefore free for the taking once the whites arrived, ignores the Indians’ concept of land “ownership”—”stewardship” is perhaps a more accurate term. As Hamell, at the state museum, explains: “People may have no permanent year-round village or settlement, but that is not quite the same as saying they aren’t year-round residents of that region, moving from a spring fishing camp to a summer fishing-gathering camp to a fall acorn-gathering camp or fall hunting camp.”
A map showing the Indian territories in New York State in 1760 appears in Lewis Henry Morgan’s classic League of the Iroquois, published in 1851. All of northern New York is labeled “Ganeagaonoga,” or territory of the Mohawks. A small southwestern portion of the region was used by the Oneidas. (William Beauchamp, in his 1904 Aborigines of New York, includes a map circa 1600 that shows the boundary between Mohawk and Oneida territories descending from Canton down to Trenton Falls.) Snow says a third Iroquoian group, based along the St. Lawrence, at one time entered the region from the north and west before it was wiped out in the 1600s. And the Western Abenakis, who were an Algonquin-speaking tribe based in Vermont, ventured into the mountains from the Champlain Valley. These peoples hunted and fished in the Adirondacks primarily in fall and winter. According to Doug George-Kanentiio, a columnist for the Syracuse Herald-American, after the harvest in mid-September Mohawk hunting parties of men and women left their villages for the woods, returning in the first or second week of January, when the Pleiades were directly overhead. “They hunted deer, bear and elk in the fall, when there was the most meat,” says George-Kanentiio. “In Iroquois philosophy, men are the ‘life takers’ and women are the ‘life givers.’ Women would preserve the food. The initial histories remarked on the emptiness of villages during the fall, because the adult population was out hunting.”
Snow agrees with George-Kanentiio’s timing but says only the men went on the hunt. “They would do other things on their hunting expeditions, like engage in trade,” he says. “The Iroquois were great diplomats.” In contrast, the Abenakis traveled to the Adirondacks in small family groups and stayed throughout the winter. “They didn’t maintain big villages year-round, whereas the Iroquois always had somebody in the village while the men went out scampering in the woods,” Snow adds. The Mohawks probably entered the Adirondacks by a series of trails and traversed the lakes and rivers in cumbersome dugouts. (Dugouts are on display at the Adirondack Museum, the Six Nations Museum and Fort Ticonderoga. However, Euro-Amer- icans also made dugouts. None of the boats on display indicate their origin, although craft that bear evidence of stone tools were in all probability made by Indians.) Hamell speculates that a series of dugouts could have been filled with rocks and sunk at each portage along a water route to protect them from the elements and ensure their availability upon the return of the traveler, who would simply transfer from boat to boat. Birchbark canoes are far more portable and seaworthy, but they are not indigenous to the Adirondacks since paper birch large enough to make a canoe were rare in the region. In more recent times, however, the Iroquois and Abenaki almost certainly obtained birchbark canoes through trade with the Algonquin tribes farther north.
AFTER THE ADVENT OF THE FUR TRADE, NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES EXPERIENCED drastic changes. Those shifts certainly influenced activities in the Adirondacks. Whereas traditionally the Mohawks hunted animals for food, they now trapped beaver (and probably other fur-bearing animals as well) for trade with the Dutch and English. The Adirondacks was a prime trapping ground since the cold climate causes animals to grow thicker, more luxuriant coats. The fur trade also sparked a series of Indian wars between different native groups, as each competed for access to the trade and lands providing an ever-dwindling supply of pelts. The Mohawks fought various Algonquin-speaking tribes—who surrounded the Iroquois on the north, east and south—and even, on occasion, some of the other members of the Six Nations Confederacy—a political and spiritual entity that stretched westward across the state and was comprised of Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Tuscaroras and Senecas. “The Adirondacks became a battlefield,” says Snow, suggesting that the cliché of “the dark and bloody ground” has a modicum of truth.
In July 1609 the shooting of three Mohawks by Samuel de Champlain upon his arrival on the lake that now bears his name set into motion a conflict that culminated in the French and Indian War a century and a half later. The incident between the small group of armed Frenchmen and their Algonquin allies and a party of Mohawks, which is believed to have occurred on the site of Fort Ticonderoga, kindled the Iroquois’ animosity to the French and caused them to ally themselves with the Dutch and English. The Lake Charnplain–Lake George transportation corridor, a vital link between the Hudson Valley and the St. Lawrence, became an especially embattled area, where Iroquois and Algonquin, English and French struggled for control. The transitory nature of travel through the area is reflected by the archaeological record: Tom Weinman says Iroquois artifacts dug up around Lake George are found on little spits along the lake, “where they probably pulled up their canoes and stopped for a night.” Indian potsherds and English gunflints unearthed at Shelving Rock could have belonged to a war party of Mohawks and English soldiers.
The backcountry became inundated with spies and small raiding parties. Charles Brumley, in Guides of the Adirondacks, writes that “the primary role of the Indians in the Champlain Valley was scouting for the French and British to gather intelligence … Indians from French-held Fort Carillon spied on the British as far south as Albany. In the process they had to bypass the British vanguard at Fort William Henry at the south end of Lake George, going behind enemy lines.” What routes did they take? An article published in a 1930 bulletin of the Appalachian Mountain Club called “Mountains and the Aborigines of the Champlain Lowland” by a geology and geography professor named Eric P. Jackson mentions four: The Lake George route, which “was well oriented for use by the Iroquois, was wide enough to allow an early view of an approaching enemy, and yet had high, mountainous shores that effectively reduced the probable directions from which an enemy would approach to two—north and south.” Jackson adds: “Its isolated island campsites … and sheltered bays, as well as its mountainous shores, made it especially adapted for use as a wartime trail.” Three other routes connecting the tributaries of Lake Champlain with those of the Hudson passed through the Adirondacks, one following the Schroon and Bouquet rivers via Schroon Lake, another one tracing the Boreas River and the East Branch of the Ausable via the Ausable lakes, and the third route following the Hudson and the West Branch of the Ausable River via Henderson Lake and Indian Pass.
After the British victory over the French in 1760, there was a brief period of peace. With the outbreak of the American Revolution, Mohawk warriors once again took to the trails on intelligence missions for the British, their longtime allies. One of the most dramatic Adirondack stories of the war concerns the escape to Canada by Sir John Johnson, who had inherited the title, wealth and Tory sympathies of his late father, Sir William Johnson, the influential Indian agent. According to Beauchamp’s History of the New York Iroquois, published in 1905, “Sir John Johnson, hearing he was to be arrested though on parole, left his home [in the Mohawk Valley] in May 1776, with three Indian guides, 130 Scotch and 120 other inhabitants, going to Canada by way of Oswegatchie.” The Adirondack variant of this story recounts how the party, which was trudging through snow, finally reached a lake where the ice had broken up. Embarking in canoes, they discarded their snowshoes in a big heap—and the waterway has been known ever since as Raquette (French for “snowshoe”) Lake.
Although Adirondack literature contains many accounts of conflicts in the woods between Algonquins and Mohawks, and even of Indian settlements, many of these tales are interwoven with silly, ridiculously romanticized “legends.” For example, after discussing the Iroquois’ defeat of the Algonquins, Henry W. Raymond, in The Story of Saranac, published in 1909, describes the defeated Algonquin war chief’s contemplation of Lower Saranac Lake from a wooded point during his final visits to the forests: “With one mighty throw he cast his blood-stained tomahawk into the rippling waters … at the spot where his tomahawk fell, rose a tiny islet…” He also mentions an Indian village at North Elba that “was the summer camping ground of the Adirondacks,” the name of an Algonquin tribe that Lewis Henry Morgan mentions as living along the St. Lawrence. He describes an attack on the village by Captain Robert Rogers and his rangers, although historians say there is no mention of the raid in Rogers’ journals. Alfred B. Street’s Woods and Waters; Or, the Saranacs and Racket, published in 1866, describes “a large tribe of the Saranac Indians” who lived at the “Indian Carrying Place”—Indian Carry, near Upper Saranac Lake—in the mid-1700s. “The site of the clearing held their village and Council-Place. They claimed as their exclusive hunting-grounds, not only the Eaglenest Forests, but those of the Wampum Waters [The Stoney Ponds], the Stream of the Snake [Stony Creek], and the Sounding River …” Needless to say, the Smithsonian Handbook of Northeastern Indians makes no mention of the “Saranacs,” and the “Indian” names Street records are unique to his account.
On the other hand, many prehistoric artifacts have been found both at Indian Carry, as previously mentioned, and, according to Lake Placid historian Mary MacKenzie, in North Elba. (MacKenzie says she interviewed the late owner of a farm on the site, who told her a number of arrowheads had been dug up on the property when he was a boy. His family welcomed tourists, who doubtless carried many artifacts out of the park.) The Reverend John Todd, in his 1845 book about Long Lake, mentions the Indian Carry site—“where the St. Francois tribe once had a flourishing village”—and adds a contemporaneous note from a visit in 1842: “You can see where their houses once stood, and where the corn waved.” (The “St. Francois tribe” refers to a group of Abenakis who settled in the mission village of St. Francis—now known as Odanak—in Quebec.)
WITH THE END OF THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR, THE IROQUOIS CONFEDERACY’S POWER and authority were practically extinguished. The Mohawks’ allegiance with the British forced them to flee to Canada, where many of them settled at the St. Regis reservation (Mohawks call it Akwesasne), which straddles the New York border. Their nation had been decimated by war and epidemics of European diseases: in Beauchamp’s History of the New York Iroquois, a British army captain estimated that the number of Mohawks fighting on the side of the British was three hundred—an estimate that Beauchamp claims was too high. Portions of the Mohawk hunting territory that hadn’t already been sold off in a 1772 treaty reverted to the Oneidas, who had maintained neutrality during the war. The state of New York appropriated their territories shortly after the war and in 1792 resold the portion encompassing part of the Adirondacks to Alexander Macomb for a hefty profit.
But small numbers of Indian trappers and hunters—mainly Mohawks from Akwesasne and Abenakis from Odanak—continued to come to the Adirondacks, as their people always had. In his 1839 book Wild Scenes of the Forest and Prairie, Charles Fenno Hoffman alludes to “a few Indians who once or twice throughout the year would straggle in from the Iroquois reservation on the Canadian frontier.” Reverend Todd notes that he had “met with some four or five [Indians] only in all my wanderings.” An unpublished memoir by Rainbow Lodge proprietor James Wardner (actually written by his son) mentions “a large camping ground” of “St. Regis Indians” on Lower St. Regis Lake at the site of Paul Smith’s hotel. After the hotel was built, the Indians “continued to come each summer and camp back of the hotel near a pond.”
A common motif in nineteenth-century travelogues is a chance encounter with an old Indian eking out a living in the woods. Inevitably, he speaks broken English and proceeds to tell a legend of his people. But other details of the tales have the ring of truth. Hoffman describes “an old Mohawk” guide who lived with his daughter “in their wigwam on the outlet of Lake Pleasant.” The daughter “used to make his moccasins, gum the seams, sew up the rips of his birchen canoe, and dress his venison for him.” Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, in Indian Legends of Saratoga and of the Upper Hudson Valley, published in 1884, recounts his meeting with an Indian in the forest during an 1858 hunting expedition. The Indian brings the writer and his companions to his shanty, which is described as having a bark-covered framework of “two upright posts, some six feet in height and ten apart, with crotches at the top, across which a pole was laid,” from which extended other poles “in a slanting direction to the ground, some eight feet distant.”
Relations between these early Native guides and the whites they competed with weren’t exactly harmonious. Some white guides perpetuated the stereotype that Indians were good-for-nothing thieves and liars. Guides of the Adirondacks cites the example of Nick Stoner, a revolutionary-war veteran who “was troubled by Indians robbing his traps, and once after checking them returned home with what he called, sardonically, a ‘spare rifle.’ ” And Nathaniel Foster, a trapper who settled with his family at Old Forge in 1832, once boasted, “The best shot I ever made, I got two beaver, one otter, and fifteen marten skins; but I took the filling out of a blanket to do it!” In 1835, Foster murdered a Fulton Chain Indian named Peter Waters after a feud broke out between them. (He was later acquitted of the crime.) Charles Brumley speculates that white guides who were revolutionary-war veterans nursed a special grudge against the Indians because they had supported the British, switched sides or avoided fighting the white man’s war altogether.
Despite these difficulties, at least two Native American guides prospered, both living to a ripe old age. Sabael Benedict settled on Indian Lake (where his descendants still reside) sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. According to Wardner, who met Sabael in the mid-1850s just before Sabael’s death, the Indian spoke fluent French and drove everyone crazy because he refused to disclose the location of a lead mine he had discovered. (There are accounts of Indians in the northern Adirondacks carrying chunks of lead ore, and even melting them down to cast bullets. A History of the Adirondacks places the location of the legendary lead mine somewhere “north of Rainbow Lake and south of Mountain View,” but it has never been found.) Sabael didn’t even let his son, Lewis Elija, onto the secret. He apparently didn’t trust him because Elija had led a party of prospectors to a rich vein of iron ore after his father had told him the location.
Though parts of Wardner’s account may be questionable, there is no doubt about Elija’s role in the discovery of the iron deposits. David Henderson, one of the prospectors, described the trek to the site, located between Sanford and Henderson lakes, in a letter to his partner Archibald Mclntyre dated 1826. Astonished at the sight of the “enormous iron bed,” Henderson immediately recognized its value and wrote, “We will take the Indian with us to Albany—dare not well leave him in this country . . .” The Mclntyre Iron Works subsequently opened, ceasing operations in 1857. (The works are located near the site of National Lead’s Tahawus mine, one of the world’s largest deposits of titanium dioxide.) More details are known about the life of Mitchell Sabattis, a small, unassuming Abenaki who was born in St. Lawrence County and was respected for his strength of character as much as for his exceptional abilities as a guide. He settled at Long Lake—even today many places in town are associated with his name—preaching in the local Methodist church and carrying the mail in a pack basket on the trail between Long and Blue Mountain lakes.
John MacMullen, a teacher and journalist, wrote a fascinating reminiscence of his rescue by Sabattis on the Raquette River. MacMuIlen was stranded on a raft with a friend during a camping expedition in 1843 when suddenly a birchbark canoe full of Indians, one of whom was Sabattis, appeared around a bend. One of the women wore “a neat calico short gown over a dark woolen skirt, under which appeared leggings and moccasins,” and “her whole attention seemed given to her baby or pa- poose, which was strapped on a piece of board in the usual Indian fashion.” MacMullen and his friend climbed into the canoe and traveled with the party during the next few days. He describes the Indians’ construction of a spruce-bark canoe after a night spent in a log cabin and such improvised delights as a “plate” Sabattis made him from a wood chunk cut out of a tree.
As guiding died out as a full-time profession, more Native Americans turned to the making and selling of baskets, snowshoes and other traditional crafts as a way of earning money. Abenakis in particular would come down from their Canadian reservations each summer and congregate in encampments located in tourist towns, where they’d peddle their wares and host entertainments. Visitors could try their hand at shooting a bow and arrow, purchase baskets and other crafts and see Indians wearing traditional dress. According to Todd DeGarmo, director of the folklife, history and cultural programs at the Crandall Library, in Glens Falls, and an expert on the encampments, the first one at Lake George sprung up about 1830. A series of encampments arose on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs after the Civil War.
The curious mix of derision and fascination with which whites regarded these sites is apparent in a description of an encampment from a 1873 Saratoga Springs guidebook: “The white tents glistening among the green hemlocks, and the rustic lodges displaying the gaily decorated bow and quiver, make a picture somewhat attractive; but the Indians themselves are dirty and homely, except the young squaws … The slim, blackeyed, bare-footed boys, who pester you with petitions to ‘set up a cent,’ as a mark for their arrows, have a sort of Gipsy picturesqueness, however; and as one walks down the little street between the huts—half tent and half house—he may get an occasional glimpse of a papoose swinging in a hammock, and thank his stars for even such a fractional view of the pristine life.”
The encampments also served as a base for basket weavers making the circuit to different hotels in the area, says DeGarrno. Some of the Abenaki basket makers did so well in the late nineteenth century at the encampments that they bought prepared splints and cleaned and braided sweetgrass from French-Canadian farmers. Eventually, the Lake George encampment evolved into a permanent Native American community. Unfortunately, there was a stigma attached to the neighborhood, and its residents were denigrated as “half breeds” in local newspapers well into the 1950s, notes DeGarmo.
Other kinds of entertainments, such as Indian pageants and shows, became popular beginning in the 1920s. While many of these events represented crass commercializations of old traditions and exploited the Indians, some were respectful and even authentic re-creations of Native American dances, music and stories. For example, Ray Fadden, who taught school at Akwesasne, brought a group of boys and girls from the reservation to perform Mohawk dances and songs in buckskins, ribbon shirts and traditional hats of ash splints and turkey feathers at the Indian Village in Lake George for two summers in the 1950s. Lectures by Ray about Iroquois government, stories and inventions alternated with social dances by the children, who shook turtle-shell rattles. “We performed every two hours,” says John Fadden, who was twelve years old at the time and one of the performers. “I made thirty-five dollars a week, and we stayed in a bark-house. My mother was the cook.” The Mohawks left after a dispute with the owners of the village, who replaced them with more “authentic” Western Indians.
John also remembers attending the annual Indian pageant at Ticonderoga. “l was four years old the first year we went and I thought that’s where Indians lived,” he says. Although the actors of the spectacle, which consisted of a cycle of plays about Iroquois history and culture, were white people, Fadden says all the Six Nations were present, including “a group of Tuscaroras sitting on the ground in full regalia.” john recalls spotting Arthur C. Parker, the Seneca historian, at one of the performances, wearing traditional dress.
The Faddens also attended a pageant at the Lake Placid Club. (In 1946 Ray had drawn a series of pictographs illustrating Iroquois stories on the walls of the club’s Iroquois Room.) Despite the club’s prestige, John wasn’t impressed. “It seemed hokey. They had fires fed by gasoline, bonfires at night. A real Iroquois wouldn’t waste fuel like that.”
Not all Native Americans who came to the Adirondacks to work catered to the tourist trade. Up through the early 1940s many Mohawks from Akwesasne traveled to the region in groups for employment at the logging camps and mines. One was John Jackson, who during a recent conversation at the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Community Building, in Akwesasne, told me about two winters he spent at logging camps at Paul Smiths and near Utica when he was a teenager. “We were loading four- foot pulp logs,” he recalls. “They’d cut it in summer and we’d load it in winter . . . We’d sleep in dormitories. We’d have chow at four o’clock: If there were any more trucks coming in we’d load those—there could be four, six or eight. The loading could go until about midnight. Sometimes we had Sunday off. We had our own crews and we’d speak Mohawk.”
William Cook, who owns a two-hundred-acre farm near the edge of the reservation, drove a team of horses at a logging camp one winter when he was seventeen. “There used to be a lot going to camps to work,” he says. “We’d charter a bus and get dropped off at Tupper Lake, then walk on a cowpath for about fifteen, twenty miles. They paid three dollars a day for driving a team.” The following year Cook returned to the Adirondacks to work at the Tahawus titanium mine. “You had to drill and blast. There were big trucks to take the stone away and crush it, then they’d put it in railroad cars. I helped change the bits on drills. It paid well, and we had a big dorm. There were a lot of Mohawks from here, about fifty to seventy people. You could come home weekends, but it was too far for me.”
Seated at a desk in his comfortable home, Cook takes out his wallet and hands me some scraps of paper, the remnants of the stub of his first paycheck from the Tahawus mine. Piecing the bits of faded paper together, I can barely decipher the date of August 20, 1944, and the printed amount of $43.01.
Both Jackson and Cook later worked as ironworkers, stringing cables on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and performing other high-wire feats as they helped build the skylines of New York, Boston, Rochester and San Francisco. Young unmarried women, usually in their teens, also left the reservation for jobs in the Adirondacks. Many worked as maids, laundresses and waitresses at the Lake Placid Club. “When I was there we had four girls from the reservation who worked in the laundry,” says Margaret Terrance, who was employed as a maid at the club during summers in the 1950s.
Mohawk women also worked as housekeepers at private homes and the sanitariums in Saranac Lake. Dorothy Jacobs started working year-round in a private Saranac Lake home when she was sixteen, doing laundry and helping care for several children. “In order to survive you had to leave the reservation,” she explains. “We lived off the land. We had eight to ten cows and we’d sell the milk commercially. But there was no more market after the pollution happened.” She is referring to toxic pollutants from two enormous industrial plants adjacent to the reservation which have poisoned the Mohawks’ water and farmland.
None of the older people said they had experienced any prejudice while working in the Adirondacks. “You get away from here [the reservation], they’re interested in you—it’s the towns around us where some are prejudiced,” said one man. Generally, though, people don’t want to talk about this. As famed Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac explains in the introduction to Go Seek the Pow Wow on the Mountain, a wonderful collection of Indian stories told by people in the Sacandaga Valley before it was flooded in 1930: “Things had been tough for lndians around here, and I heard bits and pieces of how people had been mistreated or even murdered (including one of my grandfather’s own brothers) because of their Indian blood. It was safer to say, as my grandfather always did, ‘I’m French!’ ”
Some Mohawks who went to work in the Adirondacks intermarried with local people and stayed. Thus, the woof and warp of the population of many Adirondack towns is probably just as much Indian as it is French-Canadian and Yankee. Today the logging camps, the Lake Placid Club and the sanitariums are gone. Most of the Indian tourist attractions have also disappeared, and hand-made ash-splint pack baskets have become a rarity. Things have changed, and some people say it’s just as well. “My mother has a difficult time talking about basket weaving, since she had to do it to survive,” notes Maurice Dennis`s daughter, Andree Dennis Newton. A couple of years ago, Newton got interested in carving and started making totem poles, like her father. But, she says, “I`m pretty private with it, because I’ve seen and heard the prejudices from my parents’ experience when they came here.”
Glimmers of interest about Native American culture have come from art centers, libraries and schools—institutions whose mandate is to reveal truth rather than pander to popular misconceptions in the interests of making a profit. As they always have, Native Americans continue to travel seasonally through the park—but now as storytellers, dancers, sweetgrass-basket weavers and lecturers, performing and teaching.
Andree Newton, though, offers a telling perspective on those activities: “Once my father gave a speech about Indians on the train at Enchanted Forest amusement park, and kids threw stones and laughed at him,” she says. “I want to be in controlled settings, like an elementary school or an art center. I have the choice. He didn’t.”