Some of the first Wilderness settlers of the valley were Moravian in nature. Evidence for this appears in the writings of Jasper Danckaerts, ca. 1667, in his entry about of one of his visits with Robert Sanderz. The Moravians have a unique history due to their ability to Christianize some of the local Mohecans. There are certain parts of Moravian history and tradition that made the Moravian culture and tradition more effective than others when it came to interacting with local native groups. Perhaps it was the natural theological upbringings of Moravian philosophy and tradition that led to this success. It may have also been due to the heritage of Moravians, forced to survive within the woodlands of the eastern European setting due to their unique religious beliefs. These two unique attributes of Moravian culture made the Moravian missionaries who made their way into the Hudson Valley quite successful at settling down with some of the local Mohecans, long enough to first become trusted by the Indians and later to become successful preachers of their faith. This resulted in a unique understanding that took place in both directions culturally. By the end of their mission in the Hudson valley, Moravian missionaries were trained in some of the Native American lifestyle practices and Natives taught how to worship the teachings of the Bible as if it were their own traditional teachings. This understanding of traditions on both sides enabled each to ultimately learn a new style of life within this very natural “Garden of Eden” community setting. This review of Moravian and Christian Indian traditions teaches us much about human behaviors, given the right community setting.
One of the first questions we have to ask ourself about Moravian and Christian Indian tradition is what kinds of medicine were practiced in such a mixed cultural setting? Were the living arrangements decided upon capable of allowing for traditional native practices in medicine to take place in the presence of European traditionalists? Was the Mohecan settlement going to be much like large parts of the region of New France, a place where more Christianity was preached and practiced than traditional Native American physical and metaphysical healing practices? If certain parts of the Native American tradition did manage to remain alive during this cultural transition on behalf of the Mohecans, what parts were more quickly accepted by missionaries than others? From the New France writings by the Jesuits we know that the most common Christian interpretation of many of the Native American medical practices accused these practices of being paganistic and even at time demonic in origin and nature. Even the most physical of healing practices, such as the use of an herb to form a compress for healing wounds, had its misinterpretations were the inquisitive missionaries willing enough to spend the time to look into the philosophy of such a cure. Whereas an outsider of Indian tradition might interpret their uses of plants as nothing more than just another example of the now increasingly archaic practice based on the four humours theory, a more focused onlooker capable of translating their words might come to realize that the Indians were in fact conjuring up spirits, calling forth to their creator, making use of the wolf, bear or turtle to accomplish their herbal medicine cure. To very well read missionaries, this might be a reminder of times past, like in the dark ages and middle ages when the spirits of nature did matter.
One of the most comforting thing we can learn about Moravian-Mohecan culture is that the transition the Mohecans went through from the very beginning failed to rob them much of their tradition. They did not stop living in their traditional quarters, but built a new one for their use as a church. According to an 1859 visitation by later historians, the signs of a sweat lodge were still present.
Was the native spiritual experience of engaging in sweat lodge activities removed from their tradition? No, it appears not at all, based on early 19th century descriptions of the old Moravian settlement site in Shekomeko that avid and curious tourists visited at the old Mohegan-Shekomeko site.
Did they modify their traditional eating practices in any way? The answer to this question is yes, at least over time, as their practices of wild-crafting, harvesting, hunting and fishing, were converted into a semi-domesticated farming practices combined with early livestock raising practices, once again, at least according to translations of the Moravian records kept defining this cultural transition process.
Natural Theology and Shekomeko
Two types of medical philosophy are found within the Moravian-Indian environment. There are a number of plants very Christian in nature that the Moravians make ample use of as part of their own history and tradition. In addition, there are certain local practices they engaged in due to their abilities to interpret these plants in a natural theological sense as the Creator’s gift for them and the Indians. When we look at the illness and disease history of these encampments, we see the new sorts of impacts that acculturation can have of traditional lifestyle practices, such as the development of new animal borne-diseases introduced through the initiation of farming practices and livestock. The Moravian-Mohecan history in Dutchess County is only a part of the overall history of this group, but for now remains the focus of this writing.
Before delving too much into Native American herbalism at Shekomeko, it helps to understand the physiography and the history of the local ecology of this region. The physiography of this setting, its physical form in part due to its unique topography and land forms, is much like that of a low highlands region. In parts it resembles the rolling hills and small mountain ridges and valleys filling some parts of the cooler Germanic European setting. Some of the trees are the same, as are the forests they formed, by the time of Moravian settlement almost completely obliterated from many parts of western Europe, but not Moravia. This resemblance to the castle of the three sisters that the missionaries learned the details about their unique faith, it surrounding conifer-rich forests often taking on a dark green to greenish-blue color across the valley, was perhaps one of the first things Missionaries like Christian (an appropriate name) saw as he took his first trip into this area to see these Indians he had learned about. The stony outcropping, the fairly rapidly rolling hills, all seemed like those people traveled through to find the Moravian towns and villages. There must have been some resemblance to home than enabled the missionaries to stay as long as they did, to become as effective as they were as teachers of their faith.
When you first take a travel to find the monument erected for these missions, the land form takes on a change that is more apparent as each tenth of a mile passes. The hills are not only rolling and steep, with deep valleys and crevasses, they also still support farmed products, a surprise to those more familiar with the typical planar farmed field settings of the Great Plains and agritech fields. This meant that smaller pastures could be developed in some of these places, and one’s view from one area to the next was very much limited. If you lived in a farmhouse on one ridge, you may not ever see or even know your closest neighbor just on the other side of the neighboring ridge. Were it not for this farming families cultivation of fields of hay and corn, you may not ever expect that they might exist. Such was the same for the small settled region of the Moravian missions-Mohecan Indian camp. Were it not so close to the floodplains of the Wappingers Creek, one might not even know that it existed. As it stands today in this place, both topography and aging land uses and forest changes have made uncovering the whereabouts of this old settlement nearly impossible, without the necessary leads.
The benefits this unique hilly, and farmable region, was that it offered numerous nooks and crannies for many of the local plants to take hold and thrive, even after large regions were devastated by contemporary and future farmers. This means that the Shekomeko region does have some parts of the stories of Mohecan culture and the Moravian missions that it can still tell us. Unlike the lower parts of this county, there is still some native culture residing here, although limited somewhat by the large impact industrialization had on the farming and natural products industries by the late 1800s. Because not all of this part of the county was modified extensively, although many of its large trees were levels and burned for melting the ores that were gathered in nearby mines, we can still see evidence for both traditional plants and imported European medicines, some of Moravian origin.
Just what were the local native plants of this region? Shekomeko sits next to the line used to draw the southern edge of the paper birch tree distribution map for New York State. Specimens of paper birch (Betula papyrifera) can be found growing throughout this region, in dribs and drabs along the roadsides and woods, but in more quantity deep in the woods near the lakes and streams. None of these are as big and the largest of their specimens from which the paper birch bark was gathered and used to make canoes. This was definitely more a practice typical of Indians residing much further to the north, where large specimens of these paper birch trees grew in ample numbers to support such a harvest. Nevertheless, the paper birch does exist in the Shekomeko region, and in Native American ethnobotany, this provided some groups with at least one valuable, hard to find bark of unique use and value.
The more valuable plant for this region, of the birches, could have been the sweet birch (Betula lenta). Our association of this birch with birch beer and the wintergreen oil could have been a fairly westernized impression given to this plant, almost immediately upon its “discovery” by New World explorers. There is little direct evidence linking the admiration of this wintergreen oil and any related medical properties like those more typical of contemporary herbal medicine writings, with the actual use of this plant by many Mohecans. Of course, we also have limited amounts of pre-Columbian Mohecan heritage stored in the various forms of art and symbols possible, even though it may have once existed. Anything later may have been adulterated early on by European-told sitings and impressions. Still, the Shekomeko forests are richer in sweet birch than they are in paper birch. This must have had some effect on their natural responses to these symbols of creation and the Creator.
There are numerous medicinal plants scattered about the Mohecan forest, field and wateredge settings throughout Shekomeko. ‘What are the most important?’ is a hard question to answer.
Upon my first walk into this region, after my initial reactions to the two birches, I saw the famous enchanted nightshade and then one of the trilliums common to this region. This was immediately followed by the false sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) and the other snakeroot, a tall snakeroot, next to which was the white turtle-bloom flower (Chelone glabra) with its white snake-like face and tongue pointed right at me. What makes Mohecan medicine different when it comes to plants so different is how they interpreted these objects of nature from a totally culturally perspective. I say culturally because the Mohecan perspective on things in nature is going to be very different from the European impressions of the same works of art.
In a family bible, dated to somewhere about 1825 to 1835, there is this recipe I often like to talk about with regard to native traditions. This recipe is very much European bred and modified, for it bears some plants that are very much European in origins or nature. Yet it also bears plant parts that are uniquely local, grown a certain way locally for local use. This metaphysical concept was not unique to Mohecan philosophy, but is something that they seemed to place a very heavy emphasis upon. Such unique differences in belief may have even been one of the many cultural signatures needed to differentiate a Mohecan tribe from another Mohecan-like or Mohegan tribe.
In the Shekomeko woods is the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) with its obvious Christian signature–the ‘four-petaled’ white flower-bearing the thorny crown of Jesus within its center and the marks of blood at the tips of each of these four modified leaves which we call petals. To the Mohecans, this wasn’t the “Cornus Mariensis” some missionaries might have wanted it to be. But it was enough reason for them to share their story with Mohecans, even to give their own interpretation of the cultural signatures of this local tree.
Turning to the original plants of these woodlands (which can be hard to do due to so much that has taken place in this region), during a number of excursions I engaged in over the past year, I have seen and photographed the following species important to local Native American medicine at their site.
- Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
- Bellwort (Uvularia sp.)
- Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
- Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
- Goldthread (Coptis sp.)
- Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
- Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
- Hog Peanut (Amphicarpa bracteata)
- Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
- Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum or androsaemifolium)
- Milkweed (Asclepius incarnata or other sp.)
- Maple-leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolia)
- Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)
- Witchhazel (Hamamaelis sp.)
- Prickly Ash (Xanthoxylum americanum)
The following species are possible escapees from the local herb garden the missions once produced in the center of this site.
- Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)
- Common Mint (possibly a hybrid of Mentha spicata and M. piperita)
The following decoratives found growing on the plot are possibly either original or escaped strains for the plants first planted back in 1745, based on their location relative to the map drawn of this site for the time.
- Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)
- Apple Tree (Malus sp.)
- Decorative Roses (Rosa spp.)