In the past two months, I’ve surveyed what little is known about the first several thousand years of Chautauqua County prehistory. It was a little less than 500 years ago that someone living in Chautauqua County, perhaps on a journey of diplomacy, perhaps around the neck of a captive, would first have seen some bead or some object made of strange material that came ultimately from a European ship exploring or fishing on the ocean far to the east. If only we could know what thoughts or rumors accompanied it.
It is only in the years 1000 A.D. to 1625 A.D that archaeologists find evidence of the people and conditions that culminated in the societies literate Europeans first recorded in our region.
Late 20th century archaeologists, newly equipped with radiocarbon dating, had put together a neat picture of Iroquois development in central New York and southern Ontario: the Iroquois, the Hurons, the Neutrals, and the Eries on the Niagara Frontier, perhaps extending into Chautauqua County. But the radiocarbon calibration curve has a couple of irregularities just where things were happening and it can give you two different answers, up to a hundred years apart. More careful study has put our understanding of the last few centuries before historic contact into turmoil. Central New York (Iroquois country) and Southern Ontario (Huron and Neutral country) are where most of the action was taking place and where most of the excavation and study have been concentrated. Corn and squash, it seems, came much earlier than previously thought but not together. Beans arrived much later. Gourds (for containers) and tobacco were probably the earliest crops cultivated. The consolidation into villages, then tribes, then confederacies or nations took place later than previously thought and not very long before European contact. The development of longhouses and the implication of matrilineal residence and hence the foundation of much of the distinctive Iroquois culture along with concepts of ethnicity was not part of a package either developed in place or imported as a unit. It accreted from parts. And that question – developed in place or brought on a wave of migration – has occurred again and again among scholars. In situ, development in place, was the answer from 1952 until it again became contentious in the 1990’s.
The Iroquoians, meaning not only the Iroquois themselves, but also the Susquehannocks to the south, a group in Jefferson County, N.Y. and the villages Cartier encountered on the St. Lawrence to the northeast, the Hurons and Petuns north of Lake Ontario, the Neutrals and Wenroes to the west of the Senecas, and people to the southwest including the Eries, all spoke related languages. These people as a unit were surrounded by other people who spoke languages utterly unrelated to the Iroquoians but mostly related to each other. It was an Iroquoian language island in an Algonquian sea. There was another little island, the Tuscoraoras, in North Carolina, and more distantly related but related nonetheless, the Cherokees in Georgia and Tennessee. Did the parent language develop in central New York where the Iroquois were found in the 17th century, or in southern Ontario, or in the southern Appalachians, or somewhere else? Controversy reigns.
In Chautauqua County we can be sure that in all ages most Indian life and activity centered along the Lake Erie shore and over the portage then around Chautauqua Lake and down (or up) the Outlet. Our county is not as well studied as surrounding areas. The two most ambitious studies both focused on one site in Ripley. The first was published in 1907 and was state of the art for the time. The second started in the late 1980s and was intended as a major five year effort, also state of the art, well funded by archaeological standards but small compared to sports subsidies, social programs, or almost any other favored state beneficiary. After two or three years even what political support and funding there was evaporated. The results were projected to be published in two volumes. The first, addressing re-evaluations of artifacts unearthed and preserved from previous excavations, was published in 1996. The second volume, dealing with the new finds, was never published and never will be. Key parts of it were never written. What was found, roughly speaking, was a turn of the 17th century village with too many burials for its size. It was on the lake shore but the people ate few fish. The people were generally healthy and died at age 35. But the real surprise was an astonishingly close affinity, as indicated by pottery styles, to a Niagara Frontier site 68 miles away. Here again, some archaeologists not involved with the project differ with many of the conclusions.
Obed Edson, the one 19th century Chautauqua County historian who was really interested in the pre-settlement ages, first thought the Neutrals lived here but he changed his mind and designated the early inhabitants Eries, short for Eriechronon, so called by the Hurons. Subsequent local historians have followed his lead. The name, along with limited additional information, came from Huron and Iroquois (enemy) informants and brief conversations by French Jesuit priests through interpreters with captives shortly before and while they were being tortured to death. We never will know what they called themselves in their own language. The name is usually translated as “Cat People,” although which native wild cat is intended is itself an item of controversy. Others claim Racoon Nation is really intended. One scholar renders it “people of the place of the cherry.”
Local history was being written over much of the U. S. in the late 19th century. The 17th century French recorded that the Eries lived west and southwest of the Iroquois and that was about all anyone knew. So nearly every local historian from Buffalo to Toledo claimed them as predecessors on the land. There are lists of tribal names, vaguely located, in French sources and there are names on numerous maps, largely French and mostly drawn after 1656 when the Eries were dispersed. Recorded Seneca and Tuscarora legends from the 19th century give additional names. There is little agreement how these named groups related to one another. We don’t know if the Eriechronon name properly referred to a tribe, a village, a confederation, an alliance, or even just a geographical or language group. Eriechronon, Aritocronon, Akhruaeronon, Gentuetchroons, Kahkwas, Oniasontkeronons, Kentanitonga, Wenro, Andastes, all with multiple spellings and synonyms – take your choice. These and many more have been ascribed to early 17th century Chautauqua County or closely adjoining by one or another author. With these wispy speculations we pass from prehistory to ethnohistory. Recently published (2020) material largely based on the life work of Dr. Stanley Lantz, maps groups along the Lake Erie shore , in the French Creek Valley extending into Chautauqua County, and nearby in the Allegheny Valley from about 1000 A. D. to 1525. These are considered to be elements of the Erie or what ultimately became the Erie. Ethnogenesis, the formation of specific peoples in thought and act, was no doubt highly dynamic and the names and groups we know probably did not extend far back in time. Up in the hills, some late 20th century work was done by Jack Schock in the 1970’s. These upland locations are the “earthworks’ ‘ that Edson, A. C. Parker, and other early writers noted. Numerous ossuaries have also been found in the uplands. These were secondary burials, not remains from battlegrounds as some laymen have thought. Schock dated these small villages to 1450-1525 and named them Chautauqua Phase. Rebecca Emans early in this century contested this interpretation. She believes they represent two immigrations, the first by southwestern Pennsylvania “Monongahela” people and the second by Ontario Iroquoians. She dates the locations 1250-1400 and sees little evidence of any occupation of the uplands after that. This has not found universal agreement.
From here down through western Pennsylvania, much of Ohio, and farther west, it appears there was a considerable abandonment of territory in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The uplands of Chautauqua County must always have been unattractive because of rough terrain, clay soil, and short growing season. A few years of early frosts might have induced a general exodus.
Estimates of Erie population run from 8,000 to 14,500 people in the 1640s and early 1650s, not counting refugees from the Huron and Neutral nations. The south Buffalo area villages seem to have terminated by 1640 so only Silverheels (just across Cattaraugus Creek into Erie County), Ripley, and Erie 28th Street are known possible locations for that period, villages far too small and too few for the estimated Erie population.
Moving from prehistoric to the historic times here, I will note that within ten years of clearing away all neighbors and competitors to the north, west, and southwest, the Iroquois began establishing villages north and west of Lake Ontario. But they gave them up by 1700. From 1687 to 1696 the French, with varying success, sent punitive armies into the Iroquois homeland three times. Partly in response, the Iroquois, and particularly the Senecas, began to disperse to the Allegheny Valley. They were established in the Warren, Pa. area by the mid 1720s. It is conceivable they settled at Cattaraugus Creek around the same time but they may have been there longer. Baron LaHontan’s confusing account places some “Cayugas” on a creek that may be Cattaraugus in 1688. A village shows on a 1750 map, and we know there was a settlement there in the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile Munsees, Shawnees, Otawas, Mississaugas, and a few Fox formed villages in Western Pennsylvania and lived as near as Warren, Pa., and what later became the Allegheny Reservation.
There was additional movement of Iroquois into the upper Allegheny Valley in the late 18th century. In 1779 the Daniel Brodhead campaign expelled them. Some probably removed to Cattaraugus. Munsee Delawares living among Allegheny Iroquois throughout western Pennsylvania, apparently joined refugee Iroquois who had fled the Sullivan and Clinton armies at Fort Niagara. After the terribly harsh winter of 1779-1780, Western Seneca leader, Guyasuta arranged for the Munsees to move to Cattaraugus. Things did not work out well and most had left by 1810. Meanwhile, the western Seneca band, now led by Cornplanter, moved from Fort Niagara to Cattaraugus and several very small villages in Chautauqua County, northwestern Pennsylvania and one in Ohio in May, 1782. Cattaraugus was included in a reservation by the Big Tree treaty of 1797. The other small settlements, such as Bemus Point, Griffith’s point and Bear Lake, were vacated at that time with the possible exception of a few individuals at Kiantone who may (or may not) have remained up to 1808. The Indians retained and used hunting and fishing privileges until white settlers became numerous, about 1838.