Bloody Mohawk: NY author chronicles Mohawk Valley’s ‘bloody’ past

By Chris Carola
Fort Johnson, New York (AP) October 2010

For Richard Berleth, New York state’s ongoing disputes with Native American tribes are old news – really old news.

“The squabbles haven’t changed and the conditions in Albany haven’t changed,” said Berleth, author of a new book on the decades of warfare and strife that tore through the Mohawk Valley in the 18th century. He said the difference today is the absence of the bloodshed witnessed between 1713 and 1794, the period covered in his book, “Bloody Mohawk: The French and Indian War & American Revolution On New York’s Frontier.”

Otherwise, the quarrels embroiling Iroquois tribes and state government mirror the disputes that arose in the 1700s over land deals, the fur and rum trade, and sovereignty. Today it’s land claims, taxes and casinos, and sovereignty. Berleth said he “got a real jolt” last summer when the sovereignty issue made international news after a team of Iroquois lacrosse players refused to travel on passports not issued by the Iroquois Confederacy.

And dealing with Albany, a government town since Dutch colonial times, isn’t any easier for today’s Iroquois leaders than it was for their ancestors, Berleth said.

“You had to grease palms continually in upstate New York. Everything was money and everything was patronage,” he said about Albany circa 1750, yet repeating a common complaint about Albany today.

Berleth’s book focuses on the Mohawk River Valley’s role in shaping America’s early history. Indian, British, French and American forces spent much of the 18th century fighting from the shores of western Lake Ontario to the eastern Adirondacks, with the Mohawk Valley in between serving as transit corridor, bread basket and battleground.

The Mohawk, which meets the Hudson River just north of Albany, was a water highway to the interior, and a succession of European powers vied to control its access.

“It was the road west. It was the only way through the mountains,” Berleth, a 69-year-old college professor from Brooklyn, said in a telephone interview.

Berleth will give a lecture and have a book signing at the Old Fort Johnson National Historic Landmark, on the Mohawk River 30 miles northwest of Albany. He visited Fort Johnson and other locations in the valley while doing research for his book, published earlier this year by Black Dome Press of Hensonville. He already was familiar with the region from his days at Colgate University, and from his fly fishing trips to local trout streams.

“There’s a story here,” Berleth said. “There’s really a way of pulling this all together, the French and Indian War, the aftermath, the American Revolution, the consequences.”

In “Bloody Mohawk,” Berleth describes a fertile Mohawk Valley frontier filled with beauty, danger and intrigue as white settlers increasingly encroached on Indian lands. European ambitions of empire reached across the Atlantic into the heart of the valley, which doesn’t escape the bloodletting sparked by colonial wars between the French and British, followed by the American colonies’ rebellion against England.

By the time the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua officially ends hostilities between the Iroquois and the United States, the valley is starting to recover from the Tory and Indian raids that ravaged the region from what is now the Utica area to the outskirts of Schenectady. The American Revolution left the old Iroquois Confederacy in tatters, its tribes decimated by war, starvation, disease and forced relocation to Canada and elsewhere.

Yet despite all the bloodshed and shady land deals, there were periods of peace and cooperation among the Mohawk Valley’s white and Iroquois communities, Berleth said.

“They traded with each other, bought land from each other,” he said. “There was no segregation of any significant sort. Mohawks moved freely in and out of white settlements and institutions.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the valley’s bloody past, it’s how societies can bounce back from devastation and turmoil to start anew, Berleth said.

“I’m astonished at how the Iroquois eventually pulled themselves back together again,” he said. “You just come away with tremendous respect for the human stuff.”