The "Painted Rocks" of the Mohawk: Conclusions?

Canadian pictograph

We have compiled lots of information on this site, from traveler's journals collected by the State Museum, interviews conducted by Rufus Grider, and the observations of visitors to the site at various time in the past.

We have also discovered a fair amount of contradiction in those accounts; some describing the paintings as patches, some as a canoe with seven warriors, some as two canoes and a line of Indians, and others not seeing any painting on the rock at all.

If we tabulate these reports, we find the following:


One would be tempted to say there had been one type of pictograph present in the 1790s and up to about 1820, and then another, more elaborate painting from around the 1830s to perhaps the 1860s, when all trace of the pictures vanished.

And we would see in the accounts ample evidence that the images were repainted or refreshed throughout this period; and perhaps re-interpreted as they were repainted.

We don't really know if a water-soluble Native pigment made from ground stone was used, which would quickly weather away, or some form of grease paint. Perhaps it was even a modern oil based paint, which would have a greater life span on an exposed rock face. If the designs were refreshed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is likely the latter, especially if done by boatmen.

The transient nature of Indian rock painting in the American Northeast provides few examples to be observed, recorded and compared in modern times. The most accurately depicted Native pictograph in New York State was photographed in the 1920s on a rock face in St. Lawrence County, at Black Lake near Cedars. Published in a State Museum Bulletin in 1922, the photograph of this pictograph was tinted for publication to show the areas of painting (below).

Parker 1922 photo

The rock face closely resembles that of the Painted Rocks at Amsterdam in scale and texture, and one can see in this case how easily these surviving remnants could be mis-interpreted.

A much earlier report, published by the State Regents in 1851, provides glimpses of three pictographs, along the St. Lawrence River, that more closely resemble those at Amsterdam, both in design and in situation.

The one at Oak Point (above) was located on a rock face on the river bank in a situation nearly identical to that at the Painted Rocks on the Mohawk and is interpreted to show a canoe with 35 persons in it, and a cross. (Click on image for closer look.)

The other two (below), on a rock face opposite the village of Morristown, were observed about three feet above the water surface and about 800 feet apart, executed in red and standing about a foot tall. (The pictographic portion of the published images from 1851 have been colored here for emphasis.)

Hough 1851 1Hough 1851 2

Whether the pictures at Amsterdam were repainted by Native artists or by curious boatmen, the apparent difference of opinion as to what they represented was probably rooted in the observer more than the pictograph. If we look at a typical pictograph recorded on a rock face in Ontario (see top of this page) we can perhaps imagine what the average observer saw at Amsterdam - a design nearly weathered away and open to interpretation, with what appears to be a refreshed image of a later date stuck on beside it.

It is more than likely that Grider's drawings of 1887 capture some terminal phase of a process that might have gone on for many decades during which images were drawn, weathered nearly away, interpreted and redrawn, perhaps added to, and later redrawn again.

What must not be missed in all of this is that this outcrop of rock represents more than the location of a lost bit of early and perhaps Native art. It is a book - a place where people recorded their history using the tools and methods that they had at their disposal in ways in which they were accustomed. It is truly a place of history - for history is the act of committing the events of one's experience to written form so that they will be remembered.

At this site - The Painted Rocks of the Mohawk - the words may have washed away, but the pages remain. And thanks to the efforts of Rufus Grider, a century ago, this place will be remembered.


Top of Page
Next Page
Painted Rocks Home