The Early History of Ontario County , New York
Kindly transcribed by Deborah Spencer
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From the History of Ontario County, NY
Published 1893 Pg 23 - 35
Claims to Pre-historic Occupation--The First Occupants of the Region--The American Indian---The Iroquois Confederacy--Its Organization and System of Government--The Five and Six Nations--Final Downfall of the Confederacy.
informed persons of Ontario county believe that this region of the State
has produced unmistakable evidences of prehistoric occupation; that
there have been discovered certain relics and implements of peculiar
manufacture, the like of which are now unknown.
It is claimed that these evidences must have been left by a race
of people different from the Indians, the period of whose occupation
long antedated the coming of the ancestors of the famed Iroquois.
This claim is undoubtedly a mistaken one, for recent
invesigations have shown to us that there has been no possession by any
race that cannot be readily reconciled with the theory of continuous
It is undoubtedly true that there have been found tools and
utensils which were never in common use among the Indians, but the
reader will remember that the Jesuit fathers traversed this region more
than a century before any settlement was made by what we call our own
people; and it will be remembered, too, that the crude and to us
unaccountable implements were then in the hands of comparative ancients,
and were the product of a period in which was known but little of
mechanical arts, as we see and understand and use them at the present
as the year 1000 the Icelanders had explored the country east of the
State of New York, and although they made no settlements, they may have
extended their travels over a region of which we have no record.
It may be possible that this people brought and left some
implements in use by them at that time, which were imitated by the
Indian occupants of the region.
The latter, especially the first of them that visited this
region, are recorded as being ready and apt in the construction of
weapons and tools, and discovering some ancient implement imitated it
for their own purpose.
That they had an immature and indefinite knowledge of metals and
their value there is no doubt, but with the advent of European
discoverers in the fifteenth century and afterward, and the distribution
of various utensils and implements of improved pattern, the necessity of
former crude manufactures was obviated, and they were therefore
discarded and replaced with others more substantial.
It may be stated, however, in the present connection that in the
regions bordering on Lake Erie, particularly in the State of Ohio, there
have been discovered unmistakable evidences of an ancient occupation far
back of the coming of the Iroquois ancestors, or of their old
antagonists, the LENNI LENAPES.
Neither of these Indian people had any tradition that run to the
time of the Mound Builders; but the discoveries of such an occupation
are constantly being made by careful investigators.
There have been found in the region of Lake Ontario and Erie
evidences that tend to show an ancient or pre-historic occupancy, but it
can hardly be asserted that there has been discovered any relic or
instrument which would lead the candid student of archeology to believe
that Ontario county was the dwelling place of an earlier race of people
than the Iroquois, or the Indians who preceded them.
English, and Dutch discoveries and explorers during the early years of
the seventeenth century found the region of country, now known as the
State of New York, to be in possession of a powerful race of American
Indians, who styled themselves Hodenosaunee, which signifies "the
people of the Long House," likening their confederacy to a long
house, having partitions and separate fires, after their ancient method
of building houses, within which the several nations were sheltered
under a common roof.
The French called them "Iroquois," the exact meaning of
which name is veiled in obscurity.
To the later
Dutch settlers this people were known as "Maquaas," while to
the English settlers they were known as "Mingoes."
Iroquois confederacy, or as more commonly known to the pioneers of the
region, "the Five Nations," and subsequently the "Six
Nations," is believed to have had its origin about the year 1450.
The striking characteristic of the league was not mere fact of
five separate tribes being confederated together, for such unions have
been frequent among civilized and half civilized people, and sometimes
even among the savages of America.
The feature that peculiarly distinguished the people of the Long
House, and which at the same time bound together all these ferocious
warriors, was the system of clans extending through all the
"clan" has been adopted as the most convenient one to
designate the peculiar artificial families about to be described, but
the Iroquois clan was widely different from the Scottish one, all the
members of which owed undivided allegiance to a single chief, for whom
they were ready to fight against all the world.
Yet "clan" is a much better word than
"tribe," which is sometimes used, since that is the
designation usually applied to a separate Indian nation.
The Romans had their "gens," which were supposed
to have been originally natural families, though largely increased by
adoption; but these, like the Scottish clans, instead of binding
together dissevered sections, served under the control of aspiring
leaders as seed-plots of dissension and even of civil war.
If we can imagine the Roman gens extending through all the
nations of the Grecian confederacy, we will have an idea of the Iroquois
system, and had such been the fact it is more than probable that the
confederacy would have long survived the era of its actual downfall.
The tribes or nations of Indians comprising the Iroquois
confederacy were five in number prior to 1712, but about that time the
Tuscaroras were added, from which time the confederacy was otherwise
known as the Six Nations.
The Mohawks occupied the easter portion of the territory and were
made the "Receivers of Tribute" from subjugated tribes.
Next on the west were the Oneidas, then the Onondagas, Cayugas,
and Senecas in the order named.
The territory of the latter extended from the western portion of
Seneca Lake to the Genesee River, though the conquests made by the
confederacy afterward extended their
domain to the shores of Lake Erie.
The Senecas, numerically considered, were by far the most
powerful as well as fierce tribe of the confederacy, and from their
position were designated the "Doorkeepers" on the western
extremity of the Long House.
of the Iroquois confederacy were divided into a number of clans, the
names of which were as follows: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Turtle, Deer, Snipe,
Heron and Hawk, and some others.
Accounts differ, some declaring that every clan extended through
all the tribes, and others that only the Wolf, Bear, and Turtle clans
did so, the rest being restricted to a lesser number of tribes.
It is certain, however, that each tribe contained parts of the
three clans named and several of the others.
The Turtle, Bear, and Wolf clans were principal among all the
Moravian missionary, David ZEISBERGER, who labored among the Indians at
a very early day and learned much of their clan system, found the three
clans named to prevail through all the tribes, while in some of the
others they were hardly recognized.
The Turtle family was the noblest of all the clans.
The Senecas had the eight clans already named, and the Cayugas
had the same as the Senecas, except that they had an Eel clan instead of
the Heron, while the Onondagas were similar to the Cayugas, except that
the former had the Ball clan instead of the Hawk.
The Tuscaroras, who were received into the confederacy about
1712, had the Great Turtle and Little Turtle clans, the Gray Wolf and
the Yellow Wolf clans, and as well the principal clans before mentioned.
From this and from the names of a few others known to have
existed, we discover that there were a number of auxiliary or minor
clans existing among some of the tribes of the confederacy.
investigations of that eminent philologist, Horatio HALE, have
conclusively established the fact that HIAWATHA was the founder of the
his "Iroquois Book of Rites, D. G. BRINTON, Philadelphia," we
learn that HIAWATHA "elaborated in his mind the scheme of a vast
confederation which would ensure universal peace."
"It was to be indefinitely expansible.
The avowed design of its proposer was to abolish war altogether.
He wished the federation to extend until all tribes of men should
be included in it, and peace should everywhere reign."
The name by which their constitution or organized law is known
among them, says Mr. HALE, is Kayanerenh, to which the epithet
kowa ("great") is frequently added, making it "The Great
clan was a brotherhood; an aggregation of persons united by a common
tie, sometimes of origin, sometimes of mere locality.
Each clan formed a large artificial family, modeled on the
All the members of the clan, no matter how widely separated among
the tribes, were considered as brother and sister to each other, and
were forbidden to intermarry.
This prohibition, too, was strictly enforced by public opinion.
All the clan being thus taught from earliest infancy that they
belonged to the same family, a bond of the strongest kind was created
throughout the confederacy. The Oneida of the Wolf clan had no sooner
appeared among the Cayugas, than those of the same clan claimed him as
their special guest, and admitted him to the most confidential intimacy.
The Seneca of the Turtle clan might wander to the country of the
Mohawks, at the farthest extremity of the Long House, and he had a claim
upon his brother Turtle which they would not dream of repudiating.
whole confederacy was linked together.
If at any time there appeared a tendency toward conflict between
the different tribes, it was instantly checked by the thought that, if
persisted in, the hand of the HERON must be lifted against his brother
Heron; the hatchet of the Bear might be buried in the brain of his
kinsman Bear. And
so potent was the feeling that for more than three hundred years, and
until the power of the league was broken by overwhelming outside force,
there was no serious dissension between the tribes of the Iroquois.
Whether the Hodenosaunee were originally superior in valor and
eloquence to their neighbors cannot now be ascertained.
Probably not; but their talent for practical statesmanship gave
them the advantage in war, and being enabled to procure arms and
ammunition from the Dutch, which the other nations were not able to get,
their success made them self-confident and fearless.
The business of the league was necessarily transacted in a
congress of sachems, and this fostered oratorical powers, until at
length the Iroquois were famous among a hundred rival nations for
wisdom, courage and eloquence, and were justly denominated by
Chateaubriand "The Romans of the New World."
Aside from the clan system just described, which was entirely
unique, the Iroquois league
had some resemblance to the great American Union, which succeeded and
The central authority was supreme on questions of peace and war
and on all other relations to the general welfare of the confederacy,
while the tribes, like the States, reserved to themselves the management
of their ordinary affairs.
In peace all power were confided to "sachems," in war
The sachems of each tribe acted as its rulers in the few matters
which required the exercise of civil authority.
The same rulers also met in congress to direct the affairs of the
were 50 in all, of whom the Mohawks had nine, the Oneidas nine, the
Onondagas fourteen, the Cayugas ten, and the Senecas eight.
These numbers, however, did not give proportionate power in the
congress of the league, for all the nations were equal there.
There was in each tribe a number of war chiefs, and these were
the active leaders on the war path.
When a council assembled, each sachem had an assistant or chief
standing behind him to execute his orders.
But in a war party the war chief commanded and the sachem took
his place in the ranks.
Each nation had a head chief, to whom belonged the right and duty
of lighting the council fire and taking the first place in public
was the system in its simplicity.
Some time after the arrival of the Europeans they seem to have
fallen into the habit of electing chiefs--not war chiefs---as counselors
to the sachems, who in time acquired equality of power with them, and
were considered their equals by the white in the making of treaties.
difficult to learn the truth regarding a political and social system
which was not preserved by any written record.
That congress of sachems always met at the council fire of the
was the natural result of their central position, the Oneidas and
Mohawks being to the east of them, with the Cayugas and Senecas on their
latter were unquestionably the most powerful of all the tribes, and as
they were located at the western extremity of the Long House, they had
to bear the brunt of war whenever the confederacy was assailed by the
formidable foes who dwelt in that quarter.
It would naturally follow, therefore, that the principal war
chiefs of the league should be of the Seneca nation, and hence two war
chiefships were assigned to that nation, who had the general supervision
of the affairs of war.
many other savage tribes, the right of heirship was in the female line.
An Indian's heirs were his sister's son; never his own son, nor
his brother's son.
The few articles which constituted his personal property, even
his bow and tomahawk, never descended to the son of him who had wielded
so far as they were hereditary at all, followed the same law of descent.
The child also followed the clan and tribe of the mother.
An apt illustration of this law is found in the case of RED
JACKET, whose father was a Cayuga and his mother a Seneca of the Wolf
clan, his rank therefore made him a Seneca also of the Wolf clan.
of the application of this rule to the Iroquois system of clans was that
if a particular sachemship having been established in a certain clan of
a certain tribe, in that clan and tribe it was expected to remain.
When it became vacant the new official was elected by the clan
and was then "raised up" by the congress of sachems.
Next to the
sachems in point of position and importance were the chiefs, whose
number was unlimited, and who, in course of time, became coequal in
power with the sachems in the administration of the affairs of the
tribes and of the confederacy.
The office of chief was not hereditary but elective, and was
attained as a reward of bravery by those who had distinguished
themselves in battle, by eloquence, or by some act of public service
through which they gained distinction.
The noted Seneca warrior, CORNPLANTER, whose bravery made him
eminent in the confederacy; the matchless orator RED JACKET, whose
powerful address made his name of world-wide fame; and the renowned
Mohawk, Captain Joseph BRANT, are only a few of the many names that
might be recalled who were chiefs and yet gained honors in the
confederacy equal to the sachems.
the modified system of hereditary power in vogue, the constitution of
every tribe was essentially republican, each retaining its own
independent power and rights in its own territory, and maintaining its
own distinct interests and exercising a vigorous life in its appropriate
eight Seneca sachems, with the chiefs of the tribe, formed the council
by which its tribal affairs were administered.
Warriors, old men, and even women, attended the various councils
and made their presence felt.
One feature of the Iroquois polity was that the
land belonged to the warriors who defended them, and to the women who
cultivated them, and that the women, being mothers of the warriors, held
a claim upon the lands which could not be alienated without their tacit
consent or their active participation in the council.
There were in every tribe head or chief women, and in every clan
were "old women" who had a controlling influence in all its
the deliberations of the council the women of the tribe were represented
by their chosen spokesman who was designated as their "mouth."
government of the confederacy or in the control of the tribal affairs,
there was shown a remarkable freedom from tyranny over the people,
though there was great tyranny by the league over conquered nations.
In fact there was very little government of any kind, and very
little need of any.
There were few property interests to guard, all land being in
common, and each man's personal property being limited to a bow,
tomahawk and a few deerskins.
Liquor had not lent its disturbing influence, and few quarrels
were to be traced to the influence of woman, for the Indian was
singularly free from the warmer passions.
His principal vice was an easily aroused and unlimited hatred,
but the tribes were so small and enemies so convenient that there was no
difficulty in gratifying this feeling outside his own nation.
The consequence was that although the war parties of the Iroquois
were continually shedding the blood of their foes, there was very little
quarreling at home.
religious creed of the Iroquois was limited to a somewhat vague belief
in the existence of a "Great Spirit," and several inferior yet
very potent evil spirits.
They had a few simple ceremonies, one called the "green corn
dance," performed at the time indicated by its name, and others at
other seasons of the year.
From a very early date their most important religious ceremony
was the "burning of the white dog," when an unfortunate canine
of the requisite color was sacrificed.
To this day the pagans among the Indians still perform this rite,
believing with the the destruction of the dog their sins are likewise
with their fellow savages on this continent, the Iroquois have been
termed "fast friends and bitter enemies."
They were much stronger enemies than friends.
Revenge was the ruling passion
of their nature, and cruelty was their abiding characteristic, and it is
idle to talk of the goodness of men who roasted their captives at the
Indians were faithful to their own tribes, and the Iroquois were
faithful to their confederacy, but outside these limits their friendship
could not be counted on, and treachery was always to be apprehended in
dealing with them.
In their family relations they were not harsh to their children,
and not wantonly so to their wives, but the men were invariably
indolent, and all labor was contemptuously abandoned to the weaker sex.
They were not an amorous race, but could hardly be called a moral
passions rarely led them into adultery, and mercenary prostitution was
entirely unknown, but they were not sensitive on the question of purity,
and readily permitted their maidens to form fleeting alliances with
Polygamy was not practiced.
They could be divorced at will by their lords, but the latter
seldom availed themselves of their privilege.
wonderful politico-social league and their extraordinary success in war
were the special attributes of the people of the Long House, for a
hundred and thirty years the masters, and for more than two centuries
the occupants of the county of Ontario.
numerical strength of the confederacy is believed never to have exceeded
20,000 persons, and there is no record showing that after the whites
came to the region that the Iroquois numbered more than 2,500 warriors,
nor as many as 15,000 persons.
Those who had the best opportunity to know, place the force of
fighting men in the league in 1667 at 2,150, but this was soon after
their grand conquest in which they subjugated all other Indian nations
east of the Mississippi, and in the wars of that period they were
believed to have lost about 1,000 warriors.
In 1687, as reported to Maquis DENONVILLE, governor-general of
Canada, the confederacy had 2,000 warriors.
In 1763 Sir William JOHNSON, superintendent of Indian affairs in
North America, made a census enumeration of the Six Nations, in which it
was found to contain 1,950 warriors, of which number there were 160
Mohawks, 250 Oneidas, 140 Tuscaroras, 150 Onondagas, 200 Cayugas and
At the beginning of the Revolution it was stated on good
authority that the confederacy numbered 2,200 fighting men, while its
whole population was about 12,000.
The missionary, Samuel KIRKLAND, in 1783 estimated the total
number of warriors at 1,900, of whom 600 were Senecas.
In 1794, on the division of an annuity by the government, there
were 628 Oneidas, 40 Cayugas, 450 Onondagas, 400 Tuscaroras and 1,780
the same time there was estimated to be in Canada 300 Mohawks, 460
Oneidas, a grand total of 4,058.
A report to the Legislature in 1819 stated the number of Indians
in this State as 4,976.
French first visited the vicinity of Western New York the territory
thereabouts, in what is now Erie county, was in possession of a tribe of
Indians called the Neuter Nation.
Their Indian name is given by some early travelers as Kahquah,
and by others as Attiwondaronk.
The former is the name by which they have been generally known.
The name Neuter Nation was given them by the French, because they
lived at peace with the fierce tribes which dwelt on either side of
were reported by their first European visitors to number 12,000 persons,
which, however, was doubtless a very great exaggeration.
They were nevertheless a large and powerful nation, and their
villages lay on both sides of the Niagara River.
part of the shore of Lake Erie was occupied by the tribe from which the
lake derives its name.
Northwest of the Neuter Nation dwelt the Algonquins and Hurons,
their territory reaching to the shores of the great lake which bears
their name, while to the southeast was the home of those powerful
confederates whose fame has extended throughout the world, whose warlike
achievements have compelled the admiration of soldiers, whose eloquence
has thrilled the hearts of the most cultivated hearers, the brave,
sagacious and far-dreaded Iroquois.
enmity prevailed between the Iroquois and the Hurons, while the
hostility between the former and the Eries was scarcely less bitter.
Between these contending foeman the peaceful Kahquahs long
maintained their neutrality, and the warriors of the East, of the
Northwest and of the Southwest suppressed their hatred for the time, as
they met by the council-fires of these peacemakers.
Like other Indian tribes, the Kahquahs guarded against surprise
by placing their villages a short distance from any navigable water.
1641 the Kahquahs succeeded in maintaining their neutrality between the
fierce belligerents on either side of them, though the Jesuit
missionaries reported them as being more friendly to the Iroquois than
to the Hurons.
What cause of quarrel, if any, arose between the peaceful
possessors of the extreme western portion of original Ontario county and
the powerful confederates to the eastward, is entirely unknown, but
sometime during the next fifteen years the Iroquois fell upon both the
Kahquahs and the Eries and exterminated them as a nation from the face
of the earth. The
precise years in which these events occurred are uncertain, nor is it
known whether the Kahquahs or the Eries first suffered from the deadly
anger of the Five Nations.
French accounts favor the view that the Neuter Nation was first
destroyed, while according to Seneca tradition the Kahquahs still dwelt
in the territory when the Eries were annihilated.
According to ancient Seneca tradition, the Eries, who were of
themselves a powerful nation, had been jealous of the Iroquois from the
time the latter formed their confederacy.
Asserting superiority, they challenged their rivals to a grand
game of ball, which challenge for two successive years was declined, but
being again repeated, was accepted by the confederates.
The opposing representatives met in the western part of what is
now this State, the meeting resulting in the defeat of the challenges,
where-upon the Eries then proposed a foot-race between ten of the
fleetest young men on each side.
Again the Iroquois were victorious.
Then, as the story goes, the Kahquahs invited the contestants to
their home, and while there the chief of the Eries, smarting under the
recent defeat, proposed a wrestling match between ten champions on each
side, the victor in each bout to have the privilege of braining his
adversary with his tomahawk.
This challenge, too, was accepted, and in the first contest the
Iroquois wrestler threw his antagonist, but declined to play the part of
executioner, upon which the now enraged Erie chieftain struck the
unfortunate wrestler dead.
Another and another of the Eries was in the same way defeated and
in the same manner dispatched by his wrathful chief.
jealousy and hatred of the Eries was still more inflamed by defeat, and
they soon laid a plan to surprise and destroy the Iroquois, but a Seneca
woman, who had married among the Eries, but was then a widow, fled to
her own people and gave notice of the attack.
Runners were sent out, and all the warriors of the confederacy
and led forth to meet the invaders.
The two bodies met near Honeoye Lake, half way between
Canandaigua and the Genesee, and after a terrible conflict the Eries
were totally defeated, the flying remnants pursued to their homes by the
victorious Iroquois, and the whole nation almost completely destroyed.
It was five months before the conquerors returned from their
Afterward a powerful party of descendants of the Eries came from
the far west to attack the Iroquois, but were utterly defeated and slain
to a man, their bodies burned and the ashes buried in a mound near the
old Indian church on the Buffalo Creek reservation.
Such is the
tradition, a very nice story---for the Iroquois.
Nothing, of course, can be learned from such a story regarding
the merits of the war, except that it tends to show that the two great
battles between the combatants were fought in the territory of original
Ontario county, and the first of them in the very heart of the Seneca
possessions, and within the borders of the county as it at present
may be stated, however, that French accounts tend to show that the
Kahquahs joined the Iroquois in warfare against the Hurons, but were
nevertheless unable to avert their own fate; that collisions occurred
between them and their allies of the Five Nations in 1647, followed by
open war in 1650, resulting in the speedy destruction of the Kahquahs.
Also that the Iroquois then fell upon the Eries and exterminated
them about the year 1653.
Some accounts make the destruction of the Neuter Nation as early
as 1642. Amid
these conflicting statements we only know that between 1640 and 1655 the
fierce confederates "put out the fires" of the Kahquahs and
the Eries, and it is said that a few of the former were absorbed into
the community of their conquerors.
overthrow of the Kahquahs and Eries, the Iroquois lords of Ontario
county went forth conquering and to conquer.
This was probably the day of their greatest glory.
Stimulated, but not yet crushed by contact with the white man,
they stayed the progress of the French into their territories, they
negotiated on equal terms with the Dutch and English, and, having
supplied themselves with the terrible arms of the pale-faces, they smote
with direct vengeance whomsoever of their own race were so unfortunate
as to provoke their wrath.
On the Susquehanna, on the Alleghany, on the Ohio, even to the
Mississippi in the west, and the Savannah in the south, the Iroquois
bore their conquering arms, filling with terror the dwellers alike on
the plains of Illinois and in the glades of Carolina.
They strode over the bones of the slaughtered Kahquahs to new
conquests on the great lakes beyond, even to the foaming cascades of
Michillimacinac, and the shores of the mighty Superior.
They inflicted such terrible defeat upon the Hurons, despite the
alliance of the latter with the French, that many of the conquered
natives sought safety on the frozen borders of Hudson's Bay.
In short, they triumphed on every side, save only where the white
man came, and even he for a time was held at bay by these fierce
of the European nations on the American continent was the forerunner of
the downfall of the Iroquois confederacy, and doubtless the ultimate
extinction of the Indian race.
The French invasions, particularly those of 1693 and three years
later, cost the confederacy half it warriors; their allegiance to the
British crown (with the exception of the Oneidas) in the Revolutionary
War, proving to be an allegiance with a falling power--these causes,
operating with the dread vengeance from the American colonist who had so
frequently suffered at the hands of the savages, broke up the once
powerful league and scattered its members to a large extent upon the
friendly soil of Canada, or left them at the mercy of the State and
general government, which consigned them to reservations.
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