A 300-year snapshot worth reading again

Review: “Adirondack: Of Indians and Mountains, 1535-1838” by Stephen B. Sulavik

Stephen B. Sulavik’s “Adirondack: Of Indians and Mountains, 1535-1838,” is not a new book — it was published in 2005. And it’s not an easy, quick read — even the book itself is heavy. But I go back to it frequently, educated by the research, grateful for charts and tables, and marveling at early maps, some from the 16th century, of the area we live in today.

Sulavik, a medical doctor who loved the Adirondacks and who passed away in 2015, was a meticulous researcher. He begins with the etymology of “Adirondack,” and notes that the earliest recording of the word (spelled Orankokx and Achkokx) was by a Dutch writer in 1627. The familiar definition “tree eater” was mentioned in 1724 by a Jesuit writing from North America to his superiors in Paris. The Mohawks used “Adirondack” derisively for their enemies sometime between 1572 and 1626, but what people they were insulting via this term remains a matter of speculation, Sulavik writes.

Sulavik discusses four facets of “Adirondack” in the three centuries from its earliest mention to its naming. The first focuses on the people, the Indigenous people who inhabited this area of New York state. His second is on the place, including the historical names used for this area. In 1562 “Avacal” was the first European name for a region that included what we now call the Adirondacks. Curiously, the reason for naming the area “Avacal” remains obscure.

Part three of “Adirondack” is dedicated to maps from 1562 to 1838. They are remarkable — a 1636 Dutch map of North America is recognizably North America. The maps, arranged in chronological order, also indicate geographic knowledge at the time — they are what explorers knew and how they knew it.

Part four is a chronological collection of accounts written between 1535, when Jacques Cartier viewed the mountains from Montreal and 1838, when Ebenezer Emmons named those mountains the Adirondacks. One contribution is from Washington Irving, who wrote about the “Courer des Bois” in the 1830s.

Sulavik, who also produced a fine book about the Adirondack guideboat, organized his research effectively, and wrote simply and clearly. “Adirondack” is a 300 year snapshot of people and mountains. Every time I pick it up, I’m rewarded.


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