Indian Occupancy in New York

The SENECA nation of Indians were found occupying the region between the Genesee river and Cayuga lake, when it first became known to the whites.(1) At what period their abode became fixed here is a question not easily solved, since it is to incidental facts and traditions we are to look for light upon this subject, and these afford but uncertain data.

The country between the Genesee and the Niagara rivers, when first visited by Europeans, was nominally held by the KAH-KWAS, or Neutral Nation of Indians, though their villages were situated mainly along the latter river and extended nearly to the eastern shore off lake Huron, their hunting-grounds, however, included, as they claimed, the broad belt of debatable land that lay along the Genesee. In this doubtful frontier, inroads were frequently made by the Senecas, and conflicts between these two hostile tribes often took place. Soon after our knowledge of them begins, the Kahkwas, as we shall see, were conquered by the Senecas, and were either driven southward or exterminated.

At the opening of the Revolutionary war, a small band of Oneidas, and also a band of Tuscaroras, adhering to the British cause, (though these two tribes mainly espoused the Colonial side,) left their eastern villages and removed to the Genesee, where each established a town ; and a few of the Kah-kwas, descendants of those who had been adopted into the Seneca nation when their tribal organization was broken up, were found residing with the latter by the pioneers.

Of the races that preceded the Senecas and Kah-kwas we have little information, and even that little is derived mainly from local antiquities. This evidence, fragmentary at best, shows that, in the far off past, nations unlike the red aborigines have arisen, flourished here, and disappeared. The story is one of missing links and replete with mystery. Morgan says that the remains of Indian art here met with are of two kinds, and ascribable to widely-different periods. The former belong to the ante-Columbian, or era of Mound-Builders, whose defensive works, mounds, or sacred enclosures are scattered so profusely throughout the west'; the latter include the remains of fugitive races who, after the extermination of the Mound-Builders, displaced each other in quick succession, until the period of the Iroquois commenced.(2)

The Senecas, first known to the whites as a part of the Five nations, have a history of their own, independent of their connection with their associate nations, and, consequently, earlier than the League of the Iroquois. This fact is found in certain special features of their system of consanguinity and affinity, wherein they differ from the Mohawks, Onondagas, Oneidas and Cayugas, and in which they agree with the Tuscaroras and Wyandots or ancient Hurons, tending to show that they and the two latter formed one people later in time than the separation of the nations from the common stem.(3) It is most likely, however, that the Senecas were then north of the chain of lakes.

The Iroquois call themselves Ho-de/-no-sau-nee, or People of the Long House. Their league, formed about the year 1450,(4) embraced at first the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. Afterwards the Tuscaroras were admitted into the federation, constituting the sixth nation.(5) Their territory then extended from the Hudson to the Genesee river. Their legends say that the league was advised by Hiawatha, the tutelar patron of the Iroquois, on the occasion of a threatened invasion of their country by a ferocious band of warriors from north of the great lakes. Ruin seemed inevitable, and in their extremity they appealed to Hiawatha, lie urged the people to waste their efforts no longer in a desultory war, but to call a general council of the tribes. The meeting accordingly took place on the northern bank of Onondaga lake. Here, referring to the pressing danger, Hiawatha said: "To oppose these northern hordes singly by tribes, often with each other, is idle ; but by uniting in a band of brotherhood, we may hope to succeed." Appealing to the tribes in turn, he said to the Senecas: "You, who live in the open country and possess much wisdom, shall be the fifth nation, because you best understand the art of raising corn and beans and making cabins." Then addressing all, he concluded: "Unite the Five nations in a common interest, and no foe shall disturb or subdue us ; the Great Spirit will then smile upon us, and we shall be free, prosperous and happy. But if we remain as now, we shall be subject to his frown ; we shall be enslaved, perhaps annihilated, our warriors will perish in the war-storm, and our names be forgotten in the dance and song." His advice prevailed, and the plan of union was adopted. His great mission on earth accomplished, Hiawatha went down to the water, seated himself in his mystic canoe, and, to the cadence of music from an unseen source, was wafted to the skies.(6)

The Iroquois owe their origin as a separate people, if not indeed their martial glory, to the encroachments of a neighboring nation more powerful than they. Originally inclined to tillage more than to arms, they resided upon the northern bank of the St. Lawrence, in the vicinity of Montreal. Here, as one nation, they lived in subjection to the Adirondacks. But provoked by some infringement of rights, their latent spirit was aroused, and they struck for independent possession of the country. Failing in this, they were forced to quit Canada, and finally found their way into central and western New York, where, on the banks of its fair lakes and rivers, they at length laid the foundations of a power compared with which that of every other Indian nation falls far short.

It is said that the Iroquois had planned a mighty confederacy, and it is argued with reason, that had the arrival of the Europeans been delayed a century, the League would have absorbed all the tribes between the St. Lawrence and the Gulf of Mexico ; indeed the whole continent would have been at their mercy. In principal the league was not unlike the plan of our own federal government. It guaranteed the independence of each tribe, while recognizing the due powers of the confederation ; at the same time personal rights were held in especial esteem.

The aboriginal congress consisted of fifty sachems, of whom the Senecas had eight. This body usually met at the council-house of the Onondagas, the central nation, where all questions affecting the confederacy were deliberated upon and decided. The business of this rude parliament was conducted with becoming dignity. The reason and judgment of these grave sachems, rather than their passions, were appealed to ; and it is said to have been a breach of decorum for a sachem in the great council to reply to a speech on the day of its delivery. Unanimity was a requisite, indeed no question could be decided without the concurrence of every member. The authority of these wise men consisted in the nation's good opinion of their courage, wisdom and integrity. They served without badge of office, and without pay, finding their reward alone in the veneration of their people, whose interests they unceasingly watched. Indeed, public opinion nowhere exercised a more powerful influence than among the Iroquois, whose ablest men shared with the humblest in the common dread of the people's frown.

Subordinate to the sachems was an order of chiefs famous for courage and eloquence, among whom may be named Red Jacket, Cornplanter and Big Kettle, whose reasoning moved the councils, or whose burning words hurried the braves on to the war-path. No trait of the Iroquois is more to be commended than the regard they paid to woman. The sex were often represented in councils by orators known as Squaws men. Red Jacket himself won no little reputation in that capacity. The Indian woman could thus oppose a war, or aid in bringing about peace. In the sale of the soil they claimed a special right to interfere, for, they urged, "the land belongs to the warriors who defend, and to the women who till it." The Iroquois squaw labored in the field, but so did females, even the daughters of princes, in the primitive ages. Rebekah, the mother of Israel, first appears in biblical history as a drawer of water ; and the sweet and pious Ruth won the love of the rich and powerful Boaz, as a gleaner of the harvest.

Though broken in power in our Revolutionary war, the Iroquois confederacy remained a distinct people long after the eastern and southern tribes had lost their standing; yet the excellence of their system has served only to delay their complete subversion to the whites, and their gradual extinction as a separate people. From fifteen thousand souls, they are now reduced to a fourth of that number, and yet, with a persistency that must gain them at least poetic honors, they still preserve their ancient congress, and their several national divisions, and keep intact their tribal clans or organizations.(7)

At a general council of sachems and wise men, held at the Cattaraugus reservation in the fall of 1802, the elder portion wanted to return to ancient usages, urging that the league had fallen from its high estate by too readily admitting the customs of the pale face and the religion of the Bible. The younger men, on the other hand, advanced their ground, and showed a desire for even greater innovations. The end is sure, and, sooner or later, that marvel of pagan wisdom, the Confederacy of the Five Nations, must, even in name, disappear from living institutions.

Our scanty information about the early occupants of this region, forces us to complete the page of aboriginal story from traditions. "We turn therefore to the narrative of the Indian Cusick, and to similar sources.(8) In an account thus derived, dates must be wholly wanting in accuracy. As an instance, Cusick says the final troubles between the Senecas and the Eries took place about the time of the arrival of Columbus, when in truth they did not occur until a hundred and sixty years later.

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Website: The History
Article Name: Indian Occupancy in New York
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: A History of Livingston County, New York by Lockwood L. Doty; Publisher: Edward E. Doty-Geneseo 1876
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