The history of the peopling of New York begins around 5000 b.c.e. Around this time, native peoples of the Paleolithic Age lived in a region that today encompasses New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The cultures of the Iroquois and Algonquins, the two native groups encountered by the Europeans upon their arrival, date to the twelfth century.
Algonquian-speaking peoples lived along the coastal plain and river valley areas of New York. Their origins are uncertain, although archaeologists and ethnographers believe that some Algonquian languages are related to the Muskogean language family of the southeastern United States. Algonquianspeaking peoples were the first to meet Europeans, and many died because of European diseases, as well as in the English and Iroquoian conquest of their lands.
Most Algonquian-speaking peoples lived near bodies of water and survived by fishing and gathering plants. Those who lived in the coastal plain spoke dialects of Algonquian, which made communication among them possible. They built canoes to trade and communicate with other native peoples and also used walking trails to exchange furs, pottery, baskets, and food.
Iroquoian-speaking peoples were the other large Native American population at the time of the Europeans’ arrival. They lived in the lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley regions. Iroquoian-speaking peoples spoke distantly related languages within the Iroquoian language family. Around 1000 c.e., they established settlements along the St. Lawrence River Valley. Mainly, they hunted and gathered plants, but they also raised corn. In the fourteenth century, colder temperatures made it more difficult to grow maize. It also led to a scarcity of good farmland, as well as other natural resources, which, in turn, resulted in competition and frequent wars among the native peoples.
As for their political organization, Iroquoian-speaking peoples were more formally organized than Algonquian-speaking peoples. Iroquoian-speaking peoples organized village councils, which included a representative from each clan in the village. Archaeologists believe that the Five Nations which included the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk formed an alliance known as the Great League of Peace and Power at some time in the late fifteenth century. (In the early eighteenth century, the Tuscarora, a people from farther south, became the sixth nation to join the alliance.) The word peace in the league’s name referred to the importance of good relations between villagers and with outsiders, while power referred to the spiritual strength created by uniting the various villages, clans, and peoples. The Great League’s main body was the Grand Council. Headwomen from each clan chose the fifty male sachems who served on the council. The Grand Council maintained peace but was not a political body with a unified foreign policy or a central government.
After the arrival of the Europeans, the Iroquois quickly became the most powerful group of native peoples. In 1642, the Iroquois began a war with the Huron to the north and west. Since they had access to English firearms, which the Huron did not, they were soon victorious. By the late seventeenth century, the Five Nations had organized a confederacy to handle their diplomatic and military affairs. This organization formed a permanent alliance with the English under the leadership of Governor-General Sir Edmund Andros, an alliance known as the Covenant Chain, which the two parties agreed to in 1677. Yet, each group interpreted the meaning of the Covenant Chain differently. The Iroquois believed that it recognized Iroquoian autonomy. The English believed that it established their sovereignty over the Iroquois peoples, thus lessening concern that the Iroquois might form an alliance with the French.