Couch archaeology in Western New York State

I love old geography and travel books. I bought a few on Ebay last year and enjoyed browsing through their yellowed, flimsy pages and dated writing. At Strand Bookstore in Union Square in New York City, I found a 1851 book by archaeologist and newspaper editor Ephraim George Squier with the funny title “Antiquities of the State of New York: Being the results of extensive original surveys and explorations, with a supplement on the antiquities of the West.

The mysterious yellowed book

The musty and yellowed book

Taking the musty book down from the shelf, I began thumbing through the pages of  descriptions and hand-drawn maps of ancient Native American Huron, Seneca, Iroquois, and Seneca archaeological sites the author had identified around western New York State during his surveys in the fall of 1848 with the Historical Society of New York and the Smithsonian.

Ephraim-George-Squier (source: Scienceviews.com)

Ephraim-George-Squier (source: Scienceviews.com)

I didn’t think too much of the book but when I got home, I googled the title and found that his study had never really been followed up since then. Where were these sites? What was at them? I’ve never been to the area of New York State he describes, but nonetheless became fascinated with finding them at least on Google Maps and maybe even visiting them one day to take a look around myself.

I began to think of it as a treasure hunt in a way, one from 1,000 miles away in Washington, DC using Google and Squires’ vague descriptions as a guide, such as:

In the same township with the foregoing work, and about four miles distant, in a northwest direction, is the work here represented. It occupies a small sandy elevation, situated in the midst of low grounds. It is lozenge-shaped, and is the most regular of any ancient structure which has fallen under notice of the author in the State.

I realized that I had an almost Goonies-like treasure hunt at my fingertips. Except there was no treasure to be found, no One-Eyed Willie hiding priceless jewels. By the time Squires himself surveyed these sites, they were already over 200 years old and in many cases had been taken “by the plow,” as he refers to the affect of human settlement. From my initial look at about 10 sites, they are in many cases nondescript segments of woodland or farmland that the Native Americans used for defending themselves during wartime. Many of the sites are of geographic significance, occupying steep ridges from which the Indians could defend themselves from attackers, or strategic vantage points from which they could see for miles and miles.

Some of the author’s descriptions are a little unsettling, as these tribes were in a state of almost constant warfare:

“In cultivating the area, many fragments of human bones, some of them burned, have been observed,—suggesting the possibility that the ancient village was destroyed by enemies, and that these are the bones of its occupants, who fell in defence of their kindred, and were burned in the fires which consumed their lodges”

The book contains about 30 different site diagrams of places Squires visited. The below screenshots of the maps (called plates) are the ones I think are the most able to be identified because they contain the names of creeks, rivers and towns that can be found on Google Maps.

Can you help identify where these sites are? If so, add a comment!

Key:

Bold writing in the accompanying text is text that I thought was significant

Red writing indicates features or items that might still be at site, like boulders or marking from palisades.

 

Plate I: Ancient Work, Adams Township, Jefferson County NY

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Accompanying text:“This work occupies a commanding position upon the brow of the second terrace, which is here some hundreds of feet in height, and very abrupt. The ground immediately back of the site of the work is considerably depressed and swampy. It is drained by a little stream (a), which, falling over the cliff, forms a small but picturesque cascade. The narrow channel of this stream was formerly obstructed by a beaver-dam, which converted the marsh into a deep and impassable pond. The elevation upon which this work is situated, it will thus be seen, was well fitted by nature for defensive purposes, possessing the two primary requisites, difficult approach and an unfailing supply of water…read more

Another site that sounds interesting but without finding the first, the second is almost impossible:  About one and a half miles southeast of the above work, was formerly another of perhaps larger size. It occupied a high, oval-shaped hill, one side of which is very steep, while the other subsides gently to the general level. The embankment extended in a semicircular form around that part of the hill not protected by nature; and, previous to the cultivation of the ground, was upwards of six feet in height from the bottom of the trench. A very slight depression, and the greater luxuriance of the verdure, resulting from the filling of the trench with surface loam, are all that now indicate the original lines. It is said that there was an avenue leading off, for some distance, to the westward; but it is no longer traceable. At the base of this hill is a boulder, in which are several artificial depressions, doubtless intended for mortars, and a variety of grooves, in which the stone axes and other implements of the aborigines were rubbed, in order to reduce them to the required shape.

Analysis: I couldn’t find this particular site. Squires doesn’t specify how far northeast of Adams Township the site is, making it almost impossible to determine which of the hilltops he is talking about.  There are a bunch a mile northeast of the town. I would love to find the boulder with the depression they Huron used for making axes.

Plate III No 1: Ancient Work: Half a mile west of Burrville, Near Watertown, Jefferson County, NY

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Accompanying text: A work, differing somewhat from those before described, is situated two miles north of the enclosure last noticed, upon a high promontory or headland, half a mile west of the little village of Burrville. The northern base of this promontory is washed by a small and rapid stream, a branch of the east fork of Sandy Creek. Deep ravines lend strength to the position on the remaining sides, except towards the west, where it joins the highlands. Here, extending across the neck of the promontory, (the only direction from which access is easy,) was formerly an artificial defence, consisting of an embankment of earth and a trench. The plough has filled the one and leveled the other, but the lines can still be accurately traced by attending to the various circumstances already repeatedly mentioned. At the part marked a, was formerly a large deep pit, resembling the cellar of a dwelling house. At b, was also an accumulation of large stones, bearing traces of fire; and which the early settlers, indulging in vague notions of the mineral wealth of the country, called “the Furnace.”

My guess:

Analysis: Making things difficult is that there is the town of Burrville does not exist anymore. When I typed it in Google Maps, the site it highlights is the Burrville Cider Mill, whose website refers to the Sandy Creek location. I found Sandy Creek, followed its outline, and found the promontory that could be the one in the map. Looks like a big field now.  According to Google Earth its elevation is 830 feet, almost 100 feet higher than Sandy Creek. I’m reasonably confident that this is it.

Plate VI No. 1: Ancient Work near Elmira, Cheming County New York

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Accompanying text: “This work is situated about two and a half miles west of Elmira, upon the summit of an eminence, the base of which, upon one side, is washed by Chemung River, and upon the other by the waters of a deep and almost impassable ravine. It is, in fact, a bold headland. The approach is by a narrow path, which in some places will admit of the passage of a single person only, and which traverses the very abrupt crown of the ridge. Towards the top, the ascent is more gradual, and the ground continues to ascend slightly until we reach the defences. The site chosen exhibits the strongest proof of design, being such as to command a most extensive view along the course of the river, and being, except from behind, accessible only by the difficult pathway already mentioned…read more.

(cont’d) It will be seen that this work corresponds entirely in position with most of the earth-works of the State, was chosen with reference to the same principles, and was defended in precisely the same manner. It is peculiar in still retaining the holes left by the decay of the palisades, which show that it was strengthened by a double line. It is rational to conclude, upon general principles, that all the works of the State were protected in like manner; although, except in this instance, all traces of the wooden superstructure have disappeared. As already observed, this work, for the positive light which it throws upon the original character of these ancient defences, is probably the most interesting one in the State.”

 My guess:

Analysis

I started out at Elmira, then went about two and a half miles southwest, as the author describes. I used the Chemung River to find the higher elevations on the north side of the river. I’m pretty sure this is the site. I wonder what is up on that ridge? Looks like it’s just woods but who knows?

Plate VII Number 2: Monroe County mounds

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Accompanying text: A NUMBER of aboriginal monuments formerly existed in this county; but, with the exception of a few small mounds, they have been wholly obliterated or so much defaced that they can no longer be made out. Two mounds occupy the high, sandy grounds to the westward of Irondequoit Bay, where it connects with Lake Ontario. The point is a remarkable one. The position of the mounds in respect to the natural features around is indicated in the accompanying sketch, Plate VII. No 2.

They are small, the largest not exceeding five feet in height. It was found upon excavation that they had been previously disturbed; and their examination proved fruitless. Some bits of charcoal and a few small fragments of bones were observed mingled with the sand. At various places, upon the elevations around them, were scattered fragments of pottery, and arrow-heads and other rude relics are also of frequent occurrence here.

My guess:

Analysis: This area was relatively easy to find because they were two definite geographic features: Lake Ontario and Irondequoit Bay. From the graphic it looks like the mounds are on the west side of the bay; however I don’t know exactly where they could be. Plus, human settlement has completely covered the west shore of the bay. If had to guess, I bet the Durand Eastman golf course in Rochester, NY was built over the mounds.

Plate XII: Ancient Work, Minden Township

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Accompanying Text: The work here figured is in many respects the most remarkable in the State. It is the only one known which is situated upon waters flowing into the Hudson River. Its nearest neighbors upon the west are the ancient works in Onondaga county, a hundred miles distant. Between it and the Atlantic, we are not aware of the existence of a single monument of like character.

It occurs upon the banks of the Otstungo Creek, a branch of the Otsquago,—itself a tributary of the Mohawk, about four miles in a southwestern direction from Fort Plain, in the town of Minden. It is known in the vicinity by the name of “Indian Hill.” The position is admirably chosen, and is naturally by far the strongest and most defensible of any which fell under the observation of the author in the entire course of his explorations in this Stateread more.

My guess:

Analysis: I thought this one would be easier since the author speaks so highly of the site’s significance. I also thought the relatively straightforward directions (four miles southwest of Fort Plain NY in the town of Minden and along the Otsquago Creek) would be easy to find. However, there are a few bends in the creek around four miles southwest of Fort Plain and I had a hard time figuring out which one Squires was talking about. I’m also pretty sure that this blog was looking for–and possibly found–what Squires wrote about.

Plate XII: Ancient work of the Cayugas

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Accompanying text: This work is found about twelve miles southwest of Auburn, in the town of Ledyard, Cayuga county. It forms a good illustration of the character of the aboriginal defences. It is situated upon a high point of ground, formed by the junction of two immense ravines, which here sink some hundreds of feet below the table-lands. A narrow spur, hardly wide enough to permit two to walk abreast, extends down to the bottom of the ravines, starting from the extreme point of the head-land. It is still called the “Indian Path,” and affords a practicable descent to the water. At every other point the banks are almost if not entirely inaccessible. At some distance inward, extending from the bank of one ravine to the other, was originally a line of palisades. The holes left by their decay are still distinct, each about eight inches in diameter. The position is eminently a strong one, and, under the system of attack practised by the Indians, must have been impregnable. Within the enclosure are to be found caches and other features common to the class of works previously described, and with which this work entirely coincides, except that the embankment is wanting.

My guess

Analysis: The first thing I did was find Ledyard, NY which I located east of one of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga Lake. To the east of the town, there is a promontory hilltop with steep ravines on either side of it, but I am not certain if this is the site Squires writes about.

Conclusion

This was a difficult but an enjoyable process overall. Squires didn’t have GPS back in 1840, and many of his descriptions are pretty vague. I had a tough time locating the places he described, but I do think I was able to locate some of the locations with relative ease, and would love for someone to visit them to verify using the attached coordinates in the maps I attached.

My intention in writing this article was to do a little exploration from the couch, learn a little bit about Native American life, and help archaeologists and historians who might be interested in locating these sites for digs. Let me know how it works out!

Kevin is based in Washington, DC and writes about his travel adventures in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world. Through entertaining writing and eye-catching photography, he aims to provide readers with useful information as they plan their next trips.

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