The "Painted Rocks" of the Mohawk: The Role of the Early Mohawk Boatmen

Mohawk river boatsMohawk River navigation, circa 1810.

All of the 19th century witnesses interviewed by Rufus Grider seem to confirm the appearance of the pictographs as shown in his 1880s paintings. But one of his informants introduces another factor into the story:

"The Flat boatmen of the Mohawk held these rocks in such reverance that they at times refreshed the paintings..." LeGrand L. Strang, Amsterdam, 1887.

This statement seems to explain how paintings done by Native Americans some unknown number of years before could still be visible in the first half of the nineteenth century. It suggests that the river boatmen who passed these rocks may have stopped to repaint them from time to time.

The period of the "Flat boatmen" to which Strang refers was essentially the era of river boat traffic that preceeded the building of the Erie Canal, or roughly from 1790 to about 1820. It was during this period that large, barge-like river craft called Durham boats began to traverse the inland waterways between Schenectady and Oswego, facilitated by the early short canals and other improvements built by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company.

These boats carried crews of five or six boatmen, and the rocks at Amsterdam no doubt represented a landmark during their arduous journeys up and down the navigation.

Durham boatA Durham boat in operation.

But Strang was not the only one to suspect that the paintings being seen in the early nineteenth century may not have been entirely original. Responding in 1882 to an earlier report in the Amsterdam Recorder regarding the "existence of Painted Rocks just south of the Central R.R. freight house, which were painted by the Indians, and formerly the objects of great curiosity..", Moses Kehoo stated:

"I would say in confirmation of the above that I well remember having seen these paintings when a boy (c. 1840s); they were of red paint, and to my recollection represented 8 or 10 Indians. Some on foot and some in canoes moving westward.

"...The pictures at that time had the appearance of being retouched, probably to perpetuate them. I think they are now entirely obliterated. They were on the perpendicular face of the rocks which overlook the river, a little east of the freight house and directly south of the Murphy Bros. warehouse. These tracings were of the plainest and rudest kind."

A slightly earlier observation of the condition of the paintings is brought to the readers' attention by Kehoo. It was written in 1836 by Judge Samuel Belding. This statement elaborates on the description of the site, and also points toward modern intervention in the preservation of the pictographs:

"There is an island in the Mohawk about 100 rods below the village of Amsterdam. Immediately where the current separates to flow around it, the waters are wider than in any other part of the river in that vicinity; and in consequence of their breadth and this division of them they flow on calmly and placidly as an unruffled lake. Tradition says that at this point the dusky warriors of olden times were accustomed to rendevous when they made excursions into the back country for battle or chase.

"The level but narrow champagne land that crowns the northern bank afforded peculiar facilities for such an assemblage, while the broad and gentle water below offered a safe and inviting harbour for their frail and light canoes. The northern shore of the river, a few rods below the western extremity of the island, is protected by a high wall of perpendicular rocks, (about 15 to 20 feet) presenting a surface smooth and even for several feet in extent. The Indians elected it as a receptacle of their history, and sought to perpetuate many of the stiring and eventful incidents in their national affairs by such rude images and emblems painted thereon as characterise the first efforts of a savage and unlettered people in making up their records and annals.

"Time has not yet obliterated every trace of them. There are now to be seen here and there upon the painted face of the rock, protected by an overhanging bough from the sun and rain, variegated spots almost indistinct but plainly evident of what they have been.

"There are yet living hereabouts many who distinctly remember to have seen traced thereon crude outlines of men and boats, and can well recollect that at certain seasons for several years in succession the colors were much brighter, as if at times they had been retouched and freshened by some wandering descendant of the tribes, who were anxious to snatch from oblivion these fleeting and transitory recollections of his fathers."

Painted RocksHi Res Image (44K)

If one can sift through the flowery 19th century oratory, one can see that Belding confirms, in 1836, that there were only fragments of paint left on the rocks - "variegated spots almost indistinct". Several of Grider's informants, in 1888, would have been infants or tiny children in 1836, and yet they describe in some detail the assemblage of easily seen figures that Grider records in his paintings (above). This suggests that the pictographs were again "refreshed" after 1836, when Belding reports they are nearly invisible.

While Belding suggests this repainting was done at the hands of Native descendants of the original artists, Kehoo suggests it was boatmen who continued the tradition.

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