Onondaga Nation Territory

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By Dwight H. Bruce, Onondaga's Centennial.  Boston History Co., 1896, Vol. II, pp. 1049-1069.

1890 MAP

The original Reservation of the Onondagas, as defined by a treaty made at Fort Stanwix on September 12, 1788, embraced parts of the towns of La Fayette, Camillus, Geddes, and the city of Syracuse, and all of Onondaga.  A second treaty signed November 18, 1793, ceded to the State the most of the town of Onondaga and all north thereof, leaving to the Indians not only their present Reservation and tracts on the east and south, but a narrow strip of land on the west bank of Onondaga Creek extending southward from or nearly from the city limits.  This strip was divided near the center by Webster's mile square, lying immediately southwest of Onondaga Hollow, and was purchased by the State by treaty dated July 28, 1795.  On February 25, 1817, the Reservation was again reduced, the State purchasing twenty-seven lots, or about 4,000 acres, on the east side thereof, now included in the towns of La Fayette and Onondaga.  At the same time Webster's 300 acres, lying within and just west of the center of the north edge of the present Reservation, and now owned by white settlers, were confirmed to Ephraim Webster and his heirs.  The fourth and last reduction was made February 11, 1822, when the Indians sold to the State 800 acres of their land from the south end of the Reservation and now in the town of La Fayette, leaving their once extensive possessions with an area of 6,100 acres.  These various treaties are fully mentioned in pages 172-179.

On February 28, 1829, a treaty made at Albany provided for the payment of all annuities at Onondaga, part having hitherto been paid at Canandaigua. The Onondagas now receive from the State of New York money and goods to the value of $2,430 annually  Probably more than this sum, or its equivalent, is every year distributed among the dusky inhabitants of the Reservation, where each of the Six Nations of the Iroquois League is represented.

The origin of the Onondagas as well as that of the Iroquois is enveloped in tradition.  According to David Cusick (2) a legend which was current among all the tribes ran thus:

The holder of the Heavens took the Indians out of a hill near Oswego Falls, and led them to and down the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers to the sea.  There they became scattered; but their great leader brought six families back to the junction of the Hudson and Mohawk, and then proceeding westerly He planted the Five Nations, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas, by leaving a family at the location of each, giving them names, and slightly changing the language of each.  With the sixth family He proceeded on between mid-day and sun-set, to the Mississippi River, which part of them crossed upon a grape vine, but the vine breaking those on this side traveled easterly to the neighborhood of the ocean, and settled upon the Neuse River, in North Carolina.  This last was the Tuscarora tribe.

Continuing the same author says:

About one hundred winters since the people left the mountains,--the five families were increased and made some villages in the country.  The Holder of the Heavens was absent from the country, which was destitute of the visits of the Governor of the Universe.  The reason produced the occasion that they were invaded by the monsters called Ko-nea-rau-neh-neh (Flying heads), which devoured several people of the country.   The Flying Heads made invasions in the night; but the people were attentive to escape by leaving their huts and concealing themselves in other huts prepared for the purpose.  An instance:--There was an old woman who resided at Onondaga; she was left alone in the hut at evening, while others deserted.  She was setting near the fire parching some acorns when the monstrous Head made its appearance at the door; while viewing the woman it was amazed that she eat the coals of fire, by which the monsters were put to flight, and ever since the heads disappeared and were supposed concealed in the earth.  After a short time the people were invaded by the monster of the deep; the Lake Serpent traverses the country, which interrupted their intercourse.  The five families were compelled to make fortifications throughout their respective towns, in order to secure themselves from the devouring monsters.

Cusick mythically narrates other interesting stores of the Stonish Giants, who invaded the Onondaga fort, devouring the people in every town; of Atotarho, the hostile chief, who resided there, his head and body ornamented with black snakes, his dishes and spoons made of enemies' skulls; of the tree of peace reaching to the clouds of Heaven, which was planted at Onondaga, and under which the council fire was kindled and the chiefs deliberated and smoked the pipe of peace, all of which gave the Onondagas supremacy as the center of government; of the invasion of their fort by a great mosquito, which was pursued and killed by the Holder of the Heavens near the salt lake Onondaga (3), the blood becoming small mosquitoes; of the founding of witchcraft by the Nanticokes and the burning of fifty witches near the Onondaga fort.  At a period of perhaps 300 years before Columbus discovered America Cusick credits the Onondagas with 4,000 warriors.

Another theory, one upon which more reliance can be placed, is that the Iroquois, as a family, developed in Canada, having with the Hurons their center of population at or near Niagara River, whence the various tribes migrated east and west, and settled.  But this migration left the Onondagas in Jefferson county, N.Y., and early tradition points to the southwest corner of that territory as the probable place of their origin.  They evidently came south, however, about the year 1600, for in 1615 Champlain attacked their fort in Fenner, Madison county (see p. 42).  during the remainder of the seventeenth century they had their villages in the town of Pompey, or adjacent territory, and at a point about one mile south of Jamesville, on lot 3, La Fayette, they burned their fort when the French came against them in 1696.  This is the town described by Wentworth Greenhalgh in 1677, as follows:

The Onondagoes have but one town, but it is very large; consisting of about 140 houses not fenced; it is situate upon a hill that is very large, the bank on each side extending itself at least two miles, cleared land, whereon the corn is planted.  They have likewise a small village about two miles beyond that, consisting of about 24 houses.  They lye to the southward of the west, about 36 miles from the Oneydas.  They plant abundance of corn which they sell to the Oneydas.  The Onondagoes are said to be about 350 fighting men.  They lye about 15 miles from Teshiroque (Oneida Lake).

Soon after the destruction of their town, or about 1700, the Onondagas located in Onondaga Valley, just southwest of the present village of that name, and there on Webster's mile square, west of the creek, Sir William Johnson built a fort for them in 1756.  It was this Indian village that John Bartram visited and described in 1743, as follows:

The town in its present state, is about 2 or 3 miles long, yet the scattered cabins on both sides the water are not above 40 in number; many of them hold two families, but all stand single, and rarely above 4 or 5 near one another; so that the whole town is a strange mixture of cabins, interspersed with great patches of grass, bushes, and shrubs, some of pease, corn, and squashes, limestone bottom composed of fossils and sea shells.

Bartram continues with a description of their council house, which is reprinted on p. 103, and then gives his first night's experience therein, as follows:

At night, soon after we were laid down to sleep, and our fire almost burnt out, we were entertained by a comical fellow, disguised in as odd a dress as Indian folly could invent; he had on a clumsy vizard of wood colour'd black, with a nose 4 or 5 inches long, a grinning mouth set awry, furnished with long teeth, round the eyes circles of bright brass, surrounded by a larger circle of white paint, from his forehead hung long tresses of buffaloes hair, and from the catch part of his head ropes made of the plated husks of Indian corn; I cannot recollect the whole of his dress, but that it was equally uncouth:  he carried in one hand a long staff, in the other a calabash with small stones in it, for a rattle, and this he rubbed up and down his staff; he would sometimes hold up his head and made a hideous noise like the braying of an ass; he came in at the further end, and made this noise at first, whether it was because he would not surprise us too suddenly I can't say; I ask'd Conrad Weiser, who as well as myself lay next the alley, what noise that was? and Shickalamy, the Indian chief, our companion, who I supposed, thought me somewhat scared, called out, lye still John.  I never heard him speak so much English before.  The jackpudding presently came up to us, and an Indian boy came with him and kindled our fire, that we might see his glittering eyes and antick postures as he hobbled round the fire, sometimes he would turn the Buffaloes hair on one side that we might take the better view of his ill-favored phyz, when he had tired himself, which was sometime after he had well tired us, the boy that attended him struck 2 or 3 smart blows on the floor, at which the hobgoblin seemed surprised and on repeating them he jumped fairly out of doors and disappeared.  I suppose this was to divert us and get some tobacco for himself, for as he danced about he would hold out his hand to any he came by to receive his gratification which as often as any one gave him he would return an awkward compliment.  By this I found it no new diversion to any one but myself.  In my whim I saw a vizard of this kind hang by the side of one of their cabins in another town.  After this farce we endeavoured to compose ourselves to sleep but towards morning was again disturbed by a drunken Squaw coming into the cabin frequently complimenting us and singing.

In April, 1779, Colonel Van Schaick, in command of 150 men, invaded the Onondaga country, burned this village and council house, and drove the Indians from the vicinity; but only temporarily.  Soon afterward they moved a little farther south and settled in the picturesque valley of their present Reservation, where they have lived in peace and security for upwards of one hundred years.  Here they built a council house, the successor of which, rebuilt about 1875, is familiar to many visitors to that interesting settlement.  Just west of it is a small council house which formerly stood across the road, north of the long structure, on or near the spot where now rests the remains of Ka-ny-tie-you, one of the founders of the Pagan religion.

This Reservation, topographically, is one of the most picturesque sections of the county.  Broken into lofty hills and fertile valleys it abounds in varying and attractive scenery, and presents to the scientist and farmer a variety of interesting characteristics.  More than 1,000 acres are stony and mountainous, and afford little of value except a poor grade of pasturage, but nearly all the remainder is either well adapted to agricultural purposes or covered with good and sufficient timber for fencing, fuel, etc.  Unfailing springs of pure water abound, especially on the hills.  The bottom lands are very fertile, and are quite generally cut up into small farms, most of which are cultivated by the Indians.  Corn, potatoes, vegetables, and small quantities of grain are raised, while both small and large fruit, particularly strawberries, are produced with profit.  The majority of the farms, however, produce but little more than is needed for home consumption.  It is only within the last quarter-century that the Indians have noticeably thrown off the stoical habits and customs of their forefathers and adopted, though even in a rude manner, the elevating methods of modern civilization.  A number of their ancient traditions, observances, and tribal associations are still quite as strong and active as in the happy hunting days of old, but the examples and efforts  of the whites, combined with the progressive influence of a few local enthusiasts, are slowly but surely introducing a new spirit of competition in agriculture.

The Onondaga Creek flows northerly and northeasterly through the principal valley of the Reservation, and receives in its course four tributaries.  These streams afford excellent drainage.  The main road, running along the east side of the valley from Syracuse, enters the northeast corner of the Reservation at Onondaga Castle post-office, sometimes called the "entrance gate," and runs thence southwesterly through the tract to Cardiff, with a thoroughfare branching off above the council house to South Onondaga.  Near this principal highway, on land of Solomon George, stands the somewhat celebrated six-bodied elm.  The north entrance to the Reservation is about five miles south of the southern limits of Syracuse.

The Onondagas have always held the proud distinction of the principal tribe of the Iroquois confederacy.  In 1810 they numbered on this territory about 200 souls.  At that period every or nearly every tribe of the League was represented among the inhabitants, and this condition exists at the present time.  According to Spafford's Gazetteer of 1824 the present village, in which the council house is located, known as Onondaga Castle, contained "about fifty Indian houses on a street near a mile in length, and about 150 souls--fifty less than ten years ago.  Their houses are built of hewn logs, the spaces filled with masoned mortar-work, and are comfortable enough--quite comfortable enough for Indians, though they would not do for our Christian missionaries at the Sandwich Islands, in  South Africa, and the Lord knows where!"  The total strength of the Onondagas at that time was about 500, of which some 350 lived at Buffalo Creek, Allegany, and Upper Canada; in 1835 the tribe on this Reservation had dwindled to about 100 souls.  In 1860 there were on the Reservation fifteen frame houses, twelve frame barns, eighteen horse teams, and one yoke of oxen.  Very few of the Indians talked in English, and many of them dressed after the fashion of their face--the women in short skirts, with beaded leggings, short over-dresses of various colors, silver earrings, and brooches and other ornaments around their neck.  The population numbered about 350, of which thirty-eight were Christians.  A school house in very poor condition and poorly kept stood just south of the present M. E. parsonage.   The chiefs were strongly opposed to the children attending it, and were equally strong in their opposite to Christianity, which accounts for the large number of Pagans.  At this time the influences of civilization were beginning to be felt.

The Reservation now (1896) contains seventy frame houses, twenty-six frame barns, twenty-six horse teams, eleven single horses, seven yoke of oxen, from three to five grocery stores, one blacksmith, two shoemakers, several carpenters, two ministers, and about 495 inhabitants, more than one-half of whom are Christians.  Paganism is rapidly passing away under the influences of the excellent State school and the three churches.  The chiefs, although mostly Pagans themselves, take great interest in the education of the children and aid as far as consistent with their office in advancing the cause of Christianity.  The English language is used almost entirely, the younger element using it exclusively.

From the arrival of Father Le Moyne in 1654 to the present time (1896) the Onondagas have been visited by zealous and conscientious missionaries, whose early efforts to Christianize these dusky natives are fully detailed in preceding chapters.  But the Indians held tenaciously to their Pagan doctrines until the latter part of the eighteenth century.  During the early years of this century Bishop Hobart exerted a powerful influence among both the Oneidas and Onondagas, administering confirmation to more than 500, while over 1,000 were baptized by ministers of the church.  Rev. Eleazer Williams was one of the early missionaries here, visiting the Reservation first in 1816, when he was hurried to the council house that the Indians might "hear the words of Him who dwells in the heavens."  At this time they were mainly Pagans, earnest disciples of the peace Prophet, but had learned a little about Christianity from Rev. Samuel Kirkland.  "Father" Ezekiel G. Gear, of Onondaga Hill, was also an active and useful missionary, beginning about 1817, and once, on a raised platform at their village, he baptized several Indians and publicly received some others who had renounced Romanism.  Among the converts from Paganism was Abram La Forte, who was long a faithful communicant, but ambition and isolation proved too much for his principles, and he relapsed.  After many years of Pagan leadership he finally reverted to Christianity, and died at the Castle in October, 1848, aged fifty-four.  He was well educated, finishing at Geneva Academy, and first taught a school on the Reservation with considerable success for about three years.  Later he became the acknowledged leader of the Pagan party, opposed the Christian religion and schools, and bore a conspicuous part in councils and as master at sacrificial rites.  Known as De-hat-ka-tons, he was a son of Captain La Forte, or Ho-ha-hoa qua, a noted Onondaga chief who fell at Chippewa in 1814, and was the father of Daniel La Forte, now principal chief, and of Thomas a Wesleyan missionary.

The Episcopal mission among the Onondagas was thus established by Bishop Hobart in 1816, and Revs. Clarke, Williams, and Gear officiated for many years.  In 1829 the Methodists appointed exhorters to visit the Reservation, and their missions have been continued ever since with varying success.  In September, 1867, Rev. George Morgan Hills (4), of Syracuse, came among the Indians, and with Bishop A. Cleveland Coxe re-established the Episcopal mission and procured a chapel, which was consecrated September 27, 1870.  A mission house was also built and a school instituted, and soon afterward Rev. J. P. Foster became the missionary in charge.   Their present church, known as the Church of the Good Shepherd, was originally built by the Wesleyans, who re-organized their mission about 1893 and two years later erected an edifice.  Their minister is Rev. Thomas La Forte, a brother of Daniel, the principal chief.  The Episcopal minister is Albert Cusick, who was ordained as deacon by Bishop Huntington on October 1, 1891.  He is known in his tribe as Sa-go-na-qua-ten, "he who makes everybody mad," and belongs to the Eel clan.  He was born in Niagara county in 1848, came to Onondaga county in 1860, and two years later became a warrior chief of the Six Nations.  He was subsequently made principal chief, but very soon adopted the teachings of Christianity, and at his baptism and confirmation by Bishop Huntington renounced all his tribal honors.  He is a fluent English scholar, the recognized historian of his tribe, and active in promoting education, religion, temperance, and morality among his people.

Half a century ago the Methodists had the only church or chapel on the Reservation.  This building was remodeled about 1885 and is still standing.  The church is under the Central New York M. E. Conference.  The Indians, with few exceptions, have never had the same inherent attachment for church membership which characterizes the whites, but often vacillate between the different societies as personal preferences dictate.  On this account one body is first strong and then weak according to its popularity.

The old school building previously mentioned was finally moved across the road and is now the house of Samuel G. Isaacs.  The present structure, located also at the Castle, on the west side of the road, was erected by the State about 1887 at a cost of $500.  During school months it has a daily attendance of twelve to thirty-five children, according to disposition and the weather.

Drunkenness among Indians is too well known to require more than brief mention here.  With the white man came liberal quantities of "fire water," which performed its work of demoralization and not infrequently destroyed the results of missionary effort.  Both warriors and squaws, and even young children, developed an insatiable desire for rum and whisky, and unscrupulous whites generously appeased their thirst.  And here allusion may be made to Handsome Lake, or Contatauyou, the Peace Prophet, a Seneca sachem of the Turtle tribe and half-brother of Cornplanter, who was born near Avon about 1735 and died at Onondaga in 1815.  About the year 1800, after a dissipated life, he claimed to have had dreams or visions, through which he was commissioned by the Great Spirit to come to the rescue of his people.  His first efforts were to eradicate intemperance.  With his teachings, which were termed the "New Religion," he mingled the fancies of his dreams, claiming that he had seen the branching paths which departed spirits trod on leaving the earth.  "To a drunkard was given a red-hot liquid to drink, as if he loved it, and as a stream of blaze poured from his mouth he was commanded to sing as when on earth after drinking fire-water."  "A woman who sold fire-water was nothing but bones, for the flesh had been eaten from her hands and arms."  These and other principles upon which his teachings were founded wrought the Handsome Lake and his successor, Sasehawa, a deep place in the confidence of the old Pagan party.  Soon after his death the Iroquois Temperance League was formed among the Six Nations, the organization taking place on the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara county.  Since then the League has held annual meetings, made up of representatives and others from various subordinate lodges on the different Reservations.  The Onondagas, as a resident nation, were not represented until about 1891, when the Onondaga Temperance Society, which had been organized some two years before, was admitted.  This local society meets every two weeks, has about seventy-five members, and under the Iroquois League offers sick, accident, and death beneficiaries.  Besides this the Onondagas take considerable interest in Ka-no-sue-nee (Long House) Lodge, No. 777, I. O. G. T., which was organized November 2, 1877, and which has since maintained a flourishing existence.  Its oldest charter member in continuous good standing is Albert Cusick, the first marshal and the present lodge deputy.  Among other prominent members, past and present, are Rev. Welcome Smith, Elizabeth and Jacob A. Scanandoah, Josiah Jacobs, Christ John Smith, and Elizabeth Thomas.  These two organizations have performed noble work in eradicating intemperance and building up morals among the Indians.  The combined membership is over 100, and the consumption of whisky, lager, hard cider, and other intoxicating liquors is less by nearly one-half than twenty years ago.

Perhaps the best known organization among the Indians is the Onondaga Indian Band, which was formed in 1862, and which has taken a prominent part in many gatherings throughout Central New York, and especially in Syracuse, including the memorable Centennial celebration in June, 1894.  Albert Cusick, the present secretary, has been continuously a member of the band, being for a time its leader.  The Onondagas also have a sportsmen's club, which has materially aided in preserving the game and fish on their Reservation.

Among the leading Indian farmers are Daniel La Forte, Jacob A. and Simon Scanandoah, Jaris Pierce, Orris Farmer, Charles Green, Wilson Johnson, Isaac Powless, Wilson Reuben, Joshua Pierce, Mrs. Avis Hill, Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, Josiah Jacobs, Elizabeth Scanandoah, John Loft, Mrs. Holly Hill and son Holly, jr., Thomas John, Baptiste and Eddy Thomas, John Green, Abram Printup, Hiram and Joshua Jones, David Jacobs, Sidney Isaacs, Lewis Thomas, Moses Smith, Frank Logan, Augustus Brown, Geo. Venevera, Melissa Peckman, Mrs. Emily Hill, Peter Elm, Lewis Cook, Albert Cusick.  Of these Wilson Reuben, Daniel La Forte, and Orris Farmer are among the wealthiest and most prosperous men on the Reservation.  The former "inherited" the farm of his "Aunt Cynthia," who was a shrewd political manager and financier, and who died at the age of ninety years.  About 2,525 acres of land on the Reservation are cultivated.

Ownership of land, though not recorded after the manner of the whites, is acquired by verbal bargains accompanied by payment, and such agreements are respected.  No papers ever pass between the contracting parties.  Many of the farms and other lands are leased to white people for a cash rental or upon shares.  This is particularly true of the valuable limestone quarries lying on the east side of the Reservation, a little west of the road to La Fayette, where as many as six derricks have been worked, paying to the nation annually $100 each.  Successful agricultural fairs have been held on the Reservation for several years, particularly about 1871.

The Onondagas, in proportion to their population, played a conspicuous part in both the war of 1812 and the war of the Rebellion.  In the former 300 of their warriors participated under Ephraim Webster, the pioneer, their interpreter, and Indian agent.  The enumeration of 1890 shows that at least sixteen Onondaga Indians served in the Rebellion, viz.:  Charles Lyon, Peter Elm, Josiah Jacobs, Jacob Scanandoah, Hewett Jacobs, Samuel G. Isaacs, Henry Powless, Wilson Jacobs, Joseph Green, Thomas John, Martin Powless, Peter Johnson, Alexander Sullivan, William Martin, Eli Farmer, and Moses Jordan.  It is quite certain that more than this number entered the service.  Some enlisted under assumed names, and hence it is impossible to prepare a complete list.

Every person belonging to the nation has two names, one by which he or she is commonly known, the other representing their Indian nativity.  Besides these the chiefs and officers of the tribe have a third, which designates their rank or official position.  The names of the Onondaga principal chiefs are Tah-too-ta-hoo (entangled), Ho-ne-sa-ha (the best soil uppermost), De-hat-ka-tons (looking all over ), O-ya-ta-je-wak (bitter in the throat), Ak-we-ke-yat (end of the water), Te-hah-yut-kwa-ye (red on the wing), Ho-no-we-eh-to (he has disappeared), Ga-wen-ne-sen-ton (her voice scattered), Ha-he-ho (spilling now and then), Ho-neo-nea-ne (something was made for him and laid down before him), Sah-de-gwa-se (he is bruised), Sa-ko-ke-he (he may see them), Hoo-sah-ha-ho (wearing a weapon in his belt), Ska-nah-wah-ti (over the water), and Te-ka-ha-hoonk (he looks both ways)--fifteen in all.  These principal chiefs have or may have each a warrior chief, whose duty is to obey his superior in all matters of government.  A principal chief may call a council, and can order his subordinate to notify all the other chiefs for this purpose.  He accedes to his office by election, has a seat in the Grand Council of the Iroquois, and can not be removed.  At his death the council fire is extinguished, and business is suspended until after condolement.  The ceremony of condolence consists of lamentations, chanting, speech-making, and a feast.  "Until the new chief is raised the horns of his predecessor are said to rest on his grave."  The right of inheritance is through the mother; her children can claim only the privileges afforded by the nation to which she belonged.
Marriages in the same clans were formerly but not now forbidden.  Burial customs have often changed.  Until recently the Onondagas maintained clan burials in rows, and hence a husband and wife were not buried together.  Usually some ornaments or trinkets belonging to the deceased are interred with the body, but otherwise the funeral ceremony is much like that of a white person.  Formerly a dead feast was given by the women ten days after the burial, a kernel of corn accompanying the invitations, and only one man being invited as speechmaker.  Pails of provisions were passed around, one being given to each person present, and a dish was set on the table for the deceased; out of the latter all partook in common.

The Onondagas still pound much of their corn--a soft white variety which they esteem highly--in wooden mortars about two feet high, using a wooden pestle four feet long with a handle in the middle.  For bread the meal thus produced is mixed with beans.  They are quite ingenious in wood work, and make bows, arrows, snow-snakes, baskets, etc.  Their wampum, it is said, was originally made of pieces of wood stained black or white.  The invention is ascribed to Hiawatha, who gathered white shells and called down a wampum bird for the purpose.  Thomas Webster, the Onondaga keeper of the wampum, gives the tradition thus:  'There is a tree set in the ground, and it touches the heavens.  Under that tree sits this Wampum.  It sits on a log.  Coals of fire (council fire) is unquenchable, and the Six Nations are at the council fire held by the tribe.  Tah-too-ta-hoo, a member of the Bear clan, is the great chief here.  He has a descendant in our tribe to-day.  His name is Frank Logan.  One of the uses of the wampum is for a symbol in the election of officers.  The wampum bearer keeps the treaties of the nation.'  Frank Logan belongs to the Eel clan and is a Cherokee descendant.  Thomas Webster is of the Snipe clan; he is a consistent, thorough pagan, and interpreter to the Onondagas, who retain the custody of the wampums of the Five Nations.  There are eleven of these historic wampums, each fraught with traditional story of persons and events.

Among the Onondagas feasts, sacrifices, and dreams formerly held an important place in their tribal ceremonies, and although a number of these ancient practices are still observed many have passed wholly into oblivion.  The Dream feast occurred in January or February and intensified all the follies of the ordinary dream.  The False Faces, described by John Bartram, form a sort of secret society and are still a prominent body.  Green Lake, west of Jamesville, was the reputed ancient resort for their greatest mysteries.  Fairies seldom appeared, but a precipitous bank of bowlder clay in the ravine east of the Castle is regarded as their favorite sliding place.  In some of the feasts there is a dance for the Thunders, to whom tobacco is offered in dry season to relieve drouth.  He-no, the Thunder, figures in several Iroquois stories.  The maple dance, called Heh-tesi-ha-stone-tas (putting in syrup), has ceased, owing to the absence of maple syrup.

The sacrifice of the White Dog in point of time corresponds to and takes the place of the old Dream feast, and even retains some of its features.  It is the most important of all the Pagan usages.  The white dog is now seldom burned among the Onondagas.  It is an ancient custom whereby the sins of the people are supposed to be gathered by the chiefs, who by some vicarious mystery lay them upon the head of a perfectly white dog, without spot or blemish, and organically sound.  A single black hair would destroy the efficacy of the victim.  The dog is strangled; not a drop of blood is shed; it is then fancifully painted and carried into the council house.  In the afternoon the sacrificial ceremonies commence.  The accompanying engraving represents the sacrifice which occurred at Onondaga Castle on January 18, 1872, when Captain George was the great chief, arrayed in all the splendor of his office, standing in the foreground.

The feast, when fully carried out, lasts fourteen days, the first three being devoted to religious services and the confession of sins.  Then follow three days of gambling, on the last of which the False Faces visit houses and poke in the ashes; on the seventh and eighth days the False Faces come to the council house in a body.  These are known as medicine men, and their function at this time is to go through the ceremony of chasing out witches and devils.  On the ninth day, called Koon-wah-yah-tun-was (they are burning dog), the white dog, now strangled and painted, is carried out and burned on a pile of fagots.  This proceeding is best described by the following extract from a contemporary periodical:

Captain George, who, as head chief of the nation, acted as high priest, entered the council house and proceeded to array himself in a white tunic, the sleeves of which were bound up with white ribbons.  He then girded himself with a belt of beads, and placed upon his head an adornment that might excite the admiration of the most fashionable of milliners--it was so light and feathery.  Taking his seat in the center of the room, he waited in solemn silence for a long time.  At length the solemn moment arrived, and so impressive were the proceedings that the only white men permitted to be present felt themselves compelled to uncover their heads and cease their labors.  Rising slowly and majestically, bearing a long white wand in his right hand, Captain George commenced a chant in the Onondaga language; passing slowly around the typical dog from his position at the east he proceeded to the south, west, and north, and then returned to his former position, where he consulted with one of the chiefs.  This proceeding was repeated three times; and then, as if he had gathered all the sins of the people, he approached the dog and uttered a pathetic lament.  After this the body of the victim, which was laid upon a rough bier, was gently lifted up and borne to the place of sacrifice by the hands of the chiefs of the nation.  The high priest then, standing at the east side of the altar of sacrifice, solemnly committed the victim to the flames.  The sacrifice was completed; the atonement made.

The sins of the people were expiated, and general joy was manifested by the firing of guns and mutual congratulations.  Formerly two white dogs were burned, but now only one is sacrificed.  When the full ceremony is carried out the tenth day is given up to dancing by the children, who with adopted persons are named; the eleventh is for the dance for the Four Persons, Ki-yae-ne-ung-qua-ta-ka; on the twelfth are held dances for the Holder of the Heavens, and on the thirteenth occurs the dance for the Thunders.  The next morning the men and women take opposite sides in gambling, and if the men win it will be a good season.  Between seven and ten days later the False Faces search houses, receive gifts, and dance at the council house.

This feast was formerly attended with ceremonies of the most indecent character, but within recent years it has been shorn of its excessively objectionable features and materially shortened in the period of its observance.  Even many of the rites previously mentioned have been dropped.  Since the celebration of 1872 but few burnings of the white dog have occurred at the Reservation.  The last one, and the only one of the kind in several years, took place on January 18, 1896.  New Year's dances, however, are still continued annually.

The Planting dance, Ne-ya-yent-wha-hunkt, occurs just before planting time in April, and is thought to invoke the aid of the Great Spirit in conferring a  favorable spring.  Next comes the Strawberry feast or dance, Hoon-tah-yus (putting in strawberries), which procures more berries.  The Green Bean dance, Ta-yun-tah-ta-t'kwe-t'ka-hunkt (breaking the bellies), has as its idea the protruding of beans in the pod.  Then comes the dance of the Green Corn, T'unt-kwa-hank cha ne-kah-neh-host-ha, with which many white people are familiar.  This takes place in September of each year; it is attended by the usual fun and dancing, and more than any other Indian feast of to-day is witnessed by scores of visitors.  The last is the dance for the Harvest, T'unt-kwa-hank cha ne-unt-hent-tees-ah-hunk (all is finished), which is celebrated after the crops have been harvested.

The war dance, death dance, and other kindred ceremonies have largely or wholly disappeared, except as they are incorporated with or form a part of the feasts and observances previously mentioned.  Witches, too, are no longer known, although as late as 1803 four women were accused of witchcraft; one confessed and repented, and burned her "implements" of incantation; the other three were tomahawked on a hill east of the Castle and buried among the rocks.

Brief mention may be made at this point of the distinguished Onondaga chiefs. Dekanissora, prince of Indian orators and diplomatists, flourished from about 1680 to 1730.  He is supposed to have followed Garungula, the Nestor of the Five Nations.  One of their contemporaries was Kanahjeagah (Black Kettle).  Canassetago figures prominently in the transactions of the League from 1734 to 1783.  Oundiaga was the first war chief of the Onondagas during the Revolution, carried mail between Onondaga and Oswego about 1807, and died near Oneida in 1839, aged ninety-one.  Kawhicdota was his contemporary, and the father of Ohhenu (Captain Honnos).  Contatauyou (Handsome Lake) has been noticed, as has also Ossahinta (Captain Frost), whose portrait appears on page 182.  Among the latter's associates were Ohkaayungk (Onondaga Peter), Kahayent (Captain Joseph), Oghatakak (Captain Joseph, 2d), Dehatkatons (Abram La Forte), and Uthawah (Captain Cold), the latter for many years keeper of the council fire of the Six Nations, at Tonawanda, where he died in the autumn of 1847, when this sacred symbol was restored to its ancient hearth at Onondaga, to the keeping of Dehatkatons.

Ossahinta belonged to the Turtle tribe, and at the time of his death, which occurred at Onondaga Castle on January 24, 1846, at the age of eighty-six, was supposed to be the only person among the Iroquois who perfectly understood their policy of government, the forms of organizing their councils, and the usages of their Pagan rites.  The nation conferred upon him the honorary title of war captain.  He wielded a powerful influence, was strictly temperate, and enjoyed universal respect and confidence.  He was buried in the Indian cemetery at the Castle.

The Onondagas have from time immemorial furnished the "king" (Tahtootahoo) of the Confederacy, who has usually resided on their Reservation.  Ossahinta (Captain Frost) held this distinguished office for many years, and was succeeded by Abram La Forte, who was followed by Captain George, who married the latter's widow.

Captain Samuel George was the last of an illustrious line of chiefs, and held tenaciously to the faith of his fathers, which was Paganism.  He served with the Americans in the war of 1812, and on one occasion, without rest or sleep, ran 150 miles to bring an important message to the American army.  He was emphatically the leader of his race, enjoying not only their confidences, but also the respect and esteem of the whites.  His word was law; his utterances were unquestioned.  He was leading war chief (Zi-wynk-to-ko-noe) of the Onondagas from the death of Captain Cold in 1847 until his death; and for more than twenty years he served also as head chief (Ha-no-we-ye-ach-te) of the Six Nations.  Under him the tribe made good progress toward civilization.  He died at his home about a quarter of a mile from the council house on the evening of September 24, 1873, aged seventy-eight, and was buried with Christian ceremonies on the 26th.  After a brief service at the house, conducted by Rev. James M. Clarke, rector of St. James's church, Syracuse, the coffin was borne to the Church of the Good Shepherd, where it was received by Bishop Huntington and placed upon a bier in the open air.  The Bishop, standing on the steps of the little edifice, delivered a most beautiful and appropriate address, Daniel La Forte acting as interpreter.   The remains were then uncovered that the assembled people, both Indians and whites, might look for the last time upon the departed chieftain, who was clothed in full warrior costume:  across his breast was his wampum belt, and upon his head were his cap and feathers.  Thence the body was borne by four young braves to a spot near the council house, where it was lowered to its last resting place.

The present head chief or "king" of the Six Nations is Frank Logan, of the Wolf clan, who was born in 1857.  The Onondaga nation is governed by twenty-seven chiefs, all but two of whom belong to the Pagan party.  The ruling or principal chiefs, fifteen in number, are chosen by the females of the families represented.

The present chiefs of the Onondagas are Frank Logan, Thomas Webster, John Green, Asa Wheelbarrow, Charles Green, William Hill, John Hill, Peter George, John R. Farmer, James Thomas, George Venevera, William Lyon, Billings Webster, Daniel La Forte, George Crow, Baptist Thomas, Charles Lyon, Andrew Gibson, Wilson Reuben, Jacob Scanandoah, George Lyon, Levi Webster, Hewlett Jacobs, Jacob Bigbear, John Thomas, Enoch Scanandoah, and Abbott Jones.  The last two are not Pagans.

Dinah John, familiarly and widely known as "Aunt Dinah," was long one of the most picturesque figures among the Onondagas.  She was eccentric, kind hearted, simple, and frank, and after the age of ninety frequently walked from the Castle to Syracuse and back.  When asked as to her church relations she placed her hand upon her head, saying, "I'm 'Piscopal here;" then placing her hand upon her heart, she added, "I'm Methodist here."  She was born on the Reservation, where she lived all her life, and died there May 26, 1883.  Her remains were buried with Christian ceremonies in the little cemetery at the Castle, where her grace is marked by a tombstone, five feet high, upon which is this inscription:  'Aunt Dinah John, died May 26, 1883, aged 109 years."  This monument was erected by a number of Syracusans and was unveiled July 7 of that year.  Many authorities have given her age as 107, and one antiquarian places her birth "early in 1774."  The photograph from which the accompanying plate is made was taken of Philip S. Ryder, of Syracuse, when she was 100 years old.

Hannah, an Indian squaw, who died on the Reservation in 1861 at the age of 120 years, was probably the oldest person whose death occurred in Onondaga county.  She was born, it is believed, in 1741, or earlier, and was honored with a notice in Harper's Weekly for March 23, 1861.

For several years a number of the progressive Indians on the Reservation have strongly favored the idea of citizenship, and themselves have taken the initiative.  On May 3, 1882, a constitution was reported, providing for a president or chairman, clerk, treasurer, marshal, three peacemakers or judges, a school trustee, one pathmaster, and two poormasters.  A provision respecting the disposition of lands in severalty was declared to be dependent upon a three-fourths vote of the males and a three-fourths vote of the mothers of the nation.  This constitution was adopted at a meeting held May 6, when officers were elected as follows:  Daniel La Forte, chairman; Jaris Pierce, clerk; Orris Farmer, treasurer; Cornelius Johnson, marshal; Jimerson L. Johnson, Wilson Johnson, and John White, peacemakers; Simon Scanandoah, pathmaster; Joseph Isaacs, school trustee; Baptist Thomas and Wilson Reuben, poormasters.  Various other resolutions were adopted at subsequent meetings, such as "putting a stop to Sabbath breaking," etc.  The chiefs apparently did not favor civil government, and from August 3, 1883, to April 26, 1887, no meetings of this description occurred.  On the latter date the old rules were substantially revived, but provided for a governing body of twelve councilors.  The Christian element controlled this and other gatherings of that year.  October 15, 1889, the struggle was renewed, the constitution of 1882 being re-adopted.  On the 21st a new constitution was reported and adopted, but this and subsequent acts looking to the enfranchisement of the Onondagas, "The People of the Hills," promulgated by themselves after the manner of English governments, have fallen to pieces because of their inherent belief in Paganism and ancient tribal relations.

Here amid the beautiful hills and valleys of their fathers we leave this small remnant of a once proud and powerful nation.  Here around the council fire of the Confederacy, where their historic career is slowly but surely drawing to an inglorious end, this little band is being borne one by one to the Happy Hunting Grounds of the Great Spirit, where immortalized souls of distinguished ancestors await their coming.  No more striking example of supremacy and decline can be found in the annals of the world.  Hundreds of years ago, when days were suns and months were moons, the Onondagas, the illustrious People of the Mountain, roamed at will over their vast domain, and numbered their warriors by the thousands.   The forests and the beasts thereof, the streams, fish, and game, both great and small, were theirs by right of original occupation.  The white man came with his dazzling arts and promises, encroached upon their hospitality, and reduced their lands and privileges piecemeal to insignificant proportions.  Wars, famine, and other causes wrought devastation, discouragement, and slow but steady decline, while the onward march of civilization gradually tore down their barriers of superstition and tribal practice until to-day ancient usages and customs exist more in tradition than in fact.  Though still the distinguished center of what remains of the Iroquois League the Onondagas retain only a shadow of their former greatness and magnificence.  Christianity is overpowering Paganism, and civilizing influences are wiping out those romantic but uncouth attributes which formed the foundation of true Indian life.


1.  Chapters III to XVI; inclusive, of the present work, embrace extended accounts of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, and of the various nations and tribes which made up that organization.  In this chapter it is designed merely to preserve in brief the traditions, customs, laws, statistics, and notable events relating purely to the Onondagas and their Reservation from their settlement in the valley of Onondaga to the present time.
2.  David Cusick, author of "Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations," was the son of Nicholas Cusick, a Tuscarora, who died near Lewiston, N.Y. in 1840, at the age of about eighty-two.  David's death occurred a few years later.  He possessed a fair education and was esteemed a good doctor.  His History passed through three editions, dated respectively 1826, 1828, and 1848.  His brother James became a Baptist minister and a noted man, published a collection of Indian hymns, and died in Canada.  Albert Cusick is a grandson of James.
3.  The Great Mosquito, Kah-ye-yah-ta-ne-go-na, was killed, it is claimed, at Centerville, which is still called Kah-yah-tak-ne-t'ke-tah-keh, "where the mosquito lies."
4.  A few days before Christmas, soon after beginning his visits, Rev. Mr. Hills received the following letter, which is self-explanatory:
    "Rev. George Morgan Hills
             "I want you come down Christmas Day I want you baptize to little children Philip Jones her son and her girls four he got baptize that day and Another Wilson Reuben her girl and My little girl that be six children he wants you baptize Christmas day
                                                                                                              "from Yours Truly
                                                                                                                      "DANIEL LA FORTE
                                                                                                                            "Onondaga Castle."

Submitted 28 August 1998

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