A glimpse into the past.
By Tony Hoppa
Distinguished Professor of History Michael Leroy Oberg looks at a map dated 1771 and can’t help but wonder. What was life like back then? — when Geneseo was known as “Chenussio,” a Seneca Iroquois town along the Genesee River. Trails through the woods — forerunners to Ridge Road, Route 20A and others — connected the Senecas with their Haudenosaunee kin in the “Land of the Iroquois.”
People were constantly coming and going here,” said Oberg, an internationally renowned scholar of Native American studies and author of the critically acclaimed book, “Peacemakers: The Iroquois, the United States, and the Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794.” “Trails and waterways linked villages together, allowing the Senecas to become extraordinary travelers.”
A decade earlier, Senecas fought with British soldiers in the Niagara River Valley, but in the early 1770s, Chenussio and nearby Seneca towns remained isolated from white settlement.
In a sense, it was a good period for the Iroquois people and for the Senecas in Chenussio,” Oberg surmised. “They had a powerful culture, a vibrant religious life, and a robust economy marked by agriculture, hunting, and trade.”
Until it was shattered.
In 1779, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign rained total destruction upon the Iroquois under orders by Gen. George Washington. Chenussio and other towns were burned to the ground. Many Senecas fled to Ft. Niagara where they suffered from starvation and disease in the brutal winter.
According to Oberg, Geneseo’s Seneca founding fathers played a fundamentally important role in Iroquois, French, and English histories, but their story gets forgotten.
“The Senecas here lived in a rich world, and that richness is what white settlers wanted,” he explained. “At the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797, the Senecas had little choice but to sell their lands from the Genesee River westward. The Senecas’ loss was the white land barons’ gain.”
Today, more than two centuries later, Geneseo thrives in what once was the Seneca heartland.
“The river still flows,” Oberg observed. “Geographical features, the place names: they are still here today. But the Seneca world that stood along the Genesee is gone, and that dispossession was complete.”
Reflecting on past history, Oberg is impressed how the Seneca people survived on a handful of reservations.
“If others had had their way, including the founders of our town, they’d be gone,” he affirmed. “And yet, despite disease, invasion, and dispossession, their culture still exists. There are still Seneca and Iroquois communities in New York State, and their language is still spoken. I find that amazing. At Tonawanda, Allegany, and Cattaraugus, vibrant Seneca communities endure, their culture and institutions besieged still but intact.”
Such is the enduring power of community.