This essay is a reprint from from a book
entitled "Niagara Land: the First 200 Years," which in turn was a reprint
of a series of essays published in "Sunday, the Courier Express Magazine"
to celebrate the 1976 American Revolution Bicentennial.
Keepers of the Western Door: The Story of the Seneca Nation
By Richard Hill and Donald A. Grinde, Jr.
ACCORDING TO INDIAN LEGEND, the Senecas of Western New York evolved from one of the original six Iroquois families who were released by the Creator from beneath a mountain near Oswego Falls. The Senecas believe the six families migrated east to the ocean, then faced west and followed the sun, each family settling in a different area. The Seneca family grew rapidly in the Genesee Valley, which they occupied for nearly 400 years.
Strategically the protectors of the western flank of Iroquois territory, the Senecas came to be known as the "Keepers of the Western Door." Numerically they were the largest of the Iroquois member tribes even at the inception of the Confederacy 500 years ago, and they grew even larger and stronger from the mid-1600s through the early 1700s through conquests, adoptions and assimilations of smaller groups of Indians. Within the clans of the Iroquois Confederacy the Senecas numbered half the fighting force.
Numerically they were the largest of the Iroquois member tribes even at the inception of the Confederacy 500 years ago....
Whenever the Sacred Tree of Peace (the Iroquois constitution) was threatened by an obstinate, warring nation, the Senecas were the first to defend the Great Confederacy.
Often we hear of "massacres" or complete annihilation of other Niagara Frontier nations at the hands of the Senecas. These stories cloud the fact that the Iroquois, Particularly the Senecas, followed a complex system of peace. The Senecas were a fun-loving people and often opened their long houses to the homeless and lonely. The Senecas practiced a custom of adoption of captives, displaced people and overpowered nations.
ORIGINALLY, the Tobacco, Neutral Erie and Huron nations occupied parts of the Niagara Frontier. The Hurons had a loose confederation in Canada that was actually larger than the Iroquois Confederacy in the mid-1600's. This Wyandot Confederacy as it was called, became extremely jealous of the Senecas and many disputes developed.
Eventually, the Tree of Peace towered over the Hurons as they were defeated, putting an end to raids on Seneca villages. Many Hurons who did not flee, became adopted members of the Seneca Nation. One by one the other nations, either by force or peaceful negotiation became dispersed and assimilated into the Iroquois League. The Neutral, Tobacco and Erie nations became politically dependent on the Senecas. This process of growth continued to the point where the Seneca Nation was actually the mixed blood of eleven different tribes. And the influence of the league, due to the strength and size of the Senecas, expanded as far west as Illinois.
The Senecas believed that their clans, villages and nation maintained strength through numbers of people. Each clan has an elderly matron, called a mother.
She overlooks the functions of the clan and bestows names on her clan members. Each clan has a set of names that are used over and over, but no two people have the exact same combination of names. The spiritual strength of the clan -- and obviously the numerical strength -- is heightened when all names are being used.
And the influence of the league, due to the strength and size of the Senecas, expanded as far west as Illinois.
When, in time of war, untimely death diminished the clans, prisoners were adopted to replace those individuals lost in battle. A mother had the right to command a war party to avenge her loss or to find a suitable person to adopt A mother could also order a prisoner to be executed to appease a lost son's spirit.
The system of adoption was so complete that the new member would take the name, position and sometimes the family of the deceased. In such cases, the adopted person was given complete love and respect.
The Effect of the Europeans
DURING the late 17th Century, pressure from the English, French and Dutch settlers was being felt by the entire Iroquois Confederacy. The French in particular sent their missionaries and military expeditions against the Seances, causing confusion, starvation and destruction of villages. The French also tortured men, women and children.
Despite the infusion of guns, whiskey and money, the Iroquois survived constant French harassment (the French even offered a bounty on Iroquois scalps). Throughout this period, the Iroquois continued their policy of adoption. In fact, the Onondagas even adopted a small colony of French dissidents.
Among the Senecas at Buffalo Creek a Frenchman named Joncaire established a trading post. In spite of the actions of his countrymen, Joncaire was treated kindly by the Senecas. They taught him their language and traditions and officially adopted him into their hearts. Joncaire remained a constant friend of the Senecas.
French and Indian War
With the mid-1700's and a dramatic change in the stature of the Seneca Nation. The invading whites surrounded the Iroquois and began to destroy the Tree of Peace. The French pulled one way and the English pulled the other way. The so-called "French and Indian War" caught the Iroquois in the middle, dividing the sacred unity, forcing one nation in the league against another. For example, the Senecas found themselves fighting the Mohawks.
The Revolutionary War only worsened the situation. Previous treaties and agreements forced the Iroquois to make a stand. The Confederacy remained neutral. allowing each nation to decide for itself. The Senecas favored the British, their traditional white ally.
Among the Senecas at Buffalo Creek a Frenchman named Joncaire established a trading post.
Both the British and the Americans realized the importance of the Iroquois people in the control of the Niagara Frontier so the Iroquois were caught in the middle again The Iroquois would lose no matter which side they chose. The Revolution did not allow the Iroquois to fight for themselves, their land or their families. The raids of Revolutionary forces under Glen Sullivan made no distinction between friendly or hostile Iroquois. It seemed as though they w ere designed to clear out Indian people for settlement after the Revolutionary War.
After the Revolution, the Confederacy broke in two. Many Iroquois, under Joseph Brant, went to live in Canada. The destruction of Seneca villages in the Genesee Valley by Gen. Sullivan forced the Senecas that remained to take refuge along the Niagara Frontier, since Fort Niagara was under British control throughout most of the Revolution.
It would be many years before the Senecas could reorganize themselves. The loss of their valley -- the Genesee -- did irreparable damage to the Seneca Nation.
OUT OF THIS DESPAIR a prophet came to he]p the Seneca people. His name was Handsome Lake. He established an important message for Indian people to live by. By the early 1800s, he was preaching at the Coldspring, Cornplanter and Tonawanda reservations. He urged the Iroquois to follow Indian ways and customs to survive in a sea of white men. However, he did not totally reject white values in that he stressed the need for education in order to strengthen Indian nations. He preached against alcohol and the accumulation of wealth and power. Instead, Handsome Lake urged the Iroquois to follow the ancient ceremonies of the Creator for spiritual and political survival.
He died at Onondaga on August 18, 1815, as he had predicted. But his teachings still live on today in the Longhouses of the Iroquois people.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Richard Hill is a member of the Tuscarora tribe and is employed as a research assistant at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
Donald A. Grinde also has Indian blood in his veins, Cherokee Yamasee. Dr. Grinde is an assistant professor of history at Buffalo State College.