The Boundary Wars — Part One

Robert Livingston the Elder

If you want to know how and when the South Taconics were settled, the answer is tangled up in the turmoil of the boundary wars. It’s hard to settle land if no-one can agree on who it belongs to. All the processes that played out across America, from the dispossession of the natives to the clearing of forests, got delayed in the Taconics because of this bitter, decades-long struggle. But why did men die in a dispute over state lines?
One answer: same reason so many died in the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Revenge cycles plague all human societies, and in the eighteenth century, the ancient pattern played out right here along the New York-Massachusetts border. A grudge scaled up into a war, and only the machinery of the state could enforce a wary peace.
Another answer: a word that schoolkids chant every morning, a word that in 2019 seems both drab and incendiary, a word that was perhaps more vital and urgent in the 1700s. Liberty.

The Scotchman Robert Livingston got to the Hudson Valley in 1672, when the getting was good. The British had recently wrested control of New Netherlands from the Dutch, but neither empire had settled much of this vast and half-known territory. Livingston understood that his opening to wealth and power lay through control of land.
Using government jobs, strategic friendships, and marriage into a powerful family, Livingston leapt through a window of opportunity. Disease and war had emptied ancient Mohican holdings in the valley, and the colonial government believed that putting immense tracts in the hands of landlords was the best way to get the square miles settled and farmed.  In 1682, Livingston bought from the Mohicans “three plains” and “two or three other small flats or plains” (as described in his deed) along the Roeliff Jansen Kill in Columbia County. Doubtless his position as Secretary of Indian Affairs helped open up the deal for him. This first purchase was eighteen hundred acres: two hundred along the Hudson near the mouth of the Kill, and the rest “adjoining the said two hundred acres and soe running back into the woods.”

“Soe running back into the woods?” Those words may have been a root cause of riots a generation later.

In 1685 Livingston purchased “the land called Tachkanik” – supposedly only six hundred acres, an area that corresponds today to Copake and some part of the Taconic mountains. (Which means I live in what once was a Mohican settlement called Tachkanik.) In 1686, a Manor Patent was issued to Livingston by his friend Governor Dongan, combining his two purchases into one holding. But a comparison of the acreages cited above, to a 1714 map of the Manor, leaves one impressed with Livingston’s audacity. The map shows Livingston in control of more or less the entire southern third of Columbia County, his western boundary the Hudson, southern boundary a line drawn through the southernmost bend of the Roeliff Jansen Kill, northern boundary a line drawn not far south of present Route 23, and eastern boundary …. running quite a distance “back into the woods” — from Bird Peak in Connecticut to a stone pile that once rose near present day Catamount ski area.
The price: nine hundred and thirty guilders worth of wampum, and “kettles, knives, etc.” But whether this extinguished the native title was a question that plagued Livingston Manor for generations.

State boundary marker near Catamount

Certainly the Mohicans were sensible that, titles aside, Livingston had taken far more than he’d purchased. Hendrick Aupaumut, a Mohican historian writing in 1754, believed:
“When white people purchased … they said they only wanted the low lands, they told us the hilly land was good for nothing, and that it was full of wood and stones, but now we see people living all about the hills and woods although they have not purchased the lands. Hunting has now grown very scarce and we are not like to get our living that way.”

Livingston held potent power over his domain, most crucially the right to collect rents from any tenant occupying his soil. In addition, all improvements made to the land belonged to the Lord. This semi-feudal system sat uneasily in a society moving towards an ideology of individual property rights.
But the Livingston family persisted. In 1749 the grandson of the founder of the dynasty – Robert the Younger – took possession of the Manor, ready to defend and expand it.

One tenant family, the Van Guilders, occupied a remote spot two miles east of Hillsdale. Despite the Dutch name, their lineage was half Mohican, and they lived partly by farming, partly by hunting and fishing.  If the Mohican title to the South Taconics had never been clearly removed, didn’t their descendants – the Van Guilders — still own most of the mountains? Livingston’s stated boundary ran west of the crests of the Taconics, and patents for Mohican land in the Housatonic Valley, on the east side, were conflicting and confusing. Beneath these disputes ran the arguments over where exactly New York ended and Massachusetts began.

In these clouds of uncertainty over such a vast tract of land, some saw opportunity.  In 1751 David Ingersoll, a former Sheffield (Massachusetts) town clerk and justice of the peace, began to organize settlers in the Taconics. His apparent aim: establish the claim of the state of Massachusetts to the mountains, and then, establish the claim of David Ingersoll to at least part of the land.
That year, a petition to the General Court in Boston — requesting that the mountains be governed by Massachusetts – listed all the families living in the Taconics at that time and gave the size of each farm, number of years cultivated (and the number of barrels of “syder” produced, among other information.) In 1751 Christopher and Henry Brazee, John Hallenbeck, and Abraham and Richard Spoor all ran farms that had been in operation since 1691.
The 1751 petition also states: “… as to the quality of lands some of them appear to be very good…” but adds that “the great Tauconnuck mountain” is “very high and impassible.” Surely, in 1691, more accessible land was available? What drew families to such a remote place?
Whatever the reasons, the petition shows that in 1751, forty-four heads of families inhabited the Taconics, living on 966 acres of fenced land, most of it “along a small river or brook which heads in Taucaunuck Mountain.” The petition states that the inhabitants were “sensible that (their) lands are eastward of the utmost extent of (Livingston’s) patent” and asked “the protection of sd government to do duties or receive privileges there.” They had “paid great rents from year to year” but refused to do so any longer.

The next year, Ingersoll petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a grant “… beginning at the top of first great mountain west of Sheffield,” and “Running NW with general course of the mountains 9-10 miles then turning and running west about six miles …”
Six miles west of Sheffield? Wasn’t Ingersoll claiming a serious chunk of Livingston’s land running “…back into the woods?”
With his tenants petitioning Massachusetts, and Ingersoll trying to organize the land under his name, Robert the Younger struck back by attempting to eject two of his tenants, Hallenbeck and Loomis. He received a reply from a Massachusetts surveyor who’d laid out the disputed farms on the east side of the “Tackinick Barrick” (now Cedar Mountain) stating he “would like to talk in a friendly manner.”

“Tackinick Barrack” / Cedar Mountain

Livingston responded on two fronts. One, he made his case to the Governor of New York; in May 1752 the Surveyor General, Cadwallader Colden, answered: “I am of the opinion that the lands claim’d by the Government of the Massachussetts Bay within the Manor of Livingstone are evidently within the Boundaries of the Province of New York.” The Attorney General stated that he “would leave the petitioner to his ordinary remedy at law.” So Livingston’s men burnt down the house of a tenant, George Robinson, and arrested him for trespass.

Today you could drive from Livingston’s Hudson River manorial seat to the edge of his holdings in half an hour. In the eighteenth century, the trip took at least two days. But in May of 1753 Robert the Younger made the journey, meeting first with a committee in Sheffield, and then with his roiled tenants at “Taconic Mountain.” This gathering seems to have been an exercise in denial and avoidance. At one point Livingston read a copy of the 1751 Petition and asked his tenants: “… what induced them to sign the same, who answered that they had not signed it.” He then: “… asked them the reason of their names being subscribed to it, to which they replied, they could not tell.” However, it also came out that Ingersoll, in organizing the tenants, had “declared he had an authority from the Government of the Massachusetts Bay.” An agreement was reached —in Livingston’s understanding – that his property extended nineteen miles and thirty rods from the Hudson, and that the settlers would pay their rents. But he quickly came to believe – correctly — that he had only been put off by his adversaries.
The records of the Massachusetts General Court bear witness to a coordinated effort by the colony to push their boundaries as far west as possible, whatever Livingston’s deeds claimed. In 1752 Ingersoll submitted a record of expenses to the Court for business pertaining to the boundary dispute (mostly attempts to bail rebels out of jail.) The next year a committee visited the Taconics and declared that 3200 acres were “within limits of the petition.” A committee was formed to “dispose of the province’s lands lying west of Sheffield and Stockbridge.” And soon after Livingston’s meeting, Massachusetts surveyed the lands, and claimed possession by means of a tree-fence. (Despite the conclusions of the colony’s assessors describing the Taconics as “broken and barren” lands which would “cost a great deal of trouble to make a road into the mountains.”)
In July of 1753, several of the rebels, proclaiming their authority under Massachusetts law, “arrested” two Livingston tenants, Robert Van Deusen and his son – for trespassing. A proclamation for the arrest of this posse was issued. Livingston then led sixty men armed with “Guns, Swords and Cutlasses” to cut down the wheat field of Josiah Loomis and destroy five acres of Indian corn. In August, Livingston’s manor lord neighbor, Van Renselear, wrote to warn him that the “New England people Intirely Intendeth to Take you Dad or Alive.”
A confrontation at the home of Michael Hallenbeck is a cogent illustration of how disputes spiral into violence. A “company of men” (according to a petition sent by Taconics settlers to the General Court) arrived at Hallenbeck’s home in the mountains, armed with swords and pistols. Led by a New York sheriff, they claimed to be searching for Josiah Loomis, but Hallenbeck, armed with a hay fork, refused to believe them. At last he agreed to let John Robson in, but when he opened his half door, a sword sliced the back of his hand. Hallenbeck grabbed a gun and promised to fire if he wasn’t left alone. The sheriff “called for an ax to cut the shut door down and one of them took a great stone and flung against the door which made it tremble and they flung many great stones against the door…” One New Yorker at last broke in by somehow crawling under Hallenbeck’s door. When he “clasped Hallenbeck on the shoulder seizing him as prisoner” one of Hallenbeck’s sons “swore he would shoot and cocked his pistol and it missing fire three times and did not go off.” So lives were spared, by a faulty pistol. Hallenbeck was arrested, but escaped a few months later.
The General Court in Boston proclaimed that Massachusetts had title to the disputed lands. Two members of Livingston’s posse were arrested and imprisoned by the Sheffield magistrate.
The struggle reached a new level when Joseph Pain, a tenant, led a group accused of destroying one hundred and ten trees near Livingston’s iron furnace in Ancram. Ancram is about fourteen miles from the Taconics, so Pain’s action was nothing less than a guerilla attack by Massachusetts citizens on the province of New York. Confronted over his actions, Pain declared that the lands were his and he would destroy them as he pleased. (What principle underlay that bold statement?) Soon he was cornered in his home by a Livingston band whose leader proclaimed: “I will run my sword into your ass.”

Here – perhaps because autumn had arrived, and with it crops to be harvested? – conflict died down. The taciturn, stubborn tussle over the boundary line stumbled on: letters between Boston and Albany invariably close with some reference to a commission that would someday resolve the issue. But, without “Royal direction participation and concurrence” no resolution could be reached anyway.
In February, 1754, Livingston declared that these “restless people” – Ingersoll, Hallenbeck and Loomis – had visited Boston and returned not only with encouragement to go on agitating but also ten pounds each to cover expenses.


Alander in deer season
Alander in deer season



For almost all our history, humans lived as hunter-gatherers.  Civilized life is, in the sweep of the centuries, a very new development.  If you could somehow pluck a person out of a randomly selected moment in human history, odds are that person would know intimately how to kill and gut and skin and cook an animal.  The past produced us, as fire produces heat, and surely we must be shaped by the lives of our ancestors.

Are we?  In 2018, hunters are six percent of the population.  The skills and attitudes that underlie the tradition are slipping away.  Recently I had dinner with a friend whose grandfather organized a hunting club and built a lodge where several generations of several families gathered every deer season.  Now, he says, the club is turning gray; there are fewer kids and fewer kids who want to learn to hunt.  Who asks about the work it takes to put meat on supermarket shelves, the scenes of corralling and slaughter and gutting?  Just as funeral directors keep the preparations for burial well out of view,  slaughterhouses veil the bloody reality.   Modern society outsources death.

Is this healthy?  Maybe the human psyche is infinitely malleable, and homo sapiens can zoom-evolve into a different sort of creature.  But maybe not; maybe the anxiety, loneliness, and anomie so common in our culture are not part of the necessary human condition.  Maybe we’re still made for a world where we each have a hand in the essential business of living.  Maybe, somehow, humans have created a world they don’t quite belong in.

My father was no rebel, but in one way he was odd.  Despite a youth in New York City and an (almost) lifelong allegiance to the Democratic party, he was a dedicated hunter, the only one in our suburban D.C. neighborhood.   Imagine the sensation when his station wagon pulled into our driveway carrying a dead bear on top!  (My mother dutifully did her best to cook the meat.)  So I learned to hunt, as soon as I was old enough, and counted it a necessary mark of manhood even though I didn’t know any other kids who hunted.

My father died a year ago, and it’s been a couple of decades since we hunted together.  Still I set out after game every November; my 7 millimeter Mauser, my hunting knife, and my sense of belonging are all gifts from him.

November Taconics


A little math shows that my success rate as a deer hunter, over the last forty-five years, is roughly six percent.   But once, several years back, I set out up Cedar Mountain, deciding  that a tangle of mountain laurel on its flank was a November haven.  To walk through a patch of mountain laurel (without crawling) is almost impossible; to get through quietly, impossible.  Once rifle shots echo on opening day of hunting season, wouldn’t deer seek these impenetrable acres?

So I hunted the edge, walking with as much stealth as my feet could find, pausing every few minutes to listen and look.  I climbed almost to the top of Cedar, where the laurel gives way to open oak and birch forest, followed around the edge of shrubbery and began to descend.  The morning offered what I’d see if I shut my eyes and imagined “November”:  dense dark-gray clouds, slick brown leaves underfoot, breath a small hanging fog.

I noticed an oddly level, roughly circular stretch of ground, and bent to examine it, wondering if charcoal had been fired there once upon a time, or a cabin built.   A noise, and I glanced up to find a doe staring back at me.  I straightened.  The doe vanished.  I knew, from many other meetings with deer, that I should wait.  Wait, pretend to be a tree, and watch.

Ten?  No more than twenty minutes later, the doe returned, maybe twenty yards away.  Deer are curious.  I raised my rifle, and shot her through the chest.  She sprinted forward, ten yards or so, and collapsed.  Standing over her as she shuddered towards death, emotions swelled and popped inside me.

I felt — pumped, the way I’d feel if I’d hit a difficult shot to win a basketball game.  Guilty, for feeling even a moment’s triumph in the death of a fellow being.  Awed, by the presence of a passage out of this world.  I felt a duty, to …  thank the deer’s soul for its gift? (But the doe had given me nothing; I’d taken.)  Death demands rituals; they help us assemble all these emotions into something coherent.  No-one has ever taught me any hunting death rituals, so I made one up: knelt and bowed my head.  This seemed inadequate to the point of silly, but it was something.

I stabbed the doe’s chest, right below the breastbone, and worked the blade down.  With the stomach open, I could reach inside and carve away everything.  I’d heard somewhere that the meat would be better preserved if you removed certain organs first, but I didn’t even know which was which, and my bare wet hands were turning numb in the cold air.  So anything I could cut, I cut, and, leaving a steaming mound of guts atop the leaf litter, buckled my knife and shouldered my rifle and dragged the doe downhill.

Downhill ended at Cedar Run, a series of spills from one pool to the next.  I’d forgotten to bring a rope, so all I could do was grip the back legs.  I tried to drag my prize along the edge, but when the edge turned steep, down splashed the body and I.  It was a pull of almost a mile, into pools and out, past rocks and over them.  I’ve never worked harder in my life.

Because my Geo Metro had a hatchback, I managed to lift the doe inside and bungee-cord the hatch shut.  I drove the doe to a guy in Craryville who does butchering during deer season.  I’ve done the job myself before, but learned that if you don’t have the skills, you end up with an awful lot of stew meat that could have been part of a chop or a roast.

I killed a wild animal for meat.  Was this an immoral act?



“Aw Jesus!  Seriously?”  That’s what I’d hear, if I asked another hunter about the morality of the act.  The first Buddhist precept tells us to “Abstain from taking life.”  Friends and acquaintances, when I mention that I hunt, are usually appalled.

Those who oppose eating meat stand on firm ground that’s getting firmer.  We draw a circle of reverence around all human life, fueling furious struggles over abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide.    So why shouldn’t animals be welcomed inside the circle?  Is there any rational reason it’s evil to kill homo sapiens, while all other species are potential tools, or prey?

Maybe most critical: as climate change year by year drives the global ecosystem towards chaos, it’s becoming clear that one of the simplest ways to help is to make your meals from vegetables.

But a meat-eater who stands against hunting fails to make sense.  How could it be morally correct to buy meat in a store – where it’s source is likely a factory farm – rather than take on the task yourself, ending a life as free as any creature’s can be?



But do I really hunt because hunting is morally superior to shopping?  No.  I hunt because I love it.

I felt a fool when I was fifteen, got lost in the mountains, blundered out onto a dirt road, and walked the wrong way until a couple of contemptuous old guys redirected me.  But that day helped me realize that navigating trail-less is only another problem to be solved.  When I lost the Pacific Crest Trail under snow last summer, when I get confused in an empty corner of the Taconics, I don’t panic, because I’ve gone the panic route already.  I’ve hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and bushwhacked many miles around the Taconics and Catskills, but hunting, more than anything, taught me how to be in the woods.  I’m never so alert, so socketed in to the day, as when I hunt.  Is it because a life is at stake?




Everything registers.  A scrap of pawed-up ground might have been cleared by hungry deer.  A round-ish depression in the grass might have been a bed.  A gouge or scrape on a tree might have been left by a buck rubbing antlers.  But I’m also acutely aware of impressions that have nothing to do with deer: the odor of smoke, the smudged color of the sky, breeze shaking witch hazel flowers.  The purpose of hunting is death.  It makes me feel more alive.

I have no evidence, but why not wonder: could meditation have its roots in hunting?   Certainly, the experience of sitting on a stand for an hour, attempting to rivet your senses onto the slightest sound and movement, is similar to an hour spent trying to listen to your breath.  I didn’t become serious about meditation practice until middle age, but it immediately felt familiar: how elusive focus can be, how easy to fall into a trance of useless thought, and how often moments of silence and clarity dawn.  Those are precious minutes, when you perform the rare feat of actually paying attention.  For most of human history, watchfulness in the woods (or deserts, or tundra) must have been a constant occupation.  It seems odd, but not at all implausible, to imagine that the tradition the Buddha eventually shaped into teachings against killing, and towards inner peace, began with the search for meat.

Hunting, I feel like I fit in the woods.  Of course I’m armed with a high-powered rifle made by steel mills and chainsaws and lumber yards and factories.  Yes, my fleece-lined jacket was made in China, and arrived in America via a shipping container.  But the alertness and patience needed to hunt come from me.  It feels honest.  Doesn’t life subsist on death?  Don’t daily deaths enable our comfortable world?  Aren’t i confronting this with my own hands and eyes?  I trust the discomfort of hunting.



But — couldn’t I live with less death?  Be the cause of less suffering?

I don’t know how to know, without bluntly facing the dilemma.  That means I’ll probably be very quietly walking the mountains again in November, walking and waiting, with my 7 millimeter Mauser and my doubts.

Letter to the Future


The view from Alander, 9/30/17


Dear Future Humans:

Today is September 30, 2017.  My name is Dan Haas, and I am sitting in a field of grass atop Alander Mountain, thinking of you.

This afternoon, my view shows me the inside of a cloud.  But on a clear day atop Alander, I can see the Taconic  ridge flowing south towards the New York-Massachusetts-Connecticut border, the Harlem Valley twisting below, Catskills on the western horizon … the most beautiful view on the planet.  Sure — beautiful to me, but when was beauty ever objective?  To catch the gist of a place, you must know it well, and I’ve lived at the foot of this mountain for twenty-nine years, enough decades to climb every trail up Alander, bushwhack twice to its crest, spend many nights in the old fire-watcher’s cabin just below the summit. I backpacked in one January afternoon, but a cabin filled with other hikers surprised me.  I slept on the snow outside, and dreamed of a bright fireplace. One summer day I climbed to the cabin with my daughter.  Four and a half miles is a long way for a four year old, and I made the added mistake of telling her that rattlesnakes were common up here — so she walked in fear, snakes under every stone! Years later some friends and I came upon several coiled together on stones, soaking up sun, thick as my forearm.

Seen from my house, Alander today is … cloud-wrapped and invisible,  On a clear early-autumn day, it’s dusky green from base to peak  — 2,239 feet above sea level.  It slopes gently up from the valley.  The woods that cover it disappear only at the very top, allowing grass to grow there, and ancient schist to face the sun.  From the valley it resembles (to quote my sister-in-law) “A woman laying down all covered with broccoli.”

Here, from my Alander vantage point, I can predict the future.  A hundred years from now:


*  The old will wish they were young.

*  Children will surprise their parents

*  People will talk about themselves more intently than they listen to someone else talk

*  People will fight without remembering the reason they fought in the first place

*  Sorrow and joy will mark every life

I’m a seer!

But mostly, I think about the vastness of what I don’t know. My guesses are filled with fear.

Prophecies of doom punctuate history, but does that mean I’m wrong now?  I live in an America where power transfers without violence, the one war we’re fighting now kills about .0000004 % of the population each year, and millions of people take for granted comforts and physical health unimaginable in past centuries.  It’s an era of peace and stability, where most of humanity seems gripped by pervasive fear and anxiety.  Dystopian stories are the fall-back choice for writers and film-makers, anti-anxiety drugs are almost fashionable, and the media serves a daily soup of darkness and pessimism.

Are we whining, or do we all sniff danger coming, unable to quite trace its shape?  I see clues, as I wander Alander and its South Taconic neighbors.  In January this year, I hiked Alander’s base on an afternoon when temperatures reached seventy degrees, and warm sunshine covered the shadeless ground.  The ’17 spring “greenup” arrived at least a week and a half early, according to my sense of the seasons, and my memory of these mountains goes back only to the late eighties.  I’m unsure of the health of the hemlock trees that cover Taconic ravines in deep shadow.  An invasive insect, the wooly adelgid, burrows into the bark and cuts off the trees’ food supply; this creature can’t survive bitter cold, but …

I first went backpacking in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in the 1970s, climbing cool, shrouded ravines drained by bubbling streams.  When I returned there a few years ago, the shadows were gone and I could walk for a mile or more through dense stands of dead trees, bare-branched hemlocks leaning like gray ghosts over the water.  There, winter temperatures are too warm to halt the adelgid invasion.

For now, our winters are a barrier.  But if the Taconic hemlocks die, if you never glimpse the separate world they create, the dimness and chill of a deep hollow, how will you know what you’ve lost?  A hundred years ago, chestnuts were a dominant Taconics tree, but all I’ve ever beheld are the stubborn, shrub-high stragglers rising from old roots.  I can’t truly mourn what I never knew.  You may never know the beauty you’ve lost — even if the Taconic seasons fade and blur away.  Will you know the delicate green of the mountains in May, their almost-neon vividness on a bright day?  The cool winds that sometimes blow in summer, or mornings when a dirt trail chills bare feet?  Will autumn light astonish you if the sugar maples and ashes and hickories and oaks migrate north and leave October mountainsides dull?  Will you lose snow?  Will winters bring nothing but rain against gray trees, no white pillows sealing off the earth, muffling sound, blurring lines, sparkling and gleaming when the sun re-arrives?

Alander summit, 9/30/17


A few months ago, President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement.  Magazine articles detail the possible collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf — within 100 years — which would raise sea levels by ten feet worldwide.  Last month was the second warmest April on record, worldwide.  I could list hundreds of similar examples, but I wonder: what do your headlines say?

I’m frightened for my planet.  I imagine millions fleeing drought, or flooded coastlines, or nations near the equator left unlivable by heat.  I imagine nations driven to massive wars.  I imagine hunger and disease on a scale never before seen. I imagine collapse: economic and social systems giving way, cultures ruled by warlords and death.  The question that’s hovered over the human race for a long time now — can we survive the world we’ve created? — might be answered in this twenty-first century.  How much sudden change can an ecosystem bear?

For unimaginable spans of years, animals absorbed sunlight, died, and transformed beneath the earth into oil and coal and gas. Along with my fellow first world citizens, I’m busy burning those millenniums of stored energy, in the space of decades.  That ancient energy fuels my car, and heats my house, and brings me food from faraway places, and flew me to California to see my son this past summer.  It can’t last.  I’m trying to connect my home to a solar farm.  I drive a low-emissions Subaru.  I’m the media chair for the local chapter of an organization that lobbies Congress to put a tax on carbon emissions.  I’m trying to eat less meat, and only locally raised.   In the face of the dangers that I believe in, these actions seem paltry, but they’re the best I can do without ripping my life apart.

You don’t exist.  Not yet.  But the fibers of what you’ll become run through the present day.  As I sit here atop Alander, molecules, cells, DNA travel towards the years of your birth and growth. People are making decisions that will create more events and decisions, and one day shape the eyes that might read these words.

I’ll be gone.  I turned sixty a few months ago, and last year was diagnosed with Parkinsons’s disease, which renders my future less certain.  For now I’m free to explore the mountains I love.  Not long ago, hiking near Sage’s Ravine, I noticed a sign for Paradise Lane, a trail that, after twenty-nine years of scouting this small corner of the Earth, I’ve never hiked.

I’ll die with many Taconic hollows, ridge-tops, pools and places unvisited.  I hope you — some of you, anyway —take a long walk through these mountains, and learn to love them too.  I hope you find joy here.  Your present will quickly become your past, and before long, someone else’s history.  I’ll vanish in the chaos of lost time, but every word I spoke, every plan I followed through on, every aspiration I realized, and those I did not, in some fashion created the world you dream in, strive in, stagger through and maybe master.  Maybe all my forebodings will prove false – maybe you live in a world of peace, where wise actions averted disaster, where humankind continues to slowly and grudgingly unite, where the beauty I recognize remains.  One thing I know: I don’t know.  But my wish is that you’re well, in a world that meets your needs, built to last.

Dan Haas

Copake NY

September 2017


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.