In the Mohawk language, the people say that they are from Kanien'kehá:ka ("flint stone place"). The Mohawk became wealthy traders as other nations in their confederacy needed their flint for tool making. Their Algonquian-speaking neighbors (and competitors), the people of Muh-heck Haeek Ing ("food area place"), a name transliterated by the Dutch as Mohican or Mahican, referred to the people of Ka-nee-en Ka as Maw Unk Lin, meaning "bear people". The Dutch heard and wrote this term as Mohawk, and also referred to the Mohawk as Egil or Maqua.
The French colonists adapted these latter terms as Aignier and Maqui, respectively. They also referred to the people by the generic Iroquois, a French derivation of the Algonquian term for the Five Nations, meaning "snake people". The Algonquians and Iroquois were traditional competitors and enemies.
In the upper Hudson and Mohawk Valley regions, the Mohawk had long had contact with the Algonquian-speaking Mahican people, who occupied territory along the Hudson River, as well as other Algonquian and Iroquoian tribes to the north around the Great Lakes. The Mohawk had extended their own influence into the St. Lawrence River Valley, which they maintained for hunting grounds. They are believed to have defeated the St. Lawrence Iroquoians in the 16th century, and kept control of their territory. In addition to hunting and fishing, for centuries the Mohawk cultivated productive maize fields on the fertile floodplains along the Mohawk River, west of the Pine Bush.
In the seventeenth century the Mohawk encountered both the Dutch, who went up the Hudson River and established a trading post in 1614 at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the French, who came south into their territory from New France (present-day Quebec). The Dutch were primarily merchants and the French also conducted fur trading. Their Jesuit missionaries were active among First Nations and Native Americans, seeking converts to Catholicism.
In 1614, the Dutch opened a trading post at Fort Nassau, New Netherland. The Dutch initially traded for furs with the local Mahican, who occupied the territory along the Hudson River. Following a raid in 1626 when the Mohawk resettled along the south side of the Mohawk River,:pp.xix–xx in 1628, they mounted an attack against the Mahican, pushing them back to the area of present-day Connecticut. The People of Ka-nee-en Ka (Mohawks) gained a near-monopoly in the fur trade with the Dutch by prohibiting the nearby Algonquian-speaking tribes to the north or east to trade with them but did not entirely control this.