All posts by haasd

Walking Without a Path

Walking Without a Path

Looking east from Mt Ashley


To move across Earth’s surface, without a path, is an uncommon experience.  Yellow and white lines, yield and stop signs, traffic lights, sidewalk borders, hallway edges are so familiar we barely notice we’re being guided.  The only unmarked landscapes most of us ever encounter are lawns, or parking lots.  Little kids sometimes venture into unfamiliar yards and fields and woods, creating cut-throughs and secret spots and new trails, discovering stones and creeks and important trees.  But adults? Even airline pilots follow paths through the sky.

Last winter I climbed Mount Ashley, a little-noticed ridge in the South Taconic Mountains not far from the Appalachian Trail.  To start, I followed a blue-blazed trail a couple of miles to a stream whose source was a saddle between Ashley to the north and Mount Frissel to the south.

Ashley Hill trail is narrow but distinct, identified every twenty yards or so by blue rectangles painted on trees.  Leaving it felt like leaping off the edge of a boat.  I edged sideways around mountain laurel bushes, keeping that stream within eyesight, figuring it would guide me in the right direction for a while.  The temperature was around thirty, the sun sealed away behind layers of clouds.

So many things around us are invisible because we’re not interested.  But as soon as I left the trail behind, I got interested: in the serrated edges of lichen coating the stones at my feet, the birches hanging on to the banks of the stream, a branch trembling under the weight of a chickadee.  The tilt of the land mattered.  Was the rise to my left really Mount Ashley, or just a nameless bump?  The air in my mouth had a faintly metallic taste — snow on the way?  The stream wandered south, away from my goal.  Should I leave it behind?

I felt nervous, lonely, and thoroughly alive.  Through a web of bare branches, I thought I could see the outline of a mountain to the south.  My map said this ought to be Mount Frissel, but my compass didn’t quite concur.  I made up my mind to call it Frissel, which meant I needed to swing north and start climbing.  If I was wrong?

There wasn’t any tremendous danger in my trip.  If I’d somehow injured myself so badly I couldn’t move, I might have been in serious trouble – no cell service up there.  But my wife knew the area I was hiking in.  It’s only about a mile between the Ashley Hill trail and a road to the east.  As long as I kept in one direction, I had no chance of getting lost – bound to come out on a road or a recognizable trail.  Still, as I climbed, my heart sometimes floated into my throat.

Summit stone stack

Rocks rose above me.  When I reached them I discovered coyote turds, left on a lookout spot. I grabbed hold of a ledge of shale, and hauled myself a little further up (I thought) Mount Ashley.  When I reached a summit, and a clearing, I spotted distant but recognizable humps I knew: Bear Mountain to the south, and Race to the north.  Elation surprised me.  Look!  Someone, or maybe many someones, had heaped stones to mark the top of Mount Ashley.  Who were they?  Why had they bothered?  How long had the stone-stack waited for a new someone to see it?

Other oases of open rock were hedged off by mountain laurel.  I whacked through the laurel and foun better views, and wondered how many people had ever stood on that particular spot on Earth – even though a road was only a mile away, and Times Square a hundred or so.

Sitting by the stone marker, eating my sandwich, I grew chilled.  In the gray sky, black seams marked boundaries between colliding clouds.  The air felt heavy.  So I headed down the east side of Mount Ashley, and made a terrible mistake.

Here’s a rule for anyone who decides to go bush-whacking in eastern woods, one I ought to have known cold: when you hit a stand of mountain laurel, go around it.  Don’t ever, ever go through it.
Mountain laurel wants a monopoly over the ground it grows on, and usually gets it.  A few lonely birches managed to rise above the mass of winter green I faced, but little else.  Laurel branches begin at ground level, reach well over your head, twist and curl and braid together and grab hold of your feet when you’re not looking.

OK, that last statement is not objectively true, but I wasn’t feeling very objective as I struggled through that thicket.  I assumed it would soon give way to more open forest, but I was wrong.

After half an hour of fighting through supple branches, getting slapped in the face,  tripping over logs shrouded in greenery, crawling when that seemed easier, a certain mania took over and I flailed, cursed, and tried desperately to go faster,  which only made me stagger and fall and curse more.  I came to a ravine, free of laurel, clambered down one side and up the other, and found – more laurel.

But at last, when I reached a road, a peculiar satisfaction socked me: I’d made it!  Without markers, I’d found my way.

Never mind that you know the danger is minimal: hiking off-trail I carry, along with my lunch and water bottle, the primal fear of never finding my way out of the dark forest.   I love it for the same reason some people love horror movies: fear, capped, is a kick.  To step away from a marked trail, in deep woods —  not knowing quite where you are – is spooky but exciting.

Fear is an emotion both necessary, and dangerous.  Out of control, it can cripple and paralyze people for moments or months or sometimes entire lives.  Stretches of my life have been squeezed by fear.

But fear has its role.  I’ve bushwhacked all over the South Taconics, surprised by tumbled-in nineteenth century cellar holes, broken stone dams, a beaver pond near the summit of Alander Mountain, a half-acre of ferns glowing with the pale green of June along Cedar Run, a line of very old telephone poles along a forgotten woods road near Bash-Bish Creek, and once, on the flank of Alander, a pile of wooden moldings and trim.  They’re all secrets that, perhaps, only I am privileged to tell.  They remind me that the line past fear can lead to discovery, and discovery makes us richer in affinity: sympathy for the life and things around us.

Sometimes I wonder: do the life and things around us need to be seen, to be completed?  The birch leaves, the stones, the chickadees: are they completed when we regard them, like a book being opened?  Are we made entire, when they see us?


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.

No question this is Manor Rock

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.

Markets, Mohicans and Beavers Part Three


The first lesson of Economics 101 is scarcity, the simple observation that humans can never fully satisfy their needs. From the hungry person at the bottom of the pyramid to the dissatisfied souls at the top, everyone wants something more than they can get. Economics studies the calculations and measures and scrambles people use to try to cross those gaps.

The system that the Dutch brought to America and the system we struggle with today are the same in one essential way. The answer to scarcity, for Evert Wendell and for almost any 21st century American, is more: find more, make more, earn more, spend more. In January, 2016, as I write this, headlines in the morning Times speak of a captured Mexican drug kingpin worth a billion dollars, falling stock prices as an economic bubble bursts in China, and “52 Places to Go this Year.” But I could pick any day, any year, and the stories would share a similar theme: acquisition, growth, expansion, the rewards, and the consequences suffered.
“More” is not, however, the only answer to the question of scarcity. Another response is to simply need less. The Mohicans, and most of the American tribes, lived in societies that needed astonishingly less than I, in my oil and propane heated home, my clothes made on the other side of the world, surrounded by an array of machines I depend on and don’t understand. They took what the seasons offered: corn, beans and squash crops in fall, meat in winter, berries and fish runs in spring, and an abundance of fish, seafood, migratory birds in summer. Don’t think they led lives of exemplary asceticism; they loved jewelry, paint, and other adornments. They wanted things they didn’t need. (There’s some evidence that they became increasingly picky about the color and quality of the strouds they traded furs for, allowing one to wonder if this vast trans-Atlantic trade was driven, on both sides, by fashion.)
But their society, unlike ours, kept wants and needs in rough balance with resources. One striking fact: the Indians seemed to have accepted late winter hunger as a part of seasonal rhythms. They were capable, for a period of time at least, of barely even needing food.
When the Mohicans offered Juet those furs in 1609, two opposing cultures began to swing towards each other. When they collided, the Mohican way of life crumbled. Their means of survival, still rooted in an ancient hunter-gatherer past, became an appendix to global capitalism. Bows and arrows gave way to guns, pottery to metal, seasonal patterns of hunting and growing to an increasingly desperate scramble for the foreign goods they now depended on. Land deeds tell a heartbreaking story of the Mohicans, decade by decade, parcel by parcel, selling off their land until they were cornered into untenable scraps and finally forced west.
It’s easy to condemn them for this. Mohican leaders, as well as many Europeans, deplored the havoc alcohol brought the tribe. (Some witnesses said that women and children would hide in the woods when the men came home with rum, and emerge when the fighting was over.) But any judge of the Indians’ actions must also remember that alcoholism is a disease, and most of all, not ignore the great dusk that had fallen over these people: the smallpox, cholera and other European-born diseases that may have killed ninety percent of the original American population. They participated in the shattering of their own culture, but that culture must have been deeply cracked already.
It’s also too easy to dream that our American land was once in perfect balance with its stewards. Every society is in motion, and who can say for certain how sustainable Indian society was in the long, long run? Northeastern populations had been rising since the advent of agriculture: could Indian numbers have eventually outstripped resources?
Still. Trying to peek forward and backward into the centuries, I can’t help concluding that the Mohican way of life had a far better chance of lasting than ours. The foundation of capitalism is a paradox: eternal growth. As long as populations and productivity rise, the system continues. So far, we haven’t hit its limits.

How long before those South Taconics beavers were trapped and killed? Clearly: not long.
The major Mohican population centers lay along the Hudson, maybe thirty-five miles from the Taconics. Trails linked villages, in historic times, just west and east of the mountains. Using Seton’s population estimates, you could guess that the pre-European beaver population of all Columbia County was around 3,000. In 1633, 8,000 beaver skins were exported from New York.
Let’s say a crew of Mohican hunters climbed into the South Taconics in 1630, trapped the beaver out of the pond I’ve described, and marched away with the prized pelts. By that year the pond had already reached its maximum depth of five to six feet. It supported a little less aquatic life than in previous years; the shreds of gnawed wood that had gathered at the bottom discouraged the growth of plant life. The brook trout found less to eat and had lost some size. It was still a robust ecosystem.
First signs that the caretakers were gone: willows and osiers growing from unpeeled sticks atop the dams. Without the continual labor of repair, the dams opened, the pond drained, and the stream resumed its interrupted course. The lodge collapsed into a heap of sticks and mud. The stumps in the nearby cleared areas grew bacteria and fungi and harbored insects that bored through the trunks, broke them down, and fed woodpeckers and bears.
The edge zone around the pond welcomed wind-blown seeds of aspen, cottonwood, white pine, birch, ash. With no beavers around to eat them, and ample sunlight, seedlings grew quickly. Animal and bird droppings brought competition: seeds of cherry, juniper, blackberry and blueberry.
The exposed floor of that pond was quickly colonized by smartweed, food for migrating birds. Once it became a meadow, covered with a variety of grasses, it was home to rabbits, mice, woodchucks, and other prime fodder for predators. Strawberries and mushrooms sprouted.
Within a few years, the border between meadow and the edge zone began to blur, everywhere a dense growth of saplings. Further away from that dam that began it all, beaver-created marshes, bogs and forested wetlands persisted.
But the deep ponds were gone, for centuries, and all the life that flourished there.
I delighted my young son, in the early nineties, by leading him across the frozen pond just below the Mount Washington State Forest headquarters, and lying down beside him on top of a beaver lodge. When we pressed our ears against the roof of sticks, we heard the residents rustling around inside. Sometime in that same decade, my friend Dave True and I bushwhacked up a stream that feeds into Ashley Brook and found a complex of beaver dams, stretching up towards the east side of Alander Mountain. This was all gone when I hiked up there a few summers ago. Right now the beaver have extensive works just off the east side of the Mount Washington Road, and just a few years ago Guilder Pond (highest pond in Massachusetts) had an energetic population that kept plugging up the outlet stream and threatening to flood the road that leads up towards Mount Everett.
Andrew Madden, a wildlife biologist working for Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife, told me he believes the beaver population in the Taconics plateaued decades ago. In 1928, a single beaver appeared near West Stockbridge, the first to be seen in the state within living memory. With little aid from humanity, the population grew until, by 1950, there were forty-five colonies west of the Connecticut River. There are currently something like 70,000 beaver in Massachusetts, but the population is expanding into beaver frontiers in the eastern, not western part of the state, helped in part by a 1990s law that limited trapping.
Beaver prefer young forage: alder, aspen, willow. The Taconics have been protected land since the 1930s, allowing a more mature forest of hemlock and oak to grow there. In addition, some Taconics streams are far from ideal beaver habitat. A cascade such as Race Brook, Andrew explained, might attract a young, roaming animal who might make an attempt to dam it, until a spring torrent flushed his efforts. As common sense would suggest, beaver need some kind of level area to work with. Not every stream in the South Taconics provides that.
Those empty ponds in the South Taconics? Probably headed towards meadow, new growth, young trees, and the arrival of future generations of beavers to cut and dam and trigger the cycle again.

Near Boston Corners, just where the Taconic Ridge slopes into flatter land, I watched a beaver swimming back and forth across its pond one evening. Only its head was visible, but the motion of its body underwater was clear in the pattern of ripples produced. It eyed me. My presence didn’t change its course. It didn’t seem to care that I was there.

markets. mohicans and beavers part two


In September 1609, Henry Hudson, an English ship-captain sailing for the Dutch, brought the Half Moon up the Hudson River into Mohican territory. This moment, an historical pivot for Europe, and the Mohicans, and the beaver, was remembered in Mohican oral tradition for generations, and recorded by Hudson’s mate Robert Juet in his journal. To understand the fate of that South Taconics beaver pond, one detail from Juet’s journal is crucial:
September 19, 1609: “And many (Mohicans) brought us Beaver skins, and otter skins, which we bought for trifles.”
The Mohican-European trans-Atlantic fur trade began with first contact. It didn’t end until nearly every beaver in New York Sate had been exterminated.
Animal spirits die when they’re ignored. Hendrick Auapaumaut, writing of his ancestors, described how the need for stuff overwhelmed the old codes: “They seldom feel much want, and they were very well contented in their condition, having food and raiment was their only aim. They were not to kill more than was necessary, for there was none to barter with them that would have tempted them to waste their animals, as they did after the Chuh-ko-thuk came on the island, consequently game was never diminished.”
Without spiritual, traditional constraints, the Mohicans very quickly locked into a trade economy whose engines slowed only when profits weakened. A year after Hudson’s first contact, another Dutch ship came up the river with trade goods. In 1614 the New Netherland Company was created, with a mission to exploit the fur trade, but it was ineffective. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company took on the job and in 1624 set up a trading post, on Governor’s Island near present Albany.
That year, four hundred beaver skins were exported. In 1633, 8,000 pelts were shipped. In 1635, 14,891 beaver skins crossed the Atlantic. According to a letter from the Dutch West India Company, a total of 80,183 beaver skins crossed traders’ desks between 1624 and 1635. By the latter year – twenty-four years after Juet recorded that first swap of skins for “trifles” – the directors of the Dutch West India Company complained that beaver skins had become “exceedingly scarce.” They sold at the high price of seven guilders apiece.
One source claims that by 1640 – twenty-nine years after Hudson! – beavers had been exterminated in New York state outside the Adirondacks. Hard to imagine, but other facts bear this out. Land deeds demonstrate that by the 1670s, the Mohicans had so few furs to trade that they began more and more to sell off land rights in return for precious trade goods. In the 1680s some Mohicans joined with their old enemies, the Iroquois, attacking tribes in Maryland and Virginia to gain skins. They returned “with furs from as far away as Florida.” One group of Mohicans left their homeland in 1684 and lived in Ottawa territory, searching for furs that could pay off their debts to traders. They returned with what they needed in 1690. In 1689 110 Mohicans traveled to the area near Niagara Falls in search of furs. In 1708 members of a Mohican community at Schaghticoke moved to the Winooski River in northern Vermont, again hunting furs under pressure of debt. The Earl of Bellomont, a colonial governor, wrote in 1700 to the Board of Trade that “the only good beaver hunting lyes .. where the Dowanghakes and other nations live. Hither our Five Nations are forced to go.” The Iroquois, who ruled western New York, forced to travel for furs? Clear evidence that by 1700 every beaver dam in the state was vanished or rotting, every pond drained (outside the Adirondacks, at any rate.) But what loneliness could be keener than to be the last of something? In 1901, one beaver survived in all New York state, residing at Tupper Lake.
To offer a sense of the scope of this destruction, some estimates: a typical beaver population density is two per square mile, according to one naturalist who counted the population in James Bay, Canada. Ernest Thompson Seton stated that pre-contact America contained five to six per square mile, with a colony every two to three miles and six to nine beavers per colony. A more recent researcher pegs the American population, before the 1600s, at 60 to 400 million. They would have been found in nearly all aquatic habitats. In New York, nearly every body of water would have contained beaver, or else been modified and shaped by an earlier generation of the animals, awaiting the next. The exact numbers can be debated, but one thing is sure: the North American beaver population was massive, its impact vast, the echoes of its demise immense.

What drove the Mohicans and neighboring tribes to strip the woods of beavers and transform the region’s ecology? What did they want so badly?
I made a small journey, in the summer of 2015, to find some first-hand answers to that question.. The New York Historical Society, on Central Park West in Manhattan, welcomed my curiosity about the one Dutch account book that survives from beaver-trading days, and directed me to a Microfiche reproduction of Evert Wendell’s year by year record – marred by ink blotches and scratch-outs – of goods that crossed his desk from 1695 to 1721. I sat there scrolling, stymied by my inability to read 18th century Dutch, until I realized that (since the Mohicans couldn’t read or write Dutch either) Wendell had drawn small pictures of the skins they owed him after he fronted them goods. I counted 217 images of furs, usually with the word “Bever’ jotted alongside. A scholar had added an English translation of some of the text, but still I felt like I read through a haze of years.
Wendell is representative of a whole breed of Dutch traders – hustlers, we might call them today – who competed ferociously, gambled boldly, sometimes got rich, sometimes went broke. For many, trading was a steppingstone to positions of influence or more secure means of making a living. Some stuck with trading as a career; some even moved into Indian homelands and developed close ties with Mohicans or Iroquois. Wendell seems to have been a fair and cautious businessman who maintained a steady income. He handed goods over to Indians, carefully recorded the number of furs they owed, and bet they’d return from their hunts or dealings able to repay. As noted above, this process might take years.
What did the traders offer, based on the Wendell account book and reinforced by lists given in land deeds? First, woolen cloth of two kinds: duffels, named after a town near Antwerp, and strouds, from the English town of Stroud. Duffels were a coarse kind of cloth that Indians used mostly to make blankets. Strouds could be used for a greater variety of apparel, from blankets to women’s skirts. The next most crucial item? Booze. Land deeds cite: “One vat or keg of rum at five martens.” “One half vat of beer.” “Three barrels of cider.” (In the Wendell account book, I found: “One beaver for a vat (barrel) of rum.”) Third place: guns, and the lead, powder, and repairs needed to maintain them. Fourth place: wampum, the worked shells that functioned as a kind of Indian currency. After these most crucial items, a host of smaller needs: shirts, hatchets, metal projectile points, paint, mirrors, tobacco boxes, scissors. One item much in demand in the early years of the 17th century, that slowly faded from the records: metal pots.
So the story seems plain. The beavers, and the complex ecosystem their ponds maintained, were destroyed for clothing, drugs, guns, and cash.

Markets, Mohicans, and Beavers: Part One


In 1608, her own family drove a beaver out of the watershed of her birth.  That’s what beaver families do, when a colony’s population grows too large.  She trundled off over a rise, seeking water that would save her from wolves and bobcats.  

The end of her journey was a South Taconics stream, one that had been conquered and then abandoned by beavers before, over and over over many centuries.  But in 1608 the dam that had once formed a pond had vanished, and this stream sliced through small meadows pocked with stands of aspen and red cedars, snarls of blackberry and raspberry, clusters of staghorn sumac, assemblies of highbush blueberry.  Pines and hemlocks stretched their branches wide, killing the competition with shade.   Sycamores studded the stream’s sides. 

When our beaver found her new home, she tunneled into its banks and dug out a burrow.  Now she could spend her days feeding cautiously near her refuge, or else unassailable inside.  Food was abundant, because a beaver can eat almost any part of any plant, but she relished most the inner bark of those aspens.  It was early summer, and the sycamore leaves were still a yellowish green. 

A male beaver, another refugee from another stream, arrived in July.  The pair got to work, first diverting the stream, at a narrow point, to weaken the flow.  Their incisors (iron-reinforced) gnawed through nearby trees (something like six per day).  These became poles, thrust into the mud as a base.  Trunks as thick as three feet in diameter became logs jammed into the dam, along with rocks, sticks, grass and anything else available. Mud dredged from the stream’s floor patched any holes.

The stream backed up.

What a burst of new life, triggered by a wall of logs and sticks! By the next summer, bacteria, busy breaking down dead vegetation, provided meals for protozoa, which fed microscopic creatures with too many legs to count: cyclops, daphnia, gammarus, which nourished tadpoles and wood frogs and toads.  Tree swallows skimmed the pond to snare dragonflies and damselflies that were busy hunting smaller bugs.  Ribboning through the muddy water: sticklebacks and minnows and brook trout double the size they would have reached in a stream.  Muskrats (tolerated by their hosts even though they sometimes tunneled into the dam) built a scruffier-looking lodge at the pond’s edge.  Ducks fed on duckweed, and turkey waded into the water, feasting, when leopard frogs emerged to lay eggs.

There’s an uneasy balance in the South Taconics, no different from any Eastern forest.  Open ground seems to want to move through stages to a stable climax forest of the sort the first settlers admired: tall, massive chestnuts, oaks, hickories, hemlocks, deep shade, sparse undergrowth.  But this landscape is not an ideal habitat for most wildlife.  They flourish under edge conditions, where woods offer shelter and open fields give browse. 

Thanks to the beavers’ incisors, the rim of the pond had become a region of pencil-point stumps and left-behind logs useful to all sorts of creatures.  Birds darted and sang there: woodcocks, snipes, red-winged blackbirds.  Blue-winged teals found nests in grass close to water.  Woodpeckers gouged grubs out of the dead wood and dug homes there.  Abandoned nests kept baby ducks safe from predators and easily able to drop down into the water.  But garter snakes and brown snakes and milksnakes lurked in the grass of the new field that grew with every felled tree. 

Female field mice can produce thirteen litters in a year, each containing four to eight pink thumb-sized candidates for survival.  A mouse three months old is an elder.  But each acre of marshy field around the pond supported as many as 150 little mice, population constantly replenished: food for owls, hawks, wolves, foxes, bobcats, even bears.

No ecosystem is permanent, but by 1611 the pond reached a level of uncommon stability.  Bullfrogs need a few years for their young to develop, but now their egg masses spread like a filmy curtain over parts of the water’s surface.  Blue herons paid visits.  Water snakes attacked fish and frogs, and tried to dodge snapping turtles.  Minks targeted the muskrat families.  The pond was now part of a rhythm that pushed across the continent: migratory ducks, visiting in spring and fall — coots, mallards, gallinales, rails. Pied-billed grebes nested atop the muskrat house. 

In this year, the third generation of the beaver clan worked well upstream and down of the original dam, leaving a network of new ponds, marshes, wet fields.  In order to bring more food within easy reach, they dug canals as straight as gridlines out away from the stream, expanding edge conditions. Their borders were marked by mudpies, scented with squirts from castor and anal glands, warning wandering beavers to stay out. 

By now a reserve of carbon and nutrients had built up behind the dams, something like ninety-five percent more than the stream could ever have supported.  The tranquil water flow allowed a steady buildup of nitrogen as well.  The upshot of the beaver’s relentless work: an abundance of organic matter that sustained an intricate scheme of life.

For centuries, Russia and Scandinavia supplied the rest of Europe with beaver furs.  Beaver furs are uniquely well-suited for the felting process, by which the fur is removed from the skin and made, through heat and pressure, into a strong and pliable felt.  Europe loved felts for coats and capes to stay cozy, linings for shoes, and especially hats: hats for fashion, hats for status, hats to be cool while keeping warm.  The Canterbury Tales describe a fourteenth century merchant, “In motley, and high on his horse he sat / Upon his head a Flandrish beaver hat.”

The trade hummed, with Russians controlling the secrets of the felting process, until it destroyed itself.  By the end of the sixteenth century, beaver had been hunted to the point of extinction in Europe. 

In the South Taconics — for who knows how many centuries —  Mohicans had hunted beaver.  They relished the meat, and considered roast beaver tail a delicacy. The teeth could be made into cutting tools, skins used for bedding.   According to Hendrick Aupaumut, a late 18th century leader who left behind an account of his tribe’s history and old ways, beaver were hunted in fall and in spring, “as soon as the rivers, creeks and ponds are opened, but they used to take good care not to stay over two months.”

How Native Americans hunted beaver is crucial to this story, because beaver are not easy prey.  William Wood, in a 1680 description of New England, acknowledged that “Beaver are too cunning for English. Only Indians had skill to catch them.”  One way, which must have required quite a large and well-organized hunting party, was to destroy the dam, thus draining the pond and exposing the lodge.  Once the exits were blocked, the lodge could be attacked with axes by some hunters, while others stood ready with spears or snares or nets to kill or capture the escapees.  In winter, hunters waiting at air holes could intercept beavers fleeing hacked-up lodges.  If the pond was frozen, and the “smash the dam” strategy wasn’t workable, more skill was required.  The ice-hidden entrance to the lodge had to be ascertained, so that stakes could be driven across it to force the beavers into a narrow exit.  Then the trick was to chop a hole through the ice, place a twig down through the water against this exit, and wait until a wiggle in the twig betrayed exiting beavers.  Then, when the entrance was quickly blocked with stakes, a beaver had no choice but to come up for air through an icehole watched by a patient, ready Indian.  Even more patient hunters could utilize pits, deadfalls, and snares set on beaver pathways.   

So those beavers that began to colonize that South Taconics stream in 1608 were always under threat from not only wolves and bobcats, but also Mohicans.  Their generation, however, lived (at least some of them) under an invisible shield. 

Mohican tradition held that prey, any prey, had to be taken selectively in order not to anger animal spirits.  To a Mohican, after all, animal spirits were a force every bit as powerful as the wind in your face or the cold of a winter day.  Every Mohican belonged to one of three clans that drew their identities from animal spirits: Bear, Wolf, Turtle.  A young person had to gain an animal spirit ally to make their way in the world.  So in 1608, if animal spirits demanded that a good many of those South Taconic beavers must be left to thrive, those spirits were obeyed.