Chapter 02 - History of Wyoming County

CHAPTER II.

NUMBERS AND LOCATION OF THE SENECAS - THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

THE first settlements in western New York were made subsequent to the year 1640. At that time the region was inhabited by a people who termed themselves Ho-dc-no-sau-nee, or People of the long House. By the southern Indians they were called Massowamacs; by the Dutch, Maquams, and by the French, Iroquois, by which designation they have since usually been known.

Charlevoix says of the word Iroquois: "It is formed of the word hiro, or hero which signifies ' I have said,' and by which these savages always ended their speeches, as the Latins did theirs by dixi; and of koue, which is a cry of melancholy when its pronunciation is prolonged, and of joy when it is pronounced short."

Nothing is known of the history of the Iroquois previous to the settlement of the country by the whites. According to their traditions, they once occupied a region north from the St. Lawrence, were they were weak in numbers and subject to the Algonquins, who occupied the country further north from that river. Having been vanquished in a war with the Adirondacks, they fled from the country, and came by way of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario to the Oswego river, through which they entered central New York. As nearly as can be learned from their traditions, they lived together for a time near Seneca river. As they increased, however, they sought new territory, scattering east and west through the State.

The brief sketch of the Iroquois confederation which has been given on pages 9 and 10 will enable the reader to comprehend the character of the Senecas, who inhabited western New York, and the elements of that strength which rendered them a terror to the savage nations north, west and south from them, and a serious obstacle in the way of the ambitious projects of the French in Canada.

The original habitat of the Senecas was between Cayuga lake and the Genesee river. They termed themselves Nundawa-onc, or "People of the Great Hill." They knew nothing of the name Seneca, except as applied to them by outsiders. As with other Indian proper names the spelling for a long time varied; the nation being often called in old documents the Sinnekes, and given some sixty other names, mostly similar. The later classical form of the word is certainly an improvement, in spite of its coincidence with the name of the ancient philosopher. Though the same name is applied to this division of the Romans of the new world " that was great among the Romans of the seven hills, it is pleasant to be able to consider it a slight modification of a native word, and not an instance of the stupid wholesale application of classic titles in the geography of western New York. The French sometimes called the Senecas Tsonnontouaps or Sonnonthouans.

One of the first allusions to the nation by Europeans occurs in a Jesuit " relation" dated 1644-45, and is as follows: "Toward the termination of the great lake called Ontario is located the most numerous of the Five Nations, named the Senecas, which contains full twelve hundred men, in two or three villages of which it is composed." In 1677 Wentworth Greenhalgh passed through the "long house " of the Iroquois from end to end and made a detailed report of his journey and observations, from which the following is extracted:

"The Senecas have four towns, viz., Canagora, Tiotohatton, Canoenada and Keint-he. Canagora and Tiotohatton lye within 10 miles of ye Lake ffrontenacque [Ontario], and ye other two \y about four or five miles apiece to ye southward of those. They have abundance of come; none of their towns are stockaded.

"Canagorah lyes on the top of a great hill [Bough ton hill, near Victor, Ontario county], and in that, as well as in the bignesse, much like Onondago, containing 150 houses, northwestward of Caiouga 72 miles. Here ye Indians were very desirous to see us ride our horses [probably the first they ever saw], which we did; they made great feasts and dancing."

"Tiotohatton lyes on the brincke or edge of a hill; has not much cleared ground; is near the river Tiotohatton, wch signifies bending. It lies to the westward of Canagorah about 30 miles, containing about 120 houses, being ye largest of all the houses wee saw, ye ordinary being 50 a 60 feet long, with 120 13 fires in one house. They have good store of come, growing about a mile to the Northward of the town.

"Being at this place the 17th of June, there came 50 prisoners from the southwestward. They were of two nations, some whereof have few guns; the others none at all. One nation is about 10 days' journey from any Christian and trade only with one great house, not far from the sea, and the other trade only, as they say, with a black people. This day of them were burnt two women, and a man and a child killed with a stone. All night we heard a great noyse as if ye houses had all fallen, butt it was only ye Inhabitants driving away ye ghosts of ye murthered.

"The 18th going to Canagorah we overtook ye prisoners; when the soudiers saw us they stopped each his prisoner and made him sing, and cut off their fingers and slasht their bodies with a knife, and when they had sung each man confessed how many men in his time he had killed. That day at Canagorah there were most cruelly burnt four men, four women and one boy. The cruelty lasted about seven hours. When they were almost dead letting them loose to the mercy of ye boys, and taking the hearts of such as were dead to feast on.

"Canoenada lyes about four miles to ye Southward of Canagorah, conteynes about 30 houses well furnished with corne.

"Keint-he lyes about four or five miles to ye Southward of Tiotohatton; contayns about 24 houses well furnished with corne.

"The Senecqucs are counted to bee in all aboutt 1,000 fighting men."

In 1684 Father Lamberville, dissuading La Barre from attacking the Senecas, gave the- number of their warriors at 1,500. In 1698 there was made an official census of the Five Nations, in which it was reported that the "Sinnikes" had dwindled to 600 from 1,300, their number in 1689. In 1763 Sir William Johnson estimated the men of the nation as numbering 1,050, and mentioned that it had "several villages, beginning about 50 m. from Cayuga, and from thence to Chenussio [Geneseo], the largest, about 70 m. from Niagara, with others thence to the Ohio." In 1770 he reported that there were 1,000 of the Seneca warriors. The fighting strength of this nation was generally equal to that of all the other Iroquois. This was stated by Governor Tyron to be the case in 1774, when, on the excellent authority of Sir William Johnson, he reported the total number of Iroquois warriors at 2,000.

A tradition of the Senecas says that at the time of their greatest prosperity a census of the nation was taken " by placing a kernel of white flint corn for each Seneca in a corn husk basket, which, from the description of its size, would hold ten or twelve quarts. Taking the smallest size, and making the estimate accordingly, will give the number of Senecas alone at 17,760."

When the Senecas were first known to the whites their villages were scattered from Seneca lake half way to the Niagara. In 1669, when La Salle made his first visit to their country, their four principal villages were from ten to twenty miles south of the falls of the Genesee, and to the eastward of that river. Mention is made of cabins of the Senecas on the Niagara in 1678 and 1736. General Amherst, writing in 1763, mentions the Kanadaseegy and Canadaraggo castles, the former of which, more commonly spelled Kanadaseaga, stood on the site of Geneva. These are presumably the villages which Sir William Johnson, in his enumeration of the Indians in 1763, calls Kandaseroand Kanadaragey, and mentions as being in the English interest while the rest of the nation was hostile. There were, in Sir William's time, two castles of the tribe at Chenussio (Geneseo), once their western outpost, and a village called Chenondonah stood on the west bank of the Genesee, some fifteen miles from its mouth.

Previous to the settlement of this country by the whites, the roads over which the Indians passed in going from village to village, or from one region to another on hunting excursions or hostile expeditions, were termed trails.

These consisted of paths, sometimes from twelve to eighteen inches in width, and often they were worn to a depth of from six to twelve inches, according to the character of the soil. These trails connected village with village, and many of the main ones ran along the sides of rivers, in or near the valleys of which these villages sprang up. The same trails were probably used during centuries; for the routes were determined, as were the locations of the villages, by a sort of natural selaction, and the habits and customs of the Indians were not such as to effect changes that would in their turn require changes in these locations. An inspection of a map on which these trails are traced will show that they very nearly coincided with the present main avenues of travel through the State.

A main trail extended from the site of Albany to that of Buffalo, over almost the same route subsequently followed by the main turnpike, and later, generally, by the Central railroad. From this trails branched, traversing valleys, skirting lakes, and connecting with the main trails.

From the site of Rochester two trails ran through the Genesee valley - one on each side of the river - through the villages along the valley as far as Caneadea, the last of the Seneca villages in it. Thence it extended south and west to the o-hee-yo or "beautiful river," as the Senecas termed the Allegheny. It was one of the routes from the main trail which passed through Rochester and Avon (Canawagus), to the Allegheny river and the southwest.

There were, of course, other trails which led from place to place in various directions, the traces and memory of which are now obliterated; but those of which mention has been made were some of the main thoroughfares over which the Indians had traveled, singly or in long files, probably during many centuries.

Along the southern shore of Lake Erie, west of the Senecas, dwelt the powerful "Eries or Cat nation," as the French for an unknown reason called them. About 1654 or 1655 they fell victims to the conquering Iroquois. Tradition says that the immediate occasion of the war in which the Iroquois exterminated the Eries was the defeat of the latter by the former in a series of athletic games. The Eries, having learned with alarm of the confederation of the Five Nations, proposed, as a test of the power of the new alliance, that a hundred of the Seneca braves should contest with as many of their own for a suitable prize in the native game of ball. The challenge was twice declined, but on its third presentation the eagerness of the young warriors overcame the caution of their elders, and it was accepted. The flower of the Five Nations presented themselves. After a desperate struggle the match was won by the picked men of the Iroquois. The Eries, burning to retrieve their reputation as athletes, thereupon challenged their adversaries to a foot race in which ten of each party should compete. The young Iroquois assented, and were again the victors. Smarting with mortification from their double defeat, the Eries in desperation dared the champions of the Five Nations to a last and more serious contest, namely, a wrestling match, ten on each side, in which the vanquished should be slain by the victors. The first of the Eries was thrown by his Seneca antagonist, and on the refusal of the latter to dispatch his fallen adversary, the Erie chief himself brained him. Thrice was this scene of butchery repeated, when the rage of the defeated nation had risen to such a pitch that the Iroquois, to avoid a battle, for which they were not prepared, withdrew and returned to their homes.

The result convinced the Eries that the Iroquois nations had made common cause, and their only hope lay in destroying the Senecas, by a sudden blow, before they could be supported by their confederates. Their purpose to do so was frustrated by a Seneca woman, a captive among the Eries, who escaped to her kindred in time to warn them of their danger. The Iroquois rallied and marched out to meet the invaders. They encountered near the foot of Honeoye lake, and after a fierce conflict the Eries were routed and almost annihilated. A remnant which escaped attacked the Senecas years after, near Buffalo, but were defeated. Such is the attempt of tradition to account for the extinction of the most powerful native foe that ever crossed the path of the all -conquering Iroquois.

It is remarked in the life of Mary Jemison that "perhaps no people were more exact observers of religious duties than those Indians among the Senecas who were denominated pagans, in contradistinction from those who, from having renounced some of their former superstitious notions, have obtained the name of Christians. They believed in a Great Good Spirit, whom they called in the Seneca language Nau-wah-ne-u, as the creator of the world and of every good thing; that he made roan and all inoffensive animals, that he supplied men with the comforts of life, and that he was particularly partial to the Indians, who, they said, were his particular people. They also believed that he was pleased in giving them [the Indians] good gifts, and that he was highly gratified with their good conduct; that he abhorred their vices, and that he was willing to punish them for their bad conduct, not only in this world, but in a future state of existence. His residence, they supposed, lay at a great distance from them, in a country that was perfectly pleasant, where plenty abounded even to profusion. To this king they addressed prayers, offered sacrifices, gave thanks for favors, and performed many acts of devotion and reverence.

"They also believed that this king had a brother, less powerful than himself, and who was his opposite in every particular; that he made and sent them diseases, bad weather and bad crops, and made and supported witches; that he owned a large country adjoining his brother's, with whom he was continually at variance. His fields were unproductive, the weather cloudy, destructive frosts frequent, game scarce and not easily taken, streams muddy and unpeopled with fish, ravenous beasts numerous, reptiles of poisonous teeth lay in the traveler's path, and hunger, nakedness and general misery were felt by those who unfortunately became his tenants. He took great pleasure in afflicting Indians here, and after their death received all those into his dreary dominions who in their lifetime had been so vile as to be rejected by Nau-wah-ne-u, under whose eyes some of them continued in an uncomfortable state forever. To this source of evil they offered oblations, to abate his vengeance and render him propitious. In each year they had five feasts [six according to Morgan; the third was the strawberry festival], or stated times for assembling in their tribes and giving thanks to Nau-wah-ne-u for the blessings they had received from his kind, liberal and provident hand, and to solicit a continuance of such favors. When the green corn became fit for use they held their third or green corn feast, which was usually attended with great interest, and at which a good portion of the time was spent in singing and dancing and otherwise manifesting their joy, and expressing their thankfulness for the addition to their diet of an article of food which is to-day held in such high estimation by the whole civilized world of mankind."

A gentleman residing at Caneadea, in Allegany county, who once witnessed a green corn dance or feast at the upper Caneadea village, in which several hundred Indians from the Buffalo, Tonawanda, Cattaraugus and Big Tree reservations participated, says: "The succotash was made in six five-pail brass kettles, and the whole once full served for one meal. Twelve or fourteen deer were killed, and the venison, cut up in pieces of a pound or more in weight, was thrown in with the green com and beans, and without a particle of salt all boiled together; and when sufficiently cooked the kettles were surrounded and each one helped him or herself, eating out of the kettles with wooden spoons, some with iron ones and some, provided with bowls or other dishes, would take out their portions and then retire, giving others, not so well provided, a chance immediately about the kettles. This feast passed off without any disturbance, no quarrel or unpleasantness marring the general good feeling and high degree of enjoyment of all who participated in it. The next year the Caneadea Indians visited some other tribe upon the occurrence of this feast, and thus it passed around."

The fourth feast was celebrated after corn harvest, and the fifth at the time of the old moon in the last of January or first of February. For the last mentioned two white dogs were slaughtered and fantastically painted and decorated for sacrifice. The masters of ceremonies, who were hideously gotten up in masks and smeared with dirt, going about among the cabins, collected and concentrated in themselves the last year's sins and guilt of the tribe. On the eighth or ninth day of the proceedings they transferred the accumulation of iniquity to one of their number, and he by a peculiar sleight of hand or magic worked it out of himself into the bodies of the white dogs. The dogs were then burnt, and in the smoke of the sacrificial fire, flavored with the offerings of tobacco, passed away the year's sins of the tribe. The meeting was made the occasion of deliberations on the administration of tribal affairs, and was closed with a feast of succotash and a peace dance.

It was said by pioneers who had been present at the ceremony of burning the dog at what was formerly called by the settlers " Indian Town," but which was afterward known as the lower Caneadea village, or Wiscoy, in Allegany county: " The settlers used to collect in large numbers on such occasions, coming, some of them, many miles to witness it and when well behaved were kindly received and well treated. But their solemnities having been, upon some occasions, made the subject of considerable levity, they became quite wary when whites were present, and sometimes even refused to proceed with their customary observances and rites until they had withdrawn. All who were present and witnessed the ceremony were expected to contribute something in the way of tobacco or trinkets, and in case of refusal their situation would be made quite uncomfortable by showering upon them live coals and ashes."

Judge A. B. Rose, of Castile, in this county, gives the following account of their ceremonies at a funeral:

"About the year 1818, and when the Indians lived at Gardow and along the Genesee river above and below there, I was present at one of their funerals, that of a boy about fourteen or fifteen years of age. The dead body in its Indian dress was laid on an elevation in one of their houses, where were seated a circle of Indian females, including the mother and female relatives, all silent; when one of their circle raised her head and delivered a short address of two or three minutes, reciting the expectations and hopes of the deceased boy's parents and relations that he would become a brave and successful warrior and bring joy and gladness to his parents; but, alas, their hopes were now blasted. Then she (the speaker), followed by all the circle, would drop their heads and cover their faces with their blankets, and all unite in a loud, shrill, mournful, ringing, plaintive moan for one or two minutes, when they would cease and raise their heads, and another one would recite the boy's agility in the race, his skill with the bow, and his promising traits, when all as before would unite in the moan. And thus the time was occupied until some Indians came in with a rude box, and while putting in the boy and his trinkets I noticed some things that excited my curiosity; an opening was cut near the head in the side of the box, and near the lid of about seven inches in length and one and one- quarter in width. I inquired of one with whom I was acquainted what it meant, and he said the opening was for the spirit of the boy to escape, and the cakes which they put in the box were for the spirit to subsist on during its long journey to the spirit land of his fathers; and that they would build fires over his grave at night to give light to the spirit during its long, dark voyage. When the body was thus prepared they carried it to the grave, and the Indian females followed in single file, keeping up their plaintive moan until the burial was completed."

SOURCE:  History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880