For 10,000 years, the alluvial flats of the Mohawk River made a rich home for a tribe of native people that came to call themselves the Kahniakenhaka, or People of the Flint. They fished, farmed, hunted and traded, using the river that now bears their more familiar name to reach the other Iroquois nations to the west and later, European trading posts to the east.
The neighboring and competing people of Muh-heck Heek Ing called the Kahniakenhaka the “Maw Unk Lin” or Bear Place People. When Dutch settlers arrived in the 1600s, they transcribed the name as Mohawk (and the other tribe as Mohican).
As original members of the Iroquois League, or Haudenosaunee, the Mohawk were known as the “Keepers of the Eastern Door.” For hundreds of years, they guarded the Iroquois Confederation against invasion by tribes from New England and lower New York. The Mohawk territory spread from its base along the Mohawk River south of Montgomery County, east to the Green Mountains of Vermont, west to the border of the Oneida Nation and north to the St. Lawrence River in southern Quebec.
The arrival of the Dutch sparked more than a century of international trade, diplomacy and sporadic warfare. The Mohawks gained a near-monopoly in the fur trade with the Dutch, stymying efforts of the Algonquin-speaking tribes to the north or east. The complex relationship between the Native Americans and colonists ultimately had devastating consequences for the Mohawk nation and their brethren.
Four Mohawk chiefs traveled to England in 1710 to declare their allegiance to Queen Anne. In the Revolutionary War, Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (1742-1807) continued to support the British and the Johnson family, who were British officials. William Johnson married Joseph Brant’s sister and Brant made a trip to England in 1774 with Guy Johnson, where he was received as a visiting dignitary. In the 1777 Battle of Oriskany, Chief Brant and his followers defeated an American militia army (from what later became Montgomery County) on its way to relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix near what is now Rome, New York.
Two years later, the Americans destroyed 41 native villages and forced the Mohawks to flee north to British Fort Niagara. Most of the Mohawk migrated to Canada, where the Crown gave them land in compensation.
Today, the deep and enduring influence of the Mohawk people can be seen in the names of cities, towns and neighborhood streets of Montgomery County. To honor that vibrant and turbulent legacy, a traditional Mohawk Community called Kanatsiohareke was re-established in 1993 at the site of a pre-Colonial Mohawk “castle” west of Fonda.
On Holy Ground
The first Native American saint in North America, Kateri Tekakwitha, lived in Caughnawaga (present-day Fonda) from 1666, when she was 10 years old, until 1677, when she fled on foot to Kahnawake, a Christian village in Quebec, Canada, to live the remaining three years of her life.
Kateri was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI approved the second miracle needed for Kateri to be named a Roman Catholic saint (the 2006 healing of a boy using relics from Kateri’s grave and prayers for her intercession). She was canonized as a patron saint of the environment and ecology by Benedict XVI at Saint Peter’s Basilica in 2012.
Her shrine includes a rustic chapel in an 18th-century Dutch barn and displays of artifacts from the only fully excavated Mohawk village of that era. Nearby flows the holy spring in which she was baptized. Many pilgrims claim cures after drawing its crystal clear water and praying through the intercession of Saint Kateri.