Last time: In our journey back 250 years to the issuance of the Cambridge Patent, we stopped for a moment in 1811.
This time: Before walking the dusty streets of Cambridge in 1761, let’s take one giant leap back three full centuries prior to the Royal Land Grant.
Chapter VII: 550 Years Ago, 1461, The Pre-Columbian Northeast
One clear moonless night in early summer 1461 a young Mahican warrior stood at the confluence of the Owl Kill and Hoosic and peered skyward into a milky band of 200 billion stars. A half inch of snow covered the ground as this was the middle of the Little Ice Age (c 1300-1800). Starlight kissed his face including a subtle glow that had beamed five and a half centuries across the near vacuum of space from a distant sun, accompanied by a few photons reflected from the surface of one of its planets. In another 550 years, more of the same would be gravitationally lensed – bent and magnified as Einstein predicted – to intersect a charge-coupled device aboard Kepler, a craft trailing our own planet in orbit around our own star. In early 2011 this would be the smallest near Earth-size pebble yet detected in another solar system, named Kepler-10b, one of over a thousand exoplanets verified since 51-Pegasi-b in 1991, mostly Jupiter-like gas giants (none visually seen, only inferred by indirect measurement.)
The ruddy-skinned native poked at the coals of his campfire with his war lance. He was blood brother, but little else, to the Mohawks to the west. Both could claim common ancestors in the hemisphere of perhaps twenty thousand years; radiocarbon dating of campsites say so (living plants maintain constant carbon levels from ingested atmospheric CO2 during photosynthesis but at death the radioisotope 14C begins a decay scaled predictably across the centuries.) At the southern reaches of massive glacial lobes that still stretched to mid-continent, their Paleoindian forebears stalked mammoths and saber cats; a single kill fed bands for weeks, clothed them for years. They also gathered, wild tubers, berries, as they migrated eastward along the base of the retreating Laurentide Ice Sheet that was fashioning the Great Lakes and Northeast watersheds around 10-15,000 years ago. The Appalachians were rebounding skyward, relieved of the great weight. When the old ones arrived in today’s eastern New York they might have encountered a broad flow of ice melt stretching from the Adirondacks to the Green Mountains. Hundreds of generations would have to pass before our warrior’s immediate ancestors in the Archaic period, two to seven thousand years ago, could stand on the banks of the Owl Kill. In 1461 the Mahican (or Mohican) of the Hoosick clan would call this place Tiashoke, as would his great-grandchildren.
While the southwestern deserts have preserved cliff cities for centuries and artwork on rock faces paint stories of societies long gone, the Northeast natives left little to reveal who they were. What we know of local pre-Columbian man comes primarily from oral tradition as most of their artifacts returned to the earth after a few decades of teeming summers and frigid winters, including their communal longhouses and birch bark canoes. However, according to Margaret Knight in Old Cambridge 1788-1988, burial mounds with spear points and calendar-based alignments of stone near White Creek are possibly dated to the Middle to Late Archaic, 4000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was newly capped. Also, digs within the village limits of Cambridge, engineered by resident Bill O’Donnell, unearthed arrowheads and such positively RC-dated to 3900 YA (on display at CCS; see photo.) The Post-Archaic, when textiles and leather and tools of bone were developed, when the bow and arrow was invented, phased into the Woodland period about 2000 years ago with the formal gathering of the tribe, the Iroquoian speaking Mohawks and the Algonquian tongued Mahicans of the Hoosic (or Hoosick), Owl and Batten kills.
Long before 1461, the very first contacts between the Northeast Indians and the short and pale-skinned, hairy and likely smelly Europeans were fleeting and left little of lasting impact. Just before 1000 AD, Norsemen sailed west of Greenland and bumped into local populations; excavations indicate brief settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland. About this time Basque and Breton fishermen may also have visited the rich northwestern Atlantic waters, but with no record of landfall. The Little Ice Age began to make living along these waters inhospitable, so the Vikings retreated to Scandinavia before 1300.
Life in the pre-Columbian Northeast changed little over the millennia. With large game long depleted, red man took deer and bear in first-growth forests of hardwood and evergreens, which they learned to thin, to open up for easy targeting. They trapped beaver and mink, marten and fox, and bagged fowl, but knew nothing of domestic flocks and herds for omelets and milk shakes. Primitive planting was mastered and they taught themselves to fish so they could eat for a lifetime since they had no nanny-state handouts, let alone laws. They didn’t need CC&Rs or real estate patents or even a written language. Tribal members coexisted cooperatively but feuded with neighbors over hunting grounds, which only the Great Spirit owned. Significantly, around 1450 the Mohawks to the west teamed with five other nations to form the Iroquois League to confront our Algonquians and others, a novel concept of union for the age. They called themselves Haudenosaunee - the word Iroquois is a French corruption. Thus with the Owl Kill burbling nearby, our Hoosick soldier stood watch against possible attack from those ruthless and fork-tongued devils from across the wide river to the west.
This was a time also before permanent engagement between people of different skin color and customs, as European plans for trans-Atlantic crossings lay dormant for a couple of centuries. Destiny can call someone, somewhere, sometime to a singular event with an epic echo, and in our year of 1461, in a foretelling of things to come, a ten year old wandered down to the docks of a Riviera port to watch the ships come and go. Cristoforo Colombo imagined the wonders beyond the horizon, his own and his world’s. By 1480, Bristol merchants had received a Royal Charter, and fishing fleets once again trolled our waters, evidently establishing a fish processing facility on Newfoundland. If they engaged the residents they were met with cautious deference, if not cries like “Yankee go home!” So went the encounters in the Northeast between strangers up through 1491.
500 Years Ago – 1511, First Contacts
As the European voyages of the late 15th and early 16th centuries intensified, they became more than close encounters of the third kind; they changed the course of human events. In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean green, westward along the southern edge of the Sargassa Sea, a massive gyre of algae and seaweed. He and his crew – although a Genoan, he sailed for Spain – soon spied a deserted sandy beach some 2000 miles south of our now aging warrior. After a bit of island hopping, and with sturdy boots rippling the surf, they approached the Arawaks, distant kin to the Mahicans. This first permanent contact between East
and West, beneath royal pennants flapping in the gentle breeze and backed by gunpowder, would ripple across generations and sovereign nations in the years to come. In 1497, England got into the act by hiring another Italian, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), who poked around the northern coast looking for the elusive passage to Cathay (China). He claimed the area and its lucrative fishing grounds for the English Crown, then retreated (for the moment.) After four trips into the Caribbean, Cristobal Colon died in 1506 still believing he’d reached the East Indies; the natives never shook the name. The next year, 1507, a fourth great world landmass, today’s South America, was recognized in Europe for the first time and mapped. This included the earliest printed use of the term America, to honor Venetian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, erroneously cited as discoverer of the New World. The word, Latin and feminine ala Europa, Asia, Africa, was evidently coined by Alsatian scholar Matthias Ringmann and inscribed on a large graphic drawn by German scholar-cartographer Martin Waldseemuller. 1000 wood-block prints of the wall chart were made and distributed to ecclesiastic, crown, and academic libraries across Europe but only a few have been recovered.
By 1511, encounters were multiplying between the uninvited guests from beyond the rising sun and the Northeast Indians, indeed with the Indigenous across the hemisphere. English and French, Spanish, Dutch and other Continental mariners, soldiers and merchants repeatedly went ashore for provisions and exploration. Either your eyes glazed over or visions of high adventure danced in your head when teachers handed you lists with names and nations and dates of sea captains who sailed the bounding main seeking faraway places for spices, precious metals and furs, mythical waters to prolong life, and even souls to save if not enslave. Some live on today in Northeastern geography including for a narrows, a lake, and a river: Verrazano (1524), Champlain (1603) and Hudson (1609). They, with the others, changed the lives of the natives forever, not the least of which was land-bartering (-grabbing?) in the names of sovereigns back home. In time, some King of England would decide that an unseen, indeed an unknown, Owl Kill Valley was his alone to grant as he saw fit. For now, though, our local Hoosicks were Indians but they just didn’t know it.
As the fantastic voyages of discovery to America accelerated after the Columbus treks, likewise the number of exoplanets confirmed in the past two decades has skyrocketed. The sun hunters conservatively calculate 60 billion Earth-size planets today like Kepler-10b in our galaxy alone, although they’re not all in the Goldilocks zone – temperature, pressure, chemistry – for life familiar to us. Yet we might ask, not to tease out a Star Trek episode, but anthropologically, theologically: How many harbor life beyond the amoeba; are there Paleoindian-like cultures, or Archaic or Woodland, Copper Age, Modern or even Post-Modern? We’ve transmitted intelligent E-M radiation into space for a century; we’ve sent craft beyond our own heliopause; SETI has had ears up for three decades seeking humanity’s first alien contact. We’ve been asking, “Can you hear us now?” Stone silence. Yet perhaps the answer is, “Roger that, but you’re not ready for us.”
Next time: Chapter VIII: 450 Years Ago, 1561, The Age of Exploration // 400 Years Ago, 1611, European Colonization
Sources include: Old Cambridge 1788-1988 (R. Clay, et al, 1988); Old Cambridge District (A. Moscrip, 1941); Bill O’Donnell with NY State Archeology and NY State Museum, and CCS Science Dept; Photo: Ken Gottry. (The author may be contacted at email@example.com)
CAMBRIDGE HISTORY LIVES © 2011
Thomas M. Raymond