In the days of their supremacy along the upper Hudson and Housatonic Rivers the Mohicans lived in palisaded hilltop villages, each averaging about two hundred individuals. Their riverine location had at least two advantages: one was the ease of travel by water compared to traversing the dense northeastern forests, the other was the abundance of food provided by water mammals, fowl and, especially, fish and shellfish.
In the spring, great schools of herring, shad and salmon came up the rivers and their tributaries to spawn. Then, and during the summer while the women planted and tended their gardens, the men were busy on the water in dugouts and bark canoes spearing fish and searching for mussel beds. In the smaller streams they built ingenious fish weirs.
The fish spears were made so as to hold the slippery prey once it was impaled. Side blades were, in effect, on springs that opened to receive the fish from the force of the hunter’s thrust and then hold tight as the claws of an osprey, which might have been their prototype.
Weirs were made in a variety of forms. They consisted of walls of stone or close‐set stakes across the stream arranged so that fish moving upstream would have to enter a narrow opening. A funnel shape made entry easy and escape difficult. Behind the entrance was a compound or series of chambers where the fish could be concentrated and easily speared or even caught by hand or in baskets. They would enter the weir in their desperate urge to go upstream to spawn, or they could be driven upstream by hunters wading in the shallow water.
Bone fish hooks were made by the Northeastern Indians but these were used primarily for catching the really large fish in Long Island Sound or the Atlantic.
The fish, sliced thin, were smoked over slow fires. The smoking added to the flavor and, combined with the drying, preserved the meat for winter food supply. Mussels (freshwater clams) were threaded on long strings and smoked and dried the same way. Thus skill and inventiveness transformed the teeming life in the Mohicans’ river environment into an important part of their sustenance over the long winter.
David P. McAllester (1916‐2006), a one‐sixty‐fourth Narragansett, was a Navaho scholar and professor of anthropology and music at Wesleyan University. Living in Monterey, Mass., he wrote Indian Notes for the monthly Monterey News from 1981 to 1994. This essay originally appeared in the newsletter October 1984.