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Mohawk History & Genealogy
My ninth great-grandmother, Ots-Toch or Alstock, who was born circa 1620 in the Mohawk village of Canajoharie, New
York, was the reason for my delving into the culture and traditions of the Mohawk nation. Ots-Toch married a Dutch settler,
Cornelis Van Slyke, but never left the Mohawk village. I became intrigued with her story and wanted to know more about her
heritage and mine. Brian Brown generously shared his own research, much of which you can read on these pages.
Mohawks (in the early 1600's) lived in 3 or 4 large villages
clustered within a small area just west of modern Albany, New York. Each
village site would be occupied for 20-30 years and then, when the local soil
was depleted and firewood exhausted, the village would move 2-3 miles to a
new site. Because of this pattern of moving every generation but staying
within the same vicinity, an old site would frequently be reused every so
often. Iroquoian villages were large (1 500 -2 000 people) and were
surrounded by a log wall. Rather than having a gate, a narrow opening in
the wall allowed one person at a time to squeeze in. Within the
village, rows of longhouses stood in neat lines, far enough apart to prevent
fire in one longhouse from spreading to another. Longhouses were about
25-30 feet wide (archeologists suspect that the building materials and
techniques available put a practical limit on width) but could be 100 to 200
feet long. Apparently, when the house got crowded, they knocked out the end
and made it longer.
The longhouse was made of elm bark over a framework of poles.
(Birch does not grow far enough south to be widely used by the Mohawks: elm
worked just as well). There was a door at each end. Inside, a 10-12 foot
wide hallway ran the whole length of the house. Fireplaces lined the middle
of the hallway, about every 20 feet. On each side, there was a
"shelf" which was about 2 feet off the ground. This was high enough to sit
comfortably and allowed people to sleep off the cold ground. The shelves
would be about 10 feet wide. An upper shelf, 6 feet above this sleeping
platform, was used for storage or as a place for the children to sleep. Under
the lower shelf was additional storage.
A family had a section of these shelves to themselves. They shared
the fireplace in the middle of the hall with the family on the opposite side.
Anywhere from 30 to 100 people might live in a longhouse. All of them
were related through the mothers. When a man married, he went to live
with his wife's family. The women of the longhouse were, thus, either
sisters or else cousins, through a female ancestor.
The Iroquois seem to have considered the longhouse an important
social institution and a cozy group home. Whites who lived in them said
they were smokey, noisy, utterly lacking in privacy and that children and dogs
scampered about at all hours.
The organization of the community into longhouses based on
matrilineal descent is reflected in Iroquoian kinship terminology. A
child addressed his mother's sisters (who lived in the same longhouse) as
"mother" but father's sisters (who lived in another longhouse) were "aunt".
First cousins through the female line (who lived in the same longhouse)
were "brother" and "sister" while those through a male ancestor were
Apparently, when the longhouse got "big", there was a tendency for it
to separate, with a portion of the population moving to another site,
perhaps only a few feet away, and building their own longhouse. The cause
seems to have been that, when the population got too large, the internal
bickering mounted. In a large longhouse that had existed for several
generations, some of the women might be only 3rd or 4th cousins, without
close ties. Thus, one of the older women might. for example, take her
several adult daughters and their families and move next door, starting a new
longhouse. This would reduce the overcrowding and tensions in the longhouse
they left and, since the people who remained in the old longhouse were now usually more closely related, it would actually increase the stability of the group left behind.
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Your Name in History
Find out if your Surname is part of the Our Name in History Collection! Just type your surname into the search box
|The Van Slyke Family in America A Genealogy of Cornelise Antonissen Van Slyke, 1604-1676 and his Mohawk Wife Ots-Toch, including the story of Jacques Hertel, 1603-1651, Father of Ots-Toch and Interpreter to Samuel de Champlain
Dawes Commission Index, 1896 records of Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chickasaw
Dawes Commission Index, 1898-1914 Index of tribal enrollment applications for Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chickasaw