According to archeological records, groups of nomadic Paleo-Indians traveled through the Finger Lakes region approximately 8,000 to 9,000 years ago. Small bands of these hunters and gatherers followed large game during the last stages of the Ice Age when the glaciers that formed the area’s notable lakes were receding.
Somewhat more recent early archaic archeological sites scattered across Western New York reflect a culture that was highly mobile and left little in terms of an archeological record.
The Lamoka archeological site provides the bulk of information currently known about the prehistoric inhabitants of the Finger Lakes region. When it was first professionally excavated in the 1920s, the site — located between Lamoka and Waneta Lakes in Schuyler County — provided some of the first archeological evidence of late-Archaic hunters and gatherers in the Northeastern United States.
These early inhabitants lived in western New York between approximately 2,500 and 3,000 years ago and represent a distinct archeological culture between the early Archaic bands of hunters that first traveled in the area and the following Woodland cultures notable for settlements and use of pottery.
They primarily settled by streams or near bodies of water, supplementing their diets with fish. The Lamoka archeological culture is defined by narrow, stemmed Lamoka points — projectile points that would have been used as atlatl dart points, polished stone adzes, and bone tools. The Lamoka site is considered one of the most important pre-contact archeological sites in North America for defining the Archaic cultural stage of the eastern United States as a whole.
By the Woodland period, approximately 500 years ago, the Lamoka were part of the Hopewellian trade network that extended from present-day New York west into the Ohio River Valley and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Hopewellian groups exhibited regional variances but are primarily identified by their development of pottery, their shift toward agriculture and community life, and their creation of monumental burial mounds, some of which are present in the Niagara Region of Western New York.
During the mid- to late-Woodland period, the Owasco culture emerged as the predominant regional group in what is now New York State. The Owasco period is associated with highly developed religious rites and complicated art in the form of rimmed, round-based pottery and pipes in the forms of animal and human faces.
The Roundtop archeological site in Broome County dates to the Owasco period and provides insight into the lives of the people living in the Upper Susquehanna River Valley approximately 700 to 900 years before the present time. Features excavated at the site contained the first evidence of cultivation of beans in the American Northeast, as well as the oldest example of the corn-beans-squash growth triad that would become the foundational crops for farming cultures across the region.
Evolutions in housing hint at an increase in population as well as increases in hostilities between groups. During the late Woodland period, houses gradually shifted from round huts to larger structures, some of which were protected by stockades. These practices demonstrate an entrenched tradition relating settlement and complex ritual by the Finger Lakes region’s indigenous inhabitants that extends from the Archaic, through Owasco, and into contemporary times.
Considering the material culture and archeological artifacts from the Finger Lakes that date to the late Woodland (1,100 AD), it is likely that the Owasco are the ancestors to the present-day Haudenosaunee People (Iroquois) historically associated with the state of New York.
Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Lenape Indian Nations
The Haudenosaunee (“People of the Longhouse”) refer to themselves as Ongweh’onweh (“real human beings”). By the European Colonial period, the confederacy between the Nations in present-day New York was one of the best known among indigenous North American societies and the strong political alliance is one of the hallmarks of Haudenosaunee society that continues into present day.
Oral tradition tells of a Peacemaker sent by the Creator during time immemorial to unite the people and spread Kariwiio (“good mind”) throughout the Haudenosaunee territory. Peacemaker, aided by Aiionwatha, commonly known as Hiawatha, traveled across the landscape to ask Nations to unite as one government and create a Great League of Peace.
The Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Onondaga — all still recognized Nations today — accepted this message of unity, and the Peacemaker planted a Great Tree of Peace where all issues of the confederacy could be discussed. Great White Roots extended in each direction from the tree, and the Peacemaker said any Nation that wanted to live by the Great Peace would be welcome in the shade of the tree.
As a sign of strength, the Peacemaker took one arrow from each of the Nations and bound them together, symbolizing the unity of the Five Nations and the Confederacy’s power; he then explained to the Nations’ leaders the laws of the Great Peace — Reason, Righteousness, Justice, and Health. As described below, the Tuscarora Nation became the Sixth Nation in the Confederacy in 1722.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is one of the earliest examples of a formal, diplomatic confederacy and remains the oldest governmental institution in North America maintaining its original form. The designated authority and balances of power exemplified in the Great Peace and Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy in the past, is considered the inspiration for the United States branches of government as outlined in the Constitution.
A congressional concurrent resolution on September 16, 1987, acknowledged “the historical debt which the Republic of the United States of America owes to the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indian nations for their demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of Government and their example of a free association of independent Indian nations.”
Politically united in peace, the Five Nations speak distinct languages and still maintain traditional lands and territory within the Finger Lakes region. The Mohawk (Kanien’kehaka, “People of the Flint”) were considered warriors and are known for their military prowess. They are known as the “Keepers of the Eastern Door,” responsible for defending the eastern reaches of the Confederacy that stretch into the Mohawk Valley.
The Oneida (Onayotekaono, “People of the Standing Stone”) hold territory directly east of the Finger Lakes. The Onondaga, (Onungdagano, “People of the Hills”) historically have their territories near Onondaga Lake by present-day Syracuse. The “Keepers of the Central Fire,” the Onondaga remain in the traditional political and geographic center of Haudenosaunee territory and are known as storytellers and wampum keepers of the Confederacy.
The Cayuga (Guyohkohnyoh, “People of the Great Swamp”) were “little brothers” of the Confederacy, and their ancestral territories are by the marshy north end of Cayuga Lake. They are known as a farming people that also hunted waterfowl and fished. They often allied with the larger neighboring Seneca Nation.
The “Keepers of the Western Door” of the Confederacy, the Seneca (Onondowahgah, “People of the Great Hill”), as with the Mohawk for the East, were responsible for defending the western portion of Haudenosaunee territory, which extends west through the Genesee Valley to Lake Erie and southwest into Ohio Country.
Besides sharing the Great Peace, Nations in the Confederacy were further united by cultural similarities and familial connections. The Nations are matriarchal with membership passing through the mother’s line of descent and women holding a place of power through their direct connection to the Nations’ most important resources — members and agricultural crops.
Women were largely in charge of the political and social life, and individuals identify their community connections through their mother’s family group, called clans. Clan mothers, usually the oldest woman in the clan, make all major decisions for the clan and nominate the male leader of the clan, Hoyaneh (“Caretaker of Peace”). Traditionally, men hunted and fished, while women gathered native plants and gardened.
Three main crops — corn, beans, and squash — were the foundation of the Haudenosaunee diet and considered to be divine gifts. When planted together, these three plants support each other through the growing process in a mutually beneficial ecological process that earned them the name of the Three Sisters.
The longhouse is a characteristic feature of historic Haudenosaunee settlements, and large settlements would consist of multiple buildings. The large homes, which could measure as large as 120 feet long and 20 feet wide, were typically shared by approximately 60 extended family members.
Longhouses were the center of communal life and featured shared cooking spaces and sleeping areas segmented into smaller family units by wood screens. Permanent Haudenosaunee settlements could include hundreds of structures, and communities only relocated when supplies of firewood and bark — material necessary for longhouse roof and wall repairs and lashing — were exhausted.
South of the Haudenosaunee lived the Lenni-Lenape, which translates to “Original People” in Munsee Algonquin. The Lenape people — also called the Delaware Indians by European settlers — lived in Lenapehoking (“place where the Lenape live”) in what is now southern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, along “the River of Human Beings” (Delaware River).
The Lenape people are considered the “grandfathers” of the Algonquin Nations since they have been connected to the Delaware River Valley more than 10,000 years and are the ancestors of many East Coast Nations. The Lenape likely competed for resources and traded with their northern neighbors, the Haudenosaunee, and intermarriages sometimes occurred, but the Nations’ histories were characterized by wary relations that sometimes resulted in periods of warfare.
The Lenape Nation consisted of three clans, identified by their distinct dialects. The Munsee (“People of the Stony County”) lived near the headwaters of the Delaware River in the northern portion of Lenapehoking. The Unami (“People Down River”) were in the central part of the Lenape Territory and the Unlatching (“People Near the Ocean”) extended toward the Delaware Bay.
Theses clans were further divided into matriarchal subclans and organized into matrilocal family groups.19 Under this system, Lenape women would marry men from one of the other subclans, but any children would become members of the mother’s clan, with their maternal male relatives taking on most of the male child-rearing responsibilities. Because spouses were members of different social groups, they maintained separate and equal rights and bore the individual responsibilities of property and debts.
The Lenape, like the Haudenosaunee, cultivated the Three Sisters and used fire to supplement the productive life of their fields.
During the Age of Colonization, the Lenape people ruled the mid-Atlantic seaboard and were some of the first people to meet explorers navigating Hudson Bay in the 1500s and built relationships with early European colonists establishing New Amsterdam and New Sweden (present-day New York City and Delaware) during the early 1600s.
William Penn also wrote of his interactions with the Lenape in what is now Pennsylvania during the 1680s. Penn’s colony and Dutch settlement around the mouth of the Hudson River began the displacement of the Lenape that continued into the 1700s.
Farther north near the Great Lakes, the Onondaga Nation allowed Jesuit priests to develop missions near their main village when French explorers and missionaries entered the area around present-day Syracuse during the 17th century. Hostilities between indigenous nations allied with Samuel de Champlain and the Mohawk as early as 1605 turned the Haudenosaunee Confederacy against the French in North America.
The 17th century was marked with periods of violence between the French, their Native allies, and the Haudenosaunee member nations including King William’s War (1689–1701), during which a French expedition destroyed the main Onondaga village near Onondaga Lake.
The Confederacy’s wide-reaching political influence, vast geographic territory, and control over waterways and trade routes throughout present-day New York and Canada made them valuable trading partners and major players in the North American fur trade.
These economic relationships were first forged with the Dutch who settled New Amsterdam east of the Hudson River, occasionally with the French during tenuous times of peace, and after 1660, with the English who took control of Dutch claims in North America.
Unfortunately, interaction with European colonists introduced diseases that decimated the Confederacy’s population. By the 1660s, all the Haudenosaunee Nations suffered major epidemics. The Haudenosaunee embraced adoption of individuals or other groups to “strengthen the longhouse” under the Great Peace. Bringing people into the long house helped to solidify alliances and enhance indigenous solidarity during a time of great confusion and upheaval.
A key example of this is the inclusion of the Tuscarora nation, an Iroquoian speaking sister tribe from the Carolinas, as the Sixth Nation in the Confederacy in 1722. The Tuscarora were forced to travel north after being pushed out of their historic territory by British troops and mercenaries and sought refuge among the politically strong Haudenosaunee, ultimately being adopted by the Oneida Nation.
As tensions increased between England and France in North America during the 1700s, both nations courted the Haudenosaunee as potential allies. Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs and a trusted friend of the Six Nations, helped secure Haudenosaunee support for the British by mid-century.
This translated into aid for the British on expeditions against France, a relative degree of safety for British settlements in the region, and an eventual British victory over France in the French and Indian War (1754–1763). In the aftermath of the war, British settlers pushed west and increasingly settled on Haudenosaunee land even though the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) signed by Britain and the Six Nations clearly delineated the boundary between English and Indian land.
Illustration: Lamoka Site diorama at the New York State Museum created in 1957 by William A. Ritchie, the archaeologist who excavated the site in the 1930s.
This essay is drawn from the National Park Service’s Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study. You can read about the study and the Finger Lakes National Heritage Area here.
Read more stories about the Finger Lakes here.