What’s in a Name? – The legend behind the 11 Finger Lakes

Photo by Bill Banaszewski
By Ray Levato

A Native American legend tells the story of the Great Spirit looking down favorably on our region and offering his blessing by placing his fingers upon the land. The impressions left behind filled with water – forming pristine lakes dotting the sacred ground.

In a perfect world, there would be 10 Finger Lakes. But there are 11 Finger Lakes, despite the fact that several similar nearby lakes could also make the claim. The 11 Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, from west to east, are Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco.

Mapping the Wilderness

The answer to why there are 11 Finger Lakes traces back hundreds of years. After an exhaustive search of online databases and libraries – including the historic archives of the New York State Library in Albany – the answer most likely lies in the early mapping of the wilderness of Upstate New York. First done by French Jesuits who had befriended the Iroquois during the 1600s fur trade, and later by French mapmakers before France ceded the land to the English after the French and Indian War, these maps – each more detailed than the previous – show the position of the lakes with amazing accuracy.

A paper written by Stony Brook University Map Librarian Emeritus David Allen extensively examined this period. He said that detailed mapping of the Finger Lakes began by the 1680s, to the extent that even the number of longhouses in Iroquois villages was noted, in addition to the lakes, streams and inlets.

Common Geography

The early mapmakers were almost certainly influenced by the geographical similarities of the 11 lakes. The Finger Lakes are long, narrow and somewhat parallel lakes that are oriented north to south. A limnological (inland waters) study of the Finger Lakes in 1912, found in the Cornell University Library, bears this out. The authors wrote: “The Finger Lakes comprise a group of 11 neighboring lakes similar in form and topographical situation, each occupying a major valley. The northern ends of these lakes are near the northern ends of their respective valleys and in general are not far from the same latitude. These are the only lakes in the eastern U.S. which are at all comparable to the more important inland lakes of Europe.”

Another clue? The Finger Lakes all lie within an imaginary triangle between Syracuse, Rochester and Corning.

Simeon De Witt

The story of early mapmaking and the Finger Lakes would not be complete without a mention of Simeon De Witt, Surveyor General of the State of New York for 50 years, from 1784 to 1834.  He purchased land at the southern end of Cayuga Lake and is credited with being one of the founders of Ithaca, where he lived before his death.

De Witt’s detailed 1802 map of New York drew upon extensive surveying done in the 1790s, and is said to be superior to any maps made during the colonial period. And it was probably during this time that the major and minor Finger Lakes – 11 in all – were cemented into the official lexicon of the state and region.

Waneta and Lamoka – the Finger“nail” Lakes

There is also a drainage divide at play. All of the 11 Finger Lakes empty north into rivers (Genesee and Seneca) that find their way to Lake Ontario. Two smaller bodies of water east of Keuka Lake (Waneta and Lamoka Lakes) drain south and empty into the Cohocton River and Susquehanna system, and eventually into the Chesapeake. This could be why they are not considered Finger Lakes. Because of their smaller size, some people think of Waneta and Lamoka as the Finger“nail” Lakes.

Silver Lake

There is another lake, not far away, that was created by the same glacial ice sheets that carved out the Finger Lakes. Silver Lake, near the village of Perry and Letchworth State Park, is just 3 miles long and a 1/2 mile wide. But it’s also surrounded by sloping hills and shares the same north-south orientation characteristic of all the Finger Lakes.

Silver Lake’s orphan status is likely due to its location west of the Genesee River.  However, the familiar satellite picture of the Finger Lakes seen from space clearly shows Silver Lake – and some consider it the “12th” Finger Lake.

Silver Lake has one unusual feature the other lakes do not – both the inlet and outlet are at the northern end of the lake. It also has another interesting distinction as home to the Silver Lake Institute, founded in 1872 as a Methodist religious campground. Originally called the Silver Lake Assembly, it began as a Methodist Sunday school assembly and preceded the more famous Chautauqua Institution. Like Chautauqua, in its heyday the Silver Lake Institute was host to many famous preachers and other notable guests, including former President Teddy Roosevelt.

Today, the Silver Lake Institute is managed by an 18-member Board of Trustees who oversee the 40-acre property, which includes a unique Victorian village of 150 private homes. Silver Lake even has its own post office!

Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator for the Landmark Society of Western New York, headquartered in Rochester, says the Silver Lake Institute “is one of the great hidden gems in our area … for historic, whimsical architecture, local history and a unique picturesque setting.”

Onondaga and Cazenovia Lakes

Onondaga Lake in Syracuse is 4.6 miles long and about 1 mile wide, and like two of the larger Finger Lakes, it takes its name from one of the six nations of The Iroquois Confederacy. Although it also drains north to Lake Ontario via the Seneca and Oswego Rivers, and is the closest of the other larger lakes, Onondaga Lake is traditionally not considered a Finger Lake. Industrialization in the 1900s ruined its natural beauty and water quality, which is slowly being remediated after state and federal legal action to clean up the lake.

Cazenovia Lake, just 4 miles long and a 1/2 mile wide, 20 miles east of Syracuse, may simply be too far away to be included in the discussion. It also drains north to Lake Ontario, but through Oneida Lake. The village of the same name was founded in 1793 and features historic architecture, a college, and the magnificent Lorenzo Mansion with a commanding view of the lake.

Oneida Lake – the “thumb” of the Finger Lakes

Oneida Lake has an east-west orientation and least resembles any of the Finger Lakes, but is sometimes referred to as its ‘”thumb,” probably because it appears fatter on a map than a Finger Lake. It is 21 miles long and 5 miles at its widest point. Its outflow, the Oneida River, joins the Oswego River and empties into Lake Ontario.

And there you have it. But if this doesn’t quell the notion that there should be 10 Finger Lakes and not 11 – consider perhaps a long time ago, when superstition played a larger role in life than it does today, someone added “one more for luck.”

Ray is a retired news reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV Ch. 10
in Rochester.