BY whom were the aboriginal monuments of Western New York erected, and to what era may they be ascribed? The consideration of these questions has given rise to a vast amount of speculation, generally not of the most philosophical, nor yet of the most profitable kind. If the results arrived at have been erroneous, unsatisfactory, or extravagant, it may be ascribed to the circumstance that the facts heretofore collected have been too few in number and too poorly authenticated to admit of correct conclusions, not less than to the influence of preconceived notions, and to that constant leaning towards the marvellous, which is a radical defect of many minds. Rigid criticism is especially indispensable in archaeological investigations; yet there is no department of human research in which so wide a range has been given to conjecture. Men seem to have indulged the belief that here nothing is fixed, nothing certain, and have turned aside into this field as one where the severer rules which elsewhere regulate philosophical research are not enforced, and Where every species of extravagance may be indulged in with impunity. I might adduce numberless illustrations of this remark. The Indian who wrought the rude outlines upon the rock at Dighton, little dreamed that his work would ultimately come to be regarded as affording indubitable evidence of Hebrew, Phoenician, and Scandinavian adventure and colonization in America; and the builders of the rude defences of Western New York, as little suspected that Celt and Tartar, and even the apochryphal Maddoc with his "ten ships," would, in this the nineteenth century of our faith, be vigorously invoked to yield paternity to their labors!
The probable purposes to which these works were applied are perhaps sufficiently evident from what has already been presented. Their positions, general close proximity to water, and other circumstances not less conclusive, imply a defensive origin. The unequivocal traces of long occupancy found within many of them, would further imply that they were fortified towns and villages, and were permanently occupied. Some of the smaller ones, on the other hand, seem rather designed for temporary protection,—the citadels in which the builders sought safety for their old men, women, and children, in case of alarm or attack.
In respect to date nothing positive can be affirmed. Many of them are now covered with heavy forests; a circumstance upon which too much importance has been laid, and which in itself may not necessarily be regarded as indicative of great age, for we may plausibly suppose that it was not essential to the purposes of the builders that the forests should be removed. Still I have seen trees from one to three feet in diameter standing upon the embankments and in the trenches; which would certainly carry back the date of their construction several hundred years, perhaps beyond the period of the discovery in the fifteenth century. There is nothing, however, in this circumstance, nor in any other bearing upon the subject, which would necessarily imply that they were built by tribes anterior to those found in occupation of the country by the whites. And this brings us at once to the most interesting point of our inquiry, viz: By whom were these works erected?
I have already mentioned that within them are found many relics of art and many traces of occupancy. These, I had ample opportunities of ascertaining in the course of my investigations, are absolutely identical with those which mark the sites of towns and forts known to have been occupied by the Indians, within the historical period. The pottery taken from these sites and from within the supposed ancient enclosures, is alike in all respects; the pipes and ornaments are undistinguishable; and the indications of aboriginal dwellings are precisely similar, and, so far as can be discovered, have equal claim to antiquity. Near many of these works are found cemeteries, in which well-preserved skeletons are contained, and which, except in the absence of remains of European art, differ in no essential respect from the cemeteries found in connection with the abandoned modern towns and "castles" of the Indians. There are other not less important facts and coincidences, all of which go to establish that if the earth-works of Western New York are of a remote ancient date, they were not only secondarily but generally occupied by the Iroquois or neighboring and contemporary nations; or else—and this hypothesis is most consistent and reasonable—they were erected by them.
The questions by whom were the aboriginal monuments of Western New York erected, and to what era may they be ascribed, have probably been answered to the satisfaction of every mind by the simple detail of facts in the preceding chapters.
It may be objected that if the Indians constructed works of this kind, it could not have escaped the notice of the early explorers, and would have been made the subject of remark by them. The omission is singular, but not unaccountable. They all speak of the defences of the Indians as composed of palisades firmly set in the ground. The simple circumstance of the earth being heaped up around them, to lend them greater firmness, may have been regarded as so natural and simple an expedient, as not to be deserving of special mention, particularly as the embankment, in such a case, would be an entirely subordinate part of the structure. After the introduction of European implements, enabling the Indians to plant their pickets more firmly in the ground, and to lend them a security before unattainable, the necessity for an embankment was in a great degree obviated. We may thus account for its absence in their later structures, which also underwent some modification of form, suggested by the example or instructions of the whites, or by the new modes of warfare following the introduction of fire-arms. Thus in the plan of the old Seneca fort of Ganundasaga, we find distinct traces of the bastion—a feature observable in none of the more ancient defences.
I am aware that the remnants of the Indian stock which still exist in the State, generally profess total ignorance of these works. I do not, however, attach much importance to this circumstance. When we consider the extreme likelihood of the forgetfulness of ancient practices, in the lapse of three hundred years, the lack of knowledge upon this point is the weakest of all negative evidence. Cusick, the Indian, in his so-called "History of the Six Nations," has, no doubt, correctly described the manner in which they constructed their early defences. "The manner of making a fort: First, they set fire against as many trees as it requires to make the enclosure, rubbing off the coals with their stone axes, so as to make them burn faster. When the tree falls, they put fires to it about three paces apart, and burn it into pieces. These pieces are then brought to the spot required, and set up around, according to the bigness of the fort. The earth is then heaped on both sides. The fort has generally two gates, one for passage and one to the water." "The people," continues Cusick, "had implements with which they made their bows and arrows. Their kettles were made of baked clay; their awls and needles of sharpened bones; their pipes of baked clay or soft stone; a small turtleshell was used to peel the bark, and a small dry stick to make fire by boring it against seasoned wood."
Colden observes of their defences, as they were constructed in his time: "Their castles are generally a square surrounded with palisades, without any bastions or outworks; for, since the general peace, their villages all lie open."18
In full view of the facts before presented, I am driven to a conclusion little anticipated when I started upon my trip of exploration, that the earth-works of Western New York were erected by the Iroquois or their western neighbors, and do not possess an antiquity going very far back of the discovery. Their general occurrence upon a line parallel to and not far distant from the lakes, favors the hypothesis that they were built by frontier tribes—an hypothesis entirely conformable to aboriginal traditions. Here, according to these traditions, every foot of ground was contested between the Iroquois and the Gah-kwas and other western tribes; and here, as a consequence, where most exposed to attack, were permanent defences most necessary. It was not until after the Confederation, that the Five Nations were able to check and finally expel the warlike people which disputed with them the possession of the beautiful and fertile regions bordering the lakes; and it is not impossible that it was the pressure from this direction which led to that Confederation,—an anomaly in the history of the aborigines. Common danger, rather than a far-seeing policy, may be regarded as the impelling cause of the consolidation.
In conclusion, I may be permitted to observe, that the ancient remains of Western New York, except so far as they throw light upon the system of defence practised by the aboriginal inhabitants, and tend to show that they were to a degree fixed and agricultural in their habits, have slight bearing upon the grand ethnological and archaeological questions involved in the ante-Columbian history of the continent. The resemblances which they bear to the defensive structures of other rude nations, in various parts of the World, are the result of natural causes, and cannot be taken to indicate either a close or remote connection or dependence. All primitive defences, being designed to resist common modes of attack, are essentially the same in their principles, and seldom differ very much in their details. The aboriginal hunter and the semi-civilized Aztec, selected precisely similar positions for their fortresses, and defended them upon the same general plan; yet it would be palpably unsafe to found conclusions as to the relations of the respective builders, upon the narrow basis of these resemblances alone.
18. History of the Five Nations, Vol. I., p. 9.