The Mahican proper (roughly 4,000 to 5,000 in 1600) lived on both sides of the northern Hudson (Mahicanituck) River, in present-day eastern New York and western Vermont. The confederacy was centered around Schodac, near present-day Albany, and included tribes living along the lower Hudson River as well as in western Massachusetts and Connecticut. Mahican was an Algonquin language.
Manitou, the Great Spirit, was present in all things. Some families owned sacred dolls whose spirits were said to protect the owners. The Mahicans celebrated the Green Corn Dance at the beginning of harvest season as well as various first fruits and first game rituals.
Each autonomous village had its own chief and councilors. The positions of lineage leaders and clan chiefs (who may also have been village chiefs) were inherited matrilineally. The head chief, or sachem, kept the tribal bag of peace, which contained wampum, at least in the historical period. As Mahican local and regional power grew, the sachem acquired three assistants: owl, or orator and town crier; runner, or messenger; and hero, or war chief.
The three matrilineal clans may have inhabited separate villages. Men helped women with the harvest after celebrating the Green Corn festival. Families scattered into the woods in the late fall and remained through the midwinter, when they returned to the villages. Old people remained in the villages all winter long, generally doing craft work. There may have been a recognized system of social status. People were buried in a sitting position. Graves were stocked with provisions for use in the afterlife.
Villages were often located on a hill near a river. At least from the seventeenth century on they were often palisaded. Roughly 200 people lived in a village. Each village contained from three to sixteen long, rectangular bark lodges, as well as domed wigwams, framed with hickory saplings and covered with birch, elm, or basswood bark pressed flat. Longhouses averaged three fireplaces and as many nuclear families. Animal skins were hung on the interior walls for insulation. Villages were moved every ten years or so owing to exhaustion of the land and firewood.
The Mahicans practiced slash-and-burn field clearing and regular rotation of fields. They used fish and ash as fertilizer. Women grew beans, squash, probably sunflowers, and several varieties of corn. Women also gathered waterlily roots, greens, mushrooms, nuts, and berries and made sassafras and wintergreen tea. Maple sap may have been boiled into sugar.
Men hunted game such as bear, deer, moose, beaver, rabbit, otter, squirrel, raccoon, turkey, passenger pigeons, and many other birds. Deer were hunted in fall, moose in spring. In the summer, men gathered mussels and caught herring, shad, and other fish.
Corn was stored in bark containers or bark-lined pits. Most Mahican technology was wood based: Wooden or bark items included bowls, utensils, and containers. Mortars were fire-hollowed stumps. Men made dugout and birchbark canoes as well as snowshoes. Women made pottery and wove baskets, bags, and mats. Containers and clothing were decorated with porcupine quills and paints. Mahicans acted as intermediaries in the shell bead trade from the coast to the Saint Lawrence Valley.
Women made most clothing from finely tanned skins. Men wore breechclouts, and women wore skirts. Both wore shirts, blankets, high leggings, and moccasins. Both also wore long braids dressed with bear grease and tattooed their faces.
The Mahicans were drawn into the fur trade shortly after they encountered Henry Hudson in 1609. They soon began collecting tribute from the Mohawks for access to a Dutch trade post established in Mahican country in 1614. Shell beads, or wampum, came into use at that time as currency. For a time the Mahicans, trading with the Algonquins to the north, monopolized the regional fur trade.
As nearby fur areas became trapped out, the European powers had some success encouraging their Indian partners to expand through intertribal conflict. With the help of French firearms, for instance, Mohawks drove the Mahicans east of the Hudson River Valley in 1628. The latter reestablished their council fire to the north, around Schaghticoke. Some defeated New England tribes joined this group in the 1670s.
Throughout the late seventeenth century, the Mahicans fought the Munsees, Iroquois, and others in the Piedmont and the Ohio Valley in their quest for pelts. They even ranged as far west as Miami territory, where some of them remained. By 1700 or so, Mahican culture was in retreat, and the people began to sell or otherwise abandon traditional lands to non-Natives. Traditional social and political structures began to break down owing to the demands of the fur trade, as did traditional manufacture and economies. The people also underwent a general moral breakdown, due in part to the influence of alcohol and the general cultural disruption.
In the 1670s, some groups withdrew to live among the Housatonic band of Mahicans, in Westen-hunk, although Mahicans also remained in the Hudson River Valley. Some Mahicans also merged with the Saint Francis Abenakis in the Saint Lawrence Valley and joined other Indian communities as well. In the mid-1730s, a group migrated to Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and some resettled in the mission town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The so-called Stockbridge Indians fought with the British in the French and Indian War and with the Patriots in the American Revolution. In the mid-1740s, Moravian missionaries persuaded local Indians to remove to the area of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This group ultimately settled in Ottawa, Canada.
By the mid- to late eighteenth century, the Mahicans had completely lost their subsistence economy. Most survived by selling splint baskets, other crafts, and their labor. Despite assisting the colonies in their various wars of this period, the Stockbridge Mahicans were soon dispossessed, and many joined their relatives in the Susquehanna River area in Pennsylvania, there to merge with other tribes, especially the Algonquin Delawares.
By the end of the American Revolution, most of the dispirited remnant of the Mahican nation had left Stockbridge and nearby areas and settled near the Oneida Indians in New York, where they established a thriving non-Native–style farm and craft community. Between 1818 and 1829, these Indians left the Oneida country and migrated west to Wisconsin, where missionaries had purchased land for them. They moved again several years later, after the Wisconsin Indians repudiated their land sales.
Some of this group dispersed to Kansas or died along the way after an abortive move to the Missouri River in 1839. In 1856, they were granted a reservation in Wisconsin, with the Munsee band of Delaware Indians and, later, a group of Brothertown Indians. (See also Pequot.) The community was marked by factionalism and various removals for years.
The tribe lost a significant amount of land in the post-1887 allotment process. It was officially terminated in 1910. In the 1930s, the Stockbridge-Munsee, landless and destitute, reorganized under the Indian Reorganization Act and acquired 2,250 acres of land.
Longtime president of the tribe Arvid Miller helped establish the Great Lakes Intertribal Council in the 1960s. Today, the people observe a traditional twelve-day new year celebration. Most Stockbridge-Munsees are Christians, although some participate in sweat lodge ceremonies. Some people study the Munsee-Mahican language and would like to teach it. Most traditional culture has been lost. The tribe hosts a large powwow in early August.