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
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.
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.
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,
and other powerful tribes, which nations were at enmity with the
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
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.
and meaning of the name "Seneca," appears to be quite
uncertain, while the word itself has no less than one hundred
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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:
lyes about four miles to ye southward of Canagorah; conteynes about 30
houses, well furnished with Corne.
lyes about four or five miles to ye southward of Tietehatton; contains
about 24 houses, well furnished with Corne."
says that the French called Canagorah St. Jacques (St. James), and
Tiotohatton is likewise called La Conception.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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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