The History of New York State
Book I, Chapter II

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


The first definite occupation of New York seems to have been by a people influenced by the Eskimo. Perhaps they were Eskimoan tribes, or Algonkian groups intermarried with the Eskimo, and culturally influenced by the latter. This faint impress soon became dominantly Algonkian as their artifacts come to light in almost all parts of the State. Wave after wave of Algonkian stock passed over New York, the last being the Delaware. Following them came the Mound Builders, and the Iroquois. Muskhogean stocks, for many of the sites examined by archeologists are puzzling, and "suggest an occupation by people the nature of which we have now no means of determining." An estimate of the artifacts discovered in the heart of New York State, in the region extending from Oneida Lake to the Genesee, classifies 20,000 specimens #3 thus


Name Articles
Eskimoan 267
Algonkian 8,763
Mound Builders 1,608
Iroquois 8,147
Undetermined 1,215 

The Algonkian occupation seems to have been of longest duration and that of the Iroquois the shortest: "but the Iroquois left such abundant traces, such thick refuse deposits, and so many relics of their material culture, that they appear to have not only lived on the land but to have actually used it. In viewing the remains of their occupation no anthropologist would make a mistaken estimate of their mental or moral energy."

Measured in years, the Algonkian occupation may be counted by thousands. Its several periods seem to merge into each other so that to determine where one ends and the next begins is difficult, if not impossible. The first Algonkian people were merely roving hunters, living without pottery and knowing nothing of agriculture. Next came the occupation by other Algonkians who are represented, in unearthed relics, by crud implements, large clumsy spears, steatite pottery, some rough and low-grade clay pottery, occasionally a stone notched at the top for choppers , and now and then a grooved axe and celt, and in rare instances by implements of bone. This seems to have been a period influenced by the Eskimoan culture. "Probably no graces of this period have ever been found." What seems to have been the intermediate period of Algonkian occupation is characterized by a larger number of grooved axes, roller pestles, and by a greater abundance of crude pottery that shows fabric or cord marks, by steatite pottery, by pits filled with crumbling and almost completely disintegrated refuse, and especially by the great abundance of drills, of notched arrow heads and spears of chert and other stone. "Many of the finest ceremonial stones from New York belong to this intermediate period." "The sites are generally along the waterways, on the banks or upon the high level fields near creeks, lakes and rivers." To some extent the early Algonkian sites are found in such places also, though most are on the slopes and terraces far above the present river beds.

The later Algonkian occupation as indicated by relics is more definite in character. The occupation covered almost the entire area of the State, and is characterized by numerous flints, by steatite pottery, clay pottery, notched choppers, grooved axes, celts, adzes, hoes, some copper implements, gouges, gorgets, birdstones, banner stones, cord-marked and pattern-marked clay pottery, mediocre clay pipes, roller pestles, net sinkers, and bone implements, such as awls, harpoons, needles and beads, inconsiderable number. The sites are generally on the lowlands. The Algonkians of this time led a more settled life. Numerous instances of charred maize and beans found in refuse pits prove that they were agricultural. Large areas filled with carbonized matter, fire-burned stone and calcined bone indicate that this wave of occupation was stronger, and that the settlements were larger. Graves of this period have been found, the skeleton being doubled up on one side. Artifacts are seldom found in the graves. The Markham site,

near Avon, is a typical grave of this period and a typical village site is that excavated on the outlet of Owasco Lake, south of Auburn.

The coastal Algonkians differed somewhat from the inland Algonkians in culture. For example, in the refuse layers and shell heaps of Long Island, Staten Island, Westchester county boast and the northern end of Manhattan Island has been found pottery of the unmistakable Algonkian type but stamped with the edge of a scalloped shell, instead of a cord-wrapped paddle. The shell-heaps on the west side of Milburn Creek, south of Lott's and Bedell's Landing are the most extensive in the country. #4

They were the sites of large wampum factories before that part was settled by white men. Shellfish was evidently abundant, and the Algonkians used it for food to a considerable extent. Typical coastal Algonkian sites excavated are at Port Jefferson, Oyster Bay, Matinicock and Shinnecock, on Long Island; Throgg's Neck, Eastchester and Westchester, on the Westchester County coast; and on Manhattan and Staten Island.

Throughout the length of the Genesee Valley are definite traces of Algonkian occupation, Wyoming and Monroe counties containing many camp sites. Other evidences are found eastward through the finger lakes district, southward along the valleys of the Chemung, Susquehanna and Chenango, through portions of Chenango, Otsego, and Oneida counties. In Jefferson county to the north along the St. Lawrence are abundant traces, while southward along the Delaware river, through the counties of Delaware, Ulster, Sullivan, orange and Rockland, the relics of occupation seem almost entirely Algonkian. The Hudson Valley shows an Algonkian occupation. Along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, Algonkian articles have been found directly beneath Iroquois deposits.

Some of the Algonkian relics show a higher state of culture than is to be found in the artifacts of the same stock, and probably of the same period, farther north. There is a noticeable thinning out of polished slate objects in eastern New England, southern New York, Pennsylvania, and the region north of the St. Lawrence basin, including the Erie-Ontario slopes in Canada. The presence of these polished articles, in abundance, west of the Mohawk headwaters, westward into Ohio and down the Alleghany to the Ohio and southward to Tennessee, seems to point to cultural stimulus exerted from the south or west. Relics of the last period of Algonkian occupation show some sculptural skill. Well-modelled Stone figures of human faces have been found on certain Algonkian sites in New York. The remains on these were of tribes influenced by the Delaware. Some of the pipe fragments of the later period take artistic shape and show elaborate modelling. Copper articles, such as arrowheads, small hatchets and other implements of war and industry, have been found in Algonkian sites; but the instances are rare, and it is considered doubtful if the New York Algonkians ever made copper implements. These articles seem to indicate a cultural influence of mound-building people upon the Algonkians, though the articles of native copper may have come to them by barter. It seems to be well established, however, that the ?Algonkians were not the Mound Builders, though in certain emergencies they did erect fortified stockades.

At one time, it seems, some parts of western New York were regarded as the domain of this mysterious race known as the Mound Builders. Probably, no aboriginal American group has so excited the imagination of modern theories. The mounds, conjecturally sacrificial or sacerdotal, gave prompted some to link these American aborigines with the ancient Britons and Gauls. The cromlechs of Wales and of northern France, the evidences of sun-worship at Stonehenge, of human sacrifice among the Welsh and Gallic Druids, and the finding of calcined human remains in the mounds of Ohio, encouraged the thought that the mounds were of great antiquity, and served a devotional purpose. Some of the great thinkers of colonial and early republican times found their imagination peculiarly receptive to thoughts of a great but obliterated American past. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ezra Stiles, the Indian missionary, Noah Webster, and others, advanced fanciful theories. Dr. Benjamin S. Barton, in 1797, in his "New Ideas on the Origin of the Tribes in America," suggested that the mounds were not built by Indians but by "a people of higher cultivation, with established law and order, and a well-disciplined police." Dr. Barton was perhaps the first to suggest that the mounds wee the work of "a lost race." The subject was fascinating to theologians. Bishop Madison, of Virginia, soon afterwards made a close study of many mound sites, and became convinced that Indians were not the builders. Rev. T. M. Harris thought that the mound-builders "possessed superior skill and were of higher civilization" than that of the Indians. So, speculation continued, in some quarters, during the next century to keep this fascinating study from being reduced to prosaic fact. The lover of the mysterious found greater satisfaction in mythical meditation, in imagining that America was the seat, in ancient days, of a might aboriginal race, rivaling in culture and power the ancient oriental monarchies, than in accepting the deductions of scientists. Romancers felt that the picture of sachems of the Mound builders surrounded by splendors equal to those of the Chaldean king, Urukh, or of the time of Sennacherib, Assur-izir-pal, Achaemenes or Darius, should not be permitted to be ruthlessly slashed by scientific vandals who would suggest that as objects acquired after the coming of Europeans to America had been found in the mounds, the latter could not be very old. Yet, such seems to be more than a possibility. Indeed, early explorers actually saw mounds being built. Then the mounds were built by Indians, and not only by one tribe, is proved by the artifacts found in them. "No native object found in the mounds differs from objects that Indians at the time of discovery made, or were able to make," states Archaeologist Parker, who is himself of Indian blood and thus has been more keenly interested in the study of aboriginal culture. He writes: "The links connecting the Indians with the mound builders are so firmly established by historic and archeologic evidence that archeologists now know then to have been one and the same people." The Twelfth annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology, a department of the Smithsonian institution, shatter many myths as to the Mound Builders.

The mounds found in New York State have not shown European articles among the specimens unearthed. Indeed, the local mounds seem to have been pre-Iroquoian as well as pre-colonial. Save fore intrusive burials by Iroquois in these sites, Iroquoian culture is not represented in the artifacts found. It is possible that the mound-building people intruded upon the eastern Algonkians, or that expatriated tribesmen of the former merged with the latter, influencing Algonkian culture by their own, to perhaps the same degree as that of the later New England tribes was modified by Iroquoian culture.

The study of mounds of western New York, particularly those in Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Livingston counties, indicate that the Mound builders were a village-dwelling people. They had the custom of burying in small mounds. They cultivated corn and other vegetable foods, also tobacco, and they made woven fabrics. Among the artifacts are platform pipes, grooved axes, celts, adzes, gouges, gorgets, banner-stones, boat-stones, bird-stones, stone tubes of several varieties, native copper implements and ornaments, such as chisels, celts, spearheads and arrowheads, beads, mica ornaments, bone and antler implements, hematite articles, pottery, discoid stones, concaved disks, cylindrical and bell pestles. Evidences of mound culture are not so numerous east of the Genesee as in western New York. The trail of mound culture into the State seems to have been along the shores of Lake Erie and up the Alleghany river. #5

Unfortunately, the mounds in New York State have had no systematic examination, and the possibilities of methodical study are now reduced by two-thirds, "though the vandalism of inexperienced relic hunters," states Parker. None of the mounds are especially conspicuous, one of the larger mounds being only nine or ten feet high, with a diameter of about 64 feet. Many have been reduced by cultivation of the topsoil. T. Apoleon Cheney, in the "Thirteenth Report of the New York State Cabinet of natural History" (1860), described his examination of a mount situated on a terrace above the Conewango Valley at Poland Center, Chautauqua County. He found eight skeletons buried in a sitting position, and makes some speculations which Parker thinks are "specious." Cheney reported that the mounds "from the peculiar form of its construction, as well as from the character of its contents," had, "much resemblance to the Barrows of the earliest Celtic origin in the Old World." Some of the relics, amulets, chisels, et cetera, were "of peculiar and interesting character," and elaborate workmanship, "resembling the Mexican and Peruvian antiquities." Several interesting objects have been taken from New York mounds. From one grace opened by amateurs, in a gravel bank near vine Valley on Canandaigua Lake, were taken a large tablet gorget, a copper chisel blade, a segment of a mastodon ivory dagger. #6 Other mounds contained graves boxed by stone slabs. Most of the burial places, however, are not of unique interest and, indeed, some "would be considered ordinary in Ohio." The pottery resembles Ohio mound pottery, and the culture is plainly derived from the Ohio region and southward.

The Mound Builders in New York seem to have had their southern-most division about Chautauqua Lake and the valley of the Alleghany, and perhaps found a portage to the upper waters of the Genesee River. the Genesee Valley is rich in artifacts of mound culture. Apparently, they represent "the expansion of the parent culture beyond the limits of its home; and archeological deductions point to the disappearance of the mound-building people from New York at or before the time of the coming of the Iroquois. Whether they were ousted, exterminated, or absorbed, especially those in western New York, indicate "that the earliest Iroquoian immigrants were measurably influenced by the mound-building culture"; to such an extent, in fact, as to suggest three possibilities: first, that the Iroquois may have been the mound-building peoples originally; second, that the Iroquois in entering this region subdued and absorbed considerable numbers of the mound-buildings people, and absorbing as the same time some of their culture traits; third, that the earliest New York Iroquois were merely influenced by mound culture. The main points of similarity between certain Iroquois forms and mound-era forms are in some pipes and pottery vessels. Early Iroquois sites in New York have yielded objects similar to those in the mounds, but not the distinctive gorgets, birdstones, and related forms. Metapodal scrapers found in a prehistoric Iroquois site at Richmond Mills, New York, are similar in every way to those found in Ohio mound sites. A survey of the whole field of the earlier Iroquoian occupation in New York and Ontario leads archeologists to believe that the Huron-Iroquois were the immediate successors of the Mound builders in this area; that the invaders, pushing up the Ohio encountered the Mound Builders and finally conquered them. Parker inquires whether or not the Catawba, Tutelo and Saponi do not represent the survivors of the vanquished mound people.

The influence of Mound culture upon Iroquoian did not long continue, however. "the Iroquois once established culturally did not copy Mound artifacts. Indeed, they seem to have deliberately avoided the use of the distinguishing badges of their vanquished foes. Just as the conquerors of the first Mound people of Ohio beat up the mica ornaments and hammered into shapeless masses the copper tools and gorgets of their despised victims, so did the Iroquois taboo, or avoid with deliberateness, the banner-stone and the gorget and similar artifacts of polished slate."

Most writers point out that Iroquois artifacts are almost all of the historic period, or at least that most Iroquois sites show evidence of contact with Europeans. However, some sites are prehistoric, though not ancient. Mr. Parker, who was probably the first to attempt an analytical study of Iroquoian archeology, think that objects recognized as Iroquoian in these prehistoric stores within New York State, are not more then 500 to 600 years old, thus fixing Iroquoian culture a fixedness of less then 600 years. However, it cannot be positively stated that Iroquois were not earlier in New York. Iroquoian art and artifacts may have been different in earlier generations. Supporting this argument, Mr. Parker refers to conversations he has had with tribal authorities. He showed some of the Laftua drawings to Edward Cornplanter, a Seneca Indian who could speak authoritatively as to religious ceremonies of his tribe. "Our people never lived that way," said Cornplanter. The Iroquois of today have apparently forgotten their early fortifications and architecture. Another native authority who was interrogated as to when the Iroquois Confederacy originated, replied: "With the teachings of our great ancestor, Handsome Lake, I think," adding after some hesitation: "No, it was before that; I remember now it was in the time of Dekanawida." These answers point out two men whose names are linked with two distinct period of cultural revolution. "Each blotted out the memory of a former period. The people of each period systematically forgot the history of the preceding period. Today the Iroquois of New York base nearly all of their tribal ceremonies on the doctrines of Handsome Lake, who flourished between 1800 and 1816. So great was the influence of his teaching that he practically created and crystallized a new system of tribal thought and a new plan of action. His earlier predecessor was Dekanawida, to whom, with the aid of Hiawatha, is ascribed the origin of the Iroquois Confederacy. Dekanawida so crystallized the things of the older period with his own devices, teachings and admonitions that the methods, beliefs and though-ways of the preceding period lost their identity in the minds of the Iroquois people." "All civic and much of the religious thought centered in Dekanawida. That which preceded it was either blotted out or swallowed up. The Iroquois took on a new mantle." With these comparatively recent instances of distinct revolutions in the thought of the Iroquois, it cannot with assurance be argued that there were no like revolutions in earlier centuries, and that there was not an earlier and quite different Iroquois culture than that which is generally accepted as Iroquoian, and which seems to have an antiquity of only about 600 years.

Certain Iroquois traditions of seemingly good foundation relate to a period in which all the Iroquois were one people, living together and speaking the same tongue. One woman was recognized as "the lineal descendent of the first Iroquoian family"; yet she did not belong to one of the Five nations, but to the Neuter people. Tradition has it that "when the bands divided, it was found that the family of Dyigonsase (Fat Face or Wild Cat) fell to the Neuter Nation." The Neuter woman was called Ye-gowana, meaning The Great Woman; and she was looked upon as "The Mother of the Nations." In the Dekanawida-Hiawatha tradition a woman so named was often consulted by both Dekanawida and Hiawatha. The former was Wyandot (Ouendot) from the Bay of Quinte at the head of Lake Ontario. This recognition of blood relationship confirms a fact established by archeology and philology, viz.: that the Erie, Neuter, Huron, Seneca and Mohawk-Onondaga people were of one common tribe.

Whence cane the original tribe? Traditions point to the southwest. The Dekanawida epic refers tot he "tree of the long swordlike leaves," which so learned an Iroquois as Dr. Peter Wilson called a "palm tree." Many Iroquois expeditions were directed against enemies down the Ohio and on the Mississippi. Again, there is similarity in the Caddoan and Iroquoian languages. Parker thinks that the older theory that the Iroquois had their origin, or their early hone, along the St. Lawrence, about Montreal, "is not entirely without serious faults." Archeological evidence is that certain Iroquois tribes never came from that region; for example, the Senecas, who were closely allied to the Erie, if not derived directly from that people; indeed, Dr. William M. Beauchamp, the distinguished authority on New York archeology, "suggests that the Erie were the parent stock of the Huron-Iroquois family and further suggests that the Seneca were derived from them, possibly within historic times." The Erie and Seneca tribes were as closely allied in western New York as the Mohawk and Onondaga peoples were in eastern and northern New York. "The Mohawk (or Laurentian Iroquois) never agreed with the Seneca division, and there indeed seems to have been a long period of separation that made these two dialects more unlike than all the others of the five" nations. Eventually, in or about 1655, the Erie people (La National du Chai) were exterminated by the Senecas, #7 or if not exterminated were so weakened as to then cease to be an independent tribe.

As a working hypothesis, but probably based upon very sound scientific foundation and his own particular study of Iroquoian material culture, Dr. Parker advances the following theory to explain the presence of the Iroquois in the New York region. He supposed that one, two, or more related tribes of early Huron-Iroquois lived in a portion of a region embraced within a circle at the mouth of the Ohio river, where they were in contact with the Caddo, Muskhogee, Sioux and some Algonkian tribes. They were a pastoral village-dwelling people, had some knowledge of agriculture, and knew how to erect stockades and earthen walls for their enclosures.

Pressure of intruding immigrants, or some other influence, caused the Huron-Iroquois to move as a body northward up the Ohio river. Some went eastward into the Carolinas, but the main body migrated northeasterly, the tribes of the Cherokee leading the way into the region of the Mound Builders of Ohio. The latter resolutely resisted the invasion, and fighting extended over a long period of time before the Mound Builders were overcome and the Iroquois were finally in possession of their country. The defeated people were perhaps absorbed into the tribal divisions of the Iroquois, who possibly were assisted in this conquest by bands of Choctaw, Algonkians. To some extent the characteristics of the Mound Builders would appear in the Iroquois of the period of transition, but the influence was soon lost and Iroquois material culture became distinctive.

Following the Cherokee vanguard, other Iroquois tribes pushed northward into the conquered region of the Mound builders, Jealousies arose, and the newcomers, with the Delaware as allies, fought their own kinsmen, and drive the Cherokee tribes to the southward and across the Appalachian ranges. In this way, the two Iroquoian branches became estranged and the outcome was war which continued well into the historic period.

The ousted Cherokee gave the other Iroquois little peace, though the latter would have liked to have settled peaceably in the beautiful fertile Mound-Builder country. Increasing raids by predatory Cherokee and allied tribes had their effect, and bands of Iroquois began to cross the Detroit river and push their way into the peninsula between Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario. A band now known as the Huron established themselves near and southward of Lake Simcoe. An allied tribe, the Attiwandaronk, or neuter, occupied the region east and south of them, taking the Grand river country and pushing eastward across the Niagara. Other bands pushed over the northern shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario and fought their way to the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Powerful bands established themselves about the St. Lawrence, with the site of Montreal as a center. They were the Mohawk-Onondaga, though the Onondaga soon pushed southward into the hilly region to the eastward of the foot of Lake Ontario, in what is now Jefferson County, New York.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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