November 24, 2009
To close out Native American Heritage Month I thought a post about the community of Mohawk Indians that lived in Brooklyn would be in order. For more than three decades, starting in the 1920s, the Mohawk Indians from the Kahnawake reservation near Montreal, Canada, made the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn their home away from home. This close knit community grew and prospered and left their stamp on Brooklyn, as well as on the skyline of New York. At a time when New York was being transformed, skyscraper after skyscraper, Mohawk men began making the journey from Kahnawake to New York, looking for work on steel constructions as riveters and iron workers. The building boom created many of the city's most famous landmarks -- the old Yankee Stadium (1923), The Empire State Building (1930), The George Washington Bridge (1937) -- and the Mohawk played a crucial part in the creation of these buildings.
VICTORIA BRIDGE, MONTREAL CANADA
The story of the Mohawk's relationship with steel and, eventually, with Brooklyn, has it's beginning in the mid 1800's with the construction of the Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River. The bridge's north abutment needed to be constructed on Mohawk land. To secure the rights to build there, the railway agreed to hire several Mohawk Indians as unskilled laborers to work on the tubular structure made of riveted iron plates. According to company history, an executive viewed several young Mohawk walking along a high ledge. Being in dire need of men who would not be afraid of heights, he decided to train the Mohawk laborers in steel construction and riveting. The skills learned were passed through the family, with fathers teaching their sons, nephews and cousins. As more and more Mohawk learned the trade, their reputation as excellent ironworkers grew. These skills were in great demand, and at the bridge's completion they began to search for other construction opportunities. They found them throughout Canada and the U.S., and by the 1920's the Mohawk Indians were recognized as experienced steelworkers. In spite of the depression, this period saw a building boom in New York City, and the Mohawk from Kahnawake were ready to make the most of it.
The Mohawk trek to Brooklyn for construction work was steady, but the men did not stay in place very long. They stayed mainly in rooming houses then went back to Canada at the end of a job. This changed in 1926 when Paul Diabo, a Mohawk iron worker, was arrested in Philadelphia on charges of being an illegal alien. The U.S. government argued that he was in the country illegally and was not eligable to work. His defense team used the 1812 The Treaty of Ghent which states that all rights and privileges lost during the War of 1812 be restored to Native Americans, including the right to travel freely from Canada and the U.S., and that the Mohawk were recognized as a separate nation irrespective of the U.S. and Canada. His victory in this court case meant that the Mohawk were free to travel and work in the two countries without fear of harrassment. The ironworkers could bring their wives and families with them and settle within a community. New York in the early thirties offered many opportunities for these men, and they began to migrate from Canada in greater numbers. From October to June they lived in what is now the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. Bounded by Court Street, Douglas Street, 4th Avenue and State Street, "Little Caughnawaga" became the home of the largest group of Mohawk outside Canada.
As the building boom continued, the Mohawk community grew and prospered. The Wigwam bar on Nevins St (formerly Conelly's Abbey Bar) and the Spar on Atlantic, became popular community centers. In these establishments the men exchanged information about jobs, arranged trips to Canada, and passed on the news from back home. Children attended P.S. 47 and Nathan Hale Junior High. Churches attended by community members included St. Paul's Church and, most notably, The Cuyler Presbyterian Church. This church, located at 360 Pacific Street, was frequented by many in the Mohawk community. The Reverend David Cory, to show his acceptance and respect for the newcomers, learned the Iroquois language and held sermons in Iroquois on Sunday evenings once a month. Along with Mohawk parishioners he also translated a hymnal and held afterschool classes on the Iroquois language.
The late 50's saw the number of Mohawk in Brooklyn reach an estimated 500-700 people. But the building boom was also coming to an end, and with it jobs in the construction industry. The Mohawk men began to look for work elsewhere in the States and Canada. By the 70's little remained of "Little Caughnawaga." The Cuyler Presbyterian church is now a private residence, and The Wigman and the Spar are gone. But memory of the Mohawk's sojourn in Brooklyn lives on in the iconic buildings and structures that define New York today.
" A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true. We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better. We also have the experience of the old timers to follow and the responsibility to lead the younger guys. There’s pride in walking iron." —Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais (Mohawk, Kahnawake)
A partial list of structures built with the help of the Mohawk
Yankee Stadium 1923
Chrysler Building 1928
Empire State Building 1930
Waldorf Astoria 1931
George Washington Bridge 1937
Triborough Bridge 1937
Rockefeller Center 1940s
United Nations 1947
On November 2, 2009 PBS premiered To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey by Reaghan Tarbell. Check your local PBS station's schedule for repeat showings. The Smithsonian Institution has a traveling exhibit on the Mohawk steelworkers. A signed copy of David M. Cory's book, Within Two Worlds (New York: Friendship Press, 1955) can be found in the Brooklyn Collection.
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