Guyanoga – The Indian leader that never was?

10/18/2019
by Ray Levato

I was out visiting the wineries around Keuka Lake one day when I stumbled upon a monument to Seneca Chief Guyanoga. In full headdress with bow and arrow drawn, the great man of the Seneca Nation and friend to George Washington is rendered in metal atop a concrete obelisk.

The monument is located in the Village of Guyanoga near Branchport, not far from Guyanoga Road and Guyanoga Creek in Guyanoga Valley.

In 1910, when the 2-D folk-art depiction was erected, 400 people attended the festivities. There were speeches, a picnic, a band concert and baseball game, plus a visit by an Indian princess, says a 2013 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

An historic marker was added in 1932 by the New York State Education Department. It reads, “Here lived Gu-ya-no-ga, Indian chief of the Seneca Nation, Friend of the Revolution.”

“Gu-ya-no-ga was a statuesque Seneca chief of noble bearing, reputed to stand 6-foot or 6-foot-4-inches tall,” writes Tom Arthur on his blog, New York State Historical Markers: It Happened Here. “In the early stages of the Revolutionary War, Gu-ya-no-ga had fought for Colonel Butler and his Loyalists during the Wyoming Valley Raids, and his son, Panther, had died at the Battle of Chemung, but he came to sympathize with the American cause and regretted having supported the British. ‘A veritable Roman of the New World’ and ‘one of the Noblest men of the Woods,’ he became a friend and adviser to General George Washington.”

Following the war he lived in peace and dignity on the land of a farmer near Penn Yan, Arthur continues. Guyanoga died and was buried there in an unmarked grave, but his remains were discovered by accident around 1850.

“And there is one more fact about Gu-ya-no-ga,” Arthur writes in the next paragraph. “None of this is true!”

A legend is born

According to Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr., a history professor at Elmira College, Guyanoga was created one night by a small group of men at a timbering operation in Jerusalem, New York. In a paper he delivered on April 26, 1977, at a meeting of the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society, Wisbey cited Arnold Potter (1881-1951), a descendant of one of the early settlers of Guyanoga Valley. Potter had written in an unpublished paper that the Indian chief was nothing but the figment of the imagination of several men who had met by chance. “One of them had to contribute a column for the Friday edition of one of the county papers. Two of the party had a very extensive knowledge of the Indian legends, and the suggestion was, ‘Why not give them an Indian?’” wrote Potter. “Well, Red Jacket had had his turn, so it had to be a new one; one whom no one had ever heard of before.

“In order to aid in creating such an Indian, recourse was had to Mr. Cole’s cider barrel,” Potter continued. “As the cider went down in Cole’s barrel, Guyanoga came floating out of the bung hole. He grew taller and taller, more and more noble, until it turns out that he was a personal friend of General Washington, a guide and friend to all the settlers, the best type of Pollyanna Indian of the whole lot.

“In fact, they had such a noble man that one of them then and there dedicated a part of his farm as the birthplace, and later found his unmarked grave. My own father was there and helped foster this hoax.”

The story was more successful than its perpetrators could have imagined, said Wisbey in his paper, “The Indian Born of a Cider Barrel.” The legend of Guyanoga was accepted so quickly and by the press and local people – including historians and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution – that they were reluctant to expose it.”

Is it untrue?

Stafford C. Cleveland, in his history of Yates County published in 1873, does not mention Guyanoga. The name, Wisbey wrote, did not appear in print in any source until about 1885.

“I have heard the name before,” says Michael Jason Galban, curator of the Seneca Art & Culture Center at the Ganondagan State Historic Site. “It was all in the context of an old hoax that was perpetrated long ago. To be certain, I went and looked into the name in a couple of sources and came up empty. There is even a new index of Seneca names and place names with all the spelling variants and there was no reference. I looked up alternate spellings and words that might remotely relate to the name and I found nothing.”

“I think some of the early residents of Yates County wanted to create a local hero, and that might be one of the reasons the idea of Guyanoga came about,” concludes Tricia Noel, executive director and curator of the Yates County History Center. “There were not many famous early residents, and maybe they felt the need to create one. I certainly feel Yates County people who celebrated him at the time of the historical marker placement may have been embarrassed by the fact that he didn’t actually exist, but today, I think most county residents who know the story accept him as a part of local folklore, and embrace it as such.”

And as for the monument, one account says it may have once graced a local barn as a weather vane. That’s after it served as an ornament on a Hudson River steamer!

It’s still worth seeing. And whether he ever existed or not, Guyanoga is today a part of the history of Yates County. If you’re anywhere near the northern end of Keuka Lake near Branchport, plan a short side trip to one of the more unusual historic monuments in the Finger Lakes, and maybe feel a sense of Native-American history as I did.


Directions

Take Guyanoga Road (Rte. 29) north several miles from the Finger Lakes Museum in Branchport. Turn right onto County House Road (Route 24) to Back Road. The monument is located on a small triangle of land where the roads meet.


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