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Aboriginal Monuments of the State of New York

Chapter I
Introductory Observations

The Indian tribes found in possession of the country now embraced within the limits of New England and the Middle States have left few monuments to attest their former presence. The fragile structures which they erected for protection and defence have long ago crumbled to the earth; and the sites of their ancient towns and villages are indicated only by the ashes of their long-extinguished fires, and by the few rude relics which the plough of the invader exposes to his curious gaze. Their cemeteries, marked in very rare instances by enduring monuments, are now undistinguishable, except where the hand of modern improvement encroaches upon the sanctity of the grave. The forest-trees, upon the smooth bark of which the Indian hunter commemorated his exploits in war, or success in the chase—the first rude efforts towards a written language—have withered in the lapse of time, or fallen beneath the inexorable axe. The rock upon which the same primitive historian laboriously wrought out his rude, but to him significant picture, alone resists the corrosion of years. Perhaps no people equally numerous have passed away without leaving more decided memorials of their former existence. Excepting the significant names of their sonorous language, which still attach to our mountains, lakes, and streams, little remains to recall the memory of the departed race.

But notwithstanding the almost entire absence of monuments of art clearly referable to the Indian tribes discovered in the actual possession of the region above indicated, it has long been known that many evidences of ancient labor and skill are to be found in the western parts of New York and Pennsylvania, upon the upper tributaries of the Ohio, and along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Here we find a series of ancient earth-works, entrenched hills, and occasional mounds, or tumuli, concerning which history is mute, and the origin of which has been regarded as involved in impenetrable mystery. These remains became a subject of frequent remark, the tide of emigration flowed westward; and various detached notices of their existence were, from time to time, made public. No connected view of their extent or character was, however, given to the world, until 1817, when De Witt Clinton, whose energetic mind neglected no department of inquiry, read a brief memoir upon the subject before the "Literary and Philosophical Society of New York," which was published in pamphlet form, at Albany, in 1818. Mr. Clinton in this memoir did not profess to give a complete view of the matter; his aim being, in his own language, "to awaken the public mind to a subject of great importance, before the means of investigation were entirely lost." It consequently contains but little more than notices of such ancient earth-works, and other interesting remains of antiquity, as had at that time fallen under his notice, or of which he had received some distinct information. Its publication was, however, without any immediate effect; for few individuals, at that period, felt the interest requisite, or possessed the opportunities necessary, to the continuance of the investigations thus worthily commenced. Nothing further, it is believed, appeared upon the subject, until the publication of McCauley's History of New York, in 1828. This work contained a chapter upon the antiquities of the State, embodying the essential parts of Mr. Clinton's memoir, together with some facts of considerable interest, which had fallen under the observation of the author himself. Within a few years, public attention has again been directed to the subject by Mr. Schoolcraft, in his "Notes on the Iroquois." Some detached facts have also been presented in local histories and publications, but usually in so loose and vague a manner as to be of little value for purposes of comparison and research.

The observations of all these authorities were merely incidental, and were limited in their range. By none were presented plans, from actual surveys, of any of the ancient works of the State; a deficiency which, it is evident, could not be supplied by descriptions, however full and accurate, and without which it has been found impossible to institute the comparisons requisite to correct conclusions as to the date, origin, and probable connections of these remains. It has all along been represented that some of the enclosures were of regular outlines, true circles and ellipses and accurate squares--features which would imply a common origin with the vast system of ancient earth-works of the Mississippi Valley. Submitted to the test of actual survey, I have found that the works which were esteemed entirely regular are the very reverse, and that the builders, instead of constructing them upon geometrical principles, regulated their forms entirely by the nature of the ground upon which they were built. And I may here mention, that none of the ancient works of this State, of which traces remain displaying any considerable degree of regularity, can lay claim to high antiquity. All of them may be referred, with certainty, to the period succeeding the commencement of European intercourse.

Mr. Clinton was unable to learn of the occurrence of any remains upon the first terrace back from the lakes, and, upon the basis of the assumed fact of their nonexistence, advanced the opinion that the subsidence of the lakes and the formation of this terrace had taken place since these works were erected--a chronological period which I shall not attempt to measure by years. This deduction has been received, I believe, by every succeeding writer upon the subject of our antiquities, without any attempt to verify the assumption upon which it rests. I have, however, found that the works occur indiscriminately upon the first and upon the superior terraces, as also upon the islands of the lakes and rivers.

Misled by statements which no opportunity was afforded of verifying, I have elsewhere, though in a guarded manner, ventured the opinion that the ancient remains of western New York belonged to the same system with those of Ohio and the West generally. Under this hypothesis, the question whether they were the weaker efforts of a colony, starting from the southwestern centres, or the ruder beginnings of a people just emerging from a nomadic state, becoming fixed in their habits, and subsequently migrating southward, next suggested itself; and I gladly availed myself of the joint liberality of the Smithsonian Institution and the Historical Society of New York, to undertake its investigation. The results of my observations are briefly presented in the following pages. These observations extended from the county of St. Lawrence on the north, to Chautauque on the south, embracing the counties of Jefferson, Oswego, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Ontario, Wayne, Monroe, Livingston, Orleans, Niagara, Erie, Genesee, and Wyoming. Throughout this entire region ancient remains are found in considerable abundance; they are also occasionally found in the counties adjoining those above named, upon the principal tributaries of the Delaware, Susquehanna, and Alleghany. They are known to extend down the Susquehanna, as far as the valley of the Wyoming; and a single one was discovered as far east as Montgomery county, in the neighborhood of Fort Plain. Some, it is said, are to be found in Canada; but no definite information was received of their localities. It is to be observed that they are most numerous in sections remarkable for their fertility of soil, their proximity to favorable hunting and fishing grounds—in short, possessing the greatest number of requisites to easy subsistence. They are particularly numerous in Jefferson county, in the vicinity of the central lakes, in the southern part of Monroe, in Livingston, Genesee, and Erie counties. Many are said to exist in Chautauque; but the lateness of the season, and the unsuspected number of remains elsewhere claiming attention, prevented me from examining them. In respect to the number of these remains, some estimate may be formed from the fact that, in Jefferson county alone, fifteen enclosures were found, sufficiently well preserved to admit of being traced throughout. This is exclusive of those (probably a greater number) which have been wholly or in part destroyed, or of which no information could be obtained, in the limited time allotted to the investigation of that county. It is safe to estimate the whole number which originally existed here at between thirty and forty—a greater number than was before known to exist in the State. Erie county probably contained nearly as many. In the short period of eight weeks devoted to the search, I was enabled to ascertain the localities of not less than one hundred ancient works, and to visit and make surveys of half that number. From the facts which have fallen under my notice, I feel warranted in estimating the number which originally existed in the State at from two hundred to two hundred and fifty. Probably one half of these have been obliterated by the plough, or so much encroached upon as to be no longer satisfactorily traced.

Were these works of the general large dimensions of those of the Western States, their numbers would be a just ground of astonishment. They are, however, for the most part, comparatively small, varying from one to four acres,—the largest not exceeding sixteen acres in area. The embankments, too, are slight, and the ditches shallow; the former seldom more than four feet in height, and the latter of corresponding proportions. The work most distinctly marked exists in the town of Oakfield, Genesee county; it measures, in some places, between seven and eight feet from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the wall. In some cases the embankment is not more than a foot in height, and the trench of the same depth. Lest it should be doubted whether works so slight can be satisfactorily traced, it may be observed, that a regular and continuous elevation of six inches may always be followed without difficulty.

In respect of position, a very great uniformity is to be observed throughout. Most occupy high and commanding sites near the bluff edges of the broad terraces by which the country rises from the level of the lakes. From the brows of the limestone ledges, where some of these works occur, in Jefferson and Erie counties, most extensive prospects may be obtained, often terminating in the blue belt of the lakes, distant from ten to forty miles ; the intervening country presenting a beautiful variety of cleared and forest lands, dotted with houses, churches, and villages. When found upon lower grounds, it is usually upon some dry knoll or little hill, or where banks of streams serve to lend security to the position. A few have been found upon slight elevations in the midst of swamps, where dense forests and almost impassable marshes protected them from discovery and attack. In nearly all cases they are placed in close proximity to some unfailing supply of water, near copious springs or running streams. Gateways, opening toward these, are always to be observed, and in some cases guarded passages are also visible. These circumstances, in connection with others not less unequivocal, indicate, with great precision, the purposes for which these structures were erected.

It has already been mentioned that Messrs, Clinton, Yates, and Moulton, and others, have concluded, upon the assumption that none of these works occur upon the first and second terraces above the lakes, that the latter have subsided to their present level since their erection. This conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. Few positions susceptible of defence, under the system practised by all rude people, are to be found upon either of these terraces; the builders, consequently, availed themselves of the numerous headlands and other defensible positions which border the supposed ancient shores of the lakes, simply because they afforded the most effectual protection, with the least expenditure of labor. I found an entire uniformity in the indications of occupancy, and in the character of the remains of art discovered within these enclosures, throughout the whole range of their occurrence. The first feature which attracts notice, upon entering them, is a number of pits or excavations in the earth, usually at the points which are most elevated and dry. These pits are occasionally of considerable size, and are popularly called "wells," although nothing is more obvious than that they never could have been designed for any such purpose. They are usually from three to four, but sometimes from six to eight feet in depth, and of proportionate size at the top. Their purposes become sufficiently evident upon excavation. They were the caches in which the former occupants of these works deposited their stores. Parched corn, now completely carbonized by long exposure, is to be discovered in considerable abundance in many of them. Instances fell under my notice where it had been found untouched to the amount of bushels, in these primitive depositories. Traces of the bark and thin slips of wood, by which the deposits were surrounded, are also frequently to be found. In many of these enclosures the sites of the ancient lodges, or cabins, are still to be traced. These are marked by considerable accumulations of decomposed and carbonaceous matter—stones much burned, charcoal and ashes mingled with the bones of animals, with numerous fragments of pottery, broken pipes, and occasionally rude ornaments, such as beads of stone, bone, and shell. The pottery, I may observe incidentally, is of very good material, and appears to have been worked and ornamented with considerable taste and skill. It is found in great abundance; and, in many of the enclosures now under cultivation, bushels of fragments might, if desirable, be collected without difficulty. The material, in common with that of all the aboriginal pottery of the North, is composed of clay tempered (if I may use the term) with pounded quartz and shells, or with fine sand, so as to prevent shrinkage, and resist the action of fire. Most of it is well burned, but none exhibits any appearance of glazing. The pipes are mostly composed of clay, regularly and often fancifully moulded, and ornamented in various ways. Some bear the form of animals, the distinctive features of which are well preserved; others are moulded in the shape of the human head, or are variously fluted and dotted with regular figures. They are generally of very good material, the clay of fine quality, and well burned. Some, indeed, are so hard, smooth, and symmetrical, as almost to induce doubts of their aboriginal origin. Some of the terra cottas, other than pipes, are really very creditable specimens of art, and compare favorably with any of the productions of the aborigines which have fallen under my notice. They are, with few exceptions, representations of animals; with the minutest features, as well as the peculiar habits of which, the American Indians had, from long observation, a thorough acquaintance.

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