When we die, our bones linger. What if they could regrow flesh and begin a new life, the way the bones of the land do, the way valleys and flats and mountains sprout new ecosystems and cultures? How many nations of trees and flowers and shrubs and nests and creatures have the bones of the Taconics borne? How can it be that we share this space with the Mohicans, separated only by a thin skin of years, and yet they’ve become invisible to us? It bothers me.
Once, the valley I now call home was dotted with Mohican fields and villages and palisaded forts, and layered with their invisible but powerful stories and myths and memories. In 2016, almost nothing but a few place-names remains. Their nation survives – in Wisconsin.
That’s why I searched for Wawanaquasik. Records show this pile of stones, raised by Mohican hands, was once well-known in Columbia County. What if it’s still there — a tie to the past I could grasp with my hands?
The stone heap I hunted enters history because of a tenacious boundary dispute. Robert Livingston, a Scotch immigrant, in 1686 became lord of a manor that encompassed a large portion of Columbia County, stretching from the Hudson to a vague line that ran north-south along the Taconics. I found a transcription of the deed at Clermont, the family seat that is now a museum near Tivoli, so here’s the definition of Livingston’s northern boundary line (italics mine):
“… bounded and limited in manner hereafter expressed and mention’d that is to say on the North by a line drawn from a certain creek … to a place called by the natives Wawanaquassick where the heaps of Stones lye being near the head of a certain kill or creek called Nananpenahekan which comes out of the marsh lying near unto said hill of the said heaps of stones upon which the Indians throw upon another as they pass by from an ancient custom among them and from thence extending to the Northernmost end of the Hills that are to the north of Tachkanik known by the name of Ahaskewaghkick …”
Livingston’s Manor Lord neighbors, the Van Rensselear family, did not accept Livingston’s line “on the North” as described above. This squabble goes back at least to 1712 and still boiled as late as 1762. From my perspective, the bickering over definitions and precise locations and testimonies seems almost comical, but clearly land was as precious then as now, even when you owned half a county and had never even laid eyes on a fair part of it.
A 1712 document in Robert Livingston’s brutally hard-to-read script describes a hike to the stone piles with Henry Van Rensselear, witnesses, and several Mohicans. The assembled native experts satisfied Livingston by declaring that “Wawanaquassik” was not a general term for stone heaps, but referred to that particular one about nine miles from the Hudson. The next year, however, a meeting of “arbitrators indifferently chosen by Robt Livingston and Henry Rensselear” found little foundation for Livingston’s claim, based partly on the assertion that “all stone heaps are called by the Indians Mawanaquassik. Therefore they have their choice to go to what stone heaps they please.”
Depositions and testimonies were fired back and forth for decades. In 1714, Livingston embarked on a nine day journey of his manor boundaries, visiting the crucial stone heaps at Wawanaquasik, skirting the Taconics, and spending a night in a Mohican village at Indian Lake, Connecticut. A lengthy 1717 document indicates that a compromise was reached between Livingston’s boundary point (Wawanaquasik) and Van Rensselear’s (a spot about three miles south where “Nananpenahekan” creek meets Claverack Creek.) That compromise line ran through Manor Rock, a medium-sized stone that can be located today on USGS maps along, sure enough, Manor Rock Road.
But a 1762 document contains the stone heap testimony of John Konkapot and several other Mohicans living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. After establishing that these men were baptized Christians, the recorder asserts that Konkapot “being at three stone heaps (near together) by him called wawanaquasick … about sixty years ago in company with an old Indian called and known by the name of Skaap … he never heard, nor doth know, of any other stone heap or heaps that had or hath the name of Wawanaquasick ..”
Sixty year old testimony? Still they were squabbling over what precisely “Wawanaquasik” means? Clearly, for decades Wawanaquasik mattered to the Manor Lords.
What did it mean to the natives? It wasn’t the only place “… where the Indians have laid severall heaps of stones together by an ancient custom among them.” “Ahaskewaghkick” was apparently a pile near the present site of Catamount ski area. The best known pile was located near Great Barrington, and the best evidence says that that stone heap rose just south of Monument Mountain and east of the Housatonic, and was gone by 1768, likely un-heaped by farmers building walls and chimneys.
One native, David Annahakenic, stated in a court case that in days before the whites came, sachems ordered stone pilees built to clarify the union of sub-tribes spread out in different locations around the valley. But a later testimony claimed that Wawanaquasik meant: “a great Lord of whom they are afraid who they offer stones to appease him.” It was more often claimed that the heaps were monuments to some great but half-remembered chieftain. John Sergeant, a missionary to the Mohicans, inquired about reasons behind the stone piles but noted in his 1734 journal: “What was the end of it they cannot tell; only they say their fathers used to do so, and they do it because it was the custom of their fathers.”
“Wawanaquasik” is clearly marked on a beautifully rendered 1798 map of the town of Livingston. It was still there in 1878, according to Ellis’ History of Columbia County. Livingston’s deed, and some subsequent maps, give mileages to and/or compass points for Wawanaquasik. But when I tried to compare the compass points to a USGS quadrangle, nothing seemed to match up, and a little research into the subject yielded quotes like: “It is almost impossible to align an old map to modern coordinate systems.” Discouraging – should I consult a land surveyor? One who specializes in historical sleuthing? But one day in our local library, I returned to that 1798 map. Everything mentioned in Livingston’s 1686 deed and subsequent disputes is marked, including Manor Rock and Nananpenahekan Creek. Comparing this map to a current quadrangle, it seemed clear that a certain modern town boundary line runs right along the old Livingston/Van Rensselear border and makes a near right-angle turn at a spot about three miles north of Manor Rock, just where Wawanaquasik is marked on the eighteenth century map.
I consulted a science teacher friend who helped me understand how to read modern map coordinates. I had a compass app on my Smartphone. I could have used an orienteering course, and a better compass, but I wanted to go.
Yes, I was trespassing so no, I’m not going to describe precise locations. But the point I sought, while out in the woods, wasn’t lost in wilderness either. A busy highway, in fact, ran just about a mile away. I launched myself from that highway on a cloudy spring day, just before leaf-out might have made a rock pile harder to spot. I stomped through thick brush, got seduced by a power line right-of-way that was much easier to walk but gradually pulled me off my coordinates, climbed a high hill, wondering if this was the “high hill” mentioned in the old court cases, found nothing there but a stone wall and an overgrown field, came out on a jeep road, and got realigned with the correct east-west coordinates.
I veered off the jeep road through a tangle of blackberry bushes, and reached the exact coordinates I sought. I stood “near the head of a certain kill” and could see, through scrub trees, a “marsh lying near unto said hill.”
I found one collection of stones there – not three … no different from many another piles of stones I’ve seen in the woods. Farmers built them, clearing fields. Inspecting it, I noticed that the bottom stones seemed sunk partially into the earth – a sign that this was an “ancient” heap? Weak evidence! Weak! But could this have been a scalped Wawanaquasik, its head and body carted off to build stone fences?
It could have just as easily been just another trace of old farm work. I couldn’t know. So I hiked back to my car, wondering.
“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” That’s Aristotle, clearly a wise voice. As I drove home I asked myself: after several months of visiting libraries, perusing maps, pondering and finally hiking, what could I really be certain of? Did I know what “Wawanaquasik” meant? The testimony left behind by the Manor Lords – not exactly disinterested parties – is riven with disagreement. Cadwaller Colden, Surveyor General of New York in 1732, sounds like another wise voice when he writes: “… it is too well known that an Indian will shew any place by any name you please, for the small reward of a Blanket or a bottle of Rum, and the names as I observed, being common names in the Indian language, and not proper ones as they are understood to be in English, gives more room to these frauds.” Had I at least found the former location of Wawanaquasik? My assumption that a 1768 map corresponded to a modern map could have been a mistake. Who even knows how reliable that 1768 map is?
So I didn’t know what Wawanaquasik meant, and I didn’t know where it was.
That meant it could still be out there! I’d begun my hunt inspired by the notion that the mountains and streams and hills and rock heaps of my particular curve of the Earth had once been soaked with stories, had once had an intimate, land-to-skin link with a vanished people, and that I could somehow rekindle an iota of that ancient connection. A lovely dream. I can still pursue it. The little I’ve learned about Wawanaquasik leaves room to keep dreaming and searching, and the search itself leaves me more tightly bound to a place. It seems that history begins with imagination, and often ends there.