| E.G. Squier | Aborignal Monuments | Table of Contents |


PROBABLY no county in the State had originally a greater number of aboriginal monuments within its boundaries, than the county of Onondaga. It has, however, been so long settled, and so generally brought under cultivation, that nearly all vestiges of its ancient remains have disappeared. The sites of many are, however, still remembered; but even these will soon be forgotten. It is a fortunate circumstance that the antiquities of this county were the first to attract the attention of observers, and our accounts relating to them are more complete than concerning those of the other parts of the State. Still we have to regret that we have not a single plan from actual survey,—a deficiency which no mere description can supply. Our principal source of information respecting their numbers, localities, and character, is the memoir of De Witt Clinton, already several times alluded to. Mr. Schoolcraft and Mr. J. V. H. Clark, of Manlius, have presented additional information; and from these authorities we derive most of the facts which follow.

Ancient works occurred in the towns of Fabius, De Witt, Lafayette, Camillus, Onondaga, Manlius, Elbridge, and Pompey; but of many of them we know nothing beyond the simple fact of their former existence. It should be mentioned that some of the townships here named have been erected within the last few years, and since the date of Mr. Clinton's Memoir.

Those in Elbridge, according to Mr. Clinton, occurred near the village of that name, about four miles from Seneca River, upon lands then (1817) occupied by Judge Munro. They were two in number. "One was on a very high hill, and covered three acres. It had a gateway opening towards the east; and upon the west was another, communicating with a spring about ten rods from the fort. It was elliptical in shape: the ditch deep, and the eastern wall eight feet high. The stump of a black oak-tree, certainly one hundred years old, stood upon the embankment. The second work was about half a mile distant, upon lower grounds. It was constructed like the first, but was only half as large. * * * * The early settlers observed, in this vicinity, the shells of testaceous animals accumulated, in several places, in considerable masses, together with numerous fragments of pottery. Judge Munro found, in digging the cellar of his house, several pieces of burned clay; and, in various places, large spots of deep, black mould, demonstrating the former existence of buildings or erections of some kind. At one place he observed what appeared to be a well, viz., a hole ten feet deep, and the earth much caved in. Upon digging to the depth of three and a half feet, he came to a quantity of flints, below which he found a great number of human bones." This disposition of the dead, Mr. Clinton conjectures, was made by an enemy; but we shall soon see that it probably owed its existence to the practice of gathering the bones of the dead at stated intervals, and depositing them in pits,—a practice common among the Hurons and other Indians around the great lakes.

"In the town of Pompey," continues Mr. Clinton, "is the highest ground in that county, which separates the waters flowing into the Chesapeake and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The most elevated portions of the town exhibit the remains of ancient settlements, and in various places the traces of a numerous population appear. About two miles south from Manlius Square, in this township, I examined the remains of a large town, which were obviously indicated by large spots of black mould, at intervals of a few paces asunder, in which I observed bones of animals, ashes, carbonized grains of corn, etc., denoting the residence of human beings. This town must have extended at least half a mile from east to west, and three-quarters of a mile from north to south. On the east side of this old town there is a perpendicular descent of one hundred feet, into a deep ravine, through which flows a fine stream of water. Upon the north side is a similar ravine. Here there are graves, on each side of the ravine, close to the precipice. Some of the graves contain five or six skeletons, promiscuously thrown together. On the south bank of the ravine, gun-barrels, bullets, pieces of lead, and a skull perforated by a bullet have been found. Indeed, relics of this kind are scattered all over these grounds. A mile to the eastward of this town, there is a cemetery, containing three or four acres; and to the westward of it is still another.

"There are, in this vicinity, three old forts, placed in a triangular position, and within eight miles of each other. One is about a mile south of Jamesville [in the present town of De Witt], the second in a northeastern, and the third in a south-eastern direction. They are circular or elliptical in form; bones are found scattered over their areas; and standing on a heap of mouldering ashes, within one of them, I saw a white pine-tree, eight and a half feet in diameter, and at least one hundred and thirty years old."

Mr. Clinton expresses the opinion that the three "forts" were designed to protect the "town," the vestiges of which attracted his attention; and he even goes so far as to conjecture, from the occurrence of bones upon the brows of the northern ravine, that the attack by which the town was destroyed was made from this direction! Of course this is wholly supposititious. The relics of European art, scattered over the site, show clearly enough that this was an Indian village, occupied by the savages subsequent to the commencement of intercourse with the whites. The traces which Mr. Clinton describes are precisely those which mark the site of every abandoned Indian settlement throughout the country. This county possessed a very heavy aboriginal population; probably greater than any equal extent of territory north of the Floridas; and it is not surprising, therefore, that the traces of ancient occupancy are so abundant.2 Mr. Clinton states that it was estimated there were not less than eighty cemeteries in Pompey township alone. McCauley states that one of the three works, mentioned above by Mr. Clinton, was triangular in form, and contained about six acres.

Mr. J. V. H. Clark has described a work situated in part of lot 33 in this township; but whether or not it is one of the three mentioned by Mr. Clinton, it is impossible to determine. "It is about four miles southeast from Manlius village, situated on a slight eminence, which is nearly surrounded by a deep ravine, the banks of which are quite steep and somewhat rocky. The ravine is in shape somewhat like an ox-bow, made by two streams which pass nearly around and then unite. Across this isthmus of this peninsula, if we may so call it, was a wall of earth running from northeast to southwest. When first discovered by the early settlers, the embankment was straight, four or five feet high, with an exterior ditch from two to three feet deep. The area thus enclosed is from ten to twelve acres. A portion of the area was free from trees, and was called the Prairie, and is still noted among the old men as the spot where the first battalion military training was held in the county of Onondaga. But that portion of the work near the wall has recently been cleared of a heavy growth of black-oak timber. Many of the trees were large, and probably one hundred and fifty or two hundred years old. Some were standing in the ditch and others on the embankment. The plough has defaced the lines to a considerable degree, but they may still be traced the whole extent. Within the enclosure there is a burial-place. Here, too, are to be found numerous fragments of dark-brown pottery, of coarse material."3

Mr. Clark mentions that a great number of rude relics have been discovered here. Among other things found in the vicinity were some small three-pound cannon balls. There is a large rock in the ravine on the south, on which the following characters are inscribed, viz: IIIIIX. They are cut nine inches long, three-quarters of an inch deep, and the same in width, and are perfectly regular.

Within two miles of Jamesville, in De Witt township, upon the banks of Butternut Creek, there existed until recently the traces of an enclosure or fort, and in the vicinity many evidences of comparatively late occupation by the Indians. The fort had been rectangular, with bastions, and constructed with cedar pickets, firmly set in the ground. The stumps of the palisades were struck by the plough when the land was first cultivated. It appeared that the cabins which it had enclosed had been arranged with regularity—a practice not common among the Indians before intercourse with the whites. In the year 1810 an oak was felled near this fort, in cutting which a leaden bullet was found imbedded in the wood. One hundred and forty-three cortical layers were counted above it. It must, therefore, have been fired in 1667. Fire-arms were introduced among the Iroquois, by the French, as early as 1609—the date of Hudson's exploration of the river bearing his name. Brass crucifixes, medals of silver and other metals, dial-plates, and articles of iron are of frequent occurrence here, mingled with stone-axes, and implements and ornaments of bone, shell, and clay, the relics of an earlier period. Amongst other articles of European origin, a cross of pure gold was found some years ago, bearing the sacred monogram I. H. S. Not far from this spot are two high hills of great regularity, sometimes called mounds, the surfaces of which are covered with pits, and which Mr. Schoolcraft conjectures were caches.

Some investigators are of opinion that Champlain penetrated into this county in 1615. The reasons in support of this opinion are forcibly put forward by Mr. O. H. Marshall, of Buffalo, in a paper published in the Bulletin of the New York Historical Society, for March, 1849. From this paper the subjoined account of the Indian fort attacked by Champlain is extracted. It throws light upon the modes of defence common to the Indians at that period, besides being of interest in several other particulars. Says Champlain:

"'On the 10th of October, at 3 P. M., we arrived before the fort of the enemy. Some skirmishing ensued among the Indians, which frustrated our design of not discovering ourselves until the next morning. The impatience of our savages, and the desire they had of witnessing the effects of our fire-arms on the enemy, did not suffer them to wait. When I approached with my little detachment, we showed them what they had never before seen or heard. As soon as they saw us, and heard the balls whistling about their ears, they retired quietly into the fort, carrying with them their killed and wounded. We also fell back upon the main body, having five or six wounded, one of whom died.'

"The Indians now retired out of sight of the fort, and refused to listen to the advice of Champlain as to the best mode of conducting the siege. He continued to aid them with his men, and, in imitation of the more ancient mode of warfare, planned a kind of movable tower, sufficiently high when advanced to the fort to overlook the palisades. It was constructed of pieces of wood placed one upon another, and was finished in one night.

"'The village,' says Champlain, 'was enclosed by four rows of large interlaced palisades, thirty feet high, near a body of unfailing water. Along these palisades the Iroquois had placed conductors to convey water to the outside, to extinguish fire. Galleries were constructed inside of the palisades, protected by a ball-proof parapet of wood, garnished with double pieces of wood.

"'When the tower was finished, two hundred of the strongest men advanced it near to the palisades. I stationed four marksmen on its top, who were well protected from the stones and arrows which were discharged by the enemy.'

"The French soon drove the Iroquois from the galleries; but the undisciplined Hurons, instead of setting fire to the palisades, as directed by Champlain, consumed the time in shouting at the enemy, and discharging harmless showers of arrows into the fort. Without discipline, and impatient of restraint, each one acted as his fancy pleased him. They placed the fire on the wrong side of the fort, so that it had no effect.

"'When the fire had gone out, they began to pile wood against the palisades, but in such small quantities that it made no impression. The confusion was so great that nothing could be heard. I called out to them, and pointed out, as well as I could, the danger they incurred by their imprudent management; but they heard nothing by reason of the great noise which they made. Perceiving that I should break my head in calling, that my remonstrances were in vain, and that there were no means of remedying the disorder, I resolved to effect, with my own people, what could be done, and to fire upon those we could discover.

"'In the meantime, the enemy profited by our disorder. They brought and threw water in such abundance, that it poured in streams from the conductors, and extinguished the fire in a very short time. They continued, without cessation, to discharge flights of arrows, which fell on us like hail. Those who were on the tower killed and wounded a great number.

"'The battle lasted about three hours. Two of our chiefs, some head-men, and about fifteen others were wounded'"

Mr. Marshall is of the opinion that this fort was situated upon the shores of Onondaga Lake. He arrives at this conclusion from an analysis of the courses and distances travelled by Champlain, the streams which he crossed, etc., and continues:

"Another circumstance to aid us in the location, is the description given by Champlain of the fort itself. 'It was situated,' says he, 'on the borders of an unfailing body of water.' This he calls 'Etang,' a word generally applied to an artificial pond, but sometimes used for a small lake or other natural collection of water. There is nothing that will answer the terms of the description in so many particulars, as the shore of Onondaga Lake; and it is quite probable that it is there we must look for the location of the fort which was invested by the invaders.

"Three miles southeast of its outlet, on the northern bank of the lake, and near the present village of Liverpool, an ancient Indian work was discovered by the early settlers, which may have been the site of the fortification in question. There is reason to believe that the same locality was occupied by Monsieur Dupuis and the Jesuits, when they established themselves among the Onondagas in 1656.

"Mr. Clark, of Manlius, thinks that the Count de Frontenac occupied this position when he invaded the Onondaga country, in 1696, and that Col. Van Schaick encamped there while on his expedition against the Onondagas, in 1779."

In the account of Frontenac's Expedition, contained in Vol. V. of the Paris Documents, now deposited in the office of the Secretary of State of New York, it is stated that the principal fort of the Onondagas was burned by the Indians upon the approach of the French army. The terms of the account are as follows: "The cabins of the Indians and the triple palisade which encircled their fort were found entirely burnt. It was an oblong flanked by four regular bastions. The two rows of pickets, which touched each other, were of the thickness of an ordinary mast; and at six feet distance outside stood another palisade of much smaller dimensions, but from forty to fifty feet high." This account also states that the invaders were successful in discovering almost all of the caches in which the Indians had deposited their corn.4

2. Mr. Schoolcraft states, on the authority of Le Fort, late chief of the Onondagas, that Ondiaka, the great chronicler of his tribe, informed him, on his last journey to Oneida, that in ancient times, before they had fixed their settlements at Onondaga, and before the Five Nations were confederated, the Onondagas lived below Jamesville and in Pompey; that in consequence of continued warfare with other tribes, they removed their villages frequently; and that, after the confederation, their fortifications being no longer necessary, they were allowed to fall into decay. This he believed was the origin of the ancient works at these points—Notes on the Iroquois, p. 442.

3. Schoolcraft's Notes on the Iroquois, p. 469.

4. Documentary History of New York, Vol. I., p. 332.

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