Mohawk Reinvention of the Fort Orange and Albany Courthouses, 1652-77

in Journal of Early American History
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This article analyzes the process of how Albany came to stand as a center of Anglo-Indian relations in the seventeenth century. Through the understanding of the diverse and changing geographical interpretations of particular places and spaces, this paper analyzes Iroquois, Dutch and English understandings of significance and uses of the Fort Orange, later Albany, courthouse to demonstrate how the Iroquois, Mohawks in particular, were able to both function within and contribute to the reinvention of this quintessential European institution to suit their own diplomatic purposes. Through understanding varying interpretations of the court as a diplomatically significant place, we gain a clearer understanding of the role of Native peoples in the creation of this cross-cultural courthouse as it became “the only appointed and prefixed place” of the Covenant Chain of Alliance between the Iroquois and English in 1677.

Mohawk Reinvention of the Fort Orange and Albany Courthouses, 1652-77

in Journal of Early American History




Lawrence H. Leder (ed.)The Livingston Indian Records: 1666-1723 (Gettysburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association1956) pp. 46-7 (hereinafter LIR).


Donna MerwickThe Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press2006) p. 43.


Hermes“‘Justice Will Be Done Us’” pp. 124-5. For discussions on the role of the court as a symbol of European particularly Dutch authority see Martha Dickinson Shattuck “A Civil Society: Court and Community in Beverwijck New Netherland 1652-1664” (Ph.D. diss. Boston University 1993). Shattuck argues for the continuity of Roman-Dutch law in New Netherland but acknowledges that while “there was little room for colonial innovation … with the exception of Indian relations there was little need” at p. 22; also Jaap Jacobs The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2009) ch. 3. The WIC made provisions for local courts in the “Freedoms and Exemptions” published in 1629 and 1640. The 1640 provision allowed for communities to be given their own courts “to determine all questions and suits within their districts” when the number of residents became “so numerous as to be accounted towns villages or cities” “Proposed Freedoms and Exemptions for New Netherland” in E.B. O’Callaghan et al (eds.) Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York 15 vols. (Albany N.Y. 1856-81) (hereinafter DRCHNY) 1:120. With the establishment of the court in 1652 the community around Fort Orange was incorporated into the village called Beverwijck. The court however remained housed in Fort Orange. Beverwijck was renamed Albany after the English takeover in 1664. For the sake of clarity the Dutch court (1652-64) will be referred to as the “Fort Orange court” and the English court (1664-77) will be referred to as the “Albany court”. The nearby patroonship of Rensselaerswijck retained its own “small bench of justice” until the English merged it into the court of Albany Rensselaerswijck and Schenectady in 1665. However it was the Fort Orange court that led the way in dealings with Indian relations.


Colin CallowayNew Worlds for All: Indians Europeans and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press1997); Kathleen DuVal The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2006); Eric Hinderaker Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley 1673-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997); Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2003); Francis Jennings The Invasion of America: Indians Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1975); James H. Merrell The Indians New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1989); Patricia Seed Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World 1492-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995); Daniel H. Usner Indians Settlers & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1992); and Richard White The Middle Ground: Indians Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991). White’s book highlighted the importance of place in Indian and European encounters as he explored the interactions of the two in the Great Lakes region which was a unique set of circumstances that called for the necessity of cooperation among the various players in the cross-cultural relations that took place there. After his groundbreaking work historians began seeing middle grounds anywhere that Indians and Europeans encountered one another. DuVal’s recent work has allowed us once again to see the distinctiveness of particular places of encounter as more than a series of undefined middle grounds.


James Taylor Carson“Ethnogeography and the Native American Past”Ethnohistory 49 (Fall 2002) pp. 769-88; James Taylor Carson Making an Atlantic World: Circles Paths and Stories from the Colonial South (Knoxville Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press 2007); Tracy Neal Leavelle “Geographies of Encounter: Religion and Contested Spaces in Colonial North America” American Quarterly 56 (Dec. 2002) pp. 913-43; and Tomlins and Mann The Many Legalities of Early America p. 11.


See JacobsThe Colony of New Netherland pp. 206-12 for a discussion of Indians and the law in New Netherland particularly their use as witnesses as well as how different jurisdictions within the colony were often in conflict concerning legal disputes involving Indians; c.f. Merwick Shame and the Sorrow ch. 5; Shattuck “A Civil Society” p. 8; and Hermes “‘Justice Will Be Done Us’” pp. 123-49 where she argues that English did claim jurisdictional authority over Indians who entered their court rooms. Although the New England governments allowed for and developed Indian practices of reciprocity in arbitrating legal disputes between the two peoples. By the end of Metacom’s War in 1676 Indians in southern New England were brought under the authority of the King of England. It is at this time that the New England courts ended reciprocal accommodation in their dealings with Indian peoples Pulsipher Subjects Unto the Same King pp. 268-71.


GehringFOCM pp. 503-504 511-15 at 503. Jan Harmsen Volkert Jansen Willem Brouwer Jan van Aken Daniel Jansen Jurriaen Jansen Jan Thomassen and Jacob Thijsen were all brought before the court to face charges of going or sending others into the woods to conduct trade; all but Harmsen “purged themselves under oath”. Harmsen was fined three hundred guilders and his trading rights were suspended for two months.


JacobsThe Colony of New Netherland p. 117.


JacobsThe Colony of New Netherland pp. 106-17; Jennings Ambiguous Iroquois Empire pp. 51-2; Merwick Possessing Albany pp. 88-99; Richter Ordeal of the Longhouse p. 97; and Allen Trelease Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: The Seventeenth Century (Lincoln Neb.: University of Nebraska Press 1997 [1960]) pp. 112-37. The ordinance against Dutch brokers running in the woods was reissued in 1662. Court records do not exist from 1661-7 so it is unknown if further cases were brought to trial Gehring FOCM pp. 503-504 515-18; and E.B. O’Callaghan (ed.) Laws and Ordinances of New Netherland 1636-1674 (Albany 1868) pp. 425-6.


ThwaitesJR 41:85-7; Bruce Trigger (ed.) The Handbook of North American Indians Volume 15: The Northeast (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press 1978) p. 418; José António Brandão “Your Fyre Shall Burn No More” Iroquois Policy toward New France and Its Native Allies to 1701 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1997) pp. 106-10; William Fenton “Structure Continuity and Change” in Francis Jennings (ed.) The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy: An Interdisciplinary guide to the Treaties of the Six Nations and Their League (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press 1985) p. 15; Jennings Ambiguous Iroquois Empire pp. 105-109; and Parmenter Edge of the Woods pp. 87-9. Canaqueese whose mother was Iroquois and his father Dutch also appears in the records as Jan Smits John Smith and the Flemish Bastard.


William N. FentonThe Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press1998); and Parmenter Edge of the Woods introduction.


O’CallaghanDRCHNY13:18. The Iron Chain had replaced a metaphorical rope that tied the Dutch to the Mohawks as a symbol of a stronger relationship. In 1677 the Iron Chain which while utilitarian lacked luster and value was replaced by the Covenant Chain of silver. The evolution of the increasing value of the relationship between the Iroquois and the Dutch then English was recited by many Iroquois leaders after 1677. In 1689 Mohawk Tahiadoris thanked the English for their “Renovacon of ye Covenant chain which is not of Yron now as it was formerly but of Pure Silver”. The history of the transition from the iron chain of the 1640s to the silver chain of the 1670s was also recited by the Onondaga diplomat Canasatego at the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744. Although by this time both the primacy of the Mohawks in maintaining the shine of the Covenant Chain and the primacy of Albany as the appointed home of the Chain had waned Leder LIR p. 154; Van Doren and BoydIndian Treaties Printed by Benjamin Franklin pp. 41-79; Jennings Ambiguous Iroquois Empire pp. 53-7; and Trelease Indian Affairs in Colonial New York pp. 116-17.


GehringFOCM pp. 76-8 quote. For a discussion on the tensions between the French Mohawks and Onondagas of which this incident was a part Parmenter Edge of the Woods pp. 77-89 and Brandão “Your Fyre Shall Burn No More” pp. 105-16. Many of the Mohawks’ decisions to utilize the Dutch courthouse at Fort Orange were driven by the intra-longhouse rivalries with the Onondagas and were often separate from or only partially connected to direct Mohawk-Dutch issues and interactions.


GehringFOCM pp. 400-402 quote on p. 401; O’Callaghan DRCHNY 13:88-9; and Jennings Ambiguous Iroquois Empire pp. 104-105. Allen Trelease points out that Fort Orange officials were pleased with the peace in hopes that French Indians would come to trade in the community. The Mohawks however were looking for peace for their own ends Brandão “Your Fyre Shall Burn No More” pp. 110-14; Parmenter Edge of the Woods pp. 100-10; and Trelease Indian Affairs in Colonial New York pp. 122-6.


Charles Gehring (trans. and ed.)Council Minutes 1655-1656 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press1995) pp. 132-5; Gehring FOCM pp. 400-402; Paul Otto The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley (New York: Berghahn 2006) pp. 147-8.


Arnold J. F. Van Laer (ed.)Correspondence of Jeremias van Rensselaer 1651-1674 (Albany: University of the State of New York Press1932) p. 21 (hereinafter CJVR.)


GehringFOCM p. 304. In this meeting the Mohawks stressed the relationship of the three Mohawk villages as “members of the same nation … bound to help each other in a time of need”. Such a statement illustrates the primacy of the “national” relationship—that among fellow Mohawks—over the Confederacy or Longhouse relationship in this regard. For a discussion of tensions between the Onondagas and Mohawks at this time Jennings Ambiguous Iroquois Empire pp. 104-109 and Parmenter Edge of the Woods pp. 86-96. Parmenter’s understanding of the internal maneuvering between the Onondagas and Mohawks stresses the idea of the metaphorical longhouse as a continually evolving concept. Such an understanding allows us to understand the relations between the Mohawks and Onondagas as less detrimental to the inner workings of the Longhouse and more as a natural process of growth and development in a time of great change.


Van LaerCJVR p. 217; and Gehring FOCM pp. 453-4 503.


GehringFOCM pp. 454-9; and Parmenter Edge of the Woods pp. 108-109.


See ParmenterEdge of the Woods pp. 100-105 for a discussion of the Mohawks’ ascendancy in League foreign relations by 1658 by “keeping both the French and Dutch at arm’s length on the periphery of Iroquoia while asserting control over the continental interior through the gradual assimilation of neighboring indigenous populations” at 105.


GehringFOCM p. 463. The Esopus region of New Netherland experienced Indian-settler wars in the 1650s and the 1660s Otto Dutch-Munsee Encounter pp. 149-55; Trelease Indian Affairs pp. 148-68.


GehringFOCM pp. 463-4.




Van LaerCJVR p. 297; and O’Callaghan DRCHNY 13:225-6.




O’CallaghanDRCHNY13:98 308.






In September 1679Col. William Kendell traveled from Virginia to Albany to meet with the Mohawks because the Senecas broke the 1677 negotiated peace with Virginia. It appears that the Mohawks instructions that the Virginians deal with the Senecas through the Mohawks and in Albany was well heeded Leder LIR p. 49.


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