Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site

Centennial History of Delaware County, New York : 1797-1897
edited by David Murray, LL.D.

Transcribed by Tamara Sanford


Indian Occupants; Wild Animals.

IF we could take a birds-eye view of the State of New York at the time Hendrick Hudson in 1609 sailed up the river, which now bears his name, we would behold a territory almost completely covered with forest. Here and there, shining lakes would be seen where the blue water is striving bravely to keep at bay the encroaching forces of the land. Numberless streams trickle, and glide, and flow along wooded bank out to the measureless sea. The Hudson river and its tributaries draining the region of the Adirondacks and the beautiful valleys to the south of them, the Delaware and Susquehanna reaching their thin tendrils up into the mountains of central New York, the branches of the Ohio laving their gentle banks in western New York and the mighty St. Lawrence and the streams which feed and drain the lakes, what a fascinating picture they present and what a, story they have to tell to him who can read the future or the past.

The only inhabitants of this vast wilderness at the time of Hendrick Hudson's invasion of its solitude. Were the American Indians. Although positive and fixed homes cannot be assigned to these red men in the same sense as to the white men who followed them, yet in a general way it may be stated that the centre of the State was occupied by the powerful confederacy of the Five Nations of Indians. These were the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and the Senecas. Subsequently in 1717 the Tuscaroras a cognate tribe who dwelt in the Carolinas, removed to New York. They were admitted into the Indian League, which now became the confederacy of the Six Nations. These tribes occupied the middle, and western parts of the State.

The Mohicans, sometimes called the Delaware Indians, occupied the regions along the Hudson River and as far east as the Connecticut, and westward to the headwaters of the Susquehanna. This tribe was less warlike and more disposed to be friendly towards the white settlers than their enemies the Six Nations. The novelist Cooper in his "Last of the Mohicans"* has drawn a fascinating picture of the fragments of this tribe at the time of the French war in the region of Otsego lake.

(*We have followed the novelist's example in using the word Mohican as the name of this tribe).

They had been conquered and reduced to a pitiable condition of dependence by their fierce neighbors; and at the time of the revolutionary war when the Mohawks, under the lead of Brant and at the instigation of the British, raided the loyal settlements, the Delaware's were able to make no headway against them.

No part of the present county was ever the permanent home of the Indians. They visited various arts of it on hunting excursions, and established camps which remained fixed for months; but they always withdrew before the rigors of winter began. The present site of Sidney village was thus an Indian hunting camp; and several places on the East Branch of the Delaware, and at the head of the West Branch where the valleys slope off in several directions, were visited by Indians in their annual hunting excursions. This right to rove the forests in the opinion of these savages gave them an ownership in territory, which the early settlers were considerate enough to respect. It was the policy of the Dutch, who came first into the territory of the New Netherlands to treat the Indians as the real landowners. They bought the island of Manhattan, although the price, which they paid twenty-four dollars, seems now so ridiculously inadequate. The Van Rensselaer colonists who settled the territory about Albany bought the lands of the Indians, of which they afterward received a grant from the Dutch West India Company. So too, after the Dutch possessions in America had been transferred to the English in 1664, the new owners maintained the same peaceable relations with the aborigines. And when the great Hardenbergh patent was given by Queen Anne in 1708 to Johannes Hardenbergh and his associates, it was required of them that they must extinguish the Indian titles before the grant would be complete. In doing this there arose a controversy between the patentees and the Indians as to whether the great tract lying between the East and West branches of the Delaware river was included in the sale made by the Indians. In order to settle this dispute the patentees agreed to purchase from the claimants the disputed territory, for which they paid the sum of one hundred and forty-nine pounds, nineteen shillings.

In order to maintain amicable relations with the Six Nations the English Colonial Government appointed in 1746 William Johnson (afterward Sir William) as Commissary of Indian Affairs. He had been trained by the Schuylers of Albany who had maintained the traditional Dutch policy of peace and fairness. He established his office at Johnstown in Fulton county, so called after himself. By his great influence, he kept the Six Nations on the side of the British during the French war; and when the hostilities of the revolutionary war were about to break out, his ascendancy was shown by the New York Indians almost unanimously taking the side of the Tories. He died in 1774 just before active hostilities began; but his policy was continued by the members of his family who were maintained by the government in the same responsible position.

One of the most important agreements, which Sir William Johnson made with the Indians, was a treaty entered into at Fort Stanwix in 1768. This treaty was designed to settle the disputes, which had arisen in reference to the Western boundary line to which the location of white settlements might extend. The line fixed by this treaty was an irregular one beginning on the Ohio river and running eastward to the Susquehanna, and along branches of the same, thence to the Delaware river, and so northward near the present city of Rome and by the Canada Creek to Lake Ontario. It was signed on the part of the British by Sir William Johnson and on the part of the Indians by representatives of each of the six confederated nations, viz the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Tuscaroras, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and the Senecas. Sir William on behalf of his government paid to the Indian chiefs the sum of ten thousand four hundred and sixty pounds, seven shillings and three pence, and in return received a deed of the land so conveyed. Delaware county lay to the east of this line, which was known as the "line of properties." It was therefore open to settlement, both under the terms of this treaty, and under the Hardenbergh patent which had originally been bought from the Indians.

The only Indian who is known to have lived in Delaware county after the Revolutionary war was old Teunis, who dwelt alone in a little tent by the lake which still retains his name, situated in Bovina near the borders of the town of Andes. The story concerning him is that during the Revolutionary War, when the Indians were about to make a raid upon the white settlements in Middletown, the family of Mr. Yaple received a friendly warning from this Indian who had received kindnesses from them. Taking advantage of this timely caution Mr. Yaple and his neighbors escaped and drove off their cattle and saved much of their belongings. Probably the action of Teunis in giving notice to the whites enraged his companions, and made it necessary for him to escape into solitude. Here he lived for many years supporting himself by hunting and fishing, and occasionally receiving a little help from the white neighbors who always felt for him a deep sense of gratitude for saving their lives.

There is a tradition that when Teunis ran short of lead to make from balls for his rifle, he used to make a journey of a few days from home, and bring back with him blocks of a mineral which he used for the manufacture of balls. This gave rise to the belief that there was somewhere within reach a lead mine to which Teunis went for his supply of this mineral. Search for it has often been made; but no such mineral deposit has ever been found. It is impossible that he derived it from any natural mine. And he never revealed the source of his supply. It is probable that he had access to some secret store of lead which his tribe had established when they used to roam over this region in search of game.

It is as appropriate a place as we shall find to give some account of the wild animals which inhabited the wilderness, when the white settlers came into Delaware county. The largest and most powerful of these animals was the black bear (Ursus americanus) which roamed freely through all the mountainous regions of the county. Their food was a mixed carnivorous and vegetarian diet. When pressed with hunger they watched for and destroyed domestic animals. They were especially fond of honey, and when a tree contained a store of this delicious food the bear was always on hand to climb it and if possible extract some of its sweetness. The earliest settlers suffered much from their depredations among their hogs. As was often the case the hogs were turned into the forests to collect nuts as food; and the bears took advantage of the opportunity to seize them and carry them off. At other times when the hogs were continued in a pen to be fed with the milk of the dairy, the bears often came prowling by night around the buildings and carried off the well fed occupants of the pen.

For these reasons the farmers were always prepared to hunt these natural enemies. Every one had his rifle, and many were skilled in the use of it. The flint-lock rifle was at these early times the chief kind of gun in use. The percussion cap was not introduced until about 1840. The old fashioned long barreled flint-lock American rifle was a most effective weapon, not only in the hands of the white pioneer settler, but also in the skilled and steady hands of the Indians.

The wolf (Canis lupus) was also a common pest about the new farms. It was a cowardly but a mischievous animal. Their specialty, was the waylaying and killing of sheep. They remained hidden during the day and came out at night. A single wolf in this way often became the terror of a whole neighborhood. From its lair, often almost inaccessible, it would sally out in search of unprotected sheep. If the season were winter and snow on the ground it was possible to track its depredations. But even when the hunter was able to follow the wolf to its lair, it was sure to have taken timely warning and made its escape. Dogs were often used to follow the tracks of the wolves, and sometimes combined efforts were made to hunt and destroy what had become a serious and destructive nuisance.

The red fox (Vulpex fulves) was another of the farmer's enemies. The destruction of poultry was its special purpose. It also was a night prowler. It was hunted especially in the wintertime by men with dogs. The English foxhound was early introduced and was a common sentinel on the farms. The fox skin had besides a commercial value which led to a keener interest in hunting this animal.

The most dangerous wild animal which frequented the woods, of Delaware county was the panther commonly called "painter" (Folis concoler). It was not a large animal, but belonging to the cat family, was possessed of great agility. It sought its prey by noiselessly gliding within reach, and then making a sudden spring. In this way it attacked deer, sheep, and even cows. It was capable even of attacking a human being* when tempted by hunger or by the helplessness and exposure of its victim. It scarcely ever appeared in the open fields, and whenever it was killed by the hunter it was nearly always when found lurking furtively in the woods.

(*See Cooper's description of Leatherstocking shooting a panther and saving the life of Elizabeth and Louisa. The Pioneers p., 337).

From time to time the board of supervisors offered bounties for the killing of some of the destructive wild animals. The bounty in later times was $5 for killing a wolf, and $15 for killing a panther.

The animals hunted for food were not many, the red deer (Cervus canadensis) being the principal one, or indeed almost the only one. This graceful animal roamed the hills of Delaware in great numbers and even down to a recent period. The flesh was an important article of food to the pioneer settler. The male is provided with antlers which fall off every spring and grow out again during the summer. Each year additional prongs grow upon the antlers, so that the age of a buck may be approximately known by the number of prongs upon his antlers. The female gives birth to one doe at each time of breeding, so that the increase of the herd is not rapid. They feed entirely on vegetables. Their common food is the buds, leaves and twigs of forest trees, and the wild grass and plants which grow near streams of water. They are hunted in two ways: one the still hunt where the hunter creeps silently and slowly upon his prey, and shoots one of a herd. As the deer is exceedingly timid and very swift of flight, it is not easy to get within shooting distance. The second method of hunting is with dogs who are capable of tracing the animal by scent. The deer runs usually in a well known track, and therefore the hunter stations himself near where it is expected to pass. The baying of the hounds gives warning of the approach, and when the fleet footed animal darts by the hunter must be ready to give it the fatal shot.

Besides the flesh of the deer which furnished delicious food to the settler, the skin was tanned into a soft leather called buckskin, which had many uses. The Indians used it for moccasins and other primitive purposes. White settlers made from it leggings, mittens, gloves, whiplashes, etc.

There were besides the large game already enumerated several smaller and unimportant animals. Thus there was the woodchuck (Arctomys monax), which was hunted for the skin, and which fed specially on the red clover and was troublesome to the farmer by making trails through the growing meadows. There were at least three kinds of squirrels, which however playful and pretty were destructive to the ripened grain: the chipmunk, the red squirrel, and the gray squirrel. To these may be added the beautiful black squirrel which however was more rare than any of the others. The squirrels, especially the chip-monk, were sometimes a great nuisance to the farmer, in stealing corn and wheat and rye. Sometimes squirrel hunts were held in a neighborhood, when everybody, who could get a gun, started out to kill all the squirrels he could find. There was usually a prize offered for the person who killed the greatest number, and a second prize to him who killed the next greatest. The necessity for this kind of destruction of squirrels has long since disappeared, and farmers are now quite willing that the nimble little marauders should steal all they need to supply their summer food and their winter stores.

Some of the older inhabitants of the county will remember the flocks of wild pigeons that sometimes in the spring flew over the valleys. These birds were properly called Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius). The breeding places of these birds were in the north, sometimes as far as the Hudson Bay country. The immense flocks in which they crossed Delaware county were on their way to the breeding grounds. These flocks were sometimes half a mile wide and long enough to require two or three hours to pass over a given place. In Cooper's Novel of the Pioneers, will be found a description of a flight of pigeons near Otsego Lake, when the group of characters is represented as killing the birds with clubs, and guns; and how in their extravagance even a cannon loaded with scraps, was fired into the almost interminable flock.*

(*See Cooper's Pioneers, p. 267).

Such migrations of pigeons however have completely ceased. With the more destructive agencies now made use of, the pigeon like the buffalo has been almost hunted out of existence. Delaware county sees them no more, although fifty years ago they were a common sight which many of the old inhabitants will remember.

Besides the swallows, the robins, the woodpeckers, and other birds which were harmless, there were a number which were regarded as the enemies of the farmers and which were always held as legitimate objects of their skill in gunning. These were: the crows which fed voraciously on the newly sown grain and against whom scarecrows were almost valueless; the hawks, which were marauders of domestic chickens; owls which prowled about the houses by night to hunt for mice and other destructive rodents, but which when flesh is scarce do not hesitate to help themselves to grain and fruit; and more rarely the eagle which from its flight in the air pounced mercilessly upon the young lambs, and even sometimes upon young children.

It only remains to say a word about the wild inhabitants of the waters of Delaware county. The most notable of the fish in its streams has always been the brook trout (Salmo fario). This delicious fish frequents the streams of temperate climates. It ascends all these, even the very small ones, for the purpose of selecting suitable ground for spawning. During every rise of the streams there is an irresistible instinct in these trout to push on to higher and higher ground. They are fished legitimately with a bait of angleworms, or grasshoppers, or with an artificial fly. But the streams of the county have been so thoroughly fished, and the methods of illegitimate fishing with weirs and nets so much used in them, that the brook trout has very largely disappeared. It is only where portions of the streams are "preserved " and protected from common fishing that a few of this delicious game are still to be found.

In the rivers there have been preserved from the earliest times some of the black bass, which is caught with a bait or with a fly. It is an excellent table fish, but has never been very abundant.

Among the early settlers along the West branch of the Delaware as well as the East branch, there was for a time runs of shad (Alosa sapidissima) in the spring. This of course was before the shad fishing on the lower Delaware was as destructive as it has since become. Now shad rarely go higher than the dam above Trenton in the Delaware river, and such a thing as the expectation of a profitable run at Deposit or Colchester is out of the question.

Thus we have traced the aboriginal inhabitants of the county from their earliest time of the white settlers. The forests that sheltered the Indians and the game on which they lived have almost gone. The streams of water once sheltered from evaporation by the abundant and over hanging trees have dwindled into insignificance. The lumber which used to give work to the chopper, and a rush of business every spring to the rafts man, is gone. Instead we have thousands of civilized inhabitants, industrious and thrifty; cows instead of deer, sheep instead of wolves; roads and railroads instead of Indian trails; and churches and schoolhouses with worshippers and smiling schoolchildren on every road and in every village.

Index to Centennial History of Delaware County

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