When you visit Ganondagan, your first instinct may be to turn away from the Visitor Center to take in the extraordinary view to the west. The hillside rolls away to reveal one of the most pastoral vistas in the area – a peaceful blend of farms, fields, and forests. What you may not know is that you are standing at the heart of an ancient Seneca village, now named Ganondagan, the Town of Peace.
It Didn’t Always Look Like This
To truly understand Ganondagan (pronounced “ga-NON-da-gan”), you must travel back in time, before the first towns that we now know as Victor, Farmington, and Bloomfield. More than three hundred years ago, these were heavily forested lands, full of game, with trees so tall that some said the sun began to set at 3:00 in the afternoon.
At that time, Ganondagan, called “Gannagaro,” was a thriving Seneca village, the largest of its kind west of Syracuse. The hill was covered with as many as 150 longhouses, semi-permanent structures that housed 8 to 12 families. Four towers were used to store corn, and the entire village was surrounded by a ten-foot palisade that provided protection against warring neighbors.
The Senecas were a farming community, unlike the nomadic tribes of the West. They were so successful at growing staple crops – corn, beans, and squash – that they moved only every 25 or 30 years when the land was depleted. A quarter mile west of Ganondagan lies Fort Hill, a Seneca granary that once stored enough surplus corn to see the Senecas through failed harvests.
The Beaver Wars
It was the abundance of game that spelled trouble for the Senecas. Three centuries ago, the French and English were vying for control of New York State. The French were well established in Canada, but had never enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Senecas.
Imagine France of the 1600’s. Louis XIV, the Sun King, was building Versailles, the jewel of the French monarchy. French traders and missionaries saw the New World as ripe territory. In particular, French fashion had turned to hats made of the soft belly fur of the beaver. And beaver was plentiful in the Seneca Nation.
Thus began a period known as the “Beaver Wars,” when the French attempted to dominate the beaver trade in the area. Part of their strategy was to aid the enemies of the Senecas. Another was to destroy the Senecas outright.
The Raid on Gannagaro
Gannagaro became the focus of the French efforts to gain control of the fur trade. The village was the primary home of the Eastern Senecas – the Western Senecas occupied the Genesee Valley. As the westernmost member of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Senecas were “Keepers of the Western Door,” controlling the land from Geneva to Niagara Falls.
The Marquis de Denonville was handed the odious challenge of attacking Gannagaro. The French had never before dared to attack such a large settlement, but with the help of enemy warriors and 1500 French and Canadian troops, a plan was hatched. A year in advance, preparations began in Montreal – right down to planting enough peas to sustain the men.
The offense began in 1687 as the French boarded boats that would take them along Lake Ontario and into Irondequoit Bay. From there, they would hike along a well-worn Seneca trail to wage war at Gannagaro.
The boats were spotted as they neared the bay and word passed quickly among the Senecas. The timing proved very good for the French – most of the Seneca warriors were defending territory further west. The only people left to defend the village were women, children, and a few old men.
The Senecas decided that their best plan was to ambush the French as they neared the village. They assembled 800 of their best – mostly adolescent boys and women – to surprise the French as they advanced.
July 13th, 1687, was unbearably hot. Many of the French troops, including Denonville himself, stripped down to their underwear to withstand the heat. Denonville ordered Indian scouts to the front, to be on the lookout for Senecas as they neared the village.
The ambush was launched in a small valley near the present-day Thruway. (A historical marker on Willowbrook Road in Victor indicates where the attack occurred, about a half-mile off the main road.) The Senecas poured down the hillsides, initially disabling the troops. But in the end, the Senecas and the French each lost about 40 people, and neither side could claim victory.
Gannagaro in Ashes
The Senecas knew they could never defend Gannagaro against such a huge and well-armed force. Rather than allow their beloved village to be looted, they chose to burn it themselves.
When the French came upon Gannagaro the following day, it was abandoned and lay in ashes. All of the Senecas had retreated to the south and east. Denonville was enraged that his raid had been thwarted. In his anger, he ordered that all the out-lying fields be torched, including the huge stores of corn at Fort Hill. In the process, Seneca graves were desecrated. The destruction went on for days, filling the air with the smoke of burning corn.
But he didn’t stop there. He marched on to three neighboring Seneca villages, near the towns of Bloomfield and Honeoye Falls. There, he razed both villages and fields, leaving behind an enormous path of destruction.
The Seneca warriors returned from the west just as Denonville sailed out of Irondequoit Bay. As the boats disappeared over the horizon, the Senecas watched in horror as their last chance to stage a fair fight vanished.
The Legacy of Gannagaro
The Senecas never rebuilt Gannagaro, or any village of its size. Nor did they ever forgive the French for the crime of destroying their food and fields. Corn, with its life-giving properties, was sacred to the Senecas. Burning the corn was a sacrilege against the earth itself.
Two years after the Denonville attack, the Senecas, aided by their Iroquois brothers, retaliated in a huge raid, killing more than two hundred French settlers near Montreal. Skirmishes continued for several years, but by 1800, the Beaver Wars were largely decided. The Iroquois were allied firmly with the English.
Historians speculate that had it not been for the raid at Gannagaro, Western New York might be a part of Canada today.
The Birth of Ganondagan
By the late 1700’s, settlers had established villages in the area and Gannagaro was mostly fields and pastures. In the early 1900’s it became common to picnic at the site, dig for artifacts, and take away what could be found – including sacred items and skeletal remains. It was not until 1964 that Gannagaro became a National Historic Landmark and as such, protected from looting.
For the next twenty years, New York State purchased more than 300 acres as part of the Gannagaro site. Finally, on July 14th, 1987 – exactly three hundred years after the Denonville raid – Gannagaro was formally dedicated and renamed “Ganondagan.” Ganondagan literally means “Town of White,” with white being a Seneca symbol of peace.
Ganondagan, the Town of Peace, is commemorated not as a battlefield. Rather, it serves as a place to celebrate Seneca history and promote understanding among cultures.
Today, Ganondagan hosts many programs specifically designed for young people. At Ganondagan, children can learn about Seneca history and culture. It is a focal point for restoring family and community relationships among Native cultures and establishing a sense of pride and heritage. “Elder Gatherings” give youths a chance to understand and respect their elders, and the Young Spirit Dancers and Spirit Dancers are a way to practice traditional Native American dance.
In 1997, a replica of a 17th-century longhouse was built at Ganondagan. The longhouse is designed based on information gathered from local archaeological digs.
The Senecas built their longhouses from sturdy poles, lashed together with softened bark fibers. The exterior was then covered with large slabs of elm bark. Since the elm tree’s decline in the 1960’s, elm bark was hard to find; therefore, fiberglass plates were designed to imitate the real thing and to make it less prone to insects and decay.
Inside, the longhouse shows how the Senecas lived. Several families of the same clan shared central fire pits and used two-tiered bunks for sleeping and storage. Several tools, trade items, weapons, and implements are also displayed. An on-site guide can answer any of your questions.
The longhouse is a symbol of the Iroquois Confederacy. Several families of the same clan shared a longhouse; clans were joined along matriarchal kinship lines. The founders of the Iroquois Confederacy envisioned the separate nations – Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and later, Tuscorora – as one longhouse that cooperated in trade and supported one another in defense.
Taking a hike on the trails at Ganondagan is one of the best ways to become familiar with Seneca history and reverence for the earth.
Markers on the Trail of Peace describe Seneca life and history. Here you can learn about Jikonhsaseh, the Mother of Nations, whose remains rest near Ganondagan, and the Great Law of Peace described by the Peacemaker.
Hike the Earth is Our Mother Trail to identify various plants and herbs that were used by the Senecas to create medicines, clothing, ceremonial items, and tools.
The Granary Trail at Fort Hill is located a quarter mile west of Ganondagan on County Road 41. Stroll through a forest trail to the top of the mesa where the Senecas originally stored their corn and sought refuge during attacks. Read about the Denonville campaign from journal entries on the markers along the trail.
Plans for the Future
In 1998, Ganondagan acquired additional land bringing its total to just over 522 acres. Plans are underway to develop two new trails on this property.
One trail would connect the Earth is Our Mother Trail to the Granary Trail at Fort Hill. The other trail would be a combination cross-country skiing and equestrian trail.
In addition, a multi-purpose classroom is being planned to conduct tours and expand the indoor activities at Ganondagan. This classroom could accommodate up to 125 children and allow them to explore traditional Native American practices such as making maple syrup.
Plan Your Visit Today
Summer is the ideal time to visit Ganondagan. The Native American Dance and Music Festival in late July (see Upcoming Events) is a chance to learn about all types of Native cultures, not just the Iroquois.
Best of all, you can enjoy the bountiful gifts of the earth as the Senecas did, simply by hiking the trails and looking at the world around you. Make a day of it. You’ll be glad you did.
Who are the Senecas?
The Senecas are one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in New York State. The other nations include the Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks, and later, the Tuscororas. The Senecas of today live in sixteen communities in New York State, Canada, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin as well as some East Coast cities.
The Seneca name for themselves is the Haudenosaunee (“ho-den-o-SAW-nee”), meaning People of the Longhouse. The Senecas are defined by kinship and are divided into eight clans.
Iroquois communities are matriarchal. Women own and tend the fields. When a man marries, he lives with his wife’s family and takes her name. Seneca leaders are decided by clan mothers – and can be deposed by them. Women play a crucial role not only in deciding who will lead their people, but also in nurturing future leaders.
Our Debt to the Iroquois
The Iroquois Confederacy was studied by our nation’s forefathers as they discussed how to organize and govern the newly formed United States. The Iroquois ideas of cooperative nations (states), a system of checks and balances, and a supreme law no doubt influenced the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.
The matriarchal nature of the Iroquois is also credited with inspiring the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments that eventually lead to the women’ vote.
Visitors Center: Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9-5, May through October. Admission is $1.00 (includes admission to bark longhouse). A 30-minute video explores the history of Ganondagan and construction of the bark longhouse (closed caption available). P.O. Box 113, 1488 State Route 444, Victor, NY 14564. (716) 742-1690.
Web site: www.ganondagan.org
Bark Longhouse: On-site guide available from 10-4:30.
Self-guided trails: Open year-round, 8 AM to sunset. Free.
Group Tours: Available by reservation two weeks in advance.
From Rochester: Take I-490 to the Victor exit, then Route 96 to Victor. At the traffic light in the village of Victor, turn right onto Maple Avenue, which becomes Victor-Bloomfield Road (County Road 3). At the flashing red light on the top of the hill, turn right onto Boughton Hill Road (County Road 41). Visitor parking in the second driveway on the right.
From the Thruway: Take exit 44, then Route 332 south to the second traffic light. Turn right on County Road 41 (Boughton Hill Road). At the flashing red light on the top of the hill, cross the intersection. Visitor parking in the second driveway on the right.
by Joy Underhill, photographs by Steve Chesler
Joy Underhill lives in Farmington with her husband and two sons. She operates a consulting business for technical and training documentation. Joy is also a published poet.