The Onondaga War Trail

From time immemorial the Indians had moved eastward from the interior of the continent over the great water highway composed of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence river. At the point where Lake Ontario ends and the St. Lawrence begins is the northern New York of today, shaped something like a squat triangle, the lake and the river forming its two sides and the ancient peaks of the Adirondacks its base. Five counties now compose this section of New York State, the North Country of Eben Holden,—Oswego, with its matchless lake harbor from which scores of trails once radiated to the Oneida and Onondaga villages; Jefferson, wedged in between lake and river, its irregular shore line the delight of ancient Indian fishermen; St. Lawrence, where the Oswegatchie trail from the Royal Block House terminated; and Franklin and Lewis, favorite hunting grounds for Algonkians and Iroquois long before the first white man had penetrated the wilderness fastness of the North.

Standing as it did at a corner of a great trail over which countless waves of aboriginal migration passed, it is not surprising that for centuries the present Northern New York should have been familiar ground to the Indian. From the standpoint of the aboriginal hunter and fisherman the North Country with its rugged coast line and its diversified back country was an inviting place. So inviting was it, indeed, that in its soil today one may find remains of Indian cultures covering a span of well over 5,000 years.

Many were the groups that long before the dawn of history on the North American continent treked into the North Country and made it their home land for various lengths of time. Here, certainly, the Algonkians of one period or another lived for centuries, and, in ancient camp sites, scattered throughout the territory, one finds evidences of other occupations,—the Eskimo, the “Gravel Knoll” people, the Mound Builders, the Red Paint people, but principally the Iroquois, whose warlike legions were even then making their power felt among their neighbors.

It is all very much conjecture, of course, but it is natural to think that the Eskimo-like people that left their harpoon-heads of walrus ivory in the ashes of their fires must have been the first human inhabitants of the section. One well known authority on the New York State Indian, Dr. Erl Bates, goes so far as to call them the “Ice Sheet People” and to assert that they came in the wake of the glaciers. But Dr. Arthur C. Parker of Rochester, widely known archeologist, places their coming much later. There is evidence to show that this mysterious people migrated to Northern New York from the north or northeast, but whether they were Eskimos or simply Indians influenced by the Eskimos, we do not know. A number of their sites have been uncovered along the St. Lawrence river and the shores of the lake. Fragments of a crude, soap stone pottery are found in these sites as well as walrus ivory spear heads and semi-lunar knives of slate.

From the days of the harpoon people to the time when the ancestors of the people of the Long House deserted their palisaded fortresses on the hills of the North Country and started the great retreat southward, certainly many, long centuries intervened. In the interval, the three migrations of the Algonkians had occurred, each leaving its characteristic imprint in the soil of the North Country. The little known Red Paint people had come, lingered awhile and then moved slowly on to New England. The Mound Builders had paused in their march eastward and in a dozen or more places, buried under heavy slabs of stone, had left a banner stone or two and a platform pipe to keep company with their dead.

It is difficult to arrange these various occupations in anything like chronological order. Each took the form of a filtering in of a new people into a new territory, rather than a definite movement with a definite termination in view. Several undoubtedly overlapped, some may have been contemporaneous, but each left something of its history in the buried ashes of old fire pits. Certain canoe routes and trails came into common usage, trails followed first by the Algon-kians, then by the Iroquois and finally by the first white men who were guided over them by the Indians. There was the route skirting the lake shore and Wolfe Island which one took going to and from the Ottawa river, the same route, incidentally, which Champlain took when he first touched on the shores of Northern New York. Then there was the trail from the lake shore to the St. Lawrence, which later became a familiar one to the Jesuits. Then, too, there was the trail from the Mohawk Valley across the Black river divide into the Oswegatchie, which in time became a war trail of many nations. Finally there were the numerous trails which paralleled the Salmon river, the two branches of Sandy creek and the Oswego river, leading to the Finger Lake region and the Mohawk.

The best known of these routes was probably the canoe route from the Mohawk river to Oswego, which in historic times became an important highway for war and trade. Beginning at the site of the present city of Rome where the Mohawk river describes a semicircle, there was a portage across the divide between the watershed of the Mohawk and Oneida Lake to Wood creek. In the course of time this portage became known as the “Great Carrying Place.” The route was then along Wood creek and through Oneida Lake and thence down the Oswego river to Lake Ontario. Thus there was what amounted to an all-water route from the Atlantic seaboard to Lake Ontario, passing through the heart of the Iroquoian Confederacy.

The British were not slow to appreciate the importance of controlling the Oswego trail and long before the Seven Years War it had been strongly fortified. Fort William, erected in 1732, guarded the eastern terminus of the “Great Carrying Place,” while the western terminus was guarded by Fort Bull, erected five years later. As an added protection for the portage Fort Newport was built in 1756. At the western end of the trail, where the waters of the Oswego river emptied into the lake, was Fort Oswego, which, in the course of time, became one of the strongest British fortifications on the continent.

But undoubtedly the earliest of all these routes was that which later became known as the Onondaga war trail. In general it followed the eastern shore of the lake northward from either the Oswego or Salmon rivers until Stony creek was reached. The dusky paddler seldom tried to negotiate the dangerous waters off Stony Point. Instead he ascended Stony creek to a point where it was but a short “carry” to Henderson Bay. Then he would cross the calm waters of the estuary composed of Henderson, Black River and Chaumont Bays to a point where the trail forked. He had his choice here of either “carrying” across Point Peninsula and hugging the mainland until he entered the St. Lawrence, or he could ascend the Chaumont river to a point near the present Depauville, then “carry” across to French creek and descend the creek to the St. Lawrence.

It is along this trail, most of it within the limits of the present Jefferson county, that some of the most productive Indian village and camp sites in New York State have been uncovered and many of them are evidently sites of great antiquity. Triangular, barbed arrow heads, crude, cord-marked pottery and an abundance of hammer stones found in fire pits and refuge piles in these old camps show them to have been occupied by the Algonkians anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. No less than 77 Indian sites have been located and to some extent explored in Jefferson County alone, and there are scores of others that are known to local archeologists. Says Dr. Arthur C. Parker in the introduction to “Notes on Rock Crevice Burials in Jefferson County,” “It is no idle statement to say that Jefferson County has long been regarded as the most important and prolific archeological area in the State of New York.”

Some indication of the number of Indian remains found in Northern New York may be gained from the fact that Dr. Parker in his “Archeological History of New York,” the most recent and most authoritative work of its kind, lists no less than 130 known sites in St. Lawrence, Franklin, Lewis, Jefferson and Oswego counties. In addition to the seventy-seven in Jefferson County, St. Lawrence has twenty-six, Oswego twenty, Franklin four and Lewis three.

The route from the Mohawk region, over the divide to the St. Lawrence River and Canada, must have been of later origin than the routes along the lake shore since it threaded the forests and followed the rivers through the very heart of Northern New York. It was a common route of the Iroquois during the historic era in their campaigns against the French in Canada and later, during the Seven Years War and the Revolution, it assumed such importance as a war trail that a fort was constructed at either end, the outposts of two nations. One branch of the Oswegatchie trail, as it is now commonly known, ran from the Royal Blockhouse at the eastern end of Oneida Lake northward to the Indian and Oswegatchie River. Another led from the place where later Fort Bull was erected at the “Great Carrying Place” on the Oswego-Mohawk trail, joining the other trail probably near the site of the present Lyons Falls, in Lewis County. At this point there were two courses open to the Indian. He could paddle down Black River to the present Carthage or he. could follow the trail along the shore and across the river at or near the site of Carthage at the place called by the pioneers, the Long Falls.

Having crossed the Black River the route was again through the forests to the Indian River, which was reached somewhere near the present Evans Mills. This portage is referred to in the Castorland Journal, the daily record of the French colonists who later attempted to settle the present Lewis County, the manuscript of which is preserved in the state library at Albany. There is another definite reference to this portage in the Haldimand Papers in the Canadian Archives.

Once having reached the Indian River the trail was definite. It followed the Indian River. There was a “carry” around the falls at the present Theresa where the name, Indian Landing, is still pie-served, and another at the present Rossie into Black Lake. From Black Lake the usual route was down the Oswegatchie into the St. Lawrence, although at times a “carry” from Black Lake to Chippewa Creek was made and entry to the St. Lawrence made several miles above the mouth of the Oswegatchie.

The importance of this trail during the Colonial period from a military standpoint can be appreciated when it is known that during the French and Indian Wars the French controlled the northern end through little Fort Presentation and the British the southern end through Fort Bull, while in the Revolution British control of the St. Lawrence was mantained in part through Fort Oswegatchie, at the present Ogdemsburg, while the Americans commanded the southern terminus of the trail by means of sturdy, little Fort Stanwix.

Along the Oswegatchie trail have been found many evidences of aboriginal occupation in the form of Iroquoian village and camp sites. Squiers, Hough, Morgan and all the early archeologists made note of the remains of ancient fortifications in the Black Lake region and a dozen or more such sites were plotted, charted and to some extent excavated. Fifty years ago quaint rock drawings, undoubtedly the work of Indians, were visible at Black Lake. Less than seventy-five years ago inhabitants of Theresa pointed to deep scars on trees at Indian Landing which tradition said were inflicted by Indian tomahawks while prisoners were being tortured. More recently important discoveries of Indian camp sites have been made on the various small lakes near Theresa, particularly on Red Lake.

When the first white settlers came into Northern New York just at the turn of the nineteenth century they found many evidences of a prior occupation of the territory by a vanished race. On the sandy plains of Ellisburg, along the Rutland hills and all through the Black Lake country were the visible remains of extensive fortifications, with earthen walls and ditches. It seemed inconceivable to them that the Indians could have built such extensive earthworks and they thought they must surely have been constructed by some superior race, long since vanished from the earth. So when the Rev. John Taylor, a Congregationalist missionary, rode up into the Black River country in 1802 and saw all about him in the forests traces of these ancient strongholds, he was confident that they were the remains of some forgotten white civilization.

Speaking of the remains of an ancient fortification on the south branch of Sandy Creek, Mr. Taylor said: “This town and undoubtedly all this country has been in some ancient period thickly inhabited. In some places there are evident marks of houses having stood so thick as to join each other. The remains of old fireplaces built of stones—wells, evidently dug and stoned to a considerable depth; and the remains of old forts and entrenchments, are all evidences of this fact. The fort on the south branch is plowed, and the old fireplaces appear to have been about two rods apart, throughout the whole. The earthenware of a peculiar structure and singular material, is scattered over the ground. The point of a sword, two edges, about one and a half feet long, was found last spring in plowing in the fort. The fort is regularly built, with five sides and five gateways—is about 20 rods from the river upon the north bank; 1,400 to 1,500 rods to the northeast, near the north branch, is another fort, west of which 150 or 200 rods there is an entrenchment lately found, half a mile in length in a straight line, and also a breastwork. Two and a half miles north of this is another fort, regularly built, containing about ten acres. Upon all these works the trees are of equal dimensions with those around. I measured one and found it four feet in diameter and saw one which had fallen and was almost consumed, which appeared to be of equal dimensions, and which grew upon the highest part of the fort. The people frequently find pipes, something in the form of German pipes.”

Mr. Taylor goes on to describe other evidences of what he considered proof of former white or European occupation. He says that the people find fragments of brick wherever they plow and tells of fortifications cut out of solid rock. It is only natural that Mr. Taylor, seeing these remains of the past in a region where settlement was only just starting, should think them the products of some highly civilized race. As a matter of fact he described with fair accuracy typical Iroquoian fortifications of the pre-Colonial era. The fireplaces he describes are spaced about as they are usually found in the Iroquoian long houses. It is not strange that he found great trees growing in these forts since the forts, themselves, must have been nearly 300 years old when he viewed the ruins. The “bricks” were fragments of Indian pottery, still found in the fields. The “German pipes were Onondaga pipes such as are found in every Indian relic hunter’s collection. The sword was probably dropped by some French explorer many years after the forts were abandoned. The fort cut from solid rock, of which Mr. Taylor had heard, was probably the rock-hewn trenches of old Fort Haldimand which may still be seen on Carleton Island near Cape Vincent, and which are of British and not Indian construction.

Civilization has of course almost obliterated these external signs of Indian occupancy. The plow of the farmer has demolished wall and ditch. The old fire pits have disappeared and such pottery and pipes as are now found are usually discovered underground. However, traces of an old fortification still remain at the so called Talcott site on the Watertown-Adams road, and there are the Perch Lake mounds over which the archeologists have speculated for a century or more.

The so called Perch Lake mounds have long been known to be of Indian origin. Squier, Hough, French and many local archeologists have mentioned them but it remained for that eminent student of Indian customs and history, the late Dr. William M. Beauchamp of Syracuse, to make a thorough investigation. Perch Lake is a small body of water in Jefferson County and is known to have been a favorite fishing ground of the Indians from time immemorial. The mounds were at one time very numerous but many of them have disappeared. Those that remain are low, irregular in shape, being from two to four feet in depth and from thirty to forty or more feet across the base. Excavations have resulted in the finding of few artifacts. In each mound there is apparently a fireplace usually directly under the center depression in the top of the mound. Dr. Beauchamp believed the mounds were remains of Algonkian lodges and pointed to similar remains in the Mississippi Valley. He placed their age at something like 500 years but had no very satisfactory explanation for the almost complete lack of broken pottery, pipes, arrow points and other artifacts so common in most Indian sites.

Eskimo, Red Paint people, Algonkians and all the rest of these early races almost invariably established their homes along the coast. Only in rare instances did they go inland. Unlike them the Iroquois built their palisaded fortresses on high ground many miles removed from lake and river. There was a time when the Onondagas, or, if one prefers, their immediate ancestors, ruled the present Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties. Apparently their supremacy was not attained without bloodshed. One finds often in the Jesuit Relations references to the great war between the Iroquois and the Algonkians

which finally resulted in the expulsion of the Algonkians from the present Northern New York. There is a tradition of a terrible battle fought near the site of the present village of Clayton which resulted in the capture of a strong Algonkian fort at that point. Ever after the Iroquois spoke of that spot as the Fallen Fort and it was long used in marking the boundaries of land.

The Iroquois probably started to filter into the North Country from across the St. Lawrence River a century or more before Columbus discovered America. Here they resided certainly for two centuries. When Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence and found a Mohawk village on the site of Montreal, the Onondagas must surely have been residing in the walled villages in the Rutland hills and on the sandy plains of Ellisburg, traces of which we find to this day. But by the time Champlain landed on the shores of the present Henderson Bay a century later, they had all departed southward. Why they went is not clear. Were their enemies pressing them too closely? Did they desire a more sheltered location further from the lake and the St. Lawrence ? Whatever the reason, it must have been important. One can picture the grave council assembling, the reluctance of the warriors to leave their old homes and the graves of their ancestors; then the deliberate resolution and the long trek southward of a nation seeking a new home. So it must have been when the Onondagas departed from the North Country. They abandoned their fortresses, their corn fields and the bones of their fathers. Never did they return save as hunters or as warriors. From the time the Onondagas marched southward to the beginning of the period of settlement, the North Country was a great “No Man’s Land,” a place of war and of peace conferences, a place for hunting and fishing, but never a place of permanent habitation.

The Iroquois still retain many race memories of their residence in Northern New York. They have an old tradition, one that the Jesuits knew well, that it was in the vicinity of Sandy Creek that “they emerged from the ground.” But as a matter of fact the Iroquois had reached a comparatively high degree of development at the time they resided in the lands to the south of the St. Lawrence. The pipes which they manufactured while they lived in Northern New York, literally thousands of which have been recovered from their fire pits and refuge piles, show a degree of craftsmanship never before or after equaled. The movement of the race which later became the Iroquois was from the westward. Modern scholars think the migration divided at either the Detroit or the Niagara rivers, one section sweeping over the northern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and the other continuing along the southern shores. The early homes of the Oneidas seem to have been on either side of the St. Lawrence River and later on the Oswegatchie. The Onondagas, too, seem to have come from the north along the St. Lawrence, but at some undetermined period, possibly in the fourteenth century, established themselves along the Rutland Hills in the present Jefferson County and in the Sandy Creek region where they must have lived for about two centuries before moving southward into the present Oswego County and later into their Onondaga county homes, where they resided through much of the historic era.

The Iroquois were a warlike race, even during their residence in Northern New York, but they had not attained that prestige which came later when the five Iroquoian nations united in the great confederacy which extended its sway as far south as Mexico. In the hill country of the north they built the walled towns, the remains of which were later to puzzle the pioneers. But later they were to establish an empire as large as Rome in her greatest glory. They were to form a confederacy which was to become the most powerful government in America north of the Aztec monarchy in Mexico. La Salle was to encounter them in Illinois and Captain John Smith in Chesapeake Bay. They were to enter Mexico and their war cry was to be heard in the Carolinas. This was the race which 500 years ago in Northern New York was being slowly welded into a powerful nation.

Northern New York Indian Place Names

The Indians left their place names all over the present Northern New York. Only in two or three instances are these names preserved to this day. Adirondacks is of course an ancient Indian name and so is Oswegatchie, a name which has remained unchanged for centuries save for a brief period when the French sought to change it to La Presentation. Below are given some of the more important place names in Northern New York, arranged by counties for greater convenience:

Franklin County Place Names

Present NameIndian NameMeaning
Lower SaranacGa-na-sa-da-goLong lake.
Lake St. FrancisCon-gam-muckSide hill.
Salmon RiverGau-je-ah-go-na-neSturgeon river.
ChateaugayO-sar-he-hanNarrow gorge.
Mt. SewardO-kor-lah MiddleThe great eye.
SaranacPat-tou-gam-muckRound lake.
MoiraSa-ko-ron-ta-keh-tasWhere small trees are carried on the shoulders.
Upper SaranacSin-ha-lo-nen-ne-pusLarge or beautiful lake. Village crossing a river.
MaloneTe-ka-nota-ron-we

Jefferson County Place Names

Present NameIndian NameMeaning
French CreekAt-en-ha-ra-kweh-ta-rePlace where the wall fell down.
Sandy CreekCat-ar-ga-ren-reSloping banks, referring to the ancient forts in that section.
Wolfe IslandDe-a-wone-da-ga-han-da
Stony CreekGa-nen-tou-taPine trees standing up.
Chaumont BayKa-hen-gouet-taWhere they smoked tobacco.
Black RiverKa-hu-ah-goGreat or wide river.
St. LawrenceGa-na-wa-gaGreat or wide river.
Little SandyTe-ca-nan-ouar-on-e-siA long time ago this swamp divided.
Indian RiverO-je-quackNut river.
Sackets HarborGa-hu-ag-o-j et-war-a-lo-te

Lewis County Place Names

Present NameIndian NameMeaning
Otter CreekDa-ween-netAn otter.
Deer RiverGa-ne-ga-to-doCorn pounder.
Moose RiverTe-ka-hund-i-an-doA moose.
Beaver RiverNe-ha-se-neCrossing on a stick of timber.

Oswego County Place Names

Present NameIndian NameMeaning
Little SalmonGa-hen-wa-ga
Oswego FallsGal-kon-thi-a-ge
Scriba CreekGa-so-te-naHigh grass
Mouth of Salmon RiverKuh-na-ta-haWhere pine trees grow.
PhoenixOt-i-hat-an-gue
Oneida LakeSe-u-ka
Bay CreekT e-qua-no-ta-go-waBig marsh.
OswegoSwa-gehFlowing out.

St Lawrence County Place Names

Present NameIndian NameMeaning
St. Regis RiverAk-wis-sas-neWhere the partridge drums.
Tupper LakeA-re-yu-naGreen rocks.
Black LakeChe-gwa-gaIn the hip.
Massena SpringsKa-na-saw-stak-e-rasWhere the mud smells bad.
WaddingtonKa-na-ta-ra-kenWet village.
NorfolkKa-na-ta-sekeNew village.
Yellow LakeKat-sen-e-kwarLake covered with yellow lilies.
Racket RiverNi-ha-wa-na-teNoisy river.
Grass RiverNi-ken-tsi-a-kePlace of fishes.
OswegatchieOswegatchieBlack river.
PotsdamTe-wa-ten-e-ta-ren-iesPlace where the gravel settles under the feet in dragging a canoe.
Brasher FallsTi-o-hi-on-ho-kenPlace where the river divides.
RaymondvilleTsi-ia-ko-on-tie-taWhere they leave the canoes.

The First White Men in Northern New York

One day in early October, 1615, a great fleet of bark canoes might have been seen gliding over the waters of that estuary composed of Chaumont, Black River and Henderson Bays. Years before the Iroquois had departed southward. No watchful Onondaga or Oneida scout was on hand to spy out the approaching flotilla. Only the crumbling walls of the old Iroquoian fortresses remained, silently keeping vigil in the deserted forests. Nearer the shore came the canoes, filled with Hurons, their naked bodies glistening with grease and bright with war paint, because this was a war party on its way to the Iroquois country to the south of the lake. It was no unusual thing for war parties to follow this route. But this party was different from any that had gone before because in the bows of a dozen of the larger canoes sat white men. The October sun reflected from breast plate and steel hat. Each man bore an arquebus and sword. In the foremost sat a man of commanding mien. He was Samuel de Champlain, whom we know as the Father of New France. So the first white men came to the North Country, five years before the Pilgrim fathers landed on the shores of Plymouth Bay.

What a sight must have met the eyes of these Frenchmen, as, after hiding their canoes, they marched warily along the beach southward to where the Salmon River empties itself into the lake. All about them were great trees, blazing forth in autumnal color. “I observed a very pleasing and fine country,” notes Champlain in his account of the expedition, “watered by numerous small streams, and two little rivers which empty into said lake, and a number of pools and prairies, where there was an infinite quantity of game, a great many vines and fine trees, vast numbers of chestnuts, the fruit of which was yet in the shell.” Thus Champlain, the first white man to visit it, describes Northern New York.

It is probable that the party followed the coast down to the mouth of the Salmon River and then struck inland. Champlain’s narrative says the party followed along the shore for four leagues. The Salmon River is almost exactly four French leagues from Henderson Bay. That was a common route from Lake Ontario to the Iroquois country. The early Jesuit maps show the trails which radiated from there. For four days they threaded their way through the forests, crossing the outlet of Oneida Lake, until they were deep in the Iroquois country. Huron scouts brought in eleven prisoners, four women, three boys, one girl and three men, on their way to the lake for fishing. A Huron chief promptly cut off the finger of one of the women. Champlain’s indignation amazed the chief, who pointed out that their enemies treated them in the same manner when they had the opportunity, but he finally agreed to suspend torture of the women, promising that henceforth he would cut off only the fingers of the men. A day or so later Champlain and his red and white followers found themselves before the Oneida fortress they had set out to capture.

It was not the first time that Champlain had participated in an expedition against the Iroquois. Seven years before he and his redskin allies had met the Iroquois on the shores of the lake which now bears his name and the firearms of the Frenchmen had won the day. Since then Champlain had been more than willing to make common cause with the Hurons against the Iroquois. He felt that the fur trade of the French and the missions the Recollect friars were establishing in the Huron country would never be safe until the Iroquois, that warlike race to the southward, were vanished. He had promised his Huron allies to accompany their warriors on another campaign against the Iroquois, so a few days before he and his motley army had glided forth from the Trent River into Lake Ontario, 500 naked arms swinging as many paddles. Skirting the shores of the lake they had pressed southward, following the age-old canoe route, until the shores of the present Henderson Bay were reached.

Could Champlain have realized that his alliance with the Hurons was to eventually cost the French a great colonial empire he might not have embarked so enthusiastically on this expedition into an unknown country. Could he have foreseen the torture fires, the long period of war and disaster, the practical obliteration of nation after nation of Indians with whom the French were allied, he might have hesitated before again giving battle to the Iroquois. But probably none of these things was in his mind as he stood before the Oneida fort, the white plume of Navarre on his steel hat waving to the breeze and the frenzied warriors milling about him.

It was a typical Iroquoian fortified town which the French and Indians hoped to capture, a town not unlike those which a century or so before had stood on many a North Country hill. Most historians, including Dr. Erl Bates, now think it was located at Nichol’s Pond in the present Madison County. A triple row of palisades, perhaps fifteen or twenty feet high, mounted on a low, earthen wall, defended the village. On high galleries the defenders stood, brandishing their bows and taunting the Hurons. Had the attackers listened to Champlain’s advice, undoubtedly the town would have fallen. But the Hurons were accustomed to fighting as they pleased. They had no discipline of any kind, but they did have a wholesome fear of the Iroquois. The first shower of Iroquoian arrows drove them back and Champlain was forced to express himself in “rude and angry words,” as he puts it. A tower was constructed, from the top of which the French could pour shot into the village below but even that proved ineffective. The Hurons, who, if the truth were Known, had probably expected the French to do most of the fighting, were discouraged with the courageous defense of the foe.

Expected reinforcements failed to arrive. Champlain, himself, had received two arrow wounds. He was anxious to resume the attack on the fort but he could not enthuse the Indians, who seemed to have had all the fight taken out of them. The Hurons decided to retreat, having accomplished nothing, as Champlain expresses it, but a “disorderly sputter.” Bundling their wounded into improvised litters they started for Henderson Bay, their only fear being that the Iroquois would pursue them. Champlain was carried with the rest of the wounded on the backs of the Indians. It was a painful march for him and as soon as he could bear his weight on his wounded leg he insisted upon walking. Snow fell, powdering the North Country woods with white for a brief period, only to melt quickly. A cold wind blew in from the lake and added to the annoyance of the marchers. Eventually they reached the bay and found their canoes undisturbed. Crestfallen, they departed for Canada.

The Jesuit Missionaries

After Champlain’s expedition we have no other record of visits of white men to what is now Northern New York for nearly forty years. It is highly probable that some of the half-wild French fur traders, the coureurs de bois whose perseverance and daring almost won France an empire, skirted the coast line of the North Country and possibly penetrated the interior, but, if so, they left no record behind. In the meantime the black-gowned Jesuits had replaced the gray-garbed Recollects in the Huron missions. One after another they had suffered their martyrdom—Joques, Brebeuf and the rest. The Iroquois grew bolder. No longer did they fear the French. Armed with muskets and iron hatchets by the Dutch traders at Fort Orange, they started on that terrible series of wars that practically blotted out the Hurons, the Neuter People, the Cat Nation and all but drove the French from Canada. Their warriors hung about the forests near Montreal and Quebec until only the boldest of the French dared venture out. Smaller settlements were wiped out. Indian allies of the French were driven from place to place until they had no place where they could lay their heads. Captives were tortured unmercifully until they died and then their bodies were mutilated. Such was the penalty the French paid because Champlain had allied himself with the enemies of the Iroquois.

But the Jesuits, many of them of tender birth and breeding, refused to give up. They traveled hundreds of miles in bark canoes where no white man had gone before. In ragged cassocks, they followed Indian trails into the heart of the enemy country. They lived uncomplainingly month in and month out in the unspeakable filth of Indian villages, half blinded from the hours spent in smoky lodges, and when captured they suffered without a murmur all the tortures that the fiendish Iroquois could devise. Today we read spellbound of the bravery and the simple devotion of these zealous missionaries. In 1645 Father Joseph Bressanti wrote from the Iroquois country to the general of the Jesuits in Rome:

“I do not know if your Paternity will recognize the handwriting of one whom you once knew very well. The letter is soiled and ill-written; because the writer has only one finger of his right hand left entire, and cannot prevent the blood from his wounds, which are still open, from staining the paper. His ink is gunpowder mixed with water, and his table is the earth.”

On an October day in 1653, a strangely assorted group pushed its way through the forests of what is now Lewis County, heading northward. The leader was an Iroquoian chieftain, richly attired as an ambassador, his sturdy body hung with belts of wampum and

weighed down with many fine beaver pelts. With him was a hunting party of Iroquois, bound for the beaver hunting grounds near Indian River. But there was one other, a gaunt, weakened white man, clad only in the rags which had been given him out of pity by the Dutch at Fort Orange. The naked trees reared themselves high above the shivering man who staggered along in the wake of his companions. The breath of winter was in the north woods and chilled to the bone him who had once graced the halls of the College of Orleans in France. So Father Antoine Poncet of the Jesuits, a captive of the Iroquois, trod the trail that led to the Oswegatchie and Quebec. So far as we know he was the first white man to navigate the Indian and Oswegatchie rivers, the first to see Black Lake and the first to pass through the interior of what we now call Northern New York.

But it is safe to say there was none of the thrill of the pathfinder in Father Poncet’s heart that day. The garb of his calling long since stolen by the Indians, one of his fingers cut off by a clam shell in the hands of an Indian squaw, he marveled that he still lived, so intense was his pain and so extreme his weakness. In France Antoine Poncet had been an instructor in the College of Orleans. He had come to Canada in 1639, serving his apprenticeship in the Huron mission on the shores of Georgian Bay, where he remained until put in charge of the Montreal Parish. Captured near Sillery, a mission station not far from Quebec, in August with another Frenchman, he had been conveyed by way of the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain to the Mohawk towns. The two captives were stripped of their clothing and taunted. One of Father Poncet’s fingers was cut off and two of his companion. His companion was burned but Father Poncet was permitted to live practically as a slave.

But finally came the time when the Iroquois desired to make peace with the French and secure the release of some of their warriors held prisoners in Quebec. What better way to start negotiations, they reasoned, than release their Jesuit slave? He was given some discarded clothing by the Dutch and soon afterwards started on his long trip homeward, accompanied by the Mohawk ambassador. The Oswegatchie trail was the route taken. Undoubtedly the party ascended the Mohawk River for a considerable distance, then left it, traveling in a northwesterly direction, probably up West Canada Creek. The trail from then on led through the forests, crossing the Black River and striking the Indian River at a point near where Theresa now stands. From then on it was practically an all-water route to Montreal and Quebec, through Black Lake to the Oswe-gatchie, down the Oswegatchie to the St. Lawrence and thence down the St. Lawrence to the French settlements.

How trying that journey was to Father Poncet may be best understood from his own narrative. “I was told the captain who had escorted me to the Dutch would be my conductor to the country of the French/’ he writes, “not by water because of the storms which ordinarily prevail at this time of the year upon Lake Champlain, over which we must have passed; but over another route which was very fatiguing to me, as we had to proceed by foot through those great forests for seven or eight days, and I had neither strength or legs for such a great undertaking. At the end of these eight days is found a river upon which we proceed by boat for about two days and then we come to the great river, St. Lawrence, into which the first empties its waters, sixty leagues or thereabouts above the island of Montreal and not far from the lake called Ontario.

“At length on the third of October I left behind me the village of the Iroquois to return to Quebec. My conductor having taken charge of the presents we pursued our journey, accomplishing only four leagues on that first day.

“I began and completed this journey by land with inconceivable fatigues. We started upon a Friday, the third of October, and we arrived at the first river which I mentioned above on Saturday, the eleventh of the month. We proceeded in company with several Iroquois who were going to hunt the beaver about Lake Ontario. The rains and the mountains and the valleys; the mountain streams and the brooks; and four rivers of considerable size which we had to cross by fording, wetting ourselves thereby up to the waist; another larger one which had to be crossed on rafts, insecure and badly put together, very short rations consisting of Indian corn just picked, without bread, without wine, without meat and without game, those regions having been hunted bare—all these things I say formed a cross for me so formidable and unceasing that it seemed to me a perpetual miracle that I was able to bear it, suffering, as I was, such intense pain and extreme weakness.”

Father Poncet’s journey through the North Woods and down the Oswegatchie gave the French their first idea of the geography of that section we now know as Northern New York. Maps published soon afterwards showed for the first time the Oswegatchie River, without a name, it is true, but charted reasonably accurately and designated as the “river which comes from the direction of the Mohawks.” But now a period of temporary peace was at hand. The Iroquois, influenced by their Huron slaves, invited the Jesuits to plant a colony in their midst. They were about to wage war on the powerful Cat Nation and desired peace on their northern frontiers. And so the next year after that in which the captive, Poncet, had been led through the forests of the North to Montreal and freedom, another Jesuit came paddling up the St. Lawrence to pay a voluntary visit to the Iroquois.

That missionary was Simon Le Moyne. Born in 1604 he had entered the Jesuit novitiate at the age of eighteen. When thirty-four years of age he came to Canada and was assigned to a mission among the Hurons. Here he put in his time well, not only being successful in bringing spiritual light to the Indians, but also perfecting himself in their language and customs. It was on July 17, 1654, that Father Le Moyne started up the St. Lawrence. He and his companion carried their canoe around the rapids. Not until the last of July did they arrive at Chippewa Bay, the entrance to the Lake of Thousand Islands. Now for the first time in recorded history a white man gazed upon the beauties of the upper St. Lawrence. We can picture the Jesuit and his companion, their paddles poised, as they marveled at the myriad, wooded islands that 250 years later were to become one of the most noted resort sections of the world.

Le Moyne, in his account of the expedition in the Jesuit Relations, says that he and his companion landed in the locality of the Thousand Islands and started overland. It was undoubtedly the “long carry” across Point Peninsula which they took, even then a well known Indian trail. They were fortunate to meet some Iroquois fishermen who took them to their camp where food was offered them. Several Huron captives, slaves of the Iroquois, were met—Christians, who flocked about the black-garbed father praying him to comfort them in their misfortune. The first two days of August found Father Le Moyne and his companion pushing their way through the dense forests. The entire journey from the St. Lawrence to the Salmon River appears to have been made overland, through the heart of what is now Jefferson County and into Oswego County.

From the mouth of the Salmon River, there were well defined trails to Ononontage, the chief village of the Onondagas, about two miles from the present village of Manlius on Indian Hill. The Jesuit remained there two days in his character of an ambassador from the French governor of Canada and then proceeded homeward. First, however, he visited the salt springs at Onondaga, the first white man to see them, and then paddled to the lake by way of the Oneida River and eventually into the Oswego River and the lake. From this point, turning eastward, he coasted along the shore, past the Salmon River, Sandy Creek and Stony Creek, until he arrived at a place “which is to become our dwelling place and the site of a French settlement.” Le Moyne was enthusiastic about the location. “There are beautiful prairies here and good fishing; it is the resort of all nations,” he writes. Here the wind detained the Jesuit and his party two days and finally on the third day when they embarked, one of their canoes sprang a leak and they nearly drowned. They succeeded, however, in getting to an island and there dried themselves.

Where this place, which was to become the dwelling place of the French, was located, is not clear. It has been placed at the Salmon River, Sandy Creek and Sackets Harbor by various writers. Probably it was somewhere within Black River Bay. If it had been at either the mouth of the Salmon River or at Sandy Creek, Le Moyne would undoubtedly have mentioned the mouth of the river. Nor are there islands at either of these places, while Black River Bay is plentifully supplied. So the likelihood is that somewhere within Henderson, Black River or Chaumont Bays, the Jesuits planned the settlement that was to win the great Iroquois country south of the St. Lawrence to France. It was a settlement, however, which never materialized.

The following year, two more Jesuits, Fathers Dablon and Chaumonot, left Montreal to ascend the St. Lawrence to the land of the People of the Long House. They, too, paddled in and out of the maze of the Thousand Islands. Says Father Dablon: “Such a sight of awe-inspiring beauty I have never beheld—nothing but islands and huge masses of rocks, as large as cities, all covered with cedars and firs.” Just as they reached the lake, they met a party of Seneca hunters who regaled them with Indian corn and beans, soaked in clear water without seasoning. On October 29th, they reached the Otihatangue River, or, as we know it today, the Salmon. Dablon described it as narrow at the mouth but wide as a rule for the rest of its course. From here they followed the usual trail to Onontague.

The two Jesuits spent the winter with the Onondagas but impatience on the part of the Indians because the French had not sent the promised colony, decided them to start back for Montreal the following March. They followed the Salmon River route to the lake and then struck eastward towards the St. Lawrence. There is no more graphic page in the entire Jesuit Relations than the story of that trek from Northern New York to Quebec. The North Country had experienced a March thaw. The snow was wet and soggy, the ice spongy and unsafe. Sometimes the Jesuits followed their Indian guide through icy water up to their knees, their worn cassocks caught up about their waists. They slept in a swamp, probably in the vicinity of Sandy Creek. They proceeded across a pond, probably either Six Town pond or Stony pond. And then they came to the mouth of the Black River, the ice of which was too weak to support them. For three hours they stood, trembling with cold, undecided what to do. A cold, dismal rain started to fall and they were compelled to spend the night in the forests.

The next day they went a mile or so up the river until they found the ice firm enough to cross and then proceeded over what they described as a vast prairie, their feet wet from the half-melted snow. They waded through numerous small streams and found that by night they had gone scarcely six miles. Rain again fell and when they attempted to sleep they found themselves lying in the water. “Under such circumstances,” writes the doughty missionary, “a night would seem long indeed did not God illuminate the gloom.” Bad weather detained them two days and three nights and then again they headed northward. They stopped to hunt and succeeded in killing a deer and some wild cats. After several days of experiences of this kind they finally reached the St. Lawrence and encamped on a rock opposite Otondiata, now Grenadier Island, near the mouth of the Oswegatchie.

After the Le Moyne and the Dablon-Chaumonot expeditions we find the first maps showing with any degree of accuracy the territory now comprised within Northern New York. The Jesuits were particularly fitted by both education and training for recording observations. They usually had compasses and a cross-staff, a device for ascertaining latitude. On Father Raffeix’s map of 1688 we find a rude indentation to signify Black River Bay but no sign of the river. There was little attempt to map the interior but the eastern shore of the lake was now becoming fairly well known. Quaint, French names, now all but forgotten, were fashioned on river and bay, island and point. Stony Point was la Pointe de la Traverse, Stony Creek was de Assumption, Big Sandy was des Sables and Little Sandy, de la Planche. The Salmon River was de la Grande Famine, while Grindstone Creek was named La Petite Famine and Black River Bay, Niaoure. Stony Creek was the river of M. de Comte, Grenadier Island, Isle au Renard, the Galloups, Isle aux Galots and the present Carlton Island, Isle aux Chevreuils. With the exception of the Galloups Island, a corrupted spelling of the old French word, not a single one of these old geographical names have survived to this day.

La Famine And The Great Conference

Back in those shadowy days when the French were first charting the lake shore line, no place in what is now Northern New York was famed so widely as La Famine. It was a landing place for Indian war parties from time immemorable. Here missionaries on their way to the Iroquois country would camp for a time. It was a place where wars began and ended. At La Famine the famous Huron war chief, the Rat, made the attack on the Iroquois ambassadors which brought about the bloody war of 1689. At La Famine, too, de la Barre, the governor of Canada, held his famous council of peace with the Iroquois tribes. It was to La Famine that the Iroquois insisted that the council fire be moved from Fort Frontenac. From here Pierre Francois Xaxier de Charlevoid, the noted French traveler, wrote one of his letters to Madame de Lesdiguieres in which he spoke of La Famine as “one of the worst places in the world.”

And yet today we do not know with certainty where La Famine was. It seems to have got its name about 1656. A French colony left Quebec that year, escorted by Onondagas, Senecas and Hurons. There were four Jesuit fathers and two brothers in the party and between fifty and sixty colonists and soldiers. Hunger pressed the party but they hoped for relief at Otiatonnehengue, an Indian fishing village. No one was there, the fishing season being over, and from their distress the place appears to have been known as La Famine.

The habit of the old French chart-makers in transferring names of rivers and streams at will has made the location of many of the places spoken of in the old records a matter of guess work. Some writers, among them the late Robert Lansing, wartime secretary of state, have believed La Famine to be located at the mouth of Sandy Creek. So it would appear from Father Raffeix’s map of 1688 and from the much later Sauthier map in which Sandy Creek is designated the Riviere La Famine. But the weight of evidence would seem to be in favor of the mouth of Salmon River in Oswego County. It is the Salmon River which on most of the old maps is designated la Grand Famine. Clearly Charlevois understood the mouth of the Salmon to be La Famine and certainly from here radiated numerous trails to the Onondaga villages.

At La Famine occurred one of the most important events in the pre-settlement history of Northern New York. Here the great conference between Le Febru de la Barre, governor general of Canada, and the ambassadors of the Five Nations was held in 1684. To understand the purpose of this conference it is necessary to know something of the general history of the period. The peace between the Iroquois and the French was more a matter of record than of actual fact. The English colonists had just concluded a treaty with the Iroquois at Albany and a hole had been dug in the court yard of the council hall and five hatchets thrown in and buried. The Iroquois had conquered after a long and stubborn war their southern neighbors, the Andastes, and were now ready to turn the full force of their power against the Illinois and the Hurons of the Lake. That the Confederacy of the Five Nations would be able to conquer these western tribes, no one doubted, but if they did it meant a death blow to Canada since it would ruin the French fur trade and furs from the west would be diverted to the English. Obviously there was but one thing for the French to do and that was to strike the Senecas, the strongest tribe of the Five Nations, before the Senecas could invade the Illinois country. Even de la Barre, but half a soldier at best and with no traits of leadership and little courage, apparently realized it and got ready for an invasion of the Iroquois country.

No such army had ever ascended the St. Lawrence up to that time as the force led by de la Barre. There were three companies of regulars, a motley horde of Canadian militiamen, many of them as wild as the Indians, themselves, and several hundred red allies— half-naked Abenakis and Algonkians from Sillery, Hurons from Lorette and converted Iroquois from the region of Montreal. In flat boats and bark canoes, the French and their allies painfully moved up the St. Lawrence, until finally they arrived at Fort Frontenac, the site of the present city of Kingston, Ontario, and here de la Barre again wavered.

As a matter of fact the French commander wanted war only as a last resort. If he could accomplish anything at all by peace, it was peace he desired. In this idea he was encouraged by the Jesuit, Jean de Lamberville, who had long lived in the Onondaga capital. De Lambertville feared the horror of an Indian war. He knew the strength of the Iroquois and respected it. Perhaps, too, he feared a war, coming at this time, would end any chance of Christianizing the Iroquois. So from Fort Frontenac de la Barre sent Charles Le Moyne, a veteran colonist, whom the Iroquois had known in peace and war for twenty-five years, in the hope that he and de Lambertville could persuade the Iroquois to meet the French in conference. Then de la Bai re and his force, many of them sickened from fever, crossed over to La Famine. Undoubtedly they took the old route, skirting the coast line to Chaumont Bay, then dragging the heavy flat boats across the carry at La Traverse and following the coast to Sandy Creek or the mouth of the Salmon, as the case might be. There they encamped to await news from Le Moyne and de Lamberville.

And La Famine justified its name. Provisions fell short. Sick men lay in their blankets. September had come, bringing the first touch of fall to the northern woods but the marshes were unhealthy and the men grew discontented and hungry. Finally, when it seemed that there was no possibility of negotiations, Le Moyne appeared at La Famine and with him came fourteen envoys of the Iroquois, led by no less a personage than the famous Big Mouth, chief orator of the Five Nations. De la Barre, pleased at the unexpected appearance of the Iroquois, caused a banquet to be spread, and the Indian ambassadors feated upon bread, wine and salmon trout. Then the conference started.

There is a painting hanging upon the walls of the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library at Watertown that portrays vividly that celebrated conference of 250 years ago. In an arm chair, decked in his finery, sits the French governor, a little weary looking and probably frightened, too, if the truth be known. Besides him stands his interpreter, the Jesuit, Bruyas, and ranging on right and left, his officers. French soldiers and Canadian colonials form two of the remaining sides of the square, while the fourth side is made up of the Indian envoys in their rich beaver skins, squatted on their heels, calmly smoking their pipes.

The council was conducted with all the imagery and pomp so dear to the Indian heart. There was the strutting too and fro, the impassioned oratory and the giving of presents. De la Barre recounted the injuries done by the Iroquois, how they had maltreated and robbed French traders in the country of the Iroquois, how they had introduced the English into the lakes “which belong to the king, my master,” and how the Iroquois had invaded the territory of the Illinois and made captives there. He demanded immediate satisfaction, saying that if he did not receive it, he had express orders to wage war. All of this was duly interpreted.

But de la Barre failed utterly to make the impression he had hoped. Scarcely had the interpreter finished than Big Mouth of the Onondagas was on his feet and with measured tread walked twice around the hollow square. Then, pausing before the governor, he stretched forth a long arm and delivered a speech which is as finished a piece of satire and open defiance as has come down to us from our colonial history. He openly taunted the French on their sickness and helplessness, justified the pillage of the French traders and acknowledged that the Iroquois had conducted the English traders to the Great Lakes. “We are born free,” he said. “We neither depend on Onontio (the Canadian governor) or on Corlear (the governor of New York). We have a right to go with whomsoever we please, to take with us whomever we please, and buy and sell of whomever we please.”

Thus ended the first conference. De la Barre retired to his tent in a rage while Big Mouth entertained the rest of the French at a feast which he opened in person with a dance, an accomplishment in which he was reported as adept as he was at oratory. However, there was another meeting in the afternoon at which the Indians were not quite so defiant and terms were proposed which de la Barre in his desperation felt he must accept. Amends were promised for the traders who had been pillaged, a pledge, which, by the way, was never kept; de la Barre promised in turn not to attack the Senecas, but the Iroquois still insisted that they would war on the Illinois to the death, and insisted, too, that the council fire be removed from Fort Frontenac to La Famine. To these humiliating terms de la Barre agreed to the disgust of all Canada, and hurriedly departed from La Famine with his sick and famished army. The honors went to Big Mouth. He had out-talked, out-maneuvered and out-bluffed the French. Even the king was disgusted when he heard of it and promptly recalled de la Barre to Paris.

Other famous visitors came to Northern New York during the last decade or two in the seventeenth century and the lily flag of France was often to be seen at the mouth of the Oswegatchie or on the shores of Henderson Bay. The great La Salle was a frequent visitor during the time he was stationed at Fort Frontenac and Louis Hennepin, the friar, explored part of Black River in the dead of winter. Then there was the expedition of the Marquis Denonville, that “pious colonel of dragoons,” as Parkman calls him, in 1687. He with his 1,700 troops and Indians crossed the lake in batteaux and canoes from Fort Frontenac. His boats were wrecked on the Galloups, or the Galots, as they were then called, and the Frenchmen were marooned there two days until the weather cleared. Then they went on to La Famine where a temporary post was established. It is interesting to note that in command of the converted Iroquois with Denonville on this expedition was the famous chief, Kryn, who two years later was to lead the terrible attack on Schenectady.

Count Frontenac’s Expedition

Then, finally, just at the turn of the century, came the expedition of Count Frontenac, that battered, old soldier whose qualities as a leader and whose fiendish temper won him the respect of the Iroquois to the extent that no French governor of Canada ever secured. Frontenac moved up the St. Lawrence in July, 1696, with 2,200 men. In canoes and flat boats, the army, the greatest number of armed men ever to pass up the St. Lawrence to that time, entered the Lake of the Thousand Islands and reached Fort Frontenac on July 26th, exactly twenty-two days after the departure had been made from Montreal. The first camp was made on Deer Island and the next day the army reached a point within three leagues of Sandy Creek. The following day the mouth of the Oswego River was reached.

Fifty scouts marched ahead on either side of the river. Indians and trained woodsmen they were. The aged count was taking no chances on an ambush. The batteaux were dragged up the portage paths on rollers. Far into the night the strangely assorted groups worked, the great, dark vaults of the forests lit up grotesquely by the blazing torches. What a sight it must have been in the flickering light, naked bodies, glistening with bear grease pressed closely to the rich uniforms of the French officers.

By the first of August the army had reached Lake Onondaga and a few days later the heavens were aglow from the blazing log houses of the Onondaga capital. The Indians, themselves, had fired their village before retreating. The French, not finding any warriors, contented themselves with destroying the corn, burning to the stake an old Onondaga who had been left behind, and then moved on to the Oneida capital which was likewise destroyed with all the growing crops. A few prisoners were taken, no battle of importance was fought, but the old count, carried now in an armed chair and now in a canoe, by destroying the crops had inflicted a severe blow on the Onondagas and the Oneidas.

The Iroquois were now definitely arrayed against the French. True the Jesuits had made some converts in the Onondaga missions and a number of the Iroquois had moved to Canada and allied themselves with the French. But the Five Nations never seriously wavered in their allegiance to the English. The French had hoped to gain a foothold in the Iroquois country through the Onondaga missions. They failed. Father Simon Le Moyne had dreamed of a flourishing French settlement to be located on Black River Bay. It never came into being. Not only did the Iroquois guard the back door of the British colony of New York, but the power of the People of the Long House constituted a perpetual threat to the French fur trade with the western nations.

The French held the St. Lawrence; the British, through their Iroquois neighbors, the Mohawk. Between lay a great empire of brooding forests, the Northern New York of today. Both nations claimed it; neither had more than the vaguest idea of its geography. Within fifty years it was to be a major battleground in a war to decide the destinies of a great continent.

Gallery of Images

Landon, Harry F. The north country; a history, embracing Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Oswego, Lewis and Franklin counties, New York, vol 1 of 3. Historical Publishing Company Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932.

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