Mohican families connect in the land — across time

Bonney Hartley is standing in the Stockbridge cemetery on a summer day, and through the maple trees the mountain ridge basks in the sun. Her family lived here six generations ago.

“It is so much more real for me,” she says, “and for other people who have come out to stand in front of a place and say ‘this is my direct ancestors’ land.’ When I stand there, for me that’s meaningful, because we are displaced. We don’t have our land.”

She is the preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, and her direct ancestor stood here in 1735. His name was Naunauneekkanuck, and here he took the name David. The eastern half of this plot belonged to him — by his community’s structures and by the English system of land deeds.

His people had lived here for countless generations, and in his lifetime they had had to petition the English for a few acres. Letters and records from the time make clear how keenly he and his community felt the irony of it, as well as the pain.

Naunauneekkanuck was Mohican, and before European colonists forced their way here with boundary lines and stone walls, these hills belonged to his people and Hartley’s, and they belonged here, for many hundreds of years. In 1783 their families were forced to move west, she says. But they have always kept in touch, and they have always come back.

‘ It is so much more real for me, and for other people who have come out to stand in front of a place and say this is my direct ancestors’ land.’ — Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee Nation

In the last three years, local organizations have made a united effort to talk with them.
Cory Hines, a program coordinator with the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, is working with Hartley and her nation, and with local museums including the Trustees of Reservations and the Bidwell House, to rethink and broaden the way they tell the story of the Mohicans in the Berkshires.

In new exhibits, tours and interpretive trails, the Berkshires are asking the Mohican people to tell their own story.

The broad, weathered base of an old tree sits among weathered gravestones in the Stockbridge cemetery.
Photo by Kate Abbott

The broad, weathered base of an old tree sits among weathered gravestones in the Stockbridge cemetery.

Stockbridge began as a community of Mohican families and colonists, and the descendants of the Mohicans who founded this community now live in Wisconsin as part of the federally recognized Stockbridge Munsee Nation, with some 1,500 members.

This summer the flag of the Stockbridge Munsee nation has come to fly at the Mission House in Stockbridge, the historic home of the town’s first Christian religious leader, and the Stockbridge Munsee have woven stories of their great grandfathers and great grandmothers, and the town’s first years, in a new self-guided walking tour.

Small wooden Colonial houses and domed Mohican dwellings stood side by side then, Hartley saus, with a meeting house, a schoolhouse and cows grazing along the main street.

“It’s easy to picture what that time looked and felt like,” she says. “In many places the land looks and feels so different (now), but here you can look and connect over time, and connect to people.”

The Housatonic Rover gleams in late afternoon sunlight near the homesite of Uhhaunauaunmut, a leader and captain, orator and ambassador also called King Solomon, as Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, explains in the newly opened exhibit at the Berkshire Museum.
Photo by Kate Abbott

The Housatonic Rover gleams in late afternoon sunlight near the homesite of Uhhaunauaunmut, a leader and captain, orator and ambassador also called King Solomon, as Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, explains in the newly opened exhibit at the Berkshire Museum.

She is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribal Historic Preservation. She came to the Berkshires four years ago as a representative for her nation, working from Troy, N.Y., to protect historic sites in upstate new York and in Massachusetts and Vermont, and in 2020 she and her office moved to Williamstown.

Through her work with Hines, she has come into conversation with local museums and shared stories of the Mohicans in their homelands, and the years of the Mohican township within the Commonwealth that would later become Stockbridge. And she has found that many people who come here or live here don’t know this history.

“If I told you this story about any other people in the world, people would ask questions,” she says. “Where did they come from, and why were they here, and why they left.”

Archaeologist Ann Morton works with Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, and a team of volunteers at a dig at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.
Photo by Bonney Hartley

Archaeologist Ann Morton works with Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation, and a team of volunteers at a dig at the site of the 1783 Ox Roast in Stockbridge. Press photo courtesy of the Mohican nation.

They came from here, going back 10,000 years and more. The Mohicans are the Muh-he-con-neok, people of the waters that are never still, and they lived along the tidal rivers and across the hills from the Muhheacannituck, the broad waterway European colonists would call the Hudson River. They lived in the lands from the coast north into the Taconics and the Green Mountains, through the Housatonic valley and east toward the Connecticut River.

In the 1730s, the Mohicans had held together through more than a hundred years of epidemics and European wars. They had lost their land to English and Dutch and French, and people to illnesses.

Mohican leaders held three councils, Hartley says, facing a stark choice: to live with the English or stand against them.They could learn English, accept the influence of a Christian missionary and settle within an English framework, or leave their land for a place beyond the colonists’ reach.

They petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to grant them a township within the commonwealth.

“It was not unanimous,” Hartley says. “Many people opposed it. They felt they were giving up too much.”

But some among their leaders felt it was their best chance to keep together.
It was a unique attempt. In the first years of the mission, 125 Mohicans communally owned about 23,000 acres in Stockbridge, about six miles square — 36 square miles. They learned English, and the first missionary, John Sargeant, spoke Mohican and held worship services in their language. They had allies among their neighbors.

And the mission ended within a generation.

The story is often told vaguely, Hartley says, as though the Mohican families who lived here just wandered off. The truth is harder, and the records are clear. For 50 years, colonists and town officials systematically took the land from them — again.

Records and letters show white Colonists bringing law suits, surveying land they did not own and holding town elections without warning, forcing votes. They held town meetings and excluded all Mohican town officials. They forced the Mohican community to divide their communal fields into lots and assign each lot to one man, making the land easier to take away.

Mohican leaders fought them through the courts. They protested to the Commonwealth as the danger became clear. Their letters show their struggle. In a daylong gathering last May, their direct descendants came to Stockbridge and shared their ancestors’ perspectives. Brent Michael Davids read from a 1750 petition from David Naunauneekkanuck and others.

“Your petitioners have been and still are disturbed and wronged in several instances respecting their land … When your petitioners had accomplished more than one hundred days’ work in cutting timber and creating fence on said land, your petitioners were ordered very much to their surprise to desist from going on with their design for no other reason than your petitioners can possibly conjecture then that said land lay adjoining the said Williams land …”

The neighboring landowner would take much of the land in the township — the same family who would give their name to Williamstown and Williams College.

A stone monument marks a traditional burial ground where the Mohican people have long remembered and honored their lost families.
Photo by Kate Abbott

A stone monument marks a traditional burial ground where the Mohican people have long remembered and honored their lost families.

The courts would not protect the Mohican people, and they were losing their freedom of movement, and their ways of teaching and governing. They were traditionally matrilineal, Hartley says, and women held authority. The Stockbridge Munsee Nation’s president is a woman today. But in the mission, under the English system, women could not own property or take any part in town government.

The Mohicans were losing their ways of life. And so in 1783 they set out west, into New York state, to live among the Oneida. As colonial pressure continued, the larger group moved again, some to Indiana, some to Kansas and Oklahoma, and eventually to Wisconsin. They were facing the tactics they had faced in Stockbridge, and the debate they had held around their council fires here, into the 20th century and on.

Many of the Stockbridge Munsee live now on 2,500 acres of reservation land, about the size of their township in Stockbridge. Carrieanne Petrick and Mark Wilson from the Mission House and the Trustees of Reservations visited there this year, as the recent collaboration has unfolded.

At the Mohican museum on the reservation, Petrick-Huff saw photographs of a celebration of the community’s 50th year there. Members of the Nation told her it was the longest time the community had lived anywhere since they left Stockbridge.

‘It took my breath away. They had found a permanent place to live in my father’s lifetime. And here I have been walking around Stockbridge, calling this my home, until recently without a thought.’ — Carrieanne Petrick

“It took my breath away,” she said. “They had found a permanent place to live in my father’s lifetime. And here I have been walking around Stockbridge, calling this my home, until recently without a thought.”

While the trip west was new to her, many Mohicans have come east over the last 235 years, she says. They have kept a connection with the Berkshires, and they have kept friendships here.

A sapling takes root in an old tree stump in the Stockbridge cemetery.
Photo by Kate Abbott

A sapling takes root in an old tree stump in the Stockbridge cemetery.

Rick Wilcox, retired Stockbridge chief of police, has known and worked with people of the Stockbridge Munsee for many years. He has welcomed them to Stockbridge and worked with them to create one of the most visible testaments to the Mohicans here, a stone monument on land the Mohicans have honored for generations and still do.

One of his direct ancestors, a Dr. Partridge, knew the Mohicans in the mission and stood their friend, and when they left, they asked him to care of “the little Interest of land they had in this town,” in the words of John Mtohksin. Generations of Rick’s family have carried on.

“It’s an eloquent story between him and Bonney and their ancestors,” Petrick-Huff says. “Their families have been woven together for generations, and after hundreds of years the two of them are still working together.”

Wilcox’s research has invigorated the new walking tour, she says. Since he retired as chief of the Stockbridge police, he has been combing through land deeds, transcribing them to make them available to tribal members and tracing centuries-old boundaries and measurements to connect the names of the Mohican people of the mission to the land they held here. Recently the Stockbridge Munsee honored him as namiit, their brother, for his years of work.

Hartley and Hines, Petrick-Huff, Hoogs and Wilson are working with him to make the Mohicans’ long connection visible.

Petrick-Huff imagines welcome to Stockbridge signs in Mohican and English, and student exchanges and visits in both directions.

“There’s so much we can do today,” she says, “to bring the past and present into the future.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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4 thoughts on “Mohican families connect in the land — across time

  1. Hi Kate,
    You have done it again! You have woven a wonderful story over the fabric of time and the importance of life in Wisconsin where the Mohican people continue to show why they survived their time in New York and the Berkshires. One concept I struggled with while doing research was the the math problem on the size of Indian Town. It was actually six miles square or 36 square miles or 23,040 acres, which is now the towns of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. The land in Wisconsin is, I think, around 25,000 acres. Best, Rick

    1. Thank you so much, Rick, for your good word and your correction. I’ve made that change in the text, so the numbers will be updated there, and they’re all the more sobering. I know the full loss we’re talking about is incalculably larger, but that sense of scale gives me a starting point for thinking about this part of it. Thanks very much, and take care.

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