RELICS AND THEORIES OF THE EARLIEST INHABITANTS OF WESTERN NEW YORK.
THE historian of the former inhabitants of any country or region is confronted at the outset by various difficulties. The question arises who and what were the progenitors of these inhabitants and who were their ancestors and so on.
There exist in this country, and to some extent in western New York, evidences of its former occupancy by a people whose customs were, in some respects, different from those of the Indians who were found here near the close of the fifteenth century. These evidences consist of the sepulchral and other mounds or tumuli in the West and South, and of the defensive works which are found in this region. Of the people who constructed these mounds and forts no tradition was preserved by the pre-Columbian Indians, and in and around them many relics have been found concerning the former use of which even the ingenuity of archaeologists has failed to form a conjecture.
The opinion has been held that these people were not the progenitors of the present race of Indians, but that they were expelled from the country or exterminated by those from whom these Indians descended. The correctness of this opinion is doubted by many modern ethnologists, who insist that gradual changes in the surroundings of a people, extending through indefinite periods of time, are sufficient to account for those things which have been regarded as evidences of a distinct race of people. They insist, too, that in the absence of recorded history it is not strange that in the lapse of time many of the customs, the significance of the monuments and works, and even the existence of a people should pass into oblivion among their descendants.
It is not necessary, and it would be improper, to discuss this question here. These mementos of the long ago exist, and as archaeologists become more skilled in searching after them more are discovered, notwithstanding the fact that time, the ax and the plow tend constantly to obliterate the traces of their existence.
In recent time's individuals, associations and public institutions have become impressed with the importance of preserving these relics of bygone ages, and with commendable zeal they are engaged in collecting them in cabinets and museums, where they may be preserved and studied in future. The national museum at Washington contains many thousands of these relics, and the cabinets of historical societies are constantly being enriched by accessions of them. Recently Mr. W. P. Letch worth, of Glen Iris, near Portage, has at his own expense established such a museum.
Want of space prevents even a catalogue of all the works that have been discovered in western New York, of the origin and builders of which there exists not even a tradition. Probably many others have been leveled by the plow, and forgotten, if their character was ever known, and perhaps still others, the relics of periods antecedent to these, have been obliterated by time.
There are regions the peculiar topography of which renders them well adapted to the wants of people, and which at the same time does much toward shaping and molding the character of that people. Western and central New York appear to have long been the habitat of a wild, independent and warlike race, and the physical features of the region are adapted to the wants of just such a people as the works and relics found in it indicate, and as were represented by its inhabitants at the time of its settlement by Europeans.
Of these ancient works, one of the most interesting in western New York is in the town of Genesee Falls, in this county, on the Genesee river, three miles above Portageville. It is on a large farm owned by Messrs. T. Dunn and H. T. Mills, on lot 107 of the Cotringer tract. It is called Fort Hill, because of its location on the top of a hill that rises from near the middle of the valley, which is here about a mile in width.
Although this is evidently a drift hill, there are reasons for the belief that in some past period it was the eastern extremity of a spur that extended from the hills on the western boundary of the valley; and that its connection with these hills was severed by the action of the current, which, after breaking through, carried away, little by little, the whole of this spur, except this solitary hill and the short spur of about the same height which still projects from these hills half a mile west from it. When the evidences of past mutations which everywhere present themselves in this valley are considered, it will not be deemed incredible that in the lapse of immense time this spur may have been deposited there; then, by the action of the current which beat against its base, doubled back and swept around to the east of it, been cut through, and afterward, as before stated, washed away by the shifting stream till only this hill and the distant headland remained. The river now runs half a mile east from the hill, but it is known that in 1820 it washed its southeastern base, and evidences of comparatively recent erosive action are plainly visible there. Along its southwestern base a former river bed is easily traceable where the stream passes west of the hill. From the plain on the north side the hill rises to a height of 60 or 70 feet, and from the south about 90. The sides are so steep as to render ascent extremely difficult, except at its eastern and western extremities, where narrow points or "hog backs" extend northeasterly and northwesterly, which afford easier access to its summit.
The top is quite level, and includes an area of about three-quarters of an acre. It is surrounded at the brow of the hill by a mural embankment, which is now about two feet in height. This wall encloses, or rather enclosed, a surface which had the form of the cut surface of a pear divided longitudinally; its base lying toward the east, and its long axis running about twelve degrees south from east. When the river had its course along the southeast base of the hill it undermined or washed away a portion of this base, and a part of the wall, with some of the surface which it included, "slid" away. Elsewhere the continuity of the wall is unbroken, except at the eastern and western "hog backs," where there are sallyports or passageways. A ditch once surrounded the work just without the embankment, but where the sides of the hill have worn away scarcely a trade of this ditch can be seen. It is very distinct where it crosses the eastern and western points of the hill. A short distance east from the center of this work is a depression which murks the site of a former cache, or place of concealment or storage. By some who have visited and described this work this has been spoken of as a well for supplying water. A moment's reflection, however, will convince any one that without a reversal of the law of gravity a supply of water at the top of an isolated hill like this is impossible. A few trees are standing within this embankment, and they are not of a large size. Their growth is said by those who have known them for sixty years to be scarcely perceptible. Such is the present appearance of this work.
At the time of the settlement of this valley an artificial mound rose from the plain some thirty rods north from the hill. This mound was circular, with a diameter at its base of about sixteen yards, and a height of six yards. In 1870, with the consent of the proprietors, Messrs. O. H. Marshall and W. C. Bryant, of Buffalo, and W. P. Letchworth made a thorough examination of this work by excavating trenches across it through the center at right angles, and carefully noting everything that was disclosed. Ashes and charcoal, with fragments of bones, doubtless human, so much decayed as to indicate great antiquity, were found.
Partial and careless examinations had before resulted in the discovery of a few stone implements and ornaments. It was a burial mound.
Several "bone pits," which contained very large quantities of human ossements, have been found in the vicinity. The significance of these will be at once recognized when the custom which prevailed among the ancient Indians, of periodically gathering and depositing the bones of their kindred, is remembered. This is admirably described by Parkman in his "Jesuits of North America," under the caption "Feast of the Dead." In the vicinity are several burial places of more modern Indians.
Relics in abundance have been unearthed by the plow in different localities in the neighborhood of this work. Some of these relicts belonged to what archaeologists term the Paleolithic, or ancient stone age; while others were of more recent origin. The places where they were found thickly strewn were ancient camping grounds or villages; and could investigations have been made by competent archaeologists before they were disturbed by the plough, many of the hut sites might have been pointed out.
Of course different opinions are entertained of this and other similar works, in accordance with the views which are held concerning the ancient inhabitants of the country. That it was a defensive work, strong both by reason of its character and its well chosen site, of course no one will doubt. It appears probable that it was used as a defensive stronghold during a long succession of generations; and that many villages sprang up and decayed in the valley, and perhaps on the hills in its vicinity.
Concerning the antiquity of the work there is room for great diversity of opinion. By reason of the unstable character of the valley around it no inference of great age can be drawn from appearances there. The character of the work itself is such as it might assume in a few, and retain during many centuries. Reasonable conclusions may, however, be drawn concerning its possible age from what has been learned of other similar works in western New York, the appearances and .surroundings of which afford more nearly definite information concerning their antiquity. Near Medina, Orleans county, N. Y., there exist the remains of an ancient fortification similar in many respects, though more extensive and elaborate than this. The walls or embankments of that fortification do not have so much the appearance of great age as the embankment at Fort Hill shows; yet evidences in and around that work indicate that from eight to twelve centuries have passed since it ceased to be used, and the period of its occupancy, though not definitely indicated, was fully as great. The embankments in both these works were better preserved than in any other in this region. That of Fort Hill probably had a height of four or five feet, and though no traces of palisades are now to be seen, they probably surmounted this wall, as well as those of similar works where remains of them can be found. It is also probable that in this work, as in others, excavations would disclose accumulations of stones of a few pounds weight, for hurling at assaulting foes.
Concerning this and other ancient works in this country, or their uses, none of the post -Columbian Indians seem to have had the slightest tradition. This fact is regarded by some as evidence of their great antiquity; and by others of their construction by a race antecedent to the ancestors of the present Indians. Though these works probably have great antiquity, and though they may have been constructed by a race now extinct, the absence of tradition concerning them is not to be regarded as evidence of either.
The following, from the pen of Dr. Myron H. Mills, of Mt. Morris, illustrates the facility with which historic events pass into oblivion among the Indians:
Mt. Morris was called among the Indians Sanungewage, after an early settler, a 'white man' (the late Major-General William A. Mills), whose Indian name was Sanungewa. Those who were youths and young men when the Seneca tribe moved from the Genesee river in 1825 still call the village by the Indian name and have well preserved recollections of the "white man" after whom it was named. But upon conversing with the young Indians at the present day about Sanungewa, the Indian's 'great white friend,' or Sanungewage, the village named after him they will look strangely at each other, and smile or laugh in one's face, not comprehending what is said to them. They will at the first opportunity ask the older Indians what it means. In fifty years more the traditions both of Sanungewa and Sanungewage, the village named after him, will be entirely lost."
SOURCE: History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880