Part 1 – In The Beginning

This is part one of a four-part story about the land surrounding the Finger Lakes and the wildlife and people who inhabited it. While many details are based on research in Livingston, Ontario, Yates and Tompkins counties, the story is representative of the entire hilly landscape of the region.

Looking out across Keuka Lake from my deck to the expanse of heavily wooded hillsides visible in all directions, it is hard to comprehend how these same hills surrounding Keuka and the other Finger Lakes have changed from mature forest to farmland and are now reverting back to forest in less than 300 years.

For uncounted centuries dense primeval forests covered a vast area from the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard. In the Finger Lakes region a canopy of vivid green comprised of hardwoods and conifers in the higher elevations blanketed the landscape. The lush vegetation was virtually uninterrupted except for clearings created by lakes, wetlands and fire. The branches, leaves and needles were so plentiful, they formed a tightly woven shield preventing most of the sun’s rays from reaching the forest floor. It was a time when the land was enveloped in stillness, broken only by the natural sounds of wildlife, the roar of thunder, wind or water. Soon, startling new sounds would join the natural spectrum, for it was time in the Finger Lakes for a significant change agent to make its presence felt.

Most mainstream scholars estimate the time of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy between 1000 A.D. and the mid-twelfth century, and many tie it specifically to a solar eclipse on August 31, 1142. When the Seneca Indians arrived in the Finger Lakes region, they initially established their settlement near the south end of Canandaigua Lake near exceptional hunting and fishing grounds.

The Senecas are one of the original Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Haudenosaunee. Within the Confederacy, the Senecas are known as “the keepers of the western door,” but their own name for themselves, O-non-dowa-gah, translates to “people of the great hill,” a reference to their origin story. Over time, they migrated north to Canandaigua, the Seneca word meaning “the chosen spot.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate the maximum population of the Haudenosaunee prior to European contact. Numbers cited vary widely and range from 5,000 up to 25,000 or more.

The entire Seneca culture was based both on a spiritual and knowledgeable relationship with the earth, its plants and animals. From oral history we know they believed human happiness was only possible through a spiritual relationship with the natural world. Plants and animals were their allies, and they succeeded as farmers or hunters through the favor of supernatural deities.

The Senecas were the first dwellers in our region to commit a large portion of the land to agriculture. They cleared the forest by girdling trees and using fire. By most estimates, as much as 90 percent of the land was forested before they began to establish farmland. Mother Earth, together with the women, owned the farmland, and women were solely responsible for planting and harvesting apples, squash, beans, sunflowers and corn. In some years over 100,000 bushels of corn were harvested.

Equally important as agriculture to the Senecas was their relationship with wildlife. They believed bear, wolf and eagles were supernatural creatures. All animals were considered intelligent fellow members of the same spiritual kingdom.

The whitetail deer, beaver and turkey were the most useful of the game they harvested. Beaver and turkey were trapped, and deer were taken by still-hunting, stalking, using snares and, when deer were abundant, by driving.

Knowing that deer did not thrive in mature forests, the Senecas used fire not only as a tool to establish farmland but also to create “edge” habitat and to help drive deer during communal hunts. This method of hunting involved building brush fences 8- to 9-feet high in order to lead the animals to an ever-narrowing trap. A ring of small fires was built around the perimeter of the area, and groups of men and boys would walk several paces apart, beating bones and barking like wolves. Deer were stampeded into the enclosure where other hunters awaited with snares and spears. In the longhouse after a successful hunt, they would celebrate and give thanks to the supernatural keeper of the game.

Every part of a deer’s body was utilized. Venison was a major source of food, and bones and antlers were fashioned into tools and weapons. Hides were used for clothing, blankets, floor coverings and numerous other practical items in the daily life of the Senecas.

The Senecas grew and prospered for hundreds of years, but their time of greatness in the Finger Lakes region was soon to come to an end. The year was 1779 and it was time, again, for a change to the land.

by Bill Banaszewski
Farmland to Forest is adapted from a multi-media presentation co-produced by Bill Banaszewski and his friend and colleague, the late John Meuser, while they were professors at Finger Lakes Community College. Watch for Part II, “The Pioneer Farmer” in the Summer Issue of Life in the Finger Lakes.