The "Painted Rocks" of the Mohawk: Earlier Eyewitness Accounts

1803 mapAmsterdam in 1803

When Rufus Grider undertook his archeological recreation of the Painted Rocks site in 1887, he was drawing on over 80 years of eyewitness documentation; collected from personal interviews with living informants and testimony preserved in the Amsterdam Recorder. He seemed to have exhausted the evidence; reaching as far back as the very opening years of the nineteenth century.

But there was no need to stop the search at 1820. In collecting primary documentation for the era of inland navigation that ended in 1820, but extended back in time to the end of the American Revolution, State Museum researchers uncovered even earlier references to this site.

Perhaps the best known early mention of the Painted Rocks is in Dewitt Clinton's 1810 journal, describing a journey by batteau westward along the Mohawk River from Schenectady. Part of his entry for July 5th of that year reads:

"About sixteen miles from Schenectady, we saw, on the left bank of the river, a curious specimen of Indian painting. On an elevated rock was painted a canoe, with seven warriors in it, to signify that they were proceeding on a war expedition. This was executed with red ochre, and has been there for upwards of half a century."

Clinton clearly indicates the pictograph was visible in 1810, which perhaps matches Belding's claim that although it was barely visible in 1836, it had been easily seen in previous years. Clinton also suggests the paintings had been there since about 1760. Interestingly, he does not claim that they were there earlier, and given the frequency of military and commercial batteau travel up and down the Mohawk in the first half of the 18th century, one might expect the existence of this landmark would be well known. Perhaps he was just quoting someone accompanying him whose recollection went back no further.

Grider's image

But Clinton's description of the pictograph does not match in any way the descriptions offered by Belding, or any of the informants interviewed by Grider in the 1880s. Instead of "...12 or 15 Indians, with two canoes, two Indians in each canoe, one at the bow the other at the stern, going west, other Indians on foot. A duck flying above eastward.",(above - from Grider), Clinton reports seeing only one canoe containing "seven warriors" (below - estimated; and also illustrated as conjecture in 1940 by Mohawk Valley amateur historian and archeologist Robert Hartley).

It is of interest to note that Belding (1836) does not report any particular design for the pictograph, only that patches of the paint could still be seen. It is the later informants, who probably were recalling the paintings as they looked in the 1840s, who described them in such detail to Grider. Could these men be describing a later verison of the pictograph - one perhaps even created in the nineteenth century?

One thing suggested here is that whatever comprised the original pictograph, and whenever it was seen, the images were sufficiently ambiguous as to render themselves open to a variety of diverse interpretations.

Going even further back in the record of eyewitness observations of the site, we find some confirmation of this idea of ambiguity of appearance, as well as another indication that the images were the product of various acts of "refreshing". Jeremy Belknap, traveling up the Mohawk Valley in 1796, reports his visit to the place:

"Stopped by the way at Miles's (formerly Guy Johnson's house); there met a Dr. Sweet, who fell into conversation, and offered to conduct us to the painted rock, which he said was about two miles down the river. Took him up in the carriage and rode with him two miles. Then he and I left the carriage to search for the rock. This ramble took up forty minutes, and I walked about two miles, partly through woods and partly through fields.

"The rock is on the north bank of the Mohawk, fifteen miles above Skenectada. It is a perpendicular ledge of limestone, with a pretty smooth surface and about twenty feet high. On the upper part - which is easily accessible, the laminae projecting in various places - appear the remains of some red paint, which has been in the same situation for eighteen or twenty years. Imagination may conceive the paint to resemble almost any thing; but judgement cannot decide without the help of testimony.

"The tradition is that it was painted by the Indians in memory of some canoes of Indians who went thence to war, and never returned; that the painting represented canoes and men in them; and that this painting is frequently renewed to preserve the memory of the event. Some add that the renewal is performed in the night, or by some invisible hand."

But while he reports these ideas as he has heard them, Belknap can find little in the site itself to support them:

"The fact is that there is a rock with some appearance of red paint, that the paint has been in some measure defended from the weather by a projection of the rock over it, and that the place is easily accessible by similar projections under it. This is all that can be said with any certainty."

He goes on to debunk the theory that the paintings are "refreshed" from time to time:

"As to the frequent renewal of the paint, &c., I was assured by Dr. Sweet that he had known it to be in the same condition as we saw it for eighteen years past; and a man whom we took as a pilot, who appeared to be about twenty-five years old, said it always looked just so since his remembrance." Jeremy Belknap, 1796

But the story does not stop here. Three years earlier, in the autumn of 1793, three French explorers navigated up the Mohawk River to locate lands to the northwest that would serve as a pioneer settlement for refugees from the French Revolution.They kept detailed and accurate journals of the entire expedition, and as they passed the future site of Amsterdam on October 4th they made the following entry in their journal:

"At nine o'clock we observed on the right a long bank of calcareous rock almost perpendicular, like the walls of a fortress, and in large courses perfectly level. Our boatmen insisted, according to their traditions, that some of these walls were built by the Spaniards more than two hundred years ago.

"This popular error originated in the striking resemblance of this precipice to a wall of cut stone. Some lime kilns which we saw a little further beyond convinced us still more of the character of this rock."

lime kilnsThe lime kilns at Amsterdam, 1803.

The mention of the lime kilns (see map at top of this page) and the fact that no other rock walls exist between Schenectady and Amsterdam, leave no doubt that these men were observing the outcrop later to be known as the Painted Rocks. And yet, while they take observation of the rocks in some detail, they make no mention of any paintings on them, nor do their boatmen refer to any.

Is this evidence that the paintings did not exist before 1796? No, it is not. By extraordinary good fortune we have another traveler's account, also from 1793, but this time recorded in May, several months before the French party passed by the rocks. On the 10th of that month, three boats heading west from Schenectady to Indian treaty negotiations in Ohio and carrying government representatives and Quaker observers, passed the spot:

In one boat was General Benjamin Lincoln, who noted as they passed:

"In our passage this day we observed a painted spot on a high rock on the margin of the river. From this place a number of Indians set off in their canoes to war; none however returned; this painting, which is often renewed by the Indians, is continued to preserve from oblivion the important event."

Indian warriors

In his statement, Lincoln establishes the story echoed three years later by Jeremy Belknap; that this was a memorial for warriors who never returned. But he fails to provide very much detail as to the appearance of the paintings.

This is remedied by one of the passengers in another of the three boats in the 1793 expedition, a Quaker who observed:

"This day we passed a rock projecting out of the bank of the river, whereon was painted, with great ingenity, in red colours, a canoe with the representation of seven men in it. Which is said to be done annually, by Indians, coming several hundred miles for that purpose, in order to commemorate the slaughter of seven Indians, who went off from that neighborhood in some former years, and were all destroyed." Jacob Lindley, May 1793.

So here we have confirmation of the pictograph, plainly visible in the spring of 1793, and seen to represent seven men in a single canoe, just as described by Clinton seventeen years later, in 1810. And here we also have the earliest mention of the tradition that the pictograph was frequently repainted.

It remains for other researchers to locate earlier eyewitness accounts of this unique feature on the north bank of the river. And it remains for us to decide whether we are dealing with one pictograph or two; the first done in the late eighteenth century, the other done in the mid-nineteenth century. Or is it simply a case of the later misinterpretation of the details of the original painting as time weakened it and, perhaps, others elaborated on it.


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