Huguenot Street Shares New Paltz’s Indigenous Past

The Hudson Valley is not only known for its rich soil, but also its rich history. Long before the Dutch and Huguenot colonists arrived, a group of indigenous people populated the New Paltz area. Embedded in the land we walk on everyday lies the legacy and plight of the Mohican and Munsee people.

On Saturday, Sept. 21, Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) hosted a program that focused on the history and culture of the Munsee and Mohican people. 

The Mohican people lived at “New Stockbridge” in New York while the Munsee people lived primarily to the southwest of the Mohicans, including the area of what is now New Paltz. Mohicans had frequently interacted with Munsee, and had fostered trading and kinship ties. 

Over the past several decades, archaeological digs conducted along Huguenot Street in partnership with SUNY New Paltz anthropologist Dr. Joseph Diamond have uncovered thousands of Munsee artifacts. A small selection of these finds including projectile points, stone tools and pottery shards were presented at Saturday’s program. 

With the help of Professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, Dr. Lisa Brooks, and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Bonney Hartley, HHS’s program also illuminated the efforts and accomplishments of Chief Hendrick Aupaumut. 

Aupaumut was born in 1757 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. During the American Revolution, Aupaumut served with the colonial forces and became captain of a Stockbridge Mohican company. 

Over the course of the second half of the eighteenth century, Aupaumut experienced dispossession and displacement of his community by American settlers in Stockbridge. This was particularly problematic since settlers wanted to claim the land as their own, even against their Mohican “brothers” who had fought side-by-side with them. 

After the American Revolution, Aupaumut spoke in council to the Americans at Newtown, New York: “I lost many lives in your defense: I stood by you in all your troubles…But I had no territory to fight for, nor had I to fight for liberty, for liberty I always possessed. But friendship, pure friendship, induced me and my nation to join you. But sometimes I feel sorrow and shame that some of my great brothers have forgotten me—that all my services and sufferings have been forgotten that my nation remain neglected.” 

“Aupaumut was instrumental to the community’s reconstruction in the wake of the war and displacement,” Brooks said in the program’s brochure. “He was a fierce advocate for protecting the land and believed that securing clear title to the land, recognized by the colonial government, was the best route for Native people to ensure that their indigenous rights were protected.”

In later years, Aupaumut assisted in leading another migration after intense land pressures by New York, its settlers and land companies drove them to Menominee territory in Wisconsin. 

The attendees of HHS’s program also had the chance to view the legendary letter written by Aupaumut to the New York State Legislature. 

“HHS is honored to present the recent acquisition of a letter to the New York State Legislature from Apaumut, Mohican sachem (traditional leader) and diplomat,” said HHS Director of Curatorial and Preservation Affairs Josephine Bloodgood in the program’s brochure. 

HHS received this letter as a gift by Mary Frances Stokes-Jensen and Richard Stokes in 2017. It is believed that this letter was acquired by Joseph Hasbrouck. 

“Aupaumut’s letter to the New York Legislature is not an anomaly or exceptional in terms of its content,” Brooks said. “Rather it can be seen as a part of a series of letters, petitions and other documents that represent the ways in which the Mohican nation utilized writing as a tool for land protection.” 

The letter was likely written after Aupaumut’s diplomatic journeys to the Ohio River Valley (1791-1793) and before their removal to Menominee territory (1817-1830).

The contents of the letter prove Aupaumut’s awareness of U.S. Indian law, stating that unless the state of New York could show evidence of purchase of the Mohican land, then their aboriginal title remained. The letter stands as an example of the ways in which Native leaders, like Aupaumut, used writing as a tool for not only communication, but for diplomacy and resistance as well. 

“The language of brotherhood is also very important in this letter,” Brooks claimed. “This is diplomatic language which evokes the long relationship of alliance between the New York colony and the Mohicans, as well as their relationship to the new nation of the U.S.”

Aupaumut ends the letter with a powerful message for the New York legislators, “Listen to us and the great good spirit will reward your goodness—if you should finally shut your ears may that great spirit forgive you.”

Although HHS’s program has passed, the exhibit “We wish to live with you in peace,” accompanied with Hendrick Aupaumut’s Letter to the New York State Legislature will be on display until Oct. 15.