story and photos by Paul Mitchell
I have been present for the signal fire and ceremony on Bare Hill in Middlesex every Labor Day weekend for three decades. That sounds like a long time until one considers that people started gathering on that hilltop over 2,000 years ago. The first written note of human activity there was recorded in S.C. Cleveland’s History of Yates County, New York (1873): “The traces of an ancient fort, covering about an acre, and surrounded by a ditch, and formerly by a formidable wall, are still to be seen on top of Bare Hill.”
Archeological evidence gleaned from a burial site at the base of Bare Hill shows the Middlesex area was inhabited by people of the Adena culture, which existed from approximately 1000 BC to 100 AD. The stone structure they built there was a ceremonial site, not a fort. The Adena culture left stone rings from the Ohio Valley eastward as evidence of their active religious life.
The circle of stones atop Bare Hill were ancient when the first Seneca Indians found them. The Seneca, or Onödowá’ga, also considered the then tree-less hill a sacred place and named it Genundowa. It is safe to say the Onödowá’ga visited the hill regularly for celebrations and worship until the late 19th century, at which time they were displaced from their homeland and dispersed to reservations in western New York and Canada.
The hill remained quiet for many years after the last Onödowá’ga went there to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. In September of 1953, the Nundawaga Society of History and Folklore – led by Dr. Arthur Parker, director of the Rochester Museum and Science Center – joined with the Cottager’s Association of the East Shore to hold a celebration to honor Seneca heritage. Dr. Parker was a leading expert in Native American history and had studied the Adena site in Vine Valley. His interest was greatly influenced by his own Seneca heritage. The celebration started in the afternoon, with Dr. Parker recounting Seneca legends. Promptly at nine o’clock that night, a bonfire lit on Genundowa by Onödowá’ga leader Freeman Johnson was the signal for cottagers to light flares, forming a ring of fire around the shore of Canandaigua Lake.
From 1953 to 1957, local people and members of the Seneca Nation gathered on the first Saturday night of September to honor Seneca tradition, with a Seneca native returning to light the fire and signal the start of the ring of fire. Dr. Parker died in 1955 – and two years later, so did the annual event.
Bare Hill was again quiet until 1989, which marked the bicentennial of the Town of Middlesex. Many celebrations were planned, including the renewing of the gathering on Genundowa. My father, Stuart J. Mitchell Jr., then president of the Middlesex Heritage Group, and Peter Jemison, director of the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor and a well-known Seneca leader, joined forces to make it happen.
An afternoon celebration sponsored by the Middlesex Heritage Group featured speeches, storytelling and dancing at the Overacker School house near Genundowa. That evening, people made the mile-long hike up Genundowa to celebrate the season and remember the people who came before. And at promptly nine o’clock, Jemison lit the signal fire.
The tradition has held since 1989. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, a hundred or more people gather to celebrate the change of seasons. Jemison speaks in the ancient tongue of the Onödowá’ga to give thanks to Father sun, Mother moon, to the animals, to the wind, rain and all of nature that surrounds us. He then lights the fire. As it dies down, he and other native drummers and singers lead a round dance over ground that has felt thousands of years of celebrations. If one listens closely, the echos of ancient drums can be heard joining the new. Jemison also tells the story of how Genundowa got its name – both of its names. Genundowa means “The Hill of the Great Serpent,” and the story explains how it became Bare Hill.
On September 3, 2022, we will once again gather on Genundowa to celebrate and honor all those who have walked these hills: Those long lost to the dust of time; those whose great-great-grandparents and generations before hunted, farmed and raised families here; those who came and built the foundations of the communities we all now call home. The good and the bad are again remembered as we celebrate another season of bounty and hope for a better future together.
The Story of Bare Hill
The Seneca lived in peace in the hills and valley around Canandaigua Lake for many years. It came to pass that one day a young boy found a snake in the swamp. It was a most beautiful snake, and the boy was taken with the many colors of its scales. He took it home to his mother and father and asked if he could keep it as his own. His parents agreed, on the condition that he was responsible for feeding it.
The little boy cared for the snake and fed it crickets and other small bugs. As it grew, he fed it mice, which were plentiful and easy to catch. All the people marveled at the beauty of the snake and enjoyed watching it grow.
It was not long until the snake outgrew mice, then rabbits, and opossums and raccoons. The boy was unable to provide, so the warriors began to bring it deer. It was not long until deer became scarce. Now the people began to fear the serpent, because it was hungrily eyeing themselves and its red tongue flicked in their direction.
Eventually the snake struck mortal fear in the hearts of the people. They decided to retreat to their sacred place on Genundowa. All the people left the village and traveled there, hoping to start a new village and leave the serpent behind. Much to their horror, the snake followed them and crawled up the hill and surrounded them with its head to its tail. The people were unable to escape and soon became hungry, thirsty and ever more terrified.
Their arrows bounced off the scales, and it was too big to crawl over. The snake breathed out a fetid fog that confused the minds of the people.
One night, in panic and desperation, the people believed they saw a way out. They streamed into a dark tunnel, hoping against hope it would lead them to safety. Alas, they were tragically mistaken. The tunnel was the maw of the great serpent, and they were all swallowed up, except two: a brother and sister, lonely orphans who fell asleep during the misguided escape.
During his travels in dream land, the boy was given a vision. He was to slay the serpent. He was instructed to make a bow of willow and string it with the hair of his sister. He was to make a crooked arrow of snakeroot. He was then shown a gap in the seventh ring of the monster’s scales where he must strike. The boy completed the preparations and approached the snake. As he envisioned, the snake rose up and exposed the gap in its seventh scale. The boy drew the bow and let the arrow fly. His aim was true, and the crooked arrow came alive when it struck. It burrowed deeply into the serpent’s heart, and the creature fell in agony. In its death throes, it thrashed and flailed against the earth. Finally, it began to roll down the hill, belching and passing a stench of gas as it went. It disgorged the skulls of all its victims, and they rolled into the lake below, where they can still be found to this day. As the serpent rolled down the slope, it destroyed all the trees… leaving the hill bare.
SENECA HERITAGE DAY
The Middlesex Heritage Group hosts its 31st annual Seneca Heritage Day on Saturday, September 3, 2022 from 2 to 4 p.m. The free, family-friendly event takes place on the grounds of the historic Overackers Corners Schoolhouse in Middlesex.
The educational event is recognition of the area’s original Seneca people and their cultural and societal legacy. This year, Peter Jemison, former Historic Site Manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site will speak. The afternoon will also feature performances by Bill Crouse and the Alleghany River Dancers. Free ice cream and water will be available.
If you attend the signal fire, be prepared to walk about one mile. The fire will be started at 9 p.m. Onlookers are expected to bring with them an attitude of respect, as you will be joining a celebration that sprung from this hill thousands of years ago. Your spirit of gratitude will add to all those who came before.