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 35 - 42



The Seneca Indians, the Original Occupants of Ontario County---Their Origin--The French first Visit the Senecas--Beginning of Hostilities--Seneca Villages and their Location--Missionaries among the Indians--Results of their Labors. 

THE Seneca Indians, who are frequently mentioned in the proceeding chapter, were, so far as we have any knowledge, the original owners and occupants of the soil of Ontario county.  It is understood that their earliest possessions did not extend west of the Genesee, but with the overflow of other Indian nations by the Iroquois confederacy, about the middle of the seventeenth century, the domain of the Senecas was extended westward to the Niagara, or substantially including the territory embraced within Ontario Co., as originally created.  And inasmuch as the proceeding chapter has referred only in a general manner to the Senecas, and having special reference to the confederacy as a whole body, it is proposed in the present chapter to devote special yet brief attention to the Seneca Indians, their traditions, customs, villages and domestic life. 

Little is known of the Senecas prior to the advent of the French, but from the first knowledge of them they were considered and in fact were the most powerful and warlike of the confederated tribes, and being stationed at the western extremity of the "Long House," they had to guard against invasion from that quarter; for in the regions west and southwest of their domain dwelt the Eries, the Andastes, the Delawares and other powerful tribes, which nations were at enmity with the Iroquois. 

The Senecas called themselves "Nun-da-wa-o-no," which signifies "the great hill people," or "people of the great hill."  This was the name of their oldest village, situated upon a hill near the head of Canandaigua Lake, where according to Seneca tradition, the tribe originated by springing from the ground.  According to the authority of Dr. MORGAN, the locality of Seneca origin is in Middlesex, Yates county, and is known as "Bare Hill," being situated six or seven miles from the head of the lake.  The hill rises with a gradual ascent to the height of about 1000 feet.  Indian tradition associates Bare Hill with much interest, and while the versions have been numerous, the story runs about the same in each account, and being merely a tradition, and having no possible foundation in fact, it is omitted from these pages.  However, it may be stated that on the top of Bare Hill the Senecas were wont to assemble annually and offer up their sacrifices, and, according to S. C. CLEVELAND, twenty years ago there were still discernible on the summit of the hill, "the traces of an ancient fort, covering about an acre and surrounded by a ditch, and formerly by a formidable wall."  The same authority says, referring to the old structures, "they indicate defenses raised by Indian hands, or more probably belong to the labors of a race that preceded the Indian occupation."  Seneca tradition has it that after the destruction of all their race (save two, a boy and a girl, who were spared by the serpent) the hill top was abandoned and the coming generations of the tribe, who must have descended from the spared couple, built up their village on the west shore of Seneca Lake, where now stands the village of Geneva. 

The origin and meaning of the name "Seneca," appears to be quite uncertain, while the word itself has no less than one hundred variations.  The first Europeans who visited these Indians in their territory were the Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries, and their earliest knowledge of them came through the Huron Indians of Canada, and by the latter they were called "Sonontouerhonons;" that is "people of Sonnontouan."  Sonontowane is probably the most correct form of the name, although it is sometimes prefixed with the letter T which represents the lisping sound of S quite common among the Senecas.  It means "great hill" or mountain, conveying the idea of people of the mountain or mountaineers. 

In August, 1669, LA SALLE, accompanied by two priests, DE CASSON and GALINEE, made a visit to the principal Seneca village, which was situated about twenty miles southerly from the head of, Irondequoit Bay.  GALINEE was the historian of this expedition, and his journal reports this as the first visit of LA SALLE to the Senecas.  The visitors were very hospitably received.  The village, like those of all the Indians, was a mere collection of cabins, surrounded with palisades about twelve or thirteen feet high, bound together at the top, and supported at the bottom by piles of wood.  Of the Senecas, GALINEE says that they were the most numerous and had four villages, two of which contained about one hundred cabins each, while the others had about thirty each, and the number of warriors was about 1,000 or 1,200.  On the occasion of this visit LA SALLE and the priest, escorted by two Seneca Indians, made a visit to a certain burning spring, the location of which is at Bristol Center in this county. 

During the spring and summer of 1677 Wentworth GREENHALGH, an Englishman, visited all the Five Nations and made very minute observations, counting the houses of the Indians, as well as numbering the warriors of each tribe.  He reported the Senecas as having 1000 warriors, while their villages were named Canagora, Tiotohatton, Canoe-nada, and Keint-he.  "Canagora and Tiotohatton," says Greenhalgh, "lye within thirty miles of ye Lake Frantenacque [Lake Ontario], and ye other two lye about four or five miles apiece to ye southward of those.  They have abundance of corn.  None of their towns are stockaded.  Canagora lies on the top of a great hill, and in that, as well as in the bigness, much like Onondaga, containing 150 houses. 

"Tiotohatton lies on the brink or edge of a hill; has not much cleared ground; is near the river Tiotehatton, which signifies bending.  It lies to westward of Canagorah about 30 miles, containing about 120 houses, being ye largest of all ye houses wee saw, ye ordinary being 50 to 60 feet long with 12 and 13 fires in one house.  They have a good store of corn growing about a mile to the northward of the town." 

Greenhalgh also states that he was at this place on the 17th of June, at which time about 50 prisoners were brought in from the south-westward, four of whom were put to death.  On the eighteenth, as he journeyed towards Canagorah, he overtook the party with the prisoners, and discovered that the captives had been slashed with knives, their fingers cut off, and on reaching Canagorah the tortures were continued for about seven hours, four men, four women and one boy being burned at the stake.  Of the other villages Greenhalgh says: 

"Canoenada lyes about four miles to ye southward of Canagorah; conteynes about 30 houses, well furnished with Corne. 

"Keint-he lyes about four or five miles to ye southward of Tietehatton; contains about 24 houses, well furnished with Corne." 

He also says that the French called Canagorah St. Jacques (St. James), and Tiotohatton is likewise called La Conception. 

In 1654, when a peace was temporarily established between the French and the Five Nations, permission was granted to the Jesuits to found missions and build chapels in the Iroquois county.  Between that time and 1769 there were twenty-four missionaries who labored among the Indians of New York, but all, whether Catholics or Protestants, were eventually forced to admit that their efforts as a whole were unsatisfactory and discouraging.  Later religious and educational work among the Indians, even down to the present time, while yielding perhaps sufficient results to justify its prosecution, has constantly met with the most discouraging obstacles among the tribes themselves.  Rev. Samuel KIRKLAND, who labored as a missionary among the Iroquois for a number of years and who resided at Kanadesaga during 1765 and 1766, says: "I cannot help being of the opinion that Indians never were intended to live in a state of civilized society.  There never was, I believe, an instance of an Indian forsaking his habits and savage manners any more than a bear his ferocity."  The Doc. Hist. of New York, referring to Mr. KIRKLAND's missionary labors, says: "He has taken all the pains that a man can take, but his whole flock are Indians still, and like the bear, which you can muffle and lead out to dance to the sound of music, becomes again a bear when his muffler is removed and the music ceases.  The Indians will attend public worship and sing extremely well, following Mr. Kirkland's notes, but whenever the service is over they wrap themselves in their blankets and either stand like cattle on the sunny side of a house, or lie before a fire."  In this connection we may state that Mr. KIRKLAND was one of the ablest and most self-sacrificing of the many missionaries who labored among the Senecas, and what he could not accomplish in his work it may safely be concluded others could not. 

In the present connection, also, we may with propriety refer by name to the Jesuit fathers and missionaries who labored among the Senecas at an early day.  Simeon LE MOYNE, a veteran Huron missionary, labored among the Indians during a part of the year 1654, followed the next year by Joseph CHAUMONOT accompanied by Claude DABLON.  Father CHAUMONOT did not remain long with the Senecas, and returning to Onondaga, was sent to the Oneidas.  Early in 1657, a plot to exterminate the French colony and the missionaries being discovered, the latter were hastily called in, while the whole colony fled from the country.  A fierce war followed between the French and the Iroquois, lasting two years, and it was not until the fall of 1668 that another mission was established among the Senecas, when Father James FREMIN arrived.  Of his experiences Father FREMIN says: "When I arrived here at the close of the year 1668, I was well received; but a fatal form of sickness breaking out at the time, desolated the entire region, so that I was wholly occupied in visiting the cabins to instruct, and baptize the sick who were in extremity.  I baptized more than 120 persons, nearly all adults, of whom more than ninety died soon after baptism.  But as I was alone and could not leave the field, more than 150 died (without baptism) in districts far removed from here, while engaged in fishing or hunting."  This induced Father FREMIN to send for assistance, and Father Julian GARNIER went to his aid; but when the latter arrived the contagion had ended, whereupon Father GARNIER assumed charge of the town named Gandachiragoue, where he soon built a commodious chapel.  In relation to his own work Father FREMIN says: "On the 27th of September I entered the town called Gandougarae (St. Michael) and was received with every demonstration of public joy.  The town is composed of remnants of three different nations, which, having been subdued by the Iroquois, were forced to submit at the discretion of their conquerors, and to establish themselves in their territory."  While a chapel was being built, Father FREMIN visited the people in their cabins.  In August, 1669, the priest was called to Onondaga, and it was during his absence that LA SALLE, in company with the priests, of whom mention has already been made, visited the Senecas in furtherance of the expedition to prosecute his discoveries toward the Mississippi River.  Later on Father FREMIN assumed charge of the mission at Gandougarae, or St. Michael, and Father GARNIER at Gandachiragoue, or St. John.  However, toward the close of the year Father FREMIN returned to Canada, leaving Father GARNIER in sole charge of the Seneca missions at La Conception, St. James, and St. Michael, but in the spring of 1671 his labors were interrupted at the latter place by the burning of the town, and the chapel was not replaced until the following year.  In 1672 Father Peter RAFFEIX took charge of the mission of the Conception, and in a year or two afterward Father Jean PIERRON was assigned to the mission of St. James.  In 1677 Father PIERRON was recalled, and in 1680 Father RAFFEIX left, leaving Father GARNIER alone, who continued among the Senecas until 1683, when, being secretly informed that the French intended to make war upon the Iroquois, he escaped in a bark which had been built by the French governor to trade on Lake Ontario. 

The French occupation of the Niagara River in 1678, by LA SALLE, made it necessary to send a courier to the Senecas to quiet their suspicions, and avoid the probability of an attack upon LA SALLE and his company, who were desirous of building a small vessel with which to navigate the lakes.  This mission was confided to Sieur DE LA MOTTE and Father HENNEPIN, the latter a Flemish Recollect and the historian of the expedition.  The party left Niagara on Christmas day, traveled a distance of about eighty miles, and reached the Seneca village on the last day of the year.  Father HENNEPIN conducted the business entrusted to him, but LA MOTTE soon returned to Canada.  After a grand council with the Senecas, LA SALLE's representatives succeeded in quieting the apprehensions of the savages regarding his intentions, and also gained consent to effect the lodgment on the banks of the Niagara River for the purpose of building a vessel.  The work of construction was at once begun and carried on throughout the winter, two Indians of the Wolf clan of the Senecas being employed to hunt deer for the French party.  In the following spring the vessel was launched, "after having been blessed according to the rites of our Church of Rome."  The new ship was named Le Griffon (The Griffin) in compliment to Count DE FRONTENAC, minister of the French colonies, whose coat of arms was ornamented with representations of that mythical beast.  The Griffin remained several months in the Niagara.  Meanwhile Father HENNEPIN returned to Fort Frontenac (now Kingston) and obtained two priestly assistants. 

The labors of the Jesuit fathers among the Senecas and other nations of the Iroquois were so contested at every step, and their lives so constantly endangered that it was enough to dishearten and discourage the most courageous missionary worker, as will be more fully mentioned in a subsequent chapter.  The English, in 1664, conquered New Amsterdam and the Netherlands, and thereafter for a period of a hundred years were either covertly or openly scheming to work the overthrow of the French power in America.  Knowing full well the hatred of the Iroquois for the French and the Canada Indians, they neglected no opportunity to incite the savages to deeds of violence against the French, as well as against the missionary laborers among the Iroquois.  Indeed, after the English had set up a colonial government in America, and after the English and French had ceased secret opposition, and were openly contending for supremacy, the colonial legislature passed an act forbidding the presence of any missionary, of whatever denomination, representing the French power among the Iroquois.  It may be stated, however, that this legislative injunction was not fully respected among the western tribes of the confederacy, as the missionaries succeeded in ingratiating themselves in the affection of many of the Senecas, who welcomed and at times protected them, and it was only when the anger of the whole confederacy was aroused that the priests were compelled to vacate the field.

Created by Dianne Thomas  

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