The Last Council Fire

Six Nations Background

Arguably, the most historic event organized by William Pryor Letchworth took place on October 1, 1872. It was held on the Council Grounds overlooking the Glen Iris with a select group of guests and would be called the Last Council Fire. In many ways, it was a sacred day with a solemn assembly of Senecas, Mohawks, along with friends of Letchworth, several historians, and former U.S. President Millard Fillmore. All gathered to heal the broken relationship between the Mohawks and the Senecas that had existed since the end of the Revolutionary War. In addition, the grandsons of great chieftains from both tribes met for the first time in the relocated Caneadea Council House. To understand the importance of the gathering, a brief look at the history of the Iroquois League before the Revolutionary War helps put it in context.

The Seneca tribe was powerful and eliminated its enemies in Western New York, such as the Kah-Kwas (Neutral Nation) and the Erie tribe. Their exploits stretched as far west as the Mississippi and south to the Chesapeake Bay. The Seneca tribe had four principal “castles” or palisaded villages in the 1600s:  Honeoye Falls, Lima area, Victor township, and around East Bloomfield. All of these large villages were destroyed by the French in 1687. The Seneca people then moved westward to the Gen-nis-he-o Valley, the “beautiful valley” (Genesee), and established villages, orchards, and cultivated fields in the rich Eden-like area. These later Seneca “castles” remained for over a century more, and one of these was Caneadea, the last outpost on the Genesee River.

In the time of the Iroquois League, before many Europeans settled in Western New York, the confederation of five tribes was called Ho-de-no-sau-nee (People of the Long House). The Keepers of the Western Door were the Senecas, and The Keepers of the Eastern Door were the Mohawks, who lived in the Hudson River Valley. The Oneidas, Onondagas, and Cayugas populated the middle region of New York State.  The western boundary of the league was at Ga-o-ya-de-o (Caneadea), which means “where the heavens rest upon the earth.”  Around 1715, the Tuscarora tribe came from the south as refugees fleeing enemies and were granted asylum by the Ho-de-no-sau-nee. As a result, they were admitted into the confederacy, making it the Six Nations. The league was well organized, with laws and administration that rivaled the European hierarchies of government.

Caneadea Council House

The Council House at Caneadea is believed to predate the Revolutionary War. Constructed of hewn logs, it was 50 feet long by 20 feet wide. It was roofed with split shingles (shakes) and included a river stone fireplace at one end. The eaves of the building were low, easily within reach of an average-height man. One had to stoop to enter the door. There were openings in the central roof to allow the smoke of the council fire to exit when chiefs met around it. It was said there was a cross carved deeply into one of the interior logs, which may indicate a visit from the Jesuit missionaries in the mid-1600s. A totem of the Snipe clan is also reported to be carved on an inside wall.

Mary Jemison rested in Caneadea on her grueling trek from the Ohio Valley, a distance of almost 600 miles with her baby strapped to her back before going on to Little Beard’s Town (near Leicester, NY). The village consisted of 20-30 buildings during her stay in 1760.

War parties were sent out to raid the Ohio Valley and Pennsylvania from this council house. Caneadea was a wild place during the Revolutionary War when the Senecas joined the British forces in an attempt to defeat the Americans. Prisoners were brought back to Caneadea, where they were forced to run the gauntlet to be either killed or somehow survive the lines of men and women armed with stones, knives, and tomahawks. One of the most famous runners of the gauntlet was Moses Van Campen, a daring and fearless American officer in the Revolutionary War. He was taken prisoner by the British at Fort Muncey in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, in 1782. The young lieutenant was brought to Caneadea by the Senecas where he successfully ran the gauntlet by reaching the Council House and avoiding the worst of his assailants. His astounding athletic ability spared his life. He was taken to Fort Niagara, then transferred to Montreal, and finally imprisoned in New York, where he was released before the end of 1782.

In this Council House, famous chiefs of the Six Nations met around the fire to decide weighty political matters, administer justice, celebrate traditional festivals, and battle victories. Red Jacket, Cornplanter, Joseph Brant, Tallchief, Destroy Town, Little Beard were just a few of these men.

The Senecas sold off their huge tracts of land when they signed the Big Tree Treaty of 1797, keeping much smaller tracts for themselves. One parcel was the Caneadea Reservation. It was eight miles long by two miles wide. In 1826, they sold off the Caneadea Reservation to American settlers, the remaining Senecas moving to either the Cattaraugus or Tonawanda Reservations. It was the close of an era and the end of the Six Nations Confederacy influence along the Genesee River.

Joel Seaton purchased the land that was once the Indian village of Caneadea not long after 1830. The Council House and a few other buildings were all that remained of the once-thriving Seneca government seat. He repurposed the Council House as a residence and moved the building closer to the road, adding logs to raise the height. Seaton didn’t alter the interior and later used it as a barn when the family built a new house. The Council House quickly fell into disrepair after the Seatons left. It was on the verge of being razed when John Minard, Allegany County Historian and a surveyor for William P. Letchworth, informed Mr. Letchworth of its plight.

The Last Council Fire

Letchworth was passionate about preserving Indian history, Mary Jemison’s legacy, and was an avid collector of Indian artifacts from the Americas. He purchased the Council House in the fall of 1871. The building was dismantled with great care; each timber numbered to be reconstructed appropriately at the new location—what we now know as the Council Grounds in Letchworth State Park. The logs and stones were transported by barge down the Genesee Valley Canal to its destination. Mr. Letchworth employed John Shanks, an elderly Seneca, to supervise the rebuilding to ensure no mistakes were made. The building was meticulously restored to its original state and now stood on the bluff overlooking Letchworth’s beloved Glen Iris. It only seemed fitting that another council fire should be held before all memory of great confederacy dimmed in American history.

W. P. Letchworth faced difficulties in arranging the gathering since the split of the confederacy had never been mended after the Revolutionary War. The Mohawks migrated to Canada to cast their lot with England after the War. They fought against the Americans and the Senecas in the War of 1812, further alienating their brothers. The Senecas had made treaties with the Americans and broke off all relationships with the Mohawks.

To everyone’s delight, Col. W. J. Simcoe Kerr (Te-ka-re-ho-ge-a), the grandson of the great Mohawk chief, Captain Joseph Brant, agreed to attend. As passenger trains whistled announcing the stop high above the Genesee, an impressive entourage emerged from the cars, making its way down to the Glen Iris. Many attendees were in full traditional dress with smoke-tanned buckskins, long-sleeved shirts that were richly embroidered and beaded, embroidered scarves,  turkey, and eagle feathers in headdresses. They also wore jewelry and weapons once belonging to their grandfathers who had ruled the Six Nations. Among the Senecas and the two Mohawk representatives former U.S. President Millard Fillmore joined the delegation, and a group from the Buffalo Historical Society including Henry Howland, O.H. Marshall, and David Gray—all well-regarded historians of their time.  The assembled group numbered 42 for the momentous occasion.

On that perfect fall day, the fire was lit, and the chiefs sat in silence, smoking for a time as tradition demanded. One man then rose after an appropriate time of silence and announced in the Seneca language that the council fire was now open.  Nicholson H. Parker (Ga-yeh-twa-geh), a grandnephew of Red Jacket and a leader of the Senecas, delivered the first speech. He’d brought the tomahawk pipe that belonged to Red Jacket, which had been presented to the famous chief by President George Washington.

The following is a snippet of his speech translated from Seneca:

Brothers: I will first say a few words. We have come as representatives of the Seneca nation to participate in the ceremonies of the day. In this ancient council-house, before its removal to this spot, our fathers, sachems, and chiefs, often met to deliberate on matters of moment to our people in the village of Ga-o-ya-de-o (Caneadea). We are to rake over the ashes of its hearth that we may find perchance a single spark with which to rekindle the fire … Brothers: We are holding council, perhaps for the last time, in Gen-nis-he-o. This beautiful territory was once our own. The bones of our fathers are strewn thickly under its sod. But all this land has gone from their grasp forever… .”

A succession of impressive speakers followed him; all spoke in Seneca. Among them were John Jacket, Red Jacket’s grandson, George Jones, grandson of Thomas Jemison and great-grandson of Mary Jemison, James Shongo, grandson of Mary Jemison, William and Jesse Tallchief, grandsons of Tall Chief who lived near Mt. Morris, Solomon O’Bail, an elderly man and grandson of Cornplanter, and many others.

Henry Howland stated that O’Bail’s speech was the most dramatic of the day. He recounted the Six Nations’ history and the broken relationship with his Mohawk brothers. The two tribes had not spoken in 75 years, and the old wound was deep. With tears rolling down his face Solomon O’Bail held out his hand to Col. W. J. Simcoe Kerr at the end of his speech. The colonel rose and took the old man’s hand, saying, “My brother, I am glad to take your hand once held out in the clasp of friendship; the Senecas and the Mohawks now are both my people.”

Kerr’s presence alone meant a great deal. He had only come at the urging of his sister, Kate Kerr Osborne, who was also in attendance. Col. Kerr was the recognized chief of the Mohawks and chief of all the Indians in Canada at that time.

Before the ceremony ended, President Fillmore gave each man a silver medal,  a remembrance of the day, and spoke briefly. Then with great emotion, Nicholas Parker closed the council; his final statement was, “We have raked the ashes over our fire and have closed the last council of our people in the valley of our fathers.”

It was late afternoon when the assembly stood on the porches of the Glen Iris. The Senecas then showed their high esteem for W. P. Letchworth. Solomon O’Bail spoke in Seneca as Nicholson Parker interpreted in English that it was an ancient custom to occasionally adopt into their clan a white man “who has shown himself to be our friend; to give him a new name that shall tell us in our own speech who he is and why we have made him our brother.”

They bestowed this distinctive honor to Mr. Letchworth for his friendship, preservation of their history, and respect for their customs. He was to be adopted into the Seneca Wolf Clan and bestowed with the name Hai-wa-ye-is-tah, “the man who always does the right thing.” O’Bail then took Letchworth by the hand and led him down the lines of Senecas as they chanted a ceremonial song to complete the adoption. At the end of the song, each Indian greeted their adopted brother, calling him by his new name.

The Council House was considered on one more significant occasion. In 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair, also called the Columbian Exposition, was held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. The Fair was to feature exhibits from each state in the Union. New York State approached Letchworth about allowing the Council House to be moved to the Fair as part of the state’s exhibit, which was an Indian village scene. However, it was determined that the Council House was too fragile to undergo such a journey. The log structure still remains on the Council Grounds of Letchworth State Park for visitors to enjoy and remember its rich history.

Resources:

The Life and Work of Wm. P. Letchworth, J.N. Larned, 1912

The Caneadea Council House and its Last Council Fire, Henry R. Howland, 1903

PDF file of Howland’s booklet is available from several websites

Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, July 1877, The Last Indian Council on the Genesee, James Gray

Allegany County History, John Minard 1896

LetchworthParkHistory.com

For information on the Seneca language:  http://senecalanguage.com

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