Exploring the Finger Lakes region a powerful way to discover history

Thursday, 10 September 2009 00:00
Lock27onErieCanal_optBY SUZANNE CLOUD

After a grueling six months of collecting unemployment, I was ready for an inexpensive vacation to Cayuga Lake, the longest lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I hemmed and hawed about whether I should go after the anvil fell on my professional head, but then decided that the lake house rental had already been paid, so what the heck. I found the house via VacationRentals.com, which I had used before with wonderful results, and I drooled daily over the photo of a dock silhouetted against a setting sun that I had bookmarked on my computer.

The day finally came when a friend and I made the six-hour drive to that part of America where glaciers had carved out the finger-shaped basins about 12,000 years ago. Driving north on Rt. 90 along Cayuga Lake, we were all set to bask in seclusion and maybe hear a loon or two as we finally got to sit on that dock with a cold beer. Unfortunately, our lake house was a watermelon seed spit away from the owners who lived right next door. Oops. Okay, so we'd spend a lot of time touring the countryside-no sweat.

The next day, we drove into Seneca Falls, a small town famous for the First Women's Rights Convention in1848 and nestled in between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. It was raining and we pulled into the empty parking lot of the Seneca Falls Historical Society – a 23-room, 19th century, Queen Anne mansion. Sitting on the back porch in a rocker was a petite 86-year-old woman named Ellie McIntyre, who immediately jumped up and offered to take us through the house.

Animated and engaging, Ellie was a wonder. Huffing and puffing, I commented on her agility running up and down the many steps in the mansion. She said, "I'm entered in the St. Anthony's Run this weekend, and I know I'm going to win." We waited for the punch line. "Of course, I'm the only one entered in my age group."

Somewhere I thought I heard a rim shot being struck as Ellie smiled innocently. She took us through the entire Victorian house, stopping by framed paintings of the town's movers and shakers, stained glass windows, exquisite period furniture, a fully stocked 19th-century kitchen, servants' quarters on the third floor, and a play room complete with a stage and a speaking tube in the wall. "How else could the children call their parents upstairs to see the show?" laughed Ellie.

Click on the thumbnails for larger images.


A day later, my friend and I drove south on Rt. 89 down the west side of Cayuga Lake and visited Taughannock Falls, a waterfall that drops a breathtaking 215 feet from the cliffs of a 400-foot gorge. Later, we hiked a trail up the side of Buttermilk Falls where the Buttermilk Creek ends its journey further south near the town of Ithaca. The experience made a fine day trip and the scenery was outstanding with rolling hills and vineyards. But throughout our travels, we noticed a multitude of signs posted along the highway reading: "No Sovereign Nation. No Reservation." The signs were posted by a group called Upstate Citizens for Equality.

"What's that all about?" we wondered.

We started asking everyone we met about it and got some disjointed responses: "The Cayuga Indians fought on the side of the British and went to Canada and now they want their land back;" "America gave the Cayuga land in Arizona, now they want ours;" "The Cayuga are buying up property and want to make a reservation. Hell, no." I felt totally naked without access to a computer, so we decided to check out the Seneca Falls Heritage Area Visitor Center to see if we could find out anything about the local Indian dispute.

Unfortunately, we discovered that local and regional history has been carefully and lovingly noted (officially) only from the moment whites settled the land. The visitor center clerk said that if we wanted any Indian history, we'd have to go to Syracuse. Suspecting a historical erasure, I became suspicious about what had happened here. Some answers came when we stumbled on a number of other smaller signs that had been erected throughout the region in 1932 by the Roosevelt Administration. We hadn't noticed them before. They were markers that simply stated that a Cayuga village had been totally destroyed in this spot by General John Sullivan and his army in 1779. Some signs even had the Indian names of the doomed villages. Suddenly, I didn't miss my computer so much and felt, "What a powerful way to discover history."

Over our week of exploring, my friend and I were escorted around Seneca Lake (just us two) by John Kenny, a local wood sculptor and boat captain. We drove through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, followed the trail of the Old Erie Canal, and enjoyed a wine tasting at Long Point Winery with a spectacular view of the east side of Cayuga Lake.

Our last night, we decided to relax on the deck to watch the sun set on the lake and wait for the stars to wink on. Soon my friend and I were contently gazing at the lighted buoys guiding the last few boats home through the shallow waters of northern Cayuga Lake. The serenity was enough to wash away the proximity of our neighbors until our landlord showed up with a bottle of strawberry wine he made himself. Feeling guilty, I thanked him and promised I'd try out his paddle-boat before we left.

Comments (2)
2 Wednesday, 02 February 2011 11:26
David William Zoarg
The Cayuga tribe's claim is just and right, but let's face it: US will never give them anything back. The injustice done to the natives is so immense, that no amount of land or money can undo the suffering and nearly total extermination of the natives of North America. By comparison, the Spanish conquest of Central and South America is like a mission of peace. The eradication of the natives of North America is one of the most deliberate, well-planned, and ruthlessly executed thorough extermination policies carried out in the entire human history. What an irony that US now claims to stand for freedom and democracy in the world, without ever having made amends for this great injustice. Yet, nothing less than this is to be expected.
1 Thursday, 10 September 2009 17:26
Richard Tallcot
What’s it all about? Your snippet replies touch on reality without precise correctness. Without elaborating on legal arguments, the Cayuga tribe’s land claim was filed in 1980. Based on a 1790 law, they sued for possession of one hundred square miles, eviction of the residents, and a billion dollars. The federal district court took 24 years to make a final judgment that could be appealed. The district court ruled the people could not be evicted and awarded the tribe $248 million. The Second District Court of Appeals reversed Judge McCurn’s ruling and in 2005 ruled the tribe did not have a valid claim.

To circumvent the ruling, the tribe then applied for federal trust status on lands that they had purchased. Therefore, UCE continues to be active opposing the trust applications and supporting equality under the law.

The Sullivan campaign was a retaliation against the Iroquois tribes for supporting the British in the American Revolution, specifically for the Cherry Valley and Wyoming Valley massacres - which the Cayuga tribe took part in.

The Iroquois migrated to this region from Canada in the mid 1500's. All but a dissident faction of Cayuga returned to Canada after the Revolution, where they have a reservation now established by the British. The dissident faction settled south of Buffalo and is the group that filed the land claim.

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