The First Families of Akwesasne

by Darren Bonaparte

(Originally published in The People's Voice April 15, 2005)

    19th century historians who wrote about the early years of Akwesasne and the St. Regis mission always mention the story of the Tarbell captives.  They were two English boys from Groton, Massachusetts, captured and adopted as children by the Kahnawake Mohawks, and who were among the first to permanently settle this community.  Drawing from local oral tradition, these accounts vary in detail. In 1890, Stephen Olin Sherman of Boston published a more definitive account where we find the following:

In the whole range of fiction there is nothing more pathetic, more romantic, or more thrilling than the experiences of the Tarbell children in their captivity. In this case it can indeed be said that truth is stranger than fiction. Zechariah, John and Sarah were children of Thomas and Elizabeth (Wood) Tarbell, who, with a large family, lived in Groton.
    Sarah was at that time nearly 14 years of age, John was a stalwart lad of 12, and Zechariah was seven. Early in the evening of June 20, 1707, old style, a date that by the new style would be somewhat later in the season, they had returned to the house after a day of rare sport in the meadows. As they were about to enter the house, they thought of the cherries which were beginning to ripen, and full of anticipations of enjoying the red and luscious fruit, ran to a cherry tree, climbed it, and at once began to eat the cherries. As they were thus engaged they looked down and were horrified to see that the tree was surrounded by Indians, who made signs for them to come down at once. Too frightened to refuse, and knowing that an outcry would result in instant death with the tomahawks which were threateningly brandished beneath them, they descended and were led off into the woods, the little girl never to see her friends or home again, and the boys not until they had grown to manhood, so changed that they could recall none of their early associations when the memories of their childhood days were obliterated and forgotten, and all of its tender ties forever sundered.

    After a grueling journey through the wilderness, the three were eventually brought to Canada.  Sarah was sold to a prominent French family and later entered a convent in Lachine.  The boys were adopted by the Kahnawake Mohawks.

    As a preliminary step to their adoption by the tribe, the boys were compelled to run the gauntlet, and after their recovery from its effects they were placed in the hands of an old squaw, who pulled their hair out until only a small knot remained on top of the crown. This knot was then adorned with feathers and dressed in the Indian fashion, while their noses and ears were bored and jewelled, and they were attired in garments made of skins of wild beasts. Paint was smeared upon their bodies, a belt of wampum was hung around their necks, and they were led to the river and washed by two young squaws, who told them that this custom signified that they had ceased to be white men, and would thereafter be Indians. Regaining the bank they donned their Indian garments, their heads were again painted, and they were conducted in silence to the Council House of the tribe by Taxous. Entering, they were seated, and a pipe, tomahawk and a flint and steel were placed in their hands. The members of the tribe in full war paint, and with weapons in hand, then entered, and forming in a circle around them, were also seated. Then the council fires of the tribe were started, and the Indians remained for a long time silent. At last a pipe was lighted, passed to Taxous, by him to the boys, and then to each member of the tribe in turn. Taxous then told the boys that they had been adopted by the tribe, and would be their own flesh and blood. A feast of boiled venison and corn followed, and ended in debauch which was continued for several days, and nearly resulted in an outbreak.
    As the boys grew older guns were placed in their hands, and they were taught how to track and shoot the bear, the deer, and the raccoon, how to hunt with the bow and arrow, how to snare their game and how to fish. Later they were taught to fight, and proving apt scholars, soon not only mastered, but became experts in all branches of woodcraft. Upon their adoption by the tribe the boys assumed Indian names, but also retained their English name Tarbell. As they reached manhood they married daughters of Sakonentsiask and Atawenta, chiefs of the tribe, and became themselves chiefs. More intelligent, more enterprising, and more successful in their undertakings than the other chiefs who became envious of them, it was foreseen that the rivalry would eventually lead to trouble, and acting upon the advice of a priest, the Tarbells in the year 1760 took their wives, and their wives’ parents, and set out to establish a new home for themselves in the trackless forest. Coasting along up the St. Lawrence in canoes, they finally reached the lovely spot where St. Regis now stands, and there established their home, founding what is now the village of St Regis.

    In 1739, the two brothers returned to Groton to visit their kin.  Like Eunice Williams before them, they resisted the many efforts to “redeem” them by their English relatives. As Mr. Sherman writes,

…They were dressed as Indian chiefs, were in full war paint, had only an indistinct recollection of the people and the place, and to all intents and purposes were as utter strangers, as though they had never been there before. They expressed no desire to come back…

    Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson mentioned them in his book, History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (1764-1828).

I saw at Albany two or three men in the year l744 who came in with the Indians to trade and who had been taken at Groton in this, that is called Queen Anne’s War. One of them, Tarball was said to be one of the wealthiest of the Cagnawaga Tribe. He made a visit in his Indian dress, and with his Indian complexion (for by means of grease and paints but little difference could be discerned) to his relations at Groton but had no inclination to remain there…

    The story of the Tarbells is of course well remembered at Akwesasne, where the Tarbells remain one of the largest families.  There are so many Tarbells, it is said, that many of them have changed their last names over the years, so that there are actually more Tarbells than at first appears.  But beyond oral traditions, there is confirmation of the Tarbell story in the existing written record of our people…specifically, in the papers of Loran Kanonsase Pyke, the patriarch of Akwesasne’s Pyke family.
    Kanonsase was the clerk for the old life chief council back in the days of Jake Ice and Jake Fire, more than a century ago.  When he retired, he made his own personal copy of numerous official documents, along with items of a more personal nature, in an old railway ledger book that he kept with him as a personal memento of his career.  This ledger book was found among a sizeable collection of original documents that have been preserved by his descendents since his death.  
    Almost all of the documents in this extraordinary collection are in Mohawk.  One pertains to the era of Akwesasne’s founding, and thus is of value to our current discussion.  It comes to us in the form of a list of the first families to settle Akwesasne, along with their clans.  Two Mohawk elders assisted with translations.  With the Pyke family’s permission, I will quote from this document below.

    Ioserashetas 1759 Ethononwe Shiioserate nihoti ne akwesasne
    [That year 1759 is the time they got here to Akwesasne]

    Neratihontene Kentho rati Sennare
    [The first ones to get here, here are their names written]

    1. Kanonwatase, Tsiwa Awatsiseratatie--Swasen Satewennoten--rokwao
    2. Sawatis Sakosennakete raowatsira--Sak Anentiontha--roneniotronon
    3. Orite raowatsira, Wishe Katsierawen--raniaten
    4.  Tekasetoken, raowatsira--Sose Atsieweia--rokwao
    5.  Atienkwaronni--raowatsirake--Onwari Karakwines--osennakete
    6.  Saksarie Atawentha--raowatsira--Sawatis Atsitsiaks--raniaten
    7.  Okthires raowatsira--Tier Karakwiio--ronesiio
    8.  Karekohe--raowatsira Atonwa Tionatakwente--rokwao
    9.  Atawakhon--raowatsira Saro Soionwise--raneniotronon

    Later in the document it is specified that Kanonwatase, Orite, Atienkwaronni,  and Karekohe were the rotiianen, a designation for “chief” that refers to their good character.  The 8th in the list, Karekohe, is probably Peter Tarbell, the son of the captive Zechariah Tarbell, who may be the Saksarie Atawentha that appears in the list.  In Mr. Sherman’s account, it is stated that the Tarbell boys married the daughters of two chiefs named Atawenta and Sakonentsiask.  Atawentha is given in the document above as Zechariah’s Mohawk name.   
    It is interesting to note that Peter Tarbell’s Mohawk name, Karekohe, eventually became what appears to be a “title name” for the life chiefs. They use it repeatedly in petitions of the late 1800’s.   Could one of our founders have been memorialized here in Akwesasne, just as the Iroquois memorialized the founders of the Five Nations confederacy by passing their names on to their successors?  
    If that is the case, the traditions of Akwesasne seem to confirm the prominent place the Tarbells had in our founding, although they were certainly not the only founders.  Kanonsase’s document mentions also that the Wolf (rokwao), Deer (roneniotronon), Turtle (raniaten), Snipe (ronesiio) and “Name-Carrier” (osennakete) clans were represented.  On the back of the document, there is also confirmation of their “Kahnawake” origins:

    Ne ne saon nakerate nakwesasne Caugnawake nithonenon
    [The first ones to live here in Akwesasne came from Kahnawake]

    If this document’s contents and it’s 1759 date is correct, it places the arrival of the “first” people at least four years after the St. Regis Mission’s known founding date of 1755, but a year before the date Mr. Sherman gives for their migration, 1760.  Does this mean that there were only missionaries living here until then, or that native occupation was somewhat impermanent until 1759?  Considering that there was a war going on at the time, Akwesasne’s proximity to the theater of operations--and the presence of military fortifications--may have diminished its potential as a place where one would want to settle the wife and kids…at least at first.
    “There is a Jesuit Mission there where some of the Iroquois have started to come,” wrote a French officer in 1756, a year after the mission’s establishment.  “Warriors from St. Regis” were also mentioned at various engagements throughout the war.  It may have simply been a staging area for “war parties” than an actual settlement for our people until 1759.  
    Personally, I see much more value in the names and the clans listed on the document than in the date attached to it.  We really don’t know the context of the original document, or if it even existed.  We do know that the records of the mission were burned sometime around 1762, but many of these names probably do occur in later entries.
    I also like this document because it counters the notion that if you are of the Snipe or Deer clan in Akwesasne, you could only have come here from Oswegatchie!

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