The Seneca Among the Finger Lakes

For more than 10,000 years prior to European arrival, the Finger Lakes region was home to the Haudenosaunee (Ho-den-o-SAW-nee), a group of Native American tribes the French called the Iroquois Confederation and the English named the Five Nations. The nations later became six when the Tuscaroras joined the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Mohawks and Oneidas in the early 1700s.

Westward expansion, disease and military campaigns all but annihilated the Haudenosaunee in this region. Yet their philosophies and traditions live on, influencing contemporary society in many ways. Their democratic practices were the foundation of the U.S. Constitution, and their matriarchal society helped inspire the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments. They were the region’s earliest environmentalists, and their healthy diets and holistic medical practices remain popular today.

Although most original Haudenosaunee landmarks are gone, through growing interest and custodianship a number of heritage attractions now pay tribute to the role the Iroquois played in American history, honoring Seneca culture within the Finger Lakes region.

Ganondagan, Town of Peace
On Boughton Hill in Victor, the reproduction of a 17th-century bark longhouse marks the site where Gannagaro, a vibrant Seneca village, once sat. Until 1687, the area would have been covered with approximately 150 longhouses.

In 1687, the Marquis de Denonville led French soldiers against the Senecas in an attempt to dominate the fur trade. Gannagaro’s braves were defending western territory when troupes arrived, and consequently 800 women and adolescent boys took up arms. The ambush ended in a standoff. Knowing they would be unable to continue defending against so many soldiers, the Senecas burned their village to prevent looting. In retaliation, the French destroyed their fields, granaries and neighboring villages.

On July 14, 1987, the site of Gannagaro was dedicated as “Ganondagan, the Town of White,” meaning “peace” in Seneca culture. The longhouse was built and dedicated in 1998. Today, visitors can experience what life was like in these communal dwellings, where several families of the same clan shared a fire pit, stored their belongings, and slept on two-tiered bunks. Knowledgeable guides explain the use of the many displayed tools, weapons, and trade items.

Marked trails guide visitors on a tour of Seneca life and history (Trail of Peace), exposing them to plants and herbs used by the Senecas (Earth is Our Mother Trail) and leading them to the site of the original granary (Granary Trail at Fort Hill).

Ganondagan State Historic Site is located at 1488 state Route 444 in Victor. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, May 1 through Sept. 30.

Admission (visitor center, longhouse and trails): adults, $3; children, $2. For group pricing, call (585) 924-5848.

Guided trail walks are available on Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 2 p.m. Trails are open year-round and self-guided tours are free. For more information and admission pricing, visit www.ganondagan.org.

Ganondagan Native American Dance and Music Festival
On July 25 and 26, Ganondagan will feature a display of Native American performing arts as indigenous dancers and traditional and contemporary musicians take to the stage under a large white tent. This year, accomplished musician Arvel Bird makes a welcome return.

Family activities include:
• Storytelling, a drum jam, and children’s crafts.
• Native American Art Market featuring authentic work from across the U.S. and Canada.
• Traditional and contemporary Native American foods including fry bread, bear and venison sausages.
• Guided tours of the longhouse and trails.

For more information and admission pricing, visit www.ganondagan.org. Group and two-day passes are available.

Rochester Museum and Science Center
“At the Western Door” is a fascinating exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center that explores how the Seneca society wrestled with the question of adaptation, assimilation and resistance.

This exhibit was mounted following years of research by archeologist Charles F. Wray, and transports visitors back to a time of change in our nation. As the European and Seneca cultures met and often clashed, the people of both cultures were forever altered.

Both groups reflected those changes in almost every aspect of life, from lodging and food to clothing and though; even in the way they fought.

The exhibit uses life-size figurines to capture historical crossroads, taking visitors from the period of 1540, around the time of first contact in this region, through 1820 when many Seneca people were consigned to reservations and dwindling size and number.

While there, visitors should be sure to visit the opposite wing for an excellent exhibit on Native American life during earlier periods. Both exhibits feature remarkable artifacts, such as pottery, beadwork, clothing and weapons.

The Rochester Museum and Science Center, located at 657 East Ave. in Rochester, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

For more information and admission pricing, visit www.rmsc.org.

Letchworth State Park
The beautiful Genesee River Gorge runs through 17-mile Letchworth State Park. Anyone who has hiked within the park has walked in the footsteps of the Senecas, where many trails were created by these native people as they hunted, fished and went about their daily lives in villages nestled among the woods. Now known as the Grand Canyon of the East, the park was once called Sehgahunda, or “Vale of Three Falls” by the Seneca people.

One of the region’s inhabitants was Mary Jemison, who was captured at age 15 by a French and Shawnee raiding party during the French and Indian War, then adopted by the Seneca tribe. She became Dehgewanus, and was later known as the “White Woman of the Genesee.” Jemison lived in the park for more than 60 years until, in 1831, she moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she passed away in 1833.

William Pryor Letchworth, an industrialist and early conservationist, fell in love with the Genesee Gorge, where he bought property and built his Glen Iris Estate in 1858, now known as the Glen Iris Inn. Letchworth was respected by the Senecas for his efforts to protect the land and its native people.

After her death, Jemison’s grandchildren contacted Letchworth, who had Dehgewanus’ remains returned to the park, and erected a granite marker and statue as a memorial. He moved the house she built for her daughter, Nancy, next to the marker, and when he discovered a Revolutionary War-era Council House in Canadea, New York, he moved it there as well. At his invitation, the last Seneca Council fire was held in that Council House in 1872.

These remarkable landmarks can be seen on the bluff above Middle Falls.

For park information and admission fees, visit www.letchworth park.com.

Native American Heritage Day at Letchworth State Park
Native American Heritage Day takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 19 at the park’s Trailside Lodge. The event features Native American dancers, storytellers and artists demonstrating wood art and flintnapping. Visitors will also enjoy a portrayal of Mary Jemison.

Admission is free, but a $6 vehicle charge applies.


by Carol White Llewellyn