Much of what we know of Ots-Toch is third-hand accounts. A Mohawk woman born in the village at Canajahorie, her birth was not written in official records, and most of what is known about her birth is in context of her life.
Ots-Toch was born to a woman who in her own right was something of a legend. She was known as the Queen of Hog Island, and the Europeans would often refer to her as a “princess”. Of course, Native tribes did not have these types of distinctions within their own culture, but the Europeans often romanticized and labelled such figures in the history books in terms they could understand. In reality, Ots-Toch’s mother was likely the daughter of the Chief at the Great Castle at Canajahorie. Even the label “Castle” was a misnomer – the Mohawks at Canajahorie built their towns with great defensive palisaides – perhaps giving the impression or look of a European castle.
Ots-Toch and her sister, Kenutje, were said to have been fathered by a well-known French trader, Jacques Hertel. Hertel travelled to the Mohawk valley around 1620. It’s believed that he romanced the Princess and fathered the two girls. Some historians contend that Ots-Toch and her sister were actually full-blooded Mohawk, but many historical descriptions of the sisters, along with some of the decisions they made in their lives lend to the theory that they were half-white, fathered by Hertel.
Hertel was drawn to the valley in pursuit of trapping and work as an interpreter. When the Kirk brothers regained control in the north, he returned to New France, leaving his Mohawk wife and two daughters behind. They stayed with their family in the “Mohawk Castle”, at Canajahorie – placed on an Island in the Mohawk River at Schenectady.
During this time period, the Dutch traders and settlers were beginning to move into the area in greater numbers. Other Europeans were also travelling through, one of these being Nelson Greene. Nelson wrote The History of Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1625, and wrote this comment about Ots-Toch and her sister, Kentutje.
“Ots Toch was wild and savage like her mother, while Kentutje was small and handsome and very white like her father, Hartell.”
Some sources cite Ots-Toch’s birth date as 1620, however, nobody knows for certain if this date is accurate.
A Dutch carpenter by the name of Cornelius Van Slyck arrived in the New World at 30 years old looking for adventure. He became an interpreter for the Mohawk Nation, and was even adopted into the tribe and considered family. It’s no surprise then, that this is where he met the fiery Ots-Toch. Cornelius engaged in fur trading and had gained much recognition among the Indians, he would have been a good match for the Mohawk woman.
After the marriage, Ots-Toch and Cornelius settled down in the village at Canajahorie. There, they had five children together. All of their children were well known and respected in the Dutch community. All except one left the village and married Dutch settlers.
Their first son was Itsychosaquachka, or Jacques Cornelius Van Slyck. He, like his father, was an interpreter for the Mohawks. It was actually to him that Van Slyck’s Island was given to by the Mohawks.
Their second child was Marten Maurice. Raised in the village, he lived amongs the Natives as an interpreter, and was involved in several important historical events in that role. He witnessed a deed of sale at Schenectady, and he inherited Hog Island from his Mother. He died in 1662.
Cornelius, the third child of Ots-Toch and Cornelius was born in 1643, and unfortunately died only a few short years later in 1649.
Alice, also known as Hilletje, was the fourth child and first daughter of Ots-Toch and Corenlius, and went on to eclipse her mother in the history books. She was a devoted Christian, but raised among the Mohawks. Ots-Toch was not a fan of religion, and let her daughter know how she felt about her Christian beliefs. She was educated at Albany and Schenectady and acted as an interpreter. She later married a man named Peter Danielse Van Olinda and acted as a Mohawk interpreter for the government at $50/year salary. Hilletje also continued to grow her Christian faith, and when a new Church leader arrived in the Albany Church, she was ready to help him convert her people. Prior to her involvement, no converts to Christianity had been successfully made, even after 70 years of attempts by the Dutch to do so. With Hilletje’s help, many Natives joins the Christian church. In his Journals, Jasper Danckaerts talks much about Hilletje’s life and devotion to her beliefs.
Leah, the youngest daughter, followed in the footsteps of her older siblings and also became an interpreter. She gave aid to many of the early missionaries in the area, as well as settlers newly
arriving to the country. She often served as the official interpreter at Indian Conferences at Fort Orange. Her signature can be found on many deeds in the area from this time period as she witnessed these transactions.
Ots-Toch and Cornelius lived at Beverwyck, New York for some time, but moved back to the “Indian Castle” at Canajahorie. Her death date is unknown, and it’s said by stories and legend that she is buried on Van Slyck Island, now known as Hog Island. Cornelius passed away in 1676. His grave is under an old willow at the eastern point of the Island.
One particularly interesting legend involves a song, attributed to Ots-Toch and passed down through the generations of the family. The true authorship of the song is not certain, and given the stories of Ots-Toch’s disdain for religion from her daughter, Hilletje, it’s no more clear.
O’er the dark woods and forest wild
My father in his wild nature smiled
with tomahawk and bended bow
to slay the reindeer and buffalo
My brother in his bark canoe
across the lake so gaily flew
to catch the whitefish in the lake
and shoot the wild ducks in the brake
my mother in her wigwam sat
with copious work and curious chat
and I poor little Indian maid
with acorn shells and wildflowers played
and I beside my mother all day
to weave the splintered baskets gay
to pound the samp and tan the skins
and mend my fathers moccasins
I could not read, I could not sew
my Saviors name I did not know
till white man to the forest came
and taught poor Indian Jesus name
He built a church and school house near
with Holy hymns and wildwood cheer
Now I can read, now I can sew
My Saviors name I’m taught to know
Now my Redeemer I implore
God bless the white man forever more.”
The song is part of the legend and mystery that is Ots-Toch. Mohawk “Princess”, mother, and enigma. A woman of history, who’s family impacted history and passed on a legacy that still survives today.
See the References for this article here.