We learned in grade school about the Native Americans sharing seeds and agricultural knowledge with the Pilgrims. Just imagine, a Pilgrim had never seen corn, squash or beans, the “three sisters” plants cultivated and adapted by our continent’s first peoples. Later events, the broken land treaties, Trail of Tears and the expulsion of the Utes from our lovely valley, require us to look more closely at our own histories.
My father John Lawyer’s progenitors arrived in the U.S. in 1711. Johannes Lawyer and his wife Elisabeth, sailed to New York with their five children as refugees from the French Catholic war against the Rhineland Lutherans, the Palatines. Amongst history’s surprising twists is that a contingent of five Mohawk chiefs (part of the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois Confederacy) visiting London with British colonial officials, saw the sorry plight of the Palatine refugees living in tents in the cold London winter. The Mohawks gave them many thousands of acres along the Schoharie and Hudson Rivers. Queen Anne then paid the German refugees’ way to “her” new colony because she wanted Protestant settlers to grow crops to support her empire’s armed forces.
The Lawyer family, part of this contingent, after a few years in New York City, went to northern New York in 1718 and settled a village, Lawyersville, in the Schoharie Valley at present-day Cobleskill. Johannes Lawyer established a general store and traded with the local Haudenosaunee. He traded calico, rum, axes and other supplies for the beautifully-cured deer hides and furs the Haudenosaunee brought him. He was considered a fair man and served as the region’s town surveyor and founded the first Lutheran church. He died in 1762 but his children and grandchildren remained and built businesses, including a tavern and inn.
In school I learned that the Iroquois Confederacy of six tribes, including the Mohawks, had a formal agreement amongst themselves that was the basis of our American Constitution. The French gave the name “Iroquois,” meaning “snake,” to the Haudenosaunee. Perhaps this is because the Haudenosaunee mostly sided with the British in the French and Indian War in the 1850s. The French and British were fighting over who would control the Ohio Valley, truly the traditional homelands of the Haundenosaunee. The Europeans wanted to control the rich fur trade. It seems the Haudenosaunee were simply trying to preserve their own culture and territory and hoped to side with whomever would treat them best.
An astute Mohawk political leader and warrior was Thayendanegea, or Joseph Brant (March 1743 – Nov. 24, 1807). He was born into leadership in the Wolf Clan in Ohio but came to New York as a child with his mother when his father died. He was brought up in close connection to the British and Germans in the area and was educated at the Wheelock school for Indians in Connecticut, later conceived as Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He was considered quite brilliant and kind.
In 1778, the Mohawks joined forces with British loyalists and attacked and burned much of Cobleskill, including the Lawyer homes. Thayendanegea (Brant) led the ambush. The Lawyers wrote to the American Revolutionary forces for help and eventually received some financial aid. These complicated twists and turns of history are everywhere in our relationships with Native American peoples. People were trying on both sides to keep their families safe.
The Lawyers rebuilt and went on to be lawyers, judges and representatives to state and federal government. At least one grandson, Lambert, had slaves until New York ended slavery in 1827. I read this history during these tumultuous past few years and was chagrined to learn my ancestors owned slaves 200 year ago, grateful to the Haudenosaunee for helping our family and others with a gift of land and through trade.
Time has shown that the Native peoples of this continent did not continue to thrive with the steady influx of European settlers taking up land that had traditionally been native hunting and foraging grounds.
Since learning this family history, I have begun funding an equity and social justice endowed scholarship for Native Americans and African Americans at the State University of New York Cobleskill, where my ancestors got a strong foothold on the American dream. I feel I have participated in this country’s history and social inequities simply by being born white and the descendent of European colonists.
I mourn and regret the sorrow and horror that native peoples and the descendents of slaves have suffered for centuries and hope that if I can get enough money into the endowed scholarship it will, in the future, fund many Native American and African Americans to follow their education dreams. I have five years to grow the scholarship to endowment status. Anyone can contribute to the scholarship through the SUNY Cobleskill Education Foundation. The scholarship does not have my name, just Equity and Social Justice #1449. It is a tax-deductible donation and the university sends receipts.
Office of College Advancement
Knapp Hall, Room 228
Perhaps other readers have been searching for a way to support social justice for youth.