Hike to the Longhouse

Our hike begins at the sundial on Jean Pauley Drive, 150 yards past the front  gate of the Workshop property. Look down the road toward the Pole building, but the building is hidden by vegetation from this vantage point. What is clearly visible, however, is a steep slope called the Helderberg Escarpment. It is mostly covered in trees, but if you look closely at the top of the cliff you can see some exposed rock.

Here’s a fun fact. The Helderberg Escarpment is a world- famous geological landmark. It was a “go to” place for the world’s preeminent geologists in the early 1800s. There is a plaque near the Thatcher Park Visitors Center that commemorates their visits and lists their names. The inscription reads:

“In memory of those pioneer geologists whose researches in the Helderbergs from 1819 to 1850 made this region classic ground.”

It is still a “go to” place for contemporary geologists. Some, like the woman in this picture, were inspired to become geologists by the rocks and fossils they found as children while taking classes at the Heldeberg Workshop!

But let’s talk about what makes the Helderberg Escarpment so special. “Helderberg” is a Dutch name that means “clear mountain.” If you were on the top of the escarpment on a clear day and looked clockwise from left to right, you might get a panoramic view of four mountain chains: the Adirondacks, Taconics, Berkshires and Green Mountains. The lookout point at Thatcher Park is an ideal place to experience this fantastic vista. And if you want to learn about Thatcher Park, watch the PBS documentary: The Great Ledge.

The exposed escarpment at the Workshop is part of a vertical stretch of sedimentary rock that was laid down as waters flowed and ebbed over the last 500 million years. It is essentially the shore of an ancient sea. Creatures died, settled, and were fossilized in the sediments at different times. The rock that makes up the escarpment is rich in fossils like tentaculites, brachiopods, trilobites, and crinoid stems. See the picture below for drawings of some of these fossils.

The oldest rocks and fossils lie at the base of the escarpment, with later deposits laid down on top of each previous one like a many-layered cake. The escarpment is like a time capsule waiting to be read by geologists and paleontologists alike. And by the curious children at the Workshop as well.

Here’s some pictures of rock collected at the Heldeberg Workshop. Can you identify any fossils found here? If you want to learn more about this, take the Rocks and Fossils class!

Here’s a fun fact.  Geologists have determined that the Heldeberg Escarpment was once 30° south of the equator! We will talk more about this mind-boggling fact in a future virtual Geology walk.

Before we move on, take a moment to reflect on how much history is preserved in this rock. Let yourself be a little awestruck by the vast age of the planet we live upon. While the 500 million years of rock we see at the escarpment represent a very long time period, scientists think that life has existed on Earth 7 times longer than that! The oldest fossils are at least 3,500 million years old! It almost seems like a miracle that we are alive at this time and place in history, don’t you think?

Let us move forward in time, though, to when humans first inhabited the Workshop Land. Bring your imagination with you as we walk westward from the sundial to the start of a deer trail that may have been used by Native Americans. This deer trail will be part of the future Yellow Trail system, and is marked by an arrow in the picture below.

We are startled to see, just ahead, a Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) saunter slowly across the trail and amble up a Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) tree.

Porcupines are solitary animals that are mostly active at night. We are very lucky to see one during the day! The upper body and tail of a porcupine has thousands of white-tipped sharp quills, that can be a formidable weapon. Can you see them in this picture? It is hard to believe that these sharp quills are derived from hair. When threatened, porcupines can swing their tails and drive the quills into an opponent. Ouch! Porcupines mostly live in trees. They feed upon leaves and the inner bark with their strong incisor teeth.

Here’s a fun factWhile we don’t normally eat porcupines, Native Americans did. Proof of that lies in the bones that archeologists have excavated from Indian sites. Hmm, what do think it tasted like? But the porcupine quills were prized even more than the meat! They were used to create jewelry and to decorate clothing. This is in keeping with the Native American philosophy of using all parts of an animal, and wasting nothing. This pair of Iroquois buckskin moccasins from 1850 are decorated with glass beads and porcupine quills. Do you think your shoes will hold up as well in 150 years? These moccasins are part of the Native American collection at the New York State Museum!

Seneca Moccasins, circa 1850. Image Courtesy of the New York State Museum.

Our porcupine moves out of sight, so we continue down the path. As we walk, let’s talk a little bit about the people who may have traveled this trail in the past.

Modern human beings (Homo sapiens) have occupied this area for thousands of years. They were descendants of peoples who walked across a land bridge that existed in the region of the Bering strait (marked with a black arrow on the picture below) between 30,000 to 16,000 years ago. Many multiple family groups likely migrated from the Old World to the New World over that 14,000-year period.

Map of human migration. Image courtesy of Wikipedia commons.

As time passed, various peoples traveled southward and eastward in North and South America. By 13,000 years ago, the first human beings made their way into New York State.

I wonder what life was like at that time! If you visit the New York State Museum, you can see a diorama depicting Ice Age caribou hunters in the Hudson Valley, 13-12,000 years ago.

Ice Age Hunters in the Hudson Valley, 13-12,000 years ago. Image courtesy of the New York State Museum.

Over time many different groups of Native Americans settled in New York State. You may be surprised to learn that today there are 8 federally recognized tribes in New York. Look at the map below to see the names of some of these tribes.

Map of Native Americans of New York State. Image courtesy of the Iroquois Museum.

And many different Native Americans lived and traveled into the Helderbergs, at different times, in the past. Archeologists and area farmers have unearthed many artifacts like stone and flint tools, pottery and carved
objects. This is evidence that people of another time and culture once lived or hunted here.

By 1600, when the first Dutch settlers arrived, the Iroquois were the dominant group in this area. These Native Americans occupied a vast swath of land that extended from the Adirondacks to western New York. They were organized into a Confederacy that was originally made up of Five Nations: the Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. You may recognize these Native Americans in the names of many towns and rivers in upstate New York.

The Mohawk Nation lived in the Mohawk Valley and is the most easterly of all the Iroquois. It was called the “Keeper of the Eastern Door.” The Oneida Nation lived around Oneida Lake in Central New York. The Onondaga Nation lived around Onondaga County. Onondaga is the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Onondagas held the important role of “Keepers of the Central Council Fire and Wampum“. The Seneca nation lived between the Genesee River and Canandaigua Lake. They were known as the “Keepers of the Western Door” because they lived west of all the other Iroquois nations. Can you find the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy on the map of Native Americans of New York State?

The Iroquois called themselves “Haudenosaunee” which means “People of the Longhouse.” If you visit the New York State Museum you can see a detailed model of a Mohawk Indian village, including a longhouse, as it may have appeared 400 years ago.

Model of a Mohawk Iroquois Village. Image Courtesy of the New York State Museum.

Longhouses are long, narrow houses that often contained many Iroquois families. As families grew, additions were added to one end. Excavations have shown them to be as much as 120 feet long!

Below is a picture of a diorama at the New York State Museum showing how the Mohawk Iroquois built a longhouse about 400 years ago.

Diorama of Mohawk Iroquois Longhouse. Image Courtesy of the New York State Museum.

Wouldn’t it be fun to build your own longhouse? The New York State Museum has instructions for you to make one! Click here, if you would like to access these instructions.

Well, the Heldeberg Workshop wanted a longhouse, too. So, in June of 1992, we built one! Wendy Barcomb, a Board Member and architect, talked to area experts at U Albany and the New York State Museum to get advice about how to do this. Here is a picture of some of her original plans:

Wendy designed a longhouse made of young Black Locust trees that could be bent to form the arched roof. The Workshop’s longhouse is half the size of the one at the New York State Museum. It is 20 feet long, 10 feet high and 10 feet wide. Many volunteers helped to build the longhouse.

And the longhouse has been used by hundreds of children since it was first built. And just ahead we see signs that we have reached our destination.

And here is the longhouse, as it looks today!

It is nestled in a beautiful wooded area of the Workshop. The totem, or special animal protector, of our longhouse is the deer. This is because while Woodland Indian students first gathered at the longhouse listening to a story, a doe and two fawns came into the area. They did not run off, but just stood there. It was as if these deer wanted the children to be there.

Today we are greeted by Standing Woman, a Native American who has taught at the Workshop for many years.

She teaches the children about the principles that govern the Iroquois worldview.

      • Respect nature
      • Respect each other
      • Do not be wasteful
      • Practice gratitude

Here are some of the objects, clothing, and musical instruments that Standing Woman shares with the children. Can you identify any animals or plants that were used to make these objects? Here’s a hint: turtle, deer, mink, buffalo, mollusks, porcupine, squash, trees.

The turtle has special significance to the Iroquois people and features prominently in the story they tell to explain the origin of the world. Click here to learn more about their creation story.

I hope you have enjoyed your hike to the longhouse. Perhaps it gave you a deeper sense of the passage of time, and the special place you, yourself, hold in history.

Many thanks or nia:wen(“thank you” in the Mohawk language) to the volunteers who helped to build the longhouse: Wendy, Earl and Dan Barcomb, William Morrison, Diane and AJ Betzwieser, Alvin and Sharon Breisch, Jean Gawalt, Michael and Dorothy Matthews.\


The Heldeberg Workshop is registered with the IRS as a charitable organization under section 501(c)(3) and therefore can receive tax-deductible donations.

Thank you