Whenever immigrants arrive in New York, they often congregate, creating ethnic enclaves in various neighborhoods. While the demographics of these neighborhoods often change as older residents move out and newer ones move in, you can often see traces of their legacy: Hell’s Kitchen still features plenty of Irish pubs, places like Sammy’s Roumanian and Yonah Schimmel remain alive and well in the Lower East Side, and Mulberry Street is still dotted with Italian restaurants. Yet in many other instances, these ethnic enclaves vanish without a trace: you’d be hard-pressed to believe that Alphabet City was once the center of New York’s “Kleindeutschland”, and chances are you haven’t heard of “Little Caughnawaga”, Boerum Hill’s small but tight-knit Mohawk Indian community.
The Mohawk are not native to Brooklyn; they’re a tribe whose ancestral homeland is near what is now Schenectady. They got kicked out of the region after choosing the wrong side during the American Revolution, and found themselves in reservations in Canada and northern New York. Starting in the 1920s, Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake reservation near Montreal found work building bridges and skyscrapers in New York City. For whatever reason, these men congregated in an area that’s now in Boerum Hill. Over time, their families moved down with them, forming an enclave known as “Little Caughnawaga”, which by the late 40s had about 700 members.
At this time, Boerum Hill was a mostly Irish and Italian neighborhood, yet there were certain focal points of the Mohawk community. One bar, known as the “Wigwam”, was a popular hangout spot for Mohawk ironworkers to discuss jobs and pick up mail from relatives up north. Mohawk women would cook traditional white cornbread with kidney beans at a nearby lunch counter. One Presbyterian church even offered sermons in Mohawk. In 1949, a New Yorker article titled “Mohawks in High Steel” spoke of a growing neighborhood with “signs of permanence”. Despite such signs, the Mohawk retained close ties with home; weekend and summer trips to visit friends and families in reservations up north were common.
Thanks to a rise in crime and a difficult economy, the “signs of permanence” that the New Yorker wrote about started to fade. The community dwindled by the 60s, with many returning to Canada or marrying non-Indians and moving to the suburbs. The Mohawk-speaking Presbyterian Church was converted into apartments, the Wigwam went out of business and traditional Mohawk bread is hard to find in Brooklyn.
While traces of “Little Caughnawaga” are few and far-between, it’s not a legacy that’s been forgotten by the Mohawk themselves. In reservations, some Mohawk still retain thick Brooklyn accents, and ironworkers from these reservations still come to New York for jobs. It’s nonetheless sad to see that this neighborhood has faded away, yet ultimately all things must pass.