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. 

MANY well 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 investigations have shown to us that there has been no possession by any race that cannot be readily reconciled with the theory of continuous Indian occupation.  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 time.  As early even 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. 

The French, 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." 

The 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 tribes. 

The word "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 eastern 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. 

The people 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 tribes.  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. 

The investigations of that eminent philologist, Horatio HALE, have conclusively established the fact that HIAWATHA was the founder of the league.  From 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 Peace." 

The Indian 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 natural family.  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. 

Thus the 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 overwhelmed it.  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 to "chiefs."  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 confederacy.  There 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 meetings.  This 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. 

It is 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 Onondagas.  This 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 west.  The 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 chief-ships were assigned to that nation, who had the general supervision of the affairs of war. 

As among 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 them.  Titles, 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. 

The result of the application of this rule to the Iroquois system of clans was that if a particular sachem ship 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. 

Notwithstanding 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 sphere.  The 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 affairs.  In the deliberations of the council the women of the tribe were represented by their chosen spokesman who was designated as their "mouth." 

In the 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. 

The 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 consumed. 

In common 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 stake.  All 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 one.  Their 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 distinguished visitors.  Polygamy was not practiced.  They could be divorced at will by their lords, but the latter seldom availed themselves of their privilege. 

Their 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. 

The 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 1,050 Senecas.  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 Senecas.  At 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. 

When the 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 them.  They 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. 

The greater 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. 

Deadly 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. 

Down to 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. 

The 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 were assembled 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 deadly pursuit.  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 exists.  It 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. 

After the 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 confederates. 

The advent 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.

Created by Dianne Thomas  

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