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This Land Was Theirs...

Native American History

Woody Guthrie, an American Folk hero penned the classic song: “This Land Is Your Land."

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

Woody US Map

Its a poignant and patriotic tribute to the breath and beauty of United States but suffers a fatal flaw—this land was taken by force and dishonor from the Native Americas who had lived and flourished here for thousands of years before Columbus "discovered" America.

Our Cultural Upbringing

As mentioned elsewhere on this site, growing up in upstate New York, we were fortunate as kids to learn all about the proud Iroquois Nation, the fierce Mohawks and bloodshed with the Dutch settlers in colonial times. It made a strong impression. I have always been fascinated by history and the tragic saga of their “resettlement” seemed often to be an afterthought. Instead, brave pious pioneering families courageously starting a new life amid the hardships of Mother Nature seemed to be the lasting take away in our cultural upbringing.

But there are some who glorify the First Nations as peaceful nature-loving innocents totally victimized by the rapacious white newcomers. Although there is some truth to that as history has shown—one must remember Native American tribes were seemingly always at war with each other and the ferocious Mohawks were especially feared and often brutally tortured their captives.

There are quite a few books available that detail the Iroquois Nation and their never-ending conflict with the surrounding tribes. Recommended references are listed in the Further Info section at the bottom of the page. This micro site is a condensed overview of the Native America saga in the upstate New York area, starting from colonial times until the present. It is told primarily through maps.

Native American Regions

Classification of Native America peoples are based on cultural regions, geography, and linguistics. The boundaries are fluid and only roughly approximate the geographical divisions. The Northeast region was also known as the Woodlands group.

Native American Cultural Groups


For the most part, two linguistic groups, Iroquois and Algonquian, dominated the northeastern portion of the United States. There were many nations here that fell under one of these two these groups. The Iroquois were the more powerful of the two. They had a strong political organization among their tribes and a fierce passion that allowed them to control the waterways and spread their influence.


The Iroquoian languages were located primarily in the central northeast, along with the Cherokees who spoke what is known as Southern Iroquoian. They were surrounded by Algonquians and were often in conflict.

Iroquoian Languages

The Five Nations tribes (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) are the most historically well known Iroquois-speaking peoples but other tribal groups shared the same basic language type. The Hurons were also often referred to as the Wyandots and the Tobacco were known as the Petun or Tinonontati. They were closely aligned with the Hurons.

Northeast Tribes


The Algonquian Language (also referred to as Algonkian) was spoken by a broad swath of Native Americans across most of Eastern Canada, New England and parts of the Plains. There were over 30 Algonquian languages which were divided into three groups according to geography: Plains, Central, and Eastern Algonquian. As mentioned, they constantly fought with the Iroquois (mostly the Mohawks) in skirmishes over hunting grounds.

Interestingly, the area surrounding Schenectady and Saratoga was originally Mahican territory but they were permanently driven out by the fierce Mohawks.

Algoquian Language

Territorial Expansion

A curious and complex set of dynamics evolved once the Europeans arrived. Fighting to retain territory took on a new dimension with first the French and Dutch, and later the British, all vying for land. The devastating virulent effects of European-introduced disease wiped out much of the Native American population and the increasing use of firearms added to the death toll.

The Dutch eagerly traded guns for fur. Once the British replaced the Dutch, both the French and the British exploited the rivalries of various tribes and pitted one against each other for territorial gain.

Once the fur trade became the dominant economic force and the Mohawk River Valley the key passageway westward, the Iroquois Nation tightened their tribal bonds even further and the Mohawks considered themselves the “gatekeepers to the west.”

Iroquios Expansion

Mourning Wars

Native American warfare, before the European Invasion, was not driven by territorial expansion or economic gain; but the need for social continuity. With the exception of drowning, many Iroquois believed that there was no such thing as a natural death. When a loved one died, someone else was to blame and battles of revenge were a socially acceptable method to seek captives and ease grief. For the Native Americans, one could say “war ends only when grief ends.”

CaptivesOriginally conceived to avenge the deaths of tribal members fallen to disease or battle, Mourning Wars were a means to maintain populations above survival levels. Mourning Wars consisted of hostile raids on neighboring tribes. A war party’s success was its ability to seize prisoners and bring them home alive. The capture of enemies was preferred to killing and scalping them. This was vastly different from the European style warfare. Upon returning to their village, victorious warriors would present their prisoners to the family of the deceased who would then torture the unfortunates to determine their worthiness. The duty of the prisoners was to make a sincere effort to please their new relatives or meet a sudden death.

An historical question of Genocide?

When the Europeans arrived, disease and guns changed the tone of warfare and contributed to the destruction of many tribes. The spread of highly contagious diseases to which the natives had no immunity was catastrophic. After first contacts with Europeans and Africans, the death of 90 to 95 percent of the native population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.

From the mid-sixteenth century, disease ran rampant throughout the Native American tribes and by the early 1640s, roughly half the Iroquois League was dead. The most lethal of the pathogens introduced by the Europeans was smallpox, which sometimes incapacitated so many adults at once that deaths from hunger and starvation ran as high as deaths from disease; in several cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct. Other killers included measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, and scarlet fever.

Maintenance of population levels was only possible through war and adoption of new members. Warfare then became a means of enlarging the population. Through a “Requickening” ritual, any vacancy in Iroquois families and villages are transferred to a captive whom becomes the successor. The deceased’s name, along with the social role and duties he/she represented is then replaced, symbolically and physically. War captives were used to replace the dead, literally and symbolically.


Estimates of the indigenous native population decline in the Americas from the first contact with Europeans in 1492 until the turn of the 20th century depend on the estimation of the initial pre-contact population. The estimates varied widely from an (unlikely) low of 8.4 million people to a high of 90-112 million.

Depending on the estimate of the initial population, by 1900 the indigenous population can be said to have declined by more than 80%, due mostly to the effects of diseases such as smallpox, measles and cholera, but also violence and warfare by colonizers against the Indians.

In 1493, when Columbus returned to the Hispaniola, he quickly implemented policies of slavery and mass extermination of the Taino population of the Caribbean. Within three years, five million were dead. Other Spanish explorers’ in their quest for gold and silver triggered a massive death toll. The Native population north of current day Mexico numbered an estimated 15 million. It was, by all considerations, a thriving civilization. Three hundred and fifty years later, the Native American population north of Mexico would be reduced to less than a million.

Think about it - the figure outnumbers anything else in history. Source: Wikipedia

Forced Migrations

Beaver Wars - The Fur Trade

From the 1600s to the 1700s, beaver hats served as an important status symbol for position and wealth in Europe. Hat sales were an extremely important source of income to the English and French nations. From 1700 to 1770, 21 million hats made from beaver skins were exported from England. The fur trade was heavily dependent on beaver pelts but beavers were nearly extinct in western Europe due to over hunting. European hat makers had to rely on Russian and Scandinavian beaver fur until North American furs became available. Beaver pelts were the first great American trade commodity.

Due to over hunting, beaver became extremely scarce in the traditional hunting grounds of the Iroquois. Encouraged and armed by their Dutch and English trading partners, starting in the mid-17th century, the Iroquois extended their territory in all directions and monopolized the fur trade between European markets and the tribes of the western Great Lakes region. The brutal 62-year war pitted the nations of the Iroquois Confederation, led by the dominant Mohawk, against the French-backed and largely Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Great Lakes region.

During this period, the Iroquois emerged as a dominant force that was both respected and dreaded by neighboring tribes and the European colonial powers alike. Iroquois war parties fought wide-ranging campaigns against both enemy tribes and Europeans in practically every state east of the Mississippi. In doing so, they subjugated, destroyed or displaced dozens of tribes, many of which are now known to history by their names alone.

Beaver Wars Map


Once the Appalachian Mountains had been crossed, settlers poured into the fertile lands beyond, having scant regard for the native Americans who lived there. One after another the eastern peoples were doomed: Delaware, Seneca, Shawnee, Ottawa, Choctaw, Sauk & Fox, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Potawatomi. Unwillingly, they were mercilessly shifted from their homeland to the barren lands west of the Mississippi which the new Americans regarded to be of such use that it was labeled “The Great American Desert” on their maps at the time ‘removal’ took place.

After the defeat of the British and their Iroquois allies in the American Revolutionary War, Britain ceded most of the Iroquois territory, without bringing their allies to the negotiating table. Many of the Iroquois migrated to Canada, forced out of New York. Those remaining in New York were required to live mostly on reservations. In 1784, a total of 6,000 Iroquois had to confront 240,000 New Yorkers, with land-hungry New Englanders poised to migrate west. "Oneidas alone, who were only 600 strong, owned six million acres, or about 2.4 million hectares. Iroquoia was a land rush waiting to happen.

In May 1830, the Great Removal Act was passed by Congress. What follows was a long and tragic tale of deceit by our government as treaty after treaty was signed and then soon reneged.

By 1837, the Jackson administration had “removed” 46,000 native Americans from their land east of the Mississippi, and had secured treaties which led to the removal of a slightly larger number. Most members of the five southeastern nations had been relocated west, and this alone opened up 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery. Tribes such as the Cherokee died by the thousands in the infamous Trail of Tears forced migration (see map).

Trail Of Tears

-Pre-Columbian Native American tribal territories -
There are approximately 562 distinct Native American tribes before 1492

Indian Tribes


Source [Animated gif by Somersaultr via Chart Porn]

Woody Guthrie's cheery lyrics now sound hypocritical and selfish in the context of the original inhabitants forced removal and resettlement...

... this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Sad Native American

"First Nations" Today

In the end, the sad fate of America's Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash. The Indians were not prepared to give up the nomadic life of the hunter for the sedentary life of the farmer. The new Americans, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, were unwilling to grant the original inhabitants of the continent the vast preserve of land required by the Indians’ way of life.

Map of U.S.A. Native Population Distribution

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Source Credits and Further Info

There are numerous sites and books on Native Americans. This is just a small sampling, many of which were used as a reference for the content found on this page.

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