[Preface – you will note that many of the names given here may have several spellings/pronunciations. The translation of Native American names into English is not an exact one since these languages are generally not written and so one writes down what they heard. Also, while I use the term “Indian” here, I recognize that we now call these people groups Native Americans, but the places I am using for reference were written long ago and the term “Indian” was still in use at the time.]
A long-time friend of mine, John Moser, and his wife will be celebrating their 30th anniversary shortly. In preparation, he recently posted on Facebook that their plans were to be traveling to NY for research on his wife’s book about the Moravian settlement wiped out in Shekomeko and then five days running around the Berkshires. This made me start wondering where Shekomeko was and the history that she would be researching.
A quick search using Google Maps indicated that Shekomeko was located in the town of Northeast in Dutchess County, NY – just to the east of the NE corner of CT. My Russell ancestors lived in Dutchess County from around 1730 when Robert Russell came to America from Scotland until the family moved just across the border to Kent, CT some time right after the Civil War. I am quite familiar with the history of that part of NY/CT because of the research that I have done on my ancestors over the past several years.
Algonquian/Algonquin Indians [Native Americans]
Another series of searches led me to some of the history of the Mahican Indians (also called the Mohicans (*1), the name I had known growing up) in Shekomeko and the involvement of the Moravians (*2). The Moravians had settled in Bethlehem, PA, in the late 1730s. They were then looking for a group of native peoples to preach to and convert and so sent Christian Henry Rauch to New York City in 1740 to locate a native people group. He met there with a delegation of Mahican Indians. They were a part of the Algonquian tribe who lived in eastern Dutchess County and western Connecticut. Rauch discovered that he could converse with them in Dutch as they were acquainted with the language from their contact with Dutch settlements along the Hudson (note that these Dutch settlements included my wife’s Van De Car ancestors who were living at the time about 20 miles NW of Shekomeko in the area of Kinderhook, NY.)
But the fact that these were Algonquian Indians triggered other connections to me. The first was that another small group of this same nation inhabited the town where I grew up, Wolcott, CT, and I have previously written about them (*3). Wolcott was in the early stages of being settled beginning in the 1730s, so this would have been contemporaneous with the Moravian work in the 1740s. (As a side note, for our senior high class night, I was the MC and my stage name was “Algonquin Godperson”.)
This reminded me that the author of the history of Wolcott, which I have relied on for many previous blogs, was Samuel Orcutt (*4). While the history of Wolcott was his first published work, he went on to write several other history books, one of which was “The Indians of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys” in 1882 (*5). The northwest corner of CT is part of the Housatonic Valley and I recommended that John’s wife consider that as good background material for her research.
While the Wikipedia article (*2) has a good summary, I thought I should read Samuel Orcutt’s book as well to see what else it might say. While it is available through Google books, I also purchased a Kindle version of it. Surprisingly, there were a several of chapters on the Moravians, so I had much more reading to do than I thought.
I won’t give away the whole story here, but as a brief overview, the Moravians only worked among the Mahican for about 6 years (1740-1746). At the end of that period, the remaining Indians at Shekomeko (only 44 of them) left and dispersed to Pennsylvania and east to the mission at Pachgatgoch. There were far more details on this in Orcutt’s book (*5). It was initially quite hard to get further details in public sources since the name Pachgatgoch has very few references, but I was able to determine that this is an alternate spelling (one of 12!) of the word Schaghticoke (*6) which is derived from the Algonquian word Pishgachtigok. (For one of the few times in my career, I made an update to Wikipedia so that future individuals will have a link to follow!)
One of the things that surprised me was that Count Zinzendorf (*7), who had a significant influence on the Moravian church and was responsible for its revival in the 1720s, was also heavily involved in the Moravian work at Shekomeko, as he made personal visits there. He also stopped in New Milford, CT, on his way back in late 1742 (as recorded in (*5)).
Because this tribe of Native Americans occupied a sizable area (especially given that there were relatively few of them), it was not only the Moravians who interacted with them. Those who lived at Shekomeko were not appreciated by the local settlers. As noted in (*2), the local colonists offered rum to the Mahicans if they would kill the missionaries. The missionaries themselves were detained, interrogated, fined and released. In 1744 the governor of NY ordered the missionaries to “desist from further teaching and depart the province.” Fortunately, Orcutt has a recorded a lot of detail about where the remainder of the tribe dispersed to (*5). But in Connecticut, where the tribe was not viewed with quite so much hostility, there were others besides the Moravians who interacted with them. Thus, in addition to the tribe’s interaction with my wife’s ancestors along the Hudson River, some of my own ancestors played a part in this story.
Orcutt’s book mentions several individuals from the town of New Milford who took part in these interactions. These include Anthony Stoddard and Lt. Colonel Preston who in May 1741 on the petition of a local Indian were appointed to take care “that the said Indian be instructed according to his desire, and that his children be schooled and taught the principles of the Christian religion, and victualled, and that twenty pounds of the money raised by contribution be improved in said service.” The text of the petition may be found in (*8).
Then in 1742 the Rev. Daniel Boardman and Samuel Canfield were appointed to like service to the Indians of New Milford. Boardman is remembered to this day by Boardman Road in New Milford which is carried over the Housatonic River by Boardman’s Bridge (*9). Samuel Canfield is my great*7 grandfather. (My father’s maternal grandmother was Caroline Northrup, her grandmother was Catherine Canfield, the great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Canfield (1702-1754).)
Despite the efforts of both the Moravians as well as the above individuals from New Milford, the English colonists in the area were mostly successful in driving away both the Moravians as well as nearly all the members of the Mohican tribe. Many of them migrated first to the area around Bethlehem, PA to be with their Moravian friends. But even here there were difficulties and they had to keep moving westward to escape persecution. Some of the Mahicans were among a larger group of Native Americans who had travelled west to Ohio where a group of individuals massacred 96 of them in the Gnadenhutten massacre in 1781 (*10). Others migrated to Canada where they were able to live peacefully. Only a handful remained behind in the New Milford area where there is still a small reservation in Kent, CT (*6). Orcutt listed the remaining handful of these in his book in 1882 (*5).
This is not a happy story. But we should learn from both the Moravian brethren as well as the few men from New Milford, my ancestors among them, who acted with kindness toward the Native Americans in their midst.
*5 – The Indians of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys, by Samuel Orcutt, 1882
*8 – History of Ancient Woodbury, Connecticut: From the First Indian Deed in 1659 … Including the Present Towns of Washington, Southbury, Bethlehem, Roxbury, and a part of Oxford and Middlebury, by William Cothren, pp. 103-104