In considering the subject of American antiquities it may facilitate the object, to erect separate eras of occupancy, to which the facts may be referred. Such a division of the great and almost unknown period, which preceded the arrival of Europeans, will at least serve as convenient points to concentrate, arrange and compare the facts and evidences brought forward; and may enable the observer, the better to proceed in any future attempts to generalize.
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There appear to have been three eras in the aboriginal occupancy of the continent, or more strictly speaking, three conditions of occupancy, which may be conveniently grouped as eras, although the precise limits of them, may be matters of some uncertainty. To make this uncertainty less than it now is, and to erect these eras on probable foundations, the proofs drawn from monuments, mounds, fortifications, ditches, earth-works, barrows, implements of art, and what ever other kind of evidence antiquity affords, may, it is thought, be gathered together in something like this shape, namely:
- Vestiges and proofs of the original era of the aboriginal migration from other parts of the globe. These, so far as arts or evidences of a material character are denoted, must necessarily be exceedingly limited, if any, of undoubted authenticity, shall indeed now be found. The departments of physiology, and philology, which have heretofore constituted the principal topics of research, are still an attractive, and by no means a closed field.
- Proofs and vestiges of their continental migrations, wars, affinities and general ethnological characteristics, prior to the discovery of the continent. Such are the grouping of languages; the similarity, or dissimilarity of arts, modes of defense, and means of subsistence.
Proofs and vestiges of occupancy change, and progress, subsequent to the Columbian period.
With regard to the first era, it is almost wholly the subject of general and profound scientific and philosophical investigations, which require a union of great advantages for successful study. The second and third eras, fall within the compass of ordinary observation. Both kinds of proof may exist at the very same localities. They do not necessarily imply diverse or remote geographical positions. We know that some of the leading tribes, the Cherokees, (till within a few years,) and the Iroquois, for instance, have continued to live in the very same positions in which they were found by the first explorers.
As their chiefs and warriors died, they carried to their places of burial, (such was the result of ancient and general custom,) those kinds of ornaments, arms and utensils, which were the distinguishing tokens of art, of the several eras in which they lived.
The coming of European races among them introduced fabrics of metal, earths, enamels, glass, and other materials more or less durable, and capable of resisting decomposition. These would necessarily take the place of the aboriginal articles of stone and shell, before employed.
If, then, places of sepulture were permanent, the inquirer at the present day would find the various fabrics of the second and the third era, in the same cemeteries and burial grounds, and sometimes in the same barrows and mounds.
Modes of defense would also alter by the introduction of the second period. The simple ring fort, with palisades, crowning a hill, which would serve as a place of excellent defense, against bows and ar rows and clubs, would prove utterly useless, as the Tuscaroras found at Naharuke in 1712, after the introduction of artillery. A trench to obtain water, from a spring or creek, leading from one of the works of the older period, might have been so covered as to afford full protection from the simple aboriginal missiles. Besides this, the combination of several tribes, as the Iroquois, the Algonquins, the Eries, Alleghans and others, might render these simple forts, de fended with ditches, mounds, and otherwise, no longer necessary, in the interior of their territory, after the time of such general combinations or confederacies. And in this case, these works would be deserted and become ruins, long before the period of the discovery.
It is affirmed by their traditions, that, in the older periods of their occupancy of this continent, they were even obliged, or their fears suggested the measure, to build coverts and forts to protect them selves and families from the inroads of monsters, giants and gigantic animals. We are not at liberty to disregard this, be the recitals symbolic or true. Such places would afford convenient shelters for their women and children, at the particular times of such inroads, while the warriors collected to make battle against the common enemy. Whether this enemy carried a huge paw or a spear we need not determine. The one was quite as much an object of aboriginal terror as the other. Whatever be the character of the antiquarian object to be examined, it will be well to bear in mind these ancient and changing conditions of the aboriginal population. If no absolute historical light be elicited thereby, we shall be the more likely to get rid of some of the confessed darkness enveloping the subject, and thus narrow the unsatisfying and historically hateful boundaries of mystery.
In applying these principles to the antiquarian remains of the area of western New York, which has been a theme of frequent allusion and description, at least since the life time of De Witt Clinton, it is merely proposed to offer a few contributions to the store of our antiquities, in the hope that other and abler hands may proceed in the investigation.