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History and Origin of the Senecas Indians

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1614 Map of New Netherland
1614 Map of New Netherland – Oldest known map to name the Seneca Indians (written Sennecas)

One of the first traits which strikes an observer on entering the territory of this tribe, is the fact that they are called by a name which is not known in their vocabulary, and which they only recognize from having long been thus designated by others. Identical as it is in its present orthography, with the name of the Roman moralist, it is yet wholly improbable that it had any such origin; it must be regarded as an accidental coincidence of sound in some other Indian tongue. That this tongue is the Mohawk, a people who stood first in position east on the Iroquois borders, is probable, but not certain. The earlier authors spelt it with a k, with the a final, which probably had the usual broad sound. It occurs on a map of 1614, which was brought over from Holland recently, by the historical agent of the State, and has been laid, by that gentleman, before the New York Historical Society, with the proofs of its genuineness thus bringing the use of the word within five years of the voyage of Hudson.

The term by which they call themselves is Nundowaga, or the People of the Hill. A name which leads us at once to consider the accounts of their own origin. Various relations of this story have been given, differing in some of their details, but all coinciding in the main events, namely: that they originated and lived on a well known hill, at the head of Canandaigua lake, where they were put in eminent peril of utter destruction by a monstrous serpent, which circled itself about the fort and lay with its mouth open at the gate. The following is given from a native source, and has some novel details to recommend it.

While the tribe had its seat and council fire on this hill, a woman; and her son were living near it, when the boy, one day caught a small two-headed serpent, called Kaistowanea, in the bushes. He brought it home as a pet to amuse himself, and put it in a box, where he fed it on bird s flesh and other dainties. After some time it had become so large that it rested on the beams of the lodge, and the hunters were obliged to feed it with deer; but it soon went out and made its abode on a neighboring hill, where it maintained itself. It often went out and sported in the lake, and in time became so large and mischievous that the tribe were put in dread of it. They consulted on the subject one evening, and determined to fly next morning; but with the light of the next morning the monster had encircled the hill and lay with its double jaws extended before the gate. Some attempted to pass out, but were driven back; others tried to climb over its body, but were unable. Hunger at last drove them to desperation, and they made a rush to pass, but only rushed into the monster s double jaws. All were devoured but a warrior and his sister, who waited in vain expectancy of relief. At length the warrior had a dream, in which he was showed that if he would fledge his arrows with the hair of his sister, the charm would prevail over their enemy. He was warned not to heed the frightful heads and hissing tongues, but to shoot at the heart. Accordingly, the next morning he armed himself with his keenest weapons, charmed as directed, and boldly shot at the serpent s heart. The instantaneous recoiling of the monster proved that the wound was mortal. He began in great agony to roll down the hill, breaking down trees and uttering horrid noises, until he rolled into the lake. Here he slaked his thirst, and tried by water to mitigate his agony, dashing about in fury. At length he vomited up all the people whom he had eaten, and immediately expired and sunk to the bottom.[1]

The fort was immediately deserted, and all who had escaped went with their deliverer to, and fixed their council fire on, the west shores of Seneca Lake, where Geneva now stands.

The general course of the migration and conquests of the Senecas has, however, been towards the west. Taking their own general and ancient traditions of the parent stock, to wit, their origin in the valley of the Oswego, they may be supposed to have followed the Seneca branch of those outspread waters to the banks of the Seneca and Canandaigua lakes, and thence into the rich valley of the Genesee. At an early day they were limited to the region east of this capital stream, which, crossing the country in a transverse direction, formed a natural boundary. There lived west of it, in ancient times, a tribe who are known as Alleghans, Andastes and Eries, or, as the Senecas call them, Kah-Kwas. They had their council fires at or near Buffalo, extending west and also east. The people called by the French the Neuter Nation, had placed themselves, so far as we can learn, on the waters of Oak-Orchard creek, which draws its tributaries in part from the fertile districts of Genesee, Niagara and Orleans counties. From the accounts of the Tuscaroras, this people were governed in early times by a queen, who ruled over twelve forts in that quarter. North of them, embracing the Niagara ridge and the country below it, dwelt a branch of the Algonquin nation, who are called by the same authority, Twankannah. Other names occur, which are believed to be either synonyms for these, or minor divisions of the three principal tribes named, of which some further notice will be taken in a subsequent paper on the antiquarian remains of the country.

That these Trans-Genessean people were populous and warlike, not only maintaining their grounds against the Senecas, but often defeating them and driving them back, is proved not only by the traditions of the Senecas themselves, but by the striking evidences of their military strength and skill, denoted by the remains of forts and entrenchments and cemeteries, yet existing throughout the extensive area, included between the Genesee and the Niagara, extending up the southern shores of Lake Erie to Chautauque and the other principal known Indian routes to the waters of the Alleghany and Ohio. There is, at least, one authority[2] for believing that the Eries themselves were remotely descended from the Senecas, and we have living tradition to prove that, at the time of their final defeat and so called extermination, some of them fled west, whilst the remainder of them, scattered, cut up and depressed, were incorporated in the Seneca canton.

To the Twankannas, the Neuter Nation, and other tribes and bands, not being Eries, who lived in this portion of the State, the Iroquois applied the general term of Adirondacks,[3] a bold, warlike, northern race, who spread over many degrees of latitude and longitude in former days, covering, by generic affiliation with other tribes, all New England and the Atlantic coast, to North Carolina, and who are still, in their numerous and subdivided descendants, in the upper lakes and the west, the most numerous of any of the aboriginal stocks yet existing east of the Mississippi and Missouri. So long as the Iroquois remained divided, the Eries and their Algonquin allies kept their ground; and there is no reason to believe that they began to decline until a considerable period after the era of the Onondaga league. That league was at first but little more than an agreement to stand by each other, and to send delegates and forward news to a central council; but it put an end to intestine wars, and its popular capacities soon developed themselves, and made it formidable to their neighbors. Thus much by way of prelude to their wars, to be noticed hereafter.

The Senecas were from the earliest times the most powerful of the Iroquois, nearly doubling, in its best estate, the Mohawks. Their population in past days has been variously estimated, and often exaggerated. Perhaps Dalton, who puts it at 400 warriors, or 2,000 souls, during the American war, verges to the opposite extreme, and actually underrates it. Be this as it may, I found the entire Seneca population, within the State, to be 2,383, residing on four reservations in the counties of Niagara and Genesee, Erie, Chautauque, Cattaraugus and Alleghany. They were found to be divided into 538 families, who cultivated, in the aggregate, 8,416 acres of land. The produce of this land, as near as it could be obtained, as some declined stating it, was 21,341 bushels of corn, 3,745 of wheat, 20,039 of oats, and 12,469 of potatoes, besides buckwheat, turnips, peas, and smaller articles. They possess 1,537 neat cattle, 510 milch cows, 626 horses, 335 sheep, and 2,269 hogs. Other details of their advance in agriculture were equally flattering. They cut large quantities of meadow land, possess an adequate supply of farming utensils, carts, wagons, including many tasty buggies and sleighs. Very little of their means of subsistence, even in the most unfavored positions, is derived from the chase. Upwards of 4,000 fruit trees were counted. The style of their buildings, fences and household furniture, as well as the dress of the males, is not essentially different, and little, often nothing at all, inferior to that of their white neighbors. Temperance and temperance societies exist in a good state in each canton. Fifteen of their youth have received a collegiate or academic education. A number of these have studied professions. About 350 of the children attend private or missionary schools, and so far as I could obtain returns, some 250 adults are enrolled as members of Protestant churches. Of this number, there are several catechists and intelligent educated translators and interpreters of the language. On the four reservations, there are fifteen native mechanics and three physicians.

Thus it appears that the energies once devoted by their ancestors to war and hunting, are in good earnest now directed to husbandry and the arts; and there is every encouragement to hope, and reason to believe, that by a continuance in the best measures, they will be wholly reclaimed and added to the number of useful, intelligent and moral citizens. In viewing the condition of such a people, hardy, well formed and active, and pressing forward, as they are, in the great experiment of civilization, humanity consoles itself with the hope, that the energy and firmness of purpose which once carried them, in pursuit of warlike glory, far and wide, will develope itself, as it has already signally commenced to do, in the labors of the field and the workshop. Their rude picture writing upon the bark of trees, has given place to the school. Their prophets’ lodges have been converted into churches; their midnight orgies, at the Indian dancing house, into societies to promote temperance. It is but applying present experience to future results, to predict that these results may become general. The eloquence thrown out by a Red Jacket, in opposition to the further curtailment of their territory, may shine out, in some of his descendants, to enlighten his people in agriculture, morals and political economy. Nor ought we to doubt that the desk and the forum are yet to resound with Seneca eloquence.

Footnotes

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  1. If this be viewed as an allegory, it may admit of this interpretation. Internal feuds created by somebody brought up in their own lodges, originated hatred and hot blood. In a long and bloody war, the nation was nearly exterminated; at length the affections of a woman prevailed. Harmony was restored, and a new era of prosperity began, by removing the council fire to another place.
  2. Cusick.
  3. Called Algonquins by the French.

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