Of all the Indians who are known to have inhabited Niagara Country, the most notable in many ways were the Senecas. More than the others, they fought and killed and were killed, but they did not die of heart trouble in noticeable numbers. When the Europeans came they found the Senecas living in villages between the Genesee River and the Niagara, nearer the Genesee
than the Niagara. They had probably driven out the wandering Algonkins.
It is quite likely that the Senecas were of the highest type of American Indians. They were an eloquent people. Their ideas on civil and domestic affairs were further advanced than those of any other peoples that the Europeans found except the Aztecs. And they had, for their day, an extraordinary sense of social responsibility.
In domestic affairs, the Senecas were matriarchal. Mothers arranged their children's marriages among themselves without consulting the youngsters. Sometimes the principals did not even know each other until, as it were, the engagement was announced by the mothers. Fathers had nothing to say about it. Being exogamous, marriages were never arranged between boys and girls of the same clan. Children of a union were always regarded as belonging to the clan of the mother. Boys were trained, not by their fathers, but by their mothers' brothers, But divorce and separation was easily arranged. (Seneca clans included the Bear, Wolf, Turtle, Beaver, Deer, Snipe, Heron, and Hawk.)
Adultery was a serious offense among the Senecas. Justice might call for a public whipping of the woman. The man was not regarded as having committed any offense. Murder was punishable by death.
The religious character of their thinking, even before the days of Handsome Lake, is shown by the six religious festivals which they held each year. They either invoked the blessing of the Great Spirit upon their planting and other projects or gave thanks to the Great Spirit for His blessings and bounty. In the spring they celebrated the maple festival, a dance of thanks for the maple-sugar harvest. A few weeks later they held the planting festival. At intervals they celebrated the strawberry festival, the green-corn festival, and the harvest festival, the latter much the same in its implications as the white man's Thanksgiving. The,really big event of the year was their New Year's Festival, often referred to as the "white dog sacrifice."
The Senecas were noted for their bark houses, built fifty or sixty feet long and about fifteen or eighteen feet wide – "the long houses." No nails or pegs were used in framing. The frame poles were lashed together and carefully braced. Wide pieces of bark were lashed to the sides and roof. Holes were left 'in the roof at intervals in the hopeful theory that the smoke from cooking fires below would escape. (Sometimes there were as many as thirteen or fourteen fires and corresponding holes to a house.) But the smoke did not always go out. It was a kind of apartment-house arrangement. The longhouses were partially divided by an aisle down through the center. Platforms were
built each side of the aisle where people could sleep, feet to the ;aisle. Yes, they had double-deckers. But there was no more privacy than an Easter bunny has in cellophane. And they needed gas masks, not entirely because of the smoke.
But, by aboriginal standards, they lived well, raised great quantities of corn and beans and squashes. They gathered wild fruit and nuts from the forest. They were skilled in obtaining all kinds of game, and they took fish from the streams and lakes with nets, hooks, and spears. They were quick to improve their agriculture by adopting European ideas, literally galloping from the stone age to the iron age in little more than a generation. General Sullivan's men, in the expedition of 1779 were astonished to find excellent orchards near the Seneca villages where trees long since brought from Europe were producing apples, peaches, and other fruits.
In the early days, the Senecas in common with the Eries, Neuters, and the rest, used stone tools and weapons. (All of the tribes in the vicinity of the Niagara Country used a quarry on the bank of the upper Niagara River near present Fort Erie, where they could obtain stone that was particularly adaptable for arrowheads and javelin points.) Their kettles were made of day. Chisels, hoe blades, and javelin points were made from antlers. The teeth of beavers and woodchucks were used for chisel edges. Sandstone was used for sharpening purposes. But
it was not long after the Dutch came that the Senecas began to trade beaver pelts for brass kettles, glass beads, and implements made of iron. They eagerly sought the better tools of the white man, and Albany, 310 miles away from Niagara by the Great Central Trail, was their earliest source of supply.
For over a hundred years after the Senecas pushed the Eries and Neutrals off the face of the earth or scattered or adopted them, the center of the Niagara
– the thirty-mile strait called Niagara River – was a lonesome and uninhabited country except for hunting. parties or roving bands, a lush, rich country full of game, with streams and lakes full of fish. A small village of Senecas is reported to have been at the present Youngstown, New York, in 1650, and another at the west end of Lake Ontario. After Joncaire set up his trading post at Lewiston on the lower Niagara, a small Seneca village sprang up beside him. It had ten cabins in 1718. By 1750, it had grown to the extent that two hundxed Senecas were employed from it with some regularity as porters on the portage around the cataract. There was a small Seneca village on Buffalo Creek in 1751, another a little later on Tonawanda Creek. But all this, we shall see, was changed as the result of politics and war. The Senecas, like the Tuscaroras, flocked to their British friends at Fort Niagara for help after General Sullivan had destroyed their villages and food supplies in the autumn of 1779. The English did the best they could for them, but, lodged in temporary shelters about the Fort and along the Niagara River, hundreds died when cold and exposure and disease and near-starvation took their toll.
In the following spring, some of the Senecas drifted back to their old homes. But the greater part of them stayed in Niagara Country. The English encouraged them to stay by providing tools and supplies in the spring and helping them locate suitable village sites on streams Sowing into the Niagara such as Buffalo Creek, Cattaraugus Creek, Tonawanda Creek, and Cazenovia Creek, east of the Niagara.
Seneca villages sprang up in the vicinity of what is now Seneca Street and Abbott Road and Indian Church Road in
Buffalo, and along Buffalo Creek. Jack Berry's Town on the site of Gardenville was an important village, and these were others in the suburban communities now known as Ebenezer, Cheektowaga, Elma, and Marilla. It was about this time that they gave up the longhouses and began to live in log cabins.
That awful winter of 1779-80 marked the end of an Indian epoch. Their traditional and age-old heritage of freedom was wiped out, never again to be regained. The next move, just around the corner, was to the reservations. It was the end of freedom in the sense they had known for uncounted generations, the freedom of congenital gadabouts who thought nothing of hitting the forest trails for hundreds of miles or paddling the streams in canoes for days on end.