Though often taught in schools on a somewhat shallow, overarching level, Native American history and culture are incredibly varied across the continents it covers.
One tribe known largely from a fictionalization of their history is the Mohicans – also called the Mahicans – of the Northeast. The Mohicans have a rich, long political and cultural history that is only being rediscovered today.
Mohican society has a history of intense political engineering and conflict, beautiful cultural artifacts and traditions, and a strong sense of identity for its members. From the 1600s to today, the story of the Mohicans is one of persistence and pride in their history.
Curious about the Mohicans? Here’s what you need to know.
Geographical and Political History of the Mohican Tribe
Historical Mohican tribe lands cover much of the Hudson River Valley in the North, near modern-day Albany, NY, and extending into Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
They bordered the Mohawk tribe, with whom they often had a conflict and by whom they were driven South during the Beaver Wars in the 17th century. The two groups were part of opposing cultures.
With the balance of power heavily skewed toward the Mohawks due to a strong alliance with the rest of the Iroquois nations, the conflicts were often to the Mohican’s detriment.
The governing bodies of the Mohican tribes were councils of elders who advised sachems during regular Shodac meetings. Despite modern references, the Mohican tribes were a confederacy of five distinct tribes in the area; the Mohicans, the Mechkentowoon, the Wawyachtonoc, the Westenhuck, and the Wiekagjoc.
During the 1600s, the Mohicans established contact with European explorers and colonizing groups. Initially, this contact was made to further trade efforts as small Dutch settlements popped up along the Northeastern coast.
Unfortunately, this trade came at the price of exposing the Mohicans to European illnesses for which they had no defenses.
This ill-fated association continued throughout the century in a series of conflicts as the Dutch, and other settling groups attempted to gain access to more and more Mohican resources, leading to intense hostilities and many casualties.
This weakening of the tribes resulted in fighting between tribes to try and consolidate power in the mid-1640s, which resulted in splitting within the five Mohican tribes but a strengthening in Mohican numbers through the absorption of other tribes. During the later part of the century, the Dutch moved against the Mohicans.
Supported by the British and indirectly by the French, they massacred many Mohicans. Though the tribes offered refuge for those running from King Philip’s War in the 1670s, they no longer had the resources to support larger numbers, and the tribe began to dwindle.
Further war and conflict forced Mohicans to search for resources outside of the Hudson River Valley in the 1700s, which meant encroaching on other tribes’ territories and into the land claimed by European settlers, whom they were not equipped to fight against.
By the late 1700s, fewer than 400 Mohicans were left in the valley, and by the 1800s, the tribe was almost completely gone. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the Mohicans regained their right to any of their land through forced federal action and native advocacy.
Historical Mohican Culture and Lifestyle
Though there are modern Mohican communities, many of the traditions and cultural practices of the original Mohican tribes were lost to colonization and intentional suppression by European settlers and invading societies. Historically, the Mohicans were just as culturally rich and diverse as any other society.
Unlike many other Northeastern American Algonquian tribes, Mohicans lived in longhouses or wigwams (small, round houses) built along hills, which were somewhat scattered and more dispersed than their neighbors, and which were easy to fortify during times of war.
Their primary crop was corn, and their main food sources were gathered nuts, fruits, berries, and roots, though they hunted game and fish to supplement their diet. Travel was largely conducted via canoe or dogsled.
Mohican clothing was relatively simple, with most people wearing leggings and either skirts or breechcloths and only wearing shirts in the cooler weather. Moccasins were the most common shoes to wear. Hairstyles were just as simple, with two long braids for most people and a distinctive side-shave cut for men who were warriors.
As with most other cultures, religion was a central tenant of Mohican life. Their belief system was similar in ways to the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes and largely valued connection to the earth and the Great Spirit or Creator; according to tradition, this spirit, called Waunthut Mennitoow or Wauntht Mennitow (among other spellings) is utterly divine with no personification features such as human forms or attributes such as gender.
The opposition of this spirit is Atlantow or Matantu, the spirit of death and destruction often misconstrued as a substitute for the Christian devil.
Art and craftwork were also a massive part of Mohican culture. Mohicans were known as excellent basket weavers, creating intricate designs for household use and decoration out of local materials.
They also made and wore jewelry featuring white and purple wampum beads designed to tell the stories of someone’s family or a particularly well-loved cultural story. Mohican music was often composed for the drum and flute and would often be played during religious ceremonies, celebrations, or daily life.
The Issue with The Last of the Mohicans
You’ll notice that until now, references to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans have been absent. This novel tells the fictionalized and romanticized story of the Fort William Henry Massacre, a real event in 1757 when the French sieged the British fort.
In the book, we follow Natty Bumppo, also called “Hawkeye,” and his Mohican friends Chingachgook and Uncas, the last members of their tribe, during the conflict and through a failed rescue mission for Hawkeye’s love interest.
In reality, the Mohicans had little to do with the conflict at all. Cooper likely confused the Mohicans with another tribe in the area of the fort. However, it’s unclear which tribe that would be due to his poor interpretation of their traditions and customs in the novel.
While the Mohicans struggled during the 1700s and through the 1800s, when the novel was written, they still existed throughout that time and never officially “died out.”
Sadly, like most Native American communities, the Mohican culture was almost completely irradicated by colonization and war in the early history of the United States. Indeed, there was a point in the last century when there were no more native Mahican speakers in the world – Makwa Monpuy, also known as William Dick, was the last native speaker of the Mahican language who died in 1933.
If there is a true “last of the Mohicans,” it was Monpuy. Still, the Mohican tribes never really stopped existing, and are building back up today to reclaim much of their ancestral land.
Modern Mohican Culture
Modern Mohicans are reclaiming more than just their land; many Mohicans today are making conscious efforts to re-learn their culture and languages. The best example of this by far is the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans.
The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans is a section of the original Mohican tribes occupying some of their ancestral lands in the Hudson River Valley. This group runs a museum that offers education on Mohican and neighboring tribes’ history, culture, lifestyle, and political struggles.
The community is particularly dedicated to preserving the traditions of their various tribes alongside their languages and consistently holds educational and recreational cultural events for both tribal members and non-natives.
Thanks to this group and many others, there are now 24,000 acres of land back in the hands of Native Americans in the Hudson River Valley area, with 16,000 acres forested to promote the return of natural resources.
The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans continues to advocate for the rights of Native Americans across the Northeast.
Now you can find information about the history, culture, and lifestyle of the Mohican tribe online, including archives of the Mahican and Munsee languages as well as examples of Mohican homes, dress, arts, craftwork, jewelry, and other artifacts.
You can also find modern examples of Mohican culture, including native-hosted events and classes designed to both preserve the culture for those who are a part of it and introduce the importance of these traditions to non-natives to promote education and preservation.
The Mohicans were more than just a (highly inaccurate) book to sit on your shelf. They were, and are, a fascinating group of people whose culture and lifestyle are still preserved in the lives of their descendants.
If you’re truly interested in learning more about the Mohican people and their culture, we highly suggest visiting the Stockbridge-Munsee community website.