Lauren R. Stevens | Hikes & Walks: Interpreting the Mahican-Mohawk Trail

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Interpretation is an aspect of trail making that doesn't always get a lot of attention. Why this trail in the place? What is the natural and cultural history of the route? A case in point: The Mahican-Mohawk Trail.

We're told that in colonial times, and before, there were several ways Native people used to travel between what is now southern New England and Canada. One way, certainly, was to follow the Connecticut River; another was via lakes George and Champlain. Further south that route followed close to the present Route 22 in New York State; then along the Hoosic River into Pownal, Vermont and northern Berkshire County, up and over the Hoosacs and along the Deerfield River to what became the town of that name. That is the way the Mahican Mohawk trail is attempting to recover.

How do we, so far removed in time, know where Natives walked? Partly because European settlers tended to follow the same waterside ways, gradually widening them for horse, then carting and ultimately motoring. Other sources are Native traditions and residents of 100 years ago or more who explored the routes and wrote down their findings.

Of more recent researchers, David Costello was one of the engineers who worked on improving the gravel road over the Hoosac Range to make it passable, at least most of the year, by automobile. He became deeply interested in the early routes, looking into all the sources he could find before publishing a series of maps called "The Mohawk Trail: Showing old roads and other points of interest," in 1975. He included the Indian trace, which the highway, now named "Mohawk Trail," approximates.

The automobile road opened in 1914, celebrated by an historical pageant in North Adams that recounted, among other stories, the Mohawks' trip over the path to battle the Pocumtucs in Deerfield. Local businesses seized upon the story, picking up an Indian theme, which led to the naming of the state highway.

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The hiking trail follows the Native route more closely. The portion over Todd and Clark mountains, just north of Mohawk Trail State Forest campground, has long been known as the "Indian Trail," and Costello identified it as the exact route. Since the land over which the Mohawks were traveling was Mohican territory, the Mahican-Mohawk Trail Partnership chose to honor both tribes (the spelling Mahican was meant to differentiate them from the Mohegans in what is now northeastern Connecticut). Grand Chief Joseph Towiro Norton and Mohawk Elder, Joe Deer, from Kahnawake, Quebec, played a prominent role in the dedication ceremonies of stretches along the Deerfield and in Mohawk Trail State Forest, in July 1997.

The footpath now runs, with gaps, from the Historic Deerfield to North Adams. Still, the maps and the dozen or more kiosks along the way say little about either the Mohicans or the Mohawks, a situation Berkshire Natural Resources Council is remedying. Their Hoosac Range Trail is a segment; working with the Stockbridge-Munsee Language and Culture Committee and other sources, BNRC now includes on its trailhead kiosk on Route 2 near the Western Summit an attractive panel that describes this area as the eastern homeland of the Mohican nation, its contact with Henry Hudson in 1609, its alliance with the Munsee Indians in Delaware and the move of the Mohican council fire from the Hudson River to Stockbridge. An image depicts Stockbridge Indian scouts who served the Continental Army during America's Revolutionary War.

The Latin "nihil de nobis, sine nobis" translates to "nothing about us without us." It was employed during eastern European wars and, more recently, in an effort to increase participation by minority groups in discussions of their issues. In this case, the trail is named for two Native tribes and, as BNRC and the Partnership are doing, involving the Mohicans and Mohawks in the interpretation of the trail named for them is more than appropriate.

Interpreting the natural history of a trail, also a part of the Hoosac Range Trail kiosk, should be thoughtful, science-based and revealing; interpreting human history becomes even more complicated and delicate. Nevertheless trail makers need to rise to the challenge, in order to honor properly the people who first walked the trail and to inform trail users about them, thereby enriching everyone's experience.

Happy trails to you.

Lauren R. Stevens is author of "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," Countryman Press/W.W. Norton. 2016.


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