From Beavers to Boundaries

In the mid-17th century, the beaver became the principal commodity in profitable international trade due to its lustrous fur. North American beaver pelts were in great demand, especially in Europe, for making felted hats, providing warmth and fashionable attire. Because of these events, the furry, wide-tailed animal will be forever immortalized as the State Animal of New York.

When the Ontario County Historical Society Museum in Canandaigua developed a new long-term exhibition exploring the history of Western New York, the beaver played quite a role in the story. But these dam-building critters shaped just one part of WNY’s illustrious past.

Developing the display

“Desires, Opportunities, Change: The Shaping of Western New York 1650 – 1797” opened at the Ontario County Historical Society Museum in late 2012. It explores complex alliances and struggles over trade, land ownership and settlement issues prompted by human desires and needs. A grant from the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) was matched by private donations and General Operating Support from the New York State Council on the Arts to create the society’s most expensive exhibit ever mounted. Preparation included three years of research, focus groups, surveys, educational webinars and blogs.

“Ontario County was at one time all of Western New York State,” explains Ed Varno, the society’s executive director. Ontario County did not exist with its present boundaries until 1823, and earlier included all, or parts of, six other counties. In 2007, the society broadened its mission to interpret the vast area Ontario County once encompassed.

Early on, Varno posed a few of the questions the exhibit aimed to explore: Why did the Iroquois and the Huron struggle for supremacy in the fur trade with the Europeans? Why did Jesuits risk injury and death to set up missions? Why did some colonists stay loyal to the British Cause? Why did Americans uproot their families to settle in the wilderness after the Revolution ended?

“We wanted as many perspectives as possible,” says the society’s Distance Learning Coordinator Ray Shedrick, who carried out much of the research. He and Varno undertook the planning with Society Educator Nancy Parsons, Curator Wilma Townsend and an exhibit consultant, Linda Norris, owner of Riverhill Associates. The team chose to have 12 near life-size figures representing diverse historic characters within four distinct chronologically ordered settings.

Varno says it balances “the desire to tell the story and at the same time simplify it for the public’s eye.”

They were the “movers and shakers,” explains Parsons of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), European (Dutch, French and English) and American personalities selected. The exhibit planners worked with representatives of Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor to ensure accuracy of the Senecas’ role.

Notable players

Represented in the first segment covering 1650 to 1700, is the Marquis de Denonville, the Governor General of New France whose army marched into the Seneca homeland with the mission to destroy France’s fur trade competitors. A curly wig, knee-length trousers and confrontational pose reflect the Marquis’ aristocratic bearing. Joining him is Arent Van Corlaer, a Dutch fur trader, and Onatah, who exemplifies a Seneca warrior. Together they introduce the period when there was “a ravenous competition to control the flow of the continent’s greatest commodity at the time, the beaver pelt,” writes researcher Shedrick.

Mary Jemison, one of three women selected to depict events, was chosen because of her unique identity as a white woman adopted as a child into a Seneca tribe. “As a full member of the tribe, she married, raised a family and was involved in all tribal activities. Her ability to communicate in English to those coming to settle here helped her adopted people to better understand the difficult challenges placed before them,” says Townsend. “I admire her for her ability to adapt to and fully embrace another culture as her own. She had lost her own family, yet was able to find love and full acceptance within the Seneca community.”

Oliver Phelps, who appears with Jemison in the segment dated 1784 to 1787, is referred to as “the founding father of Western New York” by Shedrick. “Without Phelps’ leadership,” reasons the researcher, “settlement would have taken much longer.” The land speculator from New England attracted Revolutionary War veterans. Many of these early settlers were well-educated and brought needed skills to the wilderness.

Something for everyone

The family friendly exhibit communicates on many levels. It displays rare artifacts like the Canandaigua Treaty (1794), which established peace and friendship between the young U.S. and the Six Nations, and also affirmed Haudenosaunee land rights.

There are two informative video clips and “hands-on, minds-on” interactive activities. Four size-appropriate activity centers will help younger visitors interpret key concepts of the period. They can barter at one center, communicate in European and Seneca languages at another, then face the struggle to survive on the frontier, and finally weigh in on future land development.


Ontario County Historical Society Museum
Where: 55 North Main St., Canandaigua
Admission: Free; donations are welcome
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Sundays, Mondays and major holidays
Phone: 585-394-4975

by Laurel C. Wemett

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *