The Seneca Indians

Chapter 1


The Seneca Indians were the aboriginal occupants of the Town of Canadice and the outlying territory. Their main seat or metropolis was upon the present site of Geneva at the foot of Seneca Lake and was called "Kanadesaga," or "Ganundasaga," which signifies "new settlement village." Of the great confederacy, the Iroquois league, or "Six Nations," was predominate in civilization, population and power.

Traditionally, the Senecas originally broke forth in remote ages from the mountain at the head of Canandaigua Lake. In the dialect, therefore, they termed themselves "Ge-num-de-wah," or "Great Hill People," which is a true definition of the word Seneca. This mountain is situated in Middlesex, Yates County, and is known as Bare Hill. It rises with gradual ascent to an elevation of 1,000 feet, upon the summit of which the Senecas delved in the war dance and were accustomed to assembling annually to offer up their sacrifices. It is said that in consequence of those nocturnal festivities, the brow of the hill has become desolate and barren.

The country, especially about the chain of inland lakes, was thickly populated by a civil, industrious and enterprising nation, differing in every respect from the Senecas, having an existence antedating the Seneca's "Bare Hill" creation. Doubtless, this prehistoric people were like the Allegans or Mound Builders. There is considerable basis for this belief as in Canadice, as well as surrounding localities, are occasionally found stone implements such as axes, knives, pipes, pottery, etc. which cannot possibly be associated with the works of the Indian. They were of a separate and distinct nation.

In this chapter, we propose to treat of the Seneca in his Canadice home; his habits, personal appearance and general characteristics while roving the wilds of our hills and valleys and wielding the paddle on our lovely lake.

Away back a century prior to the first white settlement, we read of the privation experienced and the strenuous efforts made by such men as Rev. Samuel Kirkland, the ablest and most self-sacrificing missionary of the Senecas, says, "I cannot help being of the opinion that Indians were never intended to live in a state of civilized society." Rev. Kirkland is also responsible for the assertion that the Indians were never known to relinquish their habits and savage manner any more than a bear its ferocity. There certainly was a close approximation to the brute creation if half the blood-curdling tales written concerning them were true.

The Seneca wore about the waist a girdle made of seawant* sometimes called "the fin of the whale." A lap of "duffel" cloth or leather, about two feet broad by three feet long was worn by the men between the legs so that a square piece hung in the front over the abdomen and behind over the buttocks.

The feminine apparel consisted of a petticoat extended midway down the legs, lavishly ornamented by seawant. They also wrapped the naked body in deer skin in such a manner that the tips might be utilized as a fastening. A long robe, or toga, secured with a knot on the right shoulder and at the waist by a girdle, was sufficient for both sexes as an upper ornament. This also served as a bed cover at night.

For the most part, both sexes went bare headed. The women braided their hair in a plait behind, over which they drew a square cap thickly interwove with seawant. The ornament for the forehead were likewise decorated. Bracelets of seawant were worn around the neck and arms. Elk hides were the prevailing material used for shoes and stockings even though straw was also used. While men most invariable decorated their faces with many colored paints, the women were content with a dark spot here and there.

Polygamy was not in vogue with the Senecas excepting the chiefs who sometimes took three or four to themselves. Even such harmony prevailed that they were never at variance. Not without the advice and consent of parents and friends, minors did not marry, and when they did, their marital pledges were rarely violated. Widows and widowers were privileged to follow their own inclinations.

In celebrating their nuptials, it was customary that the bridegroom make a present to the bride. In case of the slight disagreement or misunderstanding, the wife was summarily dealt with. She was paid right off and put immediately out of the doors, whereupon she may wed another. This was an admirable arrangement as it not only did away with divorce expenses and domestic controversy, but afforded a means of obtaining a new wife at one's discretion.

In all instances of separation where there were children, they followed and assumed the name of the mother. They considered adultery, especially if committed in broad daylight, to be sinful. However, fornication was legitimate for the young women, providing it was for money. Wherefore, no one objected to marrying such persons. Yea, and verily, the married boasted of the numbers they had slept with while unmarried. Though a pronounced evil in modern ethics, it is not eliminated from human nature.

The Seneca woman, on the approach of the birth of a child, retired to a lonely place in the woods. Even in the severest cold, she erected a hut of mats, separated the child without any assistance, bathed and wrapped it around with matting and in a few days, returned home.

In sickness, the Senecas were exceedingly faithful to each other, and in death, the next of kin closed the eyes. Their funeral rites were a peculiar sort. The body was placed in a sitting position, usually facing the rising sun. A stone was place behind the head while about the corpse were deposited sundry articles such as a pot, kettle, a platter, spoon, provisions and wampum, all to be utilized in the hunting ground of the other world. There were also weapons of warfare interred with the dead which does not sustain the belief that their hereafter was a peaceful and happy one. About the primitive burial spot, pieces of wood were strewn which were finally covered with earth and stone.

Along the shores of Honeoye Lake and elsewhere in Canadice, are evidence of this mode of interment. Palisades were constructed in such a manner that the tomb resembled a little house, to which they paid divine reverence and propitiated the "Great Spirit." It was a grave profanation to desecrate such a place, the penalty being eternal banishment from "Indian Paradise." During all their obsequies, the men made no demonstration or outward sigh of grief, excepting perhaps an occasional grunt that savored more of satisfaction than it did remorse. While on the contrary, the women ripped and tore things up the back hilariously. They palmetted their breasts and scratched and dug at each other's faces. In short, a general all around fight.

The loudest lamentation was evinced by the mother on the death of her son. This capped the climax in the line of desperation. The maneuver usually began by severing the hair close to the scalp in the presence of all the relatives and, at the same time, calling the name of the deceased. This ended with the most appalling shrieks, caterwauling and confusion imaginable. Sometimes the wives performed the same harangue at the death of their husbands with the addition of painting their faces pitch black and, in a deer skin jerkin, went into mourning for a year.

Though the Senecas did not make the distinction between man as did other nations, yet they had high and low families. They also had superior and inferior Chiefs whose authority remained hereditarily in the home, amounting to but little more than the authority of a parent.

No trace of divine worship has ever been discovered in Canadice. They ascribe only great influence to the moon over the crops and the sun as "all seeing," and this was taken to witness as often as they made an oath. They fully believed that God dwelt beyond the stars, who, however, gave himself no uneasiness about terrestrial affairs because his attention was constantly occupied by the beautiful goddess, whose origin was unknown.

By Arthur N. Johnson

Published in 1908

Tradition hands down that the bark canoes of the peaceful Munsee nation traversed Canadice for many decades but were destroyed by their neighbors, the warlike Mengwes.

"The Munsee dreamed not of a for;
Unstrung were the warriors arm and bow,
And, couched on shins, he little thought
The fall of his nation was at hand
His ear no rattle of serpent caught
No gliding ghost of warning brought
While came the Mengwe band."

From Mr. Hosmer's poem, we read that the Munsee nation dwelt on the shores of Canadice during the last part of the fourteenth century. The entire tribe was put to death at the hand of the Mengwe, their supposed friendly neighbors, Save the fair maiden Onnolee. She was taken and bound to the belt of their leader, Mickinac, and compelled to follow him.

When they stopped to rest, Onnolee grasped the knife from her captors belt. With one mighty thrust, she buried the weapon deep in his side. She knew with this that her life was forfeited and ran with the fleetness of a deer while arrows whizzed by her in all directions.

She at last gained a crag overhanging the waters of Canadice Lake and it was beautifully remembered in the rhyme of W. H. C. Hosmer:

"Regardless of the whizzing storm
Of missiles raining round her form
Imploring eye she then upcast
And a low, mournful death hymn sang
On a hill and forest looked her last
One glance upon the water cast
And from the high rock sprang."

It is said that for more than three hundred years thereafter, the sainted form of the once beautiful Onnolee could be seen to rise from its watery grave.

Whether or not the white man ever trod Canadice's soil previous to the last decade of the eighteenth century, except now and then a hunter, may be somewhat a mooted question. For satisfactory reasons, we shall assume the position that General Sullivan, when he passed through the "Seneca Country" in 1779, went across the northern end of the Town of Canadice with his army.

We have no doubt that the whole of Western New York has been traversed again and again by hunters and trappers and that prisoners have lived with the Indians here perhaps for a century and a half before the advent of Sullivan in 1779.

The rites of adoption were in vogue among all the Indian tribes in the early days. The first mention of the adoption of whites among the Iroquois, or the Five Nations, was in 1703, when some French prisoners became part of their nation. The Dutch were furnishing arms to the Iroquois as early 1618, to be used against the French in Canada. This gun traffic was continued for many years and the almost constant collision of the European and American forces during that period most likely caused many whites to fall into the hands of the Indians.

Also, men disgusted with society or compelled with religious persecution often sought refuge with the savage tribes. The held slaves who escaped and were welcomed by the Indians. From the exotics thus transplanted to Indian soil, grew up that semi-civilization which was found among the six nations when the army of Sullivan came. Orchards and frame houses were found, trees were set in rows and an advance in civilization met him all along his route in this area.

It would indeed seem strange that the hardy and venturesome French should roam over one half of the Mississippi River Valley and leave the fertile region of Western New York unexplored. When seen how often and over so wide an expanse of country the civilized and savage races intermingled, sometimes in peace and often in conflict, it is probable that the lands of the Senecas were traversed over and over by white men long before the eighteenth century. So favorite a hunting ground as tradition has made the country between the Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice and Honeoye Lakes, It seems that it must have been visited by hunters, trappers and even missionaries perhaps a century or more before the time of the first settler. Indeed, we remember having heard that runaway Negroes and abandoned whites were living with the Indians in almost primitive costume long before the axe of the first settlers began its havoc among the primeval forests that overspread the ancient home of the Senecas.

* Twice a year the sea casts up the conkshells, the inside pillars of which were polished smooth and reduced to a certain size with a hole in the center by which to be strung upon threads. This was seawnat, or wampum.