History of Ontario Co. & Its People

Vol. 1, Pub. 1911  Pg. 1 - 11

Kindly transcribed by Deborah Spencer.

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"Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book?"       by  Red Jacket (Sogoyewapha) - Seneca Tribe

American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C. 

picture  taken by Dianne Thomas  2004



Origin of the Red Men Who Occupied Western New York at the Time of the Discovery of America an Unsolved Mystery--The Legend of Bare Hill--Three Epochs--The Seneca Capital Kanadesaga and Other Principal Towns--Strength Broken by Sullivan’s Expedition in 1799. 

“In the unremembered ages,

Ages nearer the beginning,

In the days that are forgotten,

From a cloud above this mountain,

Came the voice of Ha-wen-ne-ya,

Came the call of the Great Spirit.

Greatly seemed the earth to tremble,

Trembled in the throes of labor,
From her womb sprang forth a people,

Sprang the brave Nun-do-wa-o-no.

On her bosom then he nursed them,

Till they grew a mighty nation,

Taught them words to form a language,

Raised up great men for their chieftains,

Gave them totems for their tribe signs,

Gave them names by which he knew them,

Called them all the Great-Hill People.”

---Charles T. Mitchell.


As to the origin of the people who first possessed the land which is now comprised in Ontario county, we know nothing.  These first inhabitants left no record in mysteriously carved monument or on clay tablet.  We do not even know whether they came from the north and reaching what is now the county’s geographical center caught the first glimpse of Canandaigua lake and its beautiful environs from the lowlands at its foot; or from the east and through the portal of what is now Vine Valley stood enraptured before the glories of a Canandaigua sunset; or perchance from the west or south and from the foothills of the Alleghanies had spread before their eyes the marvelously beautiful vista of lake and valley and undulating hill and plain which make up its diversified area.



We do not know whence these mysterious people came, or by what way they came, but we do know that the magic of the scene entered their souls as it has the souls of their pale-faced successors and that they afterwards made it their Chosen Spot. 

The only mementos we have of the red man’s occupancy in this region are numerous flint arrow heads, plowed up here and there in the fields, remains of a number of forts, specimens of uniquely decorated pottery, pipe-bowls, pots of red ochre, strings of wampum--from which we may read that the original inhabitants lived by the chase, fought in deadly conflict one with another, had tasted of the fruit of good and evil that grows on the tobacco stem, had the common human weakness for adornment and sought to tone down their high cheek bones and ornament the coppery sheen of their complexions by adventitious means, had food to store and wealth to barter. 

But it is doubtful if the oldest of these trivial records go back much before the time when the Spanish sovereigns, blind to the misfortunes which the enterprise was destined to bring upon their country, employed the Genoese navigator to explore the realms of Far Cathay. 

Tradition, the only form of history known to the red men, is unreliable as to dates, but the best authorities agree in placing the organization of the famous Iroquois confederacy at not earlier than the discovery of America by COLUMBUS.  Back of that was chaos--or, perhaps, the Mound Builders.  Following it was a development among the Indians of what is now known as Central and Western New York that was nowhere else paralleled by men of their race. 

It was not until the beginning of the 16th century that the Iroquois, or Five Nations, became known to the European pioneers.  They were then found occupying the whole of Northern New York, from the Hudson on the east to the Genesee on the west.  By the year 1700, they had extended their dominion over half the continent, and, by the adoption of the Tuscaroras, had become the Six Nations.  But, while we recognize the genius of the Iroquois for political organization, unique among savage peoples, and their prowess in war, we may safely doubt whether they would have ever developed a civilization worthy the name. 

However that might have been, we know that after carving out an empire from the red peoples of the continent, and after having for a century played French against English and English against



French with a skillful diplomacy, they easily succumbed to the white man’s gold and the white man’s rum, and, within 12 years after the close of the Revolutionary War, had been practically dispossessed of their rich domain and were settled on widely scattered reservations. 

Western New York was possessed by the Seneca branch of the Iroquois confederacy, their dominion, following the conquest of the Neuter and Erie tribes by the Six Nations about the year 1650, extending to the Niagara river at the west.  They were the Keepers of the Western Door.  They were the Nun-do-wah-gaah, or Nun-do-wa-o-no, the Great-Hill people, ascribing their origin to Nun-do-wah or Bare Hill, on the east shore of Canandaigua Lake, where their progenitors lived and where they were put in imminent peril of utter destruction by a monstrous serpent, which circling itself about the fort lay with its mouths open at the gate.  (The captain under the picture is Bear Hill Canandaigua Lake.  Nun-da-wah, the Great Hill from which, Legend says, the Seneca nation of Indians had their origin.  Hence their name Nun-do-wa-o-no, or Great Hill People.  Elevation, 855 feet above the lake, 1,540 feet above the sea.) 

The legend by which they thus explained their birth as a nation, constitutes one of the most interesting of the stories by which primitive peoples have sought to explain the why and how of existence.  Handed down from father to son, and from father to son again, among the Senecas themselves, it has been as oft told by writers of the white race, in prose and in verse and with many variations.  Some of the versions are romantic in the extreme, but that given by Henry R. SCHOOLCRAFT, the eminent American antiquarian, in his “Notes on the Iroquois,” published in 1846, is vouched for by that author as from a native source and is probably as near to the original as any that has been written.  Mr. SCHOOLCRAFT wrote: 

“While the tribe had its seat and council fire on this hill, a woman and her son were living near it, when the boy one day caught a small two-headed serpent, called Kaistowanea, in the bushes.  He brought it home as a pet to amuse himself, and put it in a box, where he fed it on bird’s flesh and other dainties.  After some time it had become so large it rested on the beam of the lodge, and the hunters were obliged to feed it with deer; but it soon went out and made its abode on a neighboring hill, where it maintained itself.  It often went out and sported in the lake, and in time became so large and mischievous that the tribe were put in dread of it.   

“They consulted on the subject one evening, and determined to fly next morning; but with the light of the next morning the monster had circled the hill and lay with its double jaws extended before the gate.  Some attempted to pass out, but were driven back; others tried to climb over its body, but were unable.  Hunger at last drove them to desperation, and they made a rush to pass, but only rushed into the monster’s double jaws.  All were devoured but a warrior and his sister, who waited in vain expectancy of relief. 

“At length the warrior had a dream, in which he was showed that if he would fledge his arrows with the hair of his sister, the charm would prevail over the enemy.  He was warned not to heed the frightful heads and hissing tongues, but to shoot at the heart.  Accordingly, the next morning he armed himself with his keenest weapons, charmed as directed, and boldly shot at the serpent’s heart.  The instantaneous recoiling of the monster proved that the wound was mortal.  He began in great agony to roll down the hill, breaking down trees and uttering horrid noises, until he rolled into the lake.  Here he slaked his thirst, and tried by water to mitigate his agony, dashing about in fury. At length he vomited up all the people whom he had eaten, and immediately expired and sunk to the bottom. 

“The fort was immediately deserted, and all who had escaped went with their deliverer to, and fixed their council fire on, the west shores of Seneca Lake, where Geneva now stands.” 

There is usually added, in verification of the legend, mention of the fact that the blackened trunk of the oak tree from which the Seneca youth fashioned the arrow, which was destined to save his people from entire destruction, stood an unimpeachable witness on the otherwise barren crest of the hill within the memory of men yet living; that the path which the dying reptile cut through the forest as in his death struggles, he rolled down its side has never since borne tree or shrub, whence the name “Bare Hill”; and that the petrified heads of his victims, foolishly called geodes by modern scientists, are found to this day along the shores of the lake. 

Mr. Irving W. Coates, the eminent Indianologist, divides the period of the Seneca occupancy of the territory now embraced in Ontario county into three separate epochs, which he designates as the Ancient, the Middle and the Recent. 

What particular period of time was covered by the Ancient epoch he does not attempt to state, but the fact of that epoch, he asserts, is attested by ruins of old fortifications, strange and often elaborate burial places, rude weapons that almost partake of the forms of the Paleolithic, with faint traces of village sites in remote locations.  To this epoch, says Mr. COATES, belong the old village site and burial place of Genundawah at the foot of Bare Hill on the east side of Canandaigua lake; the singular palisaded town on the Moffat farm on a bend of the Canandaigua outlet in the town of Phelps, where portions of a ditch and earthworks yet remain; the ancient village, which was also palisaded, a short distance south of Clifton Springs; also the one about one mile west of the JACKSON farm, slight traces of which are left; another, a small fishing village on the south bank of the outlet near the hamlet of Manchester Center in the town of Manchester.  Also must we class in this early Indian occupancy the work described by SQUIER, situated about 3 ½ miles northwest of Geneva, east of the Old Castle road, which was 300 feet long, built on high ground and easily defended.  In addition to these, irregular works called “forts,” on prominent elevations in many towns of the county, as well as many camp sites more or less permanent along nearly all the streams and lakes, have been discovered, while skeletons of an early age, including many of unusual size, have been unearthed from gravel beds, and flint arrows, celts, and stone gouges, as well as many ornaments of stone, bone, and shell, scattered over whole townships, attest the presence of the early red men in this favorite hunting ground. 

The Middle epoch of Indian occupancy of the county dates from the beginning of the period in which European intercourse with the aborigines of the State began.  It differs vastly from the Ancient epoch in the fact that we have actual knowledge of the red inhabitants of the region from accounts written by white men who visited them in their homes and villages.  Wentworth GREENHALGH, by some termed an Englishman, by others a Dutch trader, in the spring and summer of 1677, visited all the Five Nations and the Senecas in particular, and made minute observations, not only counting the houses in the different villages and noting their surroundings, but also numbering the warriors.  His account gives the Senecas, who at this time mostly resided within what are now the limits of Ontario county, 1,000 warriors, and named their four principal villages situated in the western part, as Canagora, Tiotohatton, Canoenada, and Keinthe.  Of these, Canagora, or, as it was called  by the French Abbe BELMONT, who accompanied DeNonville in his expedition of 1687, Gensera, and by others Gannagaro, Gananagaro, or Canagora, according as different writers attempted to express or spell the Indian gutturals, was the capital and was situated on Boughton Hill in the present town of Victor. It had 150 houses and was the “St. James” of the Jesuit fathers.  Totiakton, or Tiotohatton, or Tohaiton, or Sonnontonan, was on a bend of the Honeoye creek, where it makes a somewhat abrupt turn in a northeasterly direction, and was in what is now the town of Mendon, Monroe county.  This was the “La Conception” of the Jesuit fathers, and numbered 120 houses, “being ye largest of all ye houses wee saw, ye ordinary being 50-60 foot long with 12 and 13 fires in one house.”  The town of Canoenada, Onnutague, or Gannogarae, was situated about 4 ½ miles south of Gannagaro on the east bank of the Ganarqua or Mud creek in the extreme northeast corner of the present town of East Bloomfield.  It was peopled chiefly by captive Hurons, and was, it is believed, the original “St. Michael” of the Jesuits, where Father FREMIN labored from 1679 to 1681.  It had 30 houses, according to Greenhalgh, and was “well furnished with Corne.”  Keint-he, or Onnennatu, or Gannondata, or Gandachioragon, the other Seneca town spoken of by the French and Dutch traders of the period, was about a mile south of the present village of Honeoye Falls and had 24 houses.  Here was the Jesuit Mission of “St. John.” 

Following the invasion of the Seneca country by De Nonville in July, 1687, when he destroyed the capital Gannagaro, the inhabitants of that settlement migrated eastward, settling in what is now the town of Hopewell and establishing there a town called Onnaghee, the site of which has been given particular study by Mr. COATES and has been a prolific source of arrow heads, beads, Jesuit rings, crucifixes, and amulets and other interesting relics.  Just north of this in the same town another small village sprang up, while Gannogarae, the village of the captive Hurons which DeNonville also destroyed, was removed, according to the best evidence obtainable, first to the White Springs, two miles southwest of Geneva, and became known as Ganechstage.  This settlement was visited in 1720 by Schuyler and Livingston and in 1726 by Capt. Evert BANCKER.  It in turn was broken up by an epidemic of smallpox in 1732, but later, in 1750, a New Ganechstage was found by the Moravian missionaries, Cammerhoff and Zeisberger, located at Slate Rock or Burrell’s Creek, five miles further south. 

It was a few years later, following the abandonment of the settlement or “castle,” of Onnaghee, which must have occurred previous to 1750, the time of the visit of Cammerhoff and Zeisberger, that Kanandarque, “Place Chosen for Settlement,” or poetically interpreted “The Chosen Spot,” sprang into being at the foot of the beautiful lake of that name.  Kanadesaga, or Ganundasaga, as given by Lewis H. MORGAN, near the foot of Seneca Lake, the home of their most exalted chief, Sayenqueraghta, or “Old Smoke,” as he was irreverently called by the witness, succeeded Gannagaro as the Seneca capital of “Chief Castle.”  This last settlement centered about one of the palisade forts built by Sir Wm. JOHNSON in 1756 to attach the Iroquois to the British interest. 

Thus the Senecas, who prior to the De NONVILLE invasion had migrated to the westward, seem afterwards to have retraced their steps and founded new settlements in what is now the eastern part of Ontario county and soon had large and fertile corn fields there that rivaled those which the French had found and destroyed at their former homes. 

Up to this time the Senecas, unlike the other nations of the Iroquois confederacy, had been inclined to side with the French in the contests which continually waged between that people and the English, but the victories gained by the latter in 1756 and 1759 won their favor, the French influence over them rapidly declined, and by 1763 the devoted Jesuit fathers had been supplanted by missionaries of the Protestant faith.  In 1765, the Rev. Samuel KIRTLAND, with the approval of the influential representative of the English government, Sir William JOHNSON, settled at Kanadesaga, and surviving many vicissitudes thereafter exerted a large and civilizing influence over the Senecas. 

But while all of these missionaries, Jesuit and Protestant, labored zealously and at untold personal suffering and risk, and gained the respect and in some instances the full confidence of the children of the forest, they made little headway in their efforts to turn the Iroquois from their savage ways or convince them that they stood in need of a change of religious faith.  Indeed the red man felt that he worshipped the same Great Spirit as did his white brother. 

Mr. COATES dates the beginning of what he calls the Recent epoch of the Indian occupancy of Ontario county from the first efforts of the Colonies to throw off the yoke of the English king.  In this great struggle, the Iroquois, with the exception of a portion of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, were adherents of the king, and the land of the Senecas, preserved as it had been from appropriation or settlement by either French or English, and suffering little permanent injury from the hostile incursion of De NONVILLE’s army in 1687, was the grainery and the place of refuge of the predatory bands of warriors that under the lead of Col. John BUTLER and other British officers ravaged the border towns in the eastern part of the State and in Pennsylvania, the fame of whose bloody deeds at Cherry Valley and Wyoming carried terror to patriot settlers and soldiers alike. 

It was to destroy this base of supplies for destructive incursions that General John SULLIVAN, in August and September, 1779, acting under orders from General WASHINGTON, the commander of the Continental armies, led an invading force up the Susquehanna and Chemung valleys and into the very heart of the Seneca country.  Having united the division which he personally led with another that had entered the region by way of Schenectady and the Mohawk, SULLIVAN engaged and defeated an allied force of British regulars and Senecas, led by Col. BUTLER and the great war chief Brant, in a pitched and decisive battle at Newtown (now Elmira), but otherwise he was able to carry out his purpose without bloodshed, though not the less ruthlessly. 

In this brief summer campaign SULLIVAN and his 5000 Continentals instilled into the Iroquois mind an appreciation of the strength of the Patriotic cause and taught the red men that the arm of General WASHINGTON was long to reach and strong to punish those who chose to do the bloody work of the Tories.  The destruction of 40 or more populous and well built villages, numerous ripening fields of grain, and large orchards, to say nothing of the loss in fighting strength suffered at Newtown, taught a lesson never forgotten. 

Foremost among the villages destroyed was Kanadesaga, which is described in the diaries of some of SULLIVAN’s officers as a place of some 50 houses, with 30 more at a little distance, arranged in an irregular manner with the stockade and the block houses erected by Sir William JOHNSON in 1756 in the center.  In this village, reached by the army on September 7, and like most of the others visited found deserted, was located also the “council house” spoken of by the Rev. Samuel KIRTLAND on the occasion of his first visit to the Senecas in 1765.  It was the capital or chief  “Castle” of the Seneca nation at this time, and surrounding it, to quote the language of the late Mr. George S. CONOVER, of Geneva, the well known local historian, “were large apple orchards and extensive fields of growing corn, while half a mile north was a large peach orchard.  Wild plums, mulberries, hickory nuts, walnuts and butternuts likewise grew in abundance.”  From this important Indian town, which had been the rendezvous of many expeditions sent out to pillage the border settlements, led trails giving easy communication with the Seneca villages as far westward as the Genesee and Niagara and down the Chemung and Susquehanna valleys, as well as to their settlements at the north and east. 

The great trail leading westward followed substantially the course of what is now the “Turnpike,” with the exception of a slight variation from the present village of Flint Creek to Canandaigua lake, in which distance it bore to the south and came out on the east shore of the last named lake.  Crossing the outlet and continuing along the foot of the lake, the trail wound up the hillside in a northwest direction to what General SULLIVAN called “the elegant town” or Castle of Kanandarque.  This village consisted of some 30 houses, which like those at Kanadesaga, together with the vegetable gardens near by and orchards in the vicinity, were “immediately burned” (Sept. 10), and the army marched on the next day to the west, to the foot of Honeoye Lake, where was located a village of 10 houses with its corn fields and orchards.  General SULLIVAN extended his march and his work of devastation westward to the Genesee, and returning left behind him nothing but ruins and desolation. 

The order of General WASHINGTON “to lay waste all the settlements around, so that the country may not only be overrun but destroyed,” had been faithfully carried out. 

It was a ruthless, cruel work, but one absolutely necessary for the protection of the patriot settlements, and it was effectual.  While a few small Seneca villages had been overlooked, the power of the Iroquois confederacy was forever broken.  The spirit of the bloodthirsty allies of the Tories was humbled by the destruction of their homes and the larger portion of them scattered to the westward and settled anew in villages west of the Genesee, near the shores of Lake Erie, along the Allegheny and Niagara.  The period of the Indian occupancy of Ontario county had passed. 

But the territory now embraced in Ontario county was never “occupied” by the Indians in the sense which that word carries as applied to its present population.  Although there is evidence of numerous Seneca settlements in the county, the fact should not be accepted as indicating any general occupancy of the land.  The settlements heretofore mentioned and many others of lesser size were of different periods.  The relics which are found on their sites, varying as they do from those exclusively of the stone age to those that show an admixture of glass beads, iron hatchets and copper ornaments, with religious tokens and remnants of old muskets and sabers, all of European manufacture, prove to the discriminating student that some of these settlements were of great age, their whole history antedating the appearance of either the white trader, priest or soldier, while others clearly were more recent and of various periods.  As it has heretofore appeared, the Iroquois was practically a nomad.  The severe climate in which he lived necessitated somewhat substantial shelters, but his dwellings were simple and quickly constructed out of the bark and branches that strewed the forest.  He was a gregarious being, and for companionship with his kind or for protection against enemies, located his homes in groups of some size, but his household belongings were exceedingly limited and easily moved and he had no domestic animal except the dog.  He moved his home to new ground, as the game upon which he largely existed retreated, the soil on which he raised his crops was exhausted by repeated harvests, or the forest was cleared of the litter with which he built his fires.  These removals occurred every few years, averaging every 10 years perhaps, but the great forests that covered the region of which this is written did not at any one time shelter as many people as now make their homes in a single village or township. 

The part which the Iroquois played not only in the imagination of the early settlers, but actually in their lives and in the historic struggles that marked the advance of the rival forces destined finally to possess and use the land, might lead to the conclusion that they were a large and organized people.  Organized they were in a confederation remarkably effective for both offense and defense, but the entire Six Nations never probably exceeded 20,000 souls, nor had a fighting force of more than 4,000.  Of this force, the Senecas constituted the larger number.  Wentworth GREENHALGH in 1677, after careful personal investigation, said the Senecas had 1,000 warriors.  Sir William JOHNSON in 1763, reported they had 1050.  Missionary KIRTLAND in 1783, following their very disastrous wars with the French, estimated that the Senecas had no more than 600 warriors.  Following the war of the Revolution, in 1794, the Government found that there were then, all told, 1780 Senecas.  In 1818, Jasper PARISH said officially, “The population of the Six Nations of Indians is 4575.”  According to the United States census of 1890 the number of Iroquois then living in the States had grown to 7387, while there were 8483 in Canada, making a total of 15,870.  Of this number 5,239 were living in New York State, and 2767 of these of these were Senecas.


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