by Laurel C. Wemett
Skenoh Island, formerly known as Squaw Island, has long attracted people to its shores. At the north end of Canandaigua Lake, the 11,000-year-old island has been explored by boaters and nature lovers, studied by scientists and paleontologists, and preserved by citizens concerned with its erosion. It is one of only two islands in the Finger Lakes; the other is Frontenac Island in Cayuga Lake.
Located within the town of Canandaigua and clearly visible from the Canandaigua City Pier, Skenoh Island formed as a sandbar by the interactions between the sediments carried in nearby Sucker Brook and the counterclockwise currents along the lakeshore.
This land mass is notable as an important geological site because of the rare limestone formations called oncolites, or “water biscuits,” found there. The island is one of the few places on earth where they form. The Town of Canandaigua website offers this description: “A feathery light rock calcified from algae, filtered by sand and pond scum, (water biscuits) are hard in the water but crumble if allowed to dry out.”
A state-owned island
Skenoh Island has always been NYS property although it has often been incorrectly called “our smallest state park.” Dr. Preston Pierce, an Ontario County historian who authored an informative overview on the island and its history, stated, “It has never been designated a park, although the parks department was given control of the island in 1928.”
At the beginning of the 20th century the island came to the attention of the state through the influence of Mary Clark Thompson (of Sonnenberg Gardens). Her second cousin, Dr. John M. Clarke, was a state paleontologist and later the director of the New York State Museum. In 1900 his influential study, “The Water Biscuit of Squaw Island” was published.
Dr. Pierce explained that based on the scientific importance of the rare oncolites which form in the water around the island, Skenoh Island was made a State Museum Reservation in 1918. Thompson had a boulder installed on the site in 1919 with a plaque stating the island’s significance.
In 1975 it became part of the State Nature and Historic Preserve Trust and was classified as a “Unique Area.” Today the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s Division of Fish and Wildlife provides oversight. It is identified as the Skenoh Wildlife Management Area.
An island for all seasons
Skenoh Island has long inspired artists to capture its image on canvas or film, no matter the season. Paintings, photographs and even a poem testify to its appeal. In the 19th and 20th centuries well-known landscape artists frequently painted lake views with the island.
The site remains a popular subject with local artists. “Living in Canandaigua, we take pictures of Skenoh Island all the time, usually from the pier,” said Judi Cermak, a past president of the Ontario County Arts Council and multi-media artist. Her photo, “Solitude,” was taken on a beautiful winter day at Holiday Harbor, a neighborhood of homes near the channel looking south. “The north end of the lake had a smooth covering of ice topped with snow making the island stand out,” Cermak added.
Professional photography is the second career for Canandaigua’s Peter Blackwood. The retired nurse focuses primarily on nature, wildlife and landscapes. He enjoys paddling around the island, camera in hand, to capture the annual progression of the gull rookery from nest building in March to learning to fly in July. His nature photos can be found at blackwoodphoto.com.
Dr. Clarke’s study and a poem, “Romance of Squaw Island” by Dr. Charles T. Mitchell can be found in the book, Small Wonder by Dr. Preston E. Pierce. The book is available for purchase at the Ontario County Historical Society; for more information, visit ochs.org.
Early 20th century photos and postcards show that Skenoh island was once much larger than today’s quarter acre. Its erosion is attributed to the forces of ice, wind, water currents and development changing the wave patterns. It shrunk by 75 percent from approximately two acres in 1853 to one quarter acre in 1971. Local civic leaders Clifford E. Murphy Sr. and Granger Green are credited for their work to preserve the island. In 1977 the DEC installed a cedar log cribbing and crushed stone around the island to stabilize it for 20 years.
When state officials said they would no longer maintain it, Paul Hudson, a lake property owner formed the Squaw Island Preservation Society in 1999. “About 15 people came to the start-up meeting, during an eight-inch snowstorm,” Hudson recalled. “The Ontario County Historical Society agreed to sponsor our group so we could acquire tax-deductible donations.”
In about two years $300,000 was raised including members’ money from state legislators. “We built a ‘100-year preservation barrier’ of steel and rip rap rocks,” Hudson said. “The barrier got built. It’s holding up well, it seems.”
It has been nearly two years since Skenoh Island was renamed, replacing “Squaw Island.” The original moniker drew on the legend that the island was used to hide the Seneca women and children during the Sullivan Expedition against the Six Nations in 1779. (In 1779, under George Washington’s orders, Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton led a campaign known as the “Sullivan Expedition” against the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy that were allied with the British).
Like other landmarks with the name “squaw,” the name was changed to remove what is an offensive term for indigenous American women. In 2021, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland formally declared “squaw” to be a derogatory term, calling it “harmful.”
The choice of Skenoh, (Sgë: nö’ in Seneca dialect) was suggested by G. Peter Jemison, a former historic site manager at the Ganondagan Art and Culture Center in Victor. The word, pronounced “scan-oh,” can be translated to mean “peace.”
“The change of name to Skenoh was motivated by my desire to promote a positive message,” Jemison said. “The story as I understand it was women used the island for refuge during the Sullivan-Clinton attack. Why not propose the idea of peace? One translation for Ganondagan was ‘town of peace.’”
With support from the Seneca Nation, local municipalities and the state DEC, the island’s name was changed in 2021. Canandaigua City Manager John Goodwin said the sign on the city’s pier that identified the island with its former name, as well as the legend and history of the island, has been removed. A new sign will replace it in mid-September 2023.
Visitation and more
Visitation today is somewhat limited due to Skenoh Island’s status as a wildlife habitat. According to Mike Wasilco, the DEC’s regional wildlife manager, Skenoh is open to visitation for hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and hiking – although access is not easy because there is no dock. Any special gathering would require a temporary revocable permit unless it is a brief visit with fewer than 20 people and there is no need to damage any vegetation (including trimming any branches/bushes). A group event is not allowed during nesting season to protect the island’s large population of gulls and their habitat. Use is limited to September through March.