Mahican Indians (‘wolf’). An Algonquian tribe that occupied both banks of upper Hudson River, in New York, extending north almost to Lake Champlain. To the Dutch they were known as River Indians, while the French grouped them and the closely connected Munsee and Delawares under the name of Loups (‘wolves’). The same tribes were called Akochakaneñ (‘stammerers’ ) by the Iroquois. On the west bank they joined the Munsee at Catskill creek, and on the east bank they joined the Wappinger near Poughkeepsie. They extended north into Massachusetts and held the upper part of Housatonic valley. Their council fire was at Schodac, on an island near Albany, and it is probable that they had 40 villages within their territory. The name, in a variety of forms, has been applied to all the Indians from Hudson river to Narragansett bay, but in practical use has been limited to two bodies, one on lower Connecticut river, Connecticut, known dialectically as Mohegan, the other, on Hudson river, known as Mahican. They were engaged in a war with the Mohawk, their nearest neighbors on the west, when the Dutch appeared on the scene, which lasted until 1673. In 1664 the inroads of the Mohawk compelled them to remove their council fire from Schodac to Westenhuck, the modern Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As the settlements crowded upon them the Mahican sold their territory piece meal, and about 1730 a large body of them emigrated to Susquehanna river and settled near Wyoming, Pennyslvania, in the vicinity of the Delawares and Munsee, with whom they afterward removed to the Ohio region, finally losing their identity. A previous emigration had formed the main body of the mixed tribe of the Scaticook. As early as 1721 a band of Mahican found their way to Indiana, where they had a village on Kankakee river. In 1736 those living in Housatonic valley were gathered into a mission at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where they maintained a separate existence under the name of Stockbridge Indians. These are the only Mahican who have preserved their identity. In 1756 a large body of Mahican and Wappinger removed from the Hudson to the east branch of the Susquehanna, settling, with the Nanticoke and others, under Iroquois protection at Chenango, Chugnut, and Owego, in Broome and Tioga Counties New York. They probably later found their way to their kindred in the west. A few Mahican remained about their ancient homes on the Hudson for some years after the Revolution, but finally disappeared unnoticed. If any remain they are included among the Stockbridge.
According to Ruttenber the Mahican confederacy comprised at least 5 divisions or subtribes:
- Mahican proper
- Westenhuck (Stockbridges)
It is impossible to estimate their population, as the different bands were always confounded or included with neighboring tribes, of whom they afterward became an integral part.
According to Ruttenber’s account the government of the Mahican was a democracy, but his statement that the office of chief sachem was hereditary by the lineage of the wife of the sachem, which appears to be correct, does not indicate a real democracy. His statement in regard to the duties of the sachem and other officers is as follows: “The sachem was assisted by counselors, and also by one hero, one owl, and one runner; the rest of the nation were called young men or warriors. The sachem, or more properly king, remained at all times with his tribe and consulted their welfare; he had charge of the mnoti, or bag of peace, which contained the belts and strings used to establish peace and friendship with different nations, and concluded all treaties on behalf of his people. The counselors were elected, and were called chiefs. Their business was to consult with their sachem in promoting the peace and happiness of their people. The title of hero was gotten only by courage and prudence in war. When a war alliance was asked, or cause for war existed with another tribe, the sachem and the counselors consulted, and if they concluded to take up the hatchet, the matter was put in the hands of the heroes for execution. When peace was proposed, the heroes put the negotiations in the hands of the sachem and counselors. The office of owl was also one of merit. He must have a strong memory, and must be a good speaker. His business was to sit beside his sachem, and proclaim his orders to the people with a loud voice; and also to get up every morning as soon as daylight and arouse the people, and order them to their daily duties. The business of runner was to carry messages, and to convene councils.”
The Mahican were generally well built. As fighting men they were perfidious, accomplishing their designs by treachery, using stratagem to deceive their enemies, and making their inost hazardous attacks under cover of darkness. The women ornamented themselves more than the men. “All wear around the waist a girdle made of the fin of the whale or of sewant.” The men originally wore a breechcloth made of skills, but after the Dutch carne those who could obtain it wore “between their legs a lap of duffels cloth half an ell broad and nine quarters long,” which they girded around their waists and drew up in a fold “with a flap of each end hanging down in front and rear.” In addition to this they had mantles of feathers, and at a later period decked themselves with ” plaid duffels cloth” in the form of a sash, which was worn over the right shoulder, drawn in a knot around the body, with the ends extending down below the knees. When the young men wished to look especially attractive they wore “a band about their heads, manufactured and braided, of scarlet deer hair, interwoven with soft. shining red hair.” According to Van der Donck, the women wore a cloth around their bodies fastened by a girdle which extended below the knees, but next to the body, under this coat, they used a dressed deerskin coat, girt around the waist. The lower body of this skirt they ornamented with strips tastefully decorated with wampum which was frequently worth from 100 to 300 guilders ($40 to $120). They bound their hair behind in a club, about a hand long, in the form of a beaver’s tail, over which they drew a square wampum-ornarnented cap; and when they desired to be fine they drew around the forehead a band also ornamented with wampum, which was fastened behind in a knot. Around their necks they hung various ornaments; they also wore bracelets, curiously wrought and interwoven with wampum. Polygamy was practiced to some extent, though mostly by chiefs. Maidens were allowed to signify their desire to enter matrimonial life, upon which a marriage would be formally arranged; widows and widowers were left to their own inclinations. In addition to the usual manifestations of grief at the death of a relative or friend, they cutoff their hair and burned it on the grave. Their dead, according to Ruttenber, were usually interred in a sitting posture. It was usual to place by the side of the body a pot, kettle, platter, spoon, and provisions; wood was then placed around the body, and the whole was covered with earth and stones, outside of which pickets were erected, so that the tomb resembled a little house. Their houses were of the communal sort and differed usually only in length; they were formed by long, slender, hickory saplings set in the ground in a straight line in two rows. The poles were then bent toward each other in the form of an arch and secured together, giving the appearance of a garden arbor; the sides and root were then lathed with split poles, and over this hark was lapped and fastened by wither to the lathing. A smoke-hole was left in the roof, and a single doorway was provided. These houses rarely exceeded 20 ft in width, but they were sometimes 180 ft long. Their so-called castles were strong, firm structures, and were situated usually on a steep, high, flat-topped hill, near a stream. The top of the hill was inclosed with a strong stockade, having large logs for a foundation, on both sides of which oak posts, forming a palisade, were set in the ground, the upper ends being crossed and joined together. Inside the walls of such enclosures they not infrequently had 20 or 30 houses. Besides their strongholds they had villages and towns which were inclosed or stockaded and which usually had woodland on one side and corn land on the other. Their religious beliefs were substantially the same as those of the New England Indians.