Discover your family's story.
Enter a grandparent's name to get started.
There has been much said by different writers of aboriginal forts, and fort builders of western New York, in availing themselves of steeps, gulfs, defiles, and other marked localities, in establishing works for security or defense. This trait is, however, in no case more strikingly exemplified than in the curious antique work of Kienuka. The term “Kienuka,” means the stronghold or fort; but the original name of this fort is Gau-strau-yea, which means bark laid down; this has a metaphorical meaning, in the similitude of a freshly peeled slippery elm bark, the size of the fort and laid at the bottom as a flooring, so that if any person or persons go in they must be circumspect, and act according to the laws of the fort, or else they will slip and fall down to their own destruction.
The citadel of Kienuka is situated about four miles eastward of the inlet of Niagara gorge at Lewiston, on a natural escarpment of the ridge on the Tuscarora reservation, known at present by the name of the Old Saw Mill.
There is quite an interesting tradition connected with the antique fort Gau-strau-yea. At the formation of the confederacy of the Iroquois, there was a virgin selected from a nation which was called Squawkihaws (a remote branch of the Seneca nation), and was ordained a Queen or Peacemaker, who was stationed at this fort to execute her office of peace, her official name was Ge-keah-saw-sa.
The fort was built by the Senecas aided by the Squawkihaws, on an eminence on the north side of a steep of perpendicular rocks, which was about eight or ten feet down; and on the east, south and west sides they dug a trench four or five feet deep, and in this trench were placed timbers which were put up perpendicularly and jointed as close as possible, they projected above the ground ten or twelve feet, inclosing a place of about twenty by fifty rods. The house for the Queen was in the center of this enclosure or fort, and adjacent houses were built in two rows, with a trail or path between them directing towards the Queen’s house; on each end and inside of the fort, which ran lengthwise east and west, was an entrance corresponding with the trail prepared leading to the house of the Queen.
Then a suitable number of warriors were selected from the Squawkihaws’ nation, the ablest bodied, the swiftest runners and the most expert in the arts of war, which were stationed at this fort (and made their dwelling in the adjacent houses), to keep it in order and execute its regulations and laws; they were to be supported with subsistence and all other necessaries of life, and furnished with suitable implements of war by the Iroquois.
In order more fully to understand the laws and regulations of the fort or place of peace, it must be observed that at this period there were contentions, strife and wars between all the different known nations of the continent; nation against nation, like fishes of the waters, the larger ones eating the smaller. The warrior who can report in his rehearsal in the war-dance of having obtained the greatest number of scalps from the enemy, was the most honored and had the most laurels in his crown; consequently, they were constantly forming companies for an expedition to some nation in quest of honor and the applause of their nation. At this time the confederacy of the Iroquois was formed, and this place of peace was ordained for the purpose, it may be, to alleviate the distress and commotion of the nations of the forest.
The laws were that there shall be no nation or nations of the Iroquois make war against any nation or nations of the same league, under any circumstances; and the Iroquois must not make war with any alien nation without the consent of the Queen. This fort must ever be held sacred, as it is a place of peace, by never allowing the shedding of blood within the enclosure. All executions decreed by the Queen should be made outside of the fort. And any person or persons, aside from the keepers of the fort, should, on entering, never go any faster than a walk. And the Queen must always have meals ready at every hour of the day and night allegorically speaking, it is called a kettle of hominy hanging, for all fugitives and pursuers from any nation on the continent to partake. All fugitives, irrespective of their nationalities, fleeing for life, from their enemy, when once their feet touch the threshold of the fort, their life is safe; then the Queen conducts him or them into one end of her house, which is lengthwise east and west, with a door at each end and a partition in the center of the room by a curtain made of deer skin, and when the pursuer comes, she also conducts him or them to the other end of the room. She then gives to each of these parties, which are enemies to each other, sustenance to eat; when, this being done, she rolls away the curtain, so that each party can see the other; when they have done eating they pass out and go home to their respective nations in peace. It is contrary to law after a fugitive arrives at this fort and has gone out, for the enemy to execute their death scheme without the consent of the Queen; and if this be violated, then the Iroquois demand the trespasser from the nation to which he or they belong. If this is acceded to, ’tis well; then the trespassers are executed, of which the penalty is death. But should the nation harbor the trespasser, then the nation must suffer the devastations of war at the hands of the Iroquois.
I would here say a few words in relation to the question often asked, “Who were the Squawkihows, Kah-Kwahs, and the Eries?” There has been much controversy on the question. These three named tribes were of one language and of one nation a remote branch of the Seneca nation and spoke the same language as the Seneca, varying but very little in a few words. These three tribes originally were called Squawkihows. In time they became very numerous and powerful. They had their settlement from the shores of Lake Ontario and along the Niagara River, and up Lake Erie as far as a place now called Erie, and as far east as to the Genesee river. This was their domain, within these limits.
A settlement of this nation in the neighborhood of, now, North Evans, south of Buffalo, a place called by them Kah-kwah-ka, and the Squawkihow living in this vicinity were called Kah-kwah; and the Squawkihow living further on along the shores of Lake Erie were called cats or Eries, a name that originated from the name of the lake. By this explanation you will better understand my story.
There was a time when the Kah-kwahs’ branch of that nation made a challenge to the Seneca nation, another very powerful nation having their settlement on the east side of the Genesee river, to play a game of ball, which the Seneca readily accepted and a day was appointed; accordingly, the combat ensued, and was a hotly contested game; but the Seneca finally came out victorious. The Kah-kwahs immediately made another challenge, that of having a foot race, which the Seneca also accepted. Each nation chose their swiftest runners, then the flyers went which and tucker for a ways, but the Seneca finally came out glorious. The Kah-kwahs being mortified by the defeat of the two contests made the third challenge, that of wrestling, with the understanding that an umpire must be chosen from each nation and both to have a war club in hand, and the one that is defeated should suffer death by having his head struck with the war club while down, by the umpire opponent to the one defeated and should be best two in three.
Even in this the Seneca accepted the challenge, and in this remarkable contest they were also victorious. With this the assemblage dispersed.
The defeats of the Kah-kwahs considerably alienated the Squawkihows from the Seneca; the report, of course, reached the ears of the Queen, which also alienated her feelings from the Seneca, she being by birth a Squawkihow, but the office to which she was ordained was by the Iroquois.
After this in one of the scouting tours of the Seneca across the Niagara river, among the Masassauka Indians, on their return at night to the “place of peace” or Gau-strau-yea, they were pursued by a number of the Masassaukas; when both parties had arrived and had their repast, they all lodged there to rest in peace for the night, as they were wont to do. But in the slumber and stillness of the midnight hour, was tested the treachery of the Queen, by the Masassaukas, in asking her consent to massacre the Seneca in their unsuspecting slumber; her feelings having been previously somewhat alienated from the Seneca, she was induced to give her consent, whereupon they were massacred; their number I have not been able to obtain. They were buried southwest from the Queen’s house, the mound of which was perceptible until a few years ago, when it was cultivated.
This breach of the law of that fort by the Queen giving consent in the shedding of blood in that sacred place, grated the conscience of the Squawkikows, and being alienated by the defeat they experienced a short time previous by the matches they had with the Seneca.
This affair was kept secret for a while. At the same time the Squawkihows urged the consent of the Queen for them to exterminate the Seneca nation and to take them on surprise, for, they said when they hear of the massacre, they will at once wage war against us. They finally prevailed on her, so she condemned the Seneca nation to be exterminated.
At this time there was one warrior of the Seneca who had married into the Squawkihows’ nation and lived among them. When he heard that the Queen had given up the Seneca nation into the hands of the Squawkihows, to be exterminated, he resolved to go to a place called Tah-nyh-yea, among the Seneca east side of Genesee river, on the Seneca river where dwelled the head Sachem of the Seneca nation, by the name of Onea-gah-re-tah-wa, and make his report to that venerable Sachem, the decision of the Queen, which was final. To accomplish this, without exciting the suspicion of his family and neighbors, he went under the pretense of going away to hunt on the lake shore of Ontario, and would not be expected home in two or three days. Early one fine morning this warrior started on his high mission from his house, which was located near the fort (Gau-strau-yea). He went northerly and touched Lake Ontario, where he had a canoe for the purpose of hunting and fishing, in which he embarked and rowed eastward to the mouth of the Oswego river, and up the river as far as the Seneca river: then up that river to the settlement of the Seneca. He there left his canoe and made for Tah-nyh-yea, and went directly to the Sachem, (Onea-gah-re-tah-wa’s) wigwam in the dead of night, and called him out doors. He there related to the Sachem the decree of the Queen, concerning the Seneca nation and the massacre, and requested him to keep secret the way he had received the message. The warrior immediately returned home in the same way that he came.
In the morning the venerable Sachem went out early and gave the war cry, which denoted that they were massacred, that war was inevitable, and for the warriors to rally and prepare for war. The nation soon gathered. He then related the message he had received during the night, and said he had heard that some of their warriors were massacred at the fort (Gau- strau-yea), and that the Queen had decreed their extermination at the hand of the Squawkihows. He then appointed four warriors of the best runners to go and spy the fort and the settlement if there was any indication of preparation for war, with instructions that with the very first indication of a preparation for war that they should at once dispatch one of their number home to make his report, and the others to go on and to observe the progress of the preparation and make their reports accordingly.