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Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians


There has been much said by different writers of aboriginal forts, and fort builders of western New York, in availing themselves of steeps, gulfs, defiles, and other marked localities, in establishing works for security or defense. This trait is, however, in no case more strikingly exemplified than in the curious antique work of Kienuka. The term “Kienuka,” means the stronghold or fort; but the original name of this fort is Gau-strau-yea, which means bark laid down; this has a metaphorical meaning, in the similitude of a freshly peeled slippery elm bark, the size of the fort and laid at the bottom as a flooring, so that if any person or persons go in they must be circumspect, and act according to the laws of the fort, or else they will slip and fall down to their own destruction.

The citadel of Kienuka is situated about four miles eastward of the inlet of Niagara gorge at Lewiston, on a natural escarpment of the ridge on the Tuscarora reservation, known at present by the name of the Old Saw Mill.

There is quite an interesting tradition connected with the antique fort Gau-strau-yea. At the formation of the confederacy of the Iroquois, there was a virgin selected from a nation which was called Squawkihaws (a remote branch of the Seneca nation), and was ordained a Queen or Peacemaker, who was stationed at this fort to execute her office of peace, her official name was Ge-keah-saw-sa.

The fort was built by the Senecas aided by the Squawkihaws, on an eminence on the north side of a steep of perpendicular rocks, which was about eight or ten feet down; and on the east, south and west sides they dug a trench four or five feet deep, and in this trench were placed timbers which were put up perpendicularly and jointed as close as possible, they projected above the ground ten or twelve feet, inclosing a place of about twenty by fifty rods. The house for the Queen was in the center of this inclosure or fort, and adjacent houses were built in two rows, with a trail or path between them directing towards the Queen’s house; on each end and inside of the fort, which ran lengthwise east and west, was an entrance corresponding with the trail prepared leading to the house of the Queen.

Then a suitable number of warriors were selected from the Squawkihaws’ nation, the ablest bodied, the swiftest runners and the most expert in the arts of war, which were stationed at this fort (and made their dwelling in the adjacent houses), to keep it in order and execute its regulations and laws; they were to be supported with subsistance and all other necessaries of life, and furnished with suitable implements of war by the Iroquois.

In order more fully to understand the laws and regulations of the fort or place of peace, it must be observed that at this period there were contentions, strife and wars between all the different known nations of the continent; nation against nation, like fishes of the waters, the larger ones eating the smaller. The warrior who can report in his rehearsal in the war-dance of having obtained the greatest number of scalps from the enemy, was the most honored and had the most laurels in his crown; consequently, they were constantly forming companies for an expedition to some nation in quest of honor and the applause of their nation. At this time the confederacy of the Iroquois was formed, and this place of peace was ordained for the purpose, it may be, to alleviate the distress and commotion of the nations of the forest.

The laws were that there shall be no nation or nations of the Iroquois make war against any nation or nations of the same league, under any circumstances; and the Iroquois must not make war with any alien nation without the consent of the Queen. This fort must ever be held sacred, as it is a place of peace, by never allowing the shedding of blood within the inclosure. All executions decreed by the Queen should be made outside of the fort. And any person or persons, aside from the keepers of the fort, should, on entering, never go any faster than a walk. And the Queen must always have meals ready at every hour of the day and night— allegorically speaking, it is called a kettle of hominy hanging, for all fugitives and pursuers from any nation on the continent to partake. All fugitives, irrespective of their nationalities, fleeing for life, from their enemy, when once their feet touch the threshold of the fort, their life is safe; then the Queen conducts him or them into one end of her house, which is lengthwise east and west, with a door at each end and a partition in the center of the room by a curtain made of deer skin, and when the pursuer comes, she also conducts him or them to the other end of the room. She then gives to each of these parties, which are enemies to each other, sustenance to eat; when, this being done, she rolls away the curtain, so that each party can see the other; when they have done eating they pass out and go home to their respective nations in peace. It is contrary to law after a fugitive arrives at this fort and has gone out, for the enemy to execute their death scheme without the consent of the Queen; and if this be violated, then the Iroquois demand the trespasser from the nation to which he or they belong. If this is acceded to, ’tis well; then the trespassers are executed, of which the penalty is death. But should the nation harbor the trespasser, then the nation must suffer the devastations of war at the hands of the Iroquois.

I would here say a few words in relation to the question often asked, “Who were the Squawkihows, Kah-Kwahs, and the Eries?” There has been much controversy on the question. These three named tribes were of one language and of one nation—a remote branch of the Seneca nation—and spoke the same language as the Senecas, varying but very little in a few words. These three tribes originally were called Squawkihows. In time they became very numerous and powerful. They had their settlement from the chores of Lake Ontario and along the Niagara River, and up Lake Erie as far as a place now called Erie, and as far east as to the Genesee river. This was their domain, within these limits.

A settlement of this nation in the neighborhood of, now, North Evans, south of Buffalo, a place called by them Kah-kwah-ka, and the Squawkihows living in this vicinity were called Kah-kwahs; and the Squawkihows living further on along the shores of Lake Erie were called cats or Eries, a name that originated from the name of the lake. By this explanation you will better understand my story.

There was a time when the Kah-kwahs’ branch of that nation made a challenge to the Seneca nation, another very powerful nation having their settlement on the east side of the Genesee river, to play a game of ball, which the Senecas readily accepted and a day was appointed; accordingly, the combat ensued, and was a hotly contested game; but the Senecas finally came out victorious. The Kah-kwahs immediately made another challenge, that of having a foot race, which the Senecas also accepted. Each nation chose their swiftest runners, then the flyers went which and tucker for a ways, but the Senecas finally came out glorious. The Kah-kwahs being mortified by the defeat of the two contests made the third challenge, that of wrestling, with the understanding that an umpire must be chosen from each nation and both to have a war club in hand, and the one that is defeated should suffer death by having his head struck with the war club while down, by the umpire opponent to the one defeated and should be best two in three.

Even in this the Senecas accepted the challenge, and in this remarkable contest they were also victorious. With this the assemblage dispersed.

The defeats of the Kah-kwahs considerably alieniated the Squawkihows from the Senecas; the report, of course, reached the ears of the Queen, which also alienated her feelings from the Senecas, she being by birth a Squawkihow, but the office to which she was ordained was by the Iroquois.

After this in one of the scouting tours of the Senecas across the Niagara river, among the Masassauka Indians, on their return at night to the “place of peace” or Gau-strau-yea, they were pursued by a number of the Masassaukas; when both parties had arrived and had their repast, they all lodged there to rest in peace for the night, as they were wont to do. But in the slumber and stillness of the midnight hour, was tested the treachery of the Queen, by the Masassaukas, in asking her consent to massacre the Senecas in their unsuspecting slumber; her feelings having been previously somewhat alienated from the Senecas, she was induced to give her consent, whereupon they were massacred; their number I have not been able to obtain. They were buried southwest from the Queen’s house, the mound of which was perceptible until a few years ago, when it was cultivated.

This breach of the law of that fort by the Queen giving consent in the shedding of blood in that sacred place, grated the conscience of the Squawkikows, and being alienated by the defeat they experienced a short time previous by the matches they had with the Senecas.

This affair was kept secret for a while. At the same time the Squawkihows urged the consent of the Queen for them to exterminate the Seneca nation and to take them on surprise, for, they said when they hear of the massacre, they will at once wage war against us. They finally prevailed on her, so she condemned the Seneca nation to be exterminated.

At this time there was one warrior of the Senecas who had married into the Squawkihows’ nation and lived among them. When he heard that the Queen had given up the Seneca nation into the hands of the Squawkihows, to be exterminated, he resolved to go to a place called Tah-nyh-yea, among the Senecas—east side of Genesee river, on the Seneca river—where dwelled the head Sachem of the Seneca nation, by the name of Onea-gah-re-tah-wa, and make his report to that venerable Sachem, the decision of the Queen, which was final. To accomplish this, without exciting the suspicion of his family and neighbors, he went under the pretense of going away to hunt on the lake shore of Ontario, and would not be expected home in two or three days. Early one fine morning this warrior started on his high mission from his house, which was located near the fort (Gau-strau-yea). He went northerly and touched Lake Ontario, where he had a canoe for the purpose of hunting and fishing, in which he embarked and rowed eastward to the mouth of the Oswego river, and up the river as far as the Seneca river: then up that river to the settlement of the Senecas. He there left his canoe and made for Tah-nyh-yea, and went directly to the Sachem, (Onea-gah-re-tah-wa’s) wigwam in the dead of night, and called him out doors. He there related to the Sachem the decree of the Queen, concerning the Seneca nation and the massacre, and requested him to keep secret the way he had received the message. The warrior immediately returned home in the same way that he came.

In the morning the venerable Sachem went out early and gave the war cry, which denoted that they were massacred, that war was inevitable, and for the warriors to rally and prepare for war. The nation soon gathered. He then related the message he had received during the night, and said he had heard that some of their warriors were massacred at the fort (Gau-strau-yea), and that the Queen had decreed their extermination at the hand of the Squawkihows. He then appointed four warriors of the best runners to go and spy the fort and the settlement if there was any indication of preparation for war, with instructions that with the very first indication of a preparation for war that they should at once dispatch one of their number home to make his report, and the others to go on and to observe the progress of the preparation and make their reports accordingly.

The four gallant warriors now made their way to the settlement at Gau-strau-yea. When they arrived, they saw only the eldest people, from about upwards of sixty-five years of age, and the younger children, from about fourteen years of age and under. While they were traveling they saw two boys picking up sticks for firewood. One of them asked the smaller boy where his father was. The bright little fellow spoke promptly and said, “Gone to war.” Before the older boy could divert his attention by touching him, the little fellow finished his answer. This they took to be news, and immediately dispatched one of their number home to make the report. When this one made his report to Onea-gah-re-tah-wa, he at once dispatched runners to the other nations of the league to inform them of what had happened to their father, the Seneca nation, and the desecration of their fort. The three that were left after the one was dispatched home, went onto a settlement of the same nation at Gill Creek, above Niagara Falls, where they found the people the same as at Gau-straw-yea. The elders and the youngers only were at home. They also asked a boy there where his father was. He aswered: “At Kah-kwah-ka,” which is south of Buffalo. These three spies took pains to get at Kah-kwah-ka in the night. When they got there they fouud a great multitude gathered, and engaged in the war dance. The spies went right among the multitude without being suspected, because their language was the same as the Squawkihows, and took part in the dances. They saw the warriors in their dance have a head of a bear, tossing it about and striking it with the war club, and at the same time exclaiming: “We will have the head of Onea-gah-re-tah-wa, (the Seneca Sachem) and strike it thus” at the same time hitting it with their club. And the war chief said that they would start in the morning and on the third day they would have the head of Onea-gah-re-tah-wa strung up on a pole. With that the spies dispatched home the second one to make his report of what they saw and heard, and this one retired from the crowd privately some little time before daybreak. The two still remained with the crowd, talking and chatting with them as if they were one of their nation.

In the morning the grand march took their place in the war path towards their intended destruction. The ablest warriors took the front rank; then came the older ones; after them the boys upwards of fourteen years of of age; lastly came the able bodied females. Thus they marched until the next night, when they prepared ground for a dance, and went through the same performance as the night before. Now the third spy withdrew from the crowd just before daybreak to make his report and keep the Senecas posted in the advance of the enemy. On the second day the march was renewed, and proceeded in the same order as on the first day. The next night was also spent as that of the last in flattering themselves of the wonderful things that they were to accomplish. About two hours before daybreak the last spy also withdrew from the crowd and made for home, to inform them how far off they were from the Seneca settlement. After the last one had made his report, Onea-gah-re-tah-wa arose from his seat, with that majestic movement which only would become him as the head Sachem of the Seneca nation, and said: “To you, first, my most beloved comrades, the Chiefs and Sachems of our noble nation, I would bring to your minds the past in a few words, and it may be for the last time. How often have we sat together around the council fire of our nation. I congratulate you all in the good feeling that has always prevailed in our deliberations of various subjects in relation to the welfare and happiness of our nation, and more particularly our sisters and their offspring, and we have not been unmindful even of those that are not yet born, for in them have we hoped of the existence of our nation. Have not the nations of the Iroquois respected and even honored your counsels around the great council fire of the league, and now is destruction awaiting your dawn? But if that is the will of the Great Spirit, by running we cannot flee from it. And to you, our sisters, have we not ever been mindful of you in our deliberations and ever wished you success: and have we not, as it were, embraced you and your children in our arms to protect you? We now commend you to the Great Spirit, who is our helper. And now to you, most noble warriors, in whom the council looks for the enforcement of their decrees. In bringing difficulties and contentions among yourselves, have we not brought back to you peace, by meting out to you justice; and in your troubles have we not whispered in your ears words of consolation? And we have ever placed you close to our hearts. In you is the power of the nation, and in you we look for safety. You have understood it that our nation has been given into the hands of our enemy by the Queen and we are now in jeopardy. As I have said, we cannot, by running, flee from the decree of the Great Spirit, but if He is for us we shall prevail. He will give strength to our bow, direct our arrows, give might to our arms and direct our blows, and put to flight our enemy, and we shall conquer. He is able to give us peace in this our time of trouble, if we all but trust in Him. It is he that made us and He is able to preserve us from our enemies. Now my dear relatives in the different ties of blood, it is not meet that we should have our blood spilt within our domain, nor to have the dead bodies of our enemies strewed within our settlement. We must now march and meet our foe. We must not turn our heel to them; but if we are to be exterminated, let the last drop of Seneca blood be spilt upon the bosom of our mother earth, and let the sun in the heavens be the witness that we die in the defence of our wives, children and homes, which is pleasing in the sight of the Great Spirit.”

They now made their march, and after they had advanced a number of miles they met the enemy. It was now sometime in the afternoon. A desperate battle ensued. The storm of the arrows headed with flint, and also the creased poisoned arrows was kept up until evening, when a peculiar war cry was given, which indicated rest, at which in an instant the storm of arrows ceased, when the Sachems of the two parties came near together and deliberated on the conditions of rest during the night, that each party should retreat a ways and rest without either molesting the other during the night, but in the morning they should come together and resume the battle.

In the morning the battle was renewed, even with more vigor than the day before, until nearly noon, when the war cry of rest was again given. The fight was again suspended for the purpose of taking refreshments.

At this time Onea-gah-re-tah-wa said to the Chiefs of the Squawkihows, “While we are resting let us have a recreation by having a wrestling between the two parties, and each one should have a war club in his belt, and the one that is defeated should die at the hands of his victor with the war club.” The Squawkihows accepted the challenge. Then the wrestling was continued to several contests, in which the Senecas were victorious. There were several of the very ablest warriors of the Squawkihows killed in this simple contest of wrestling.

They again resumed the battle. At this time the Senecas reserved quite a number of their smartest warriors, with each of them a bunch of bark prepared for the purpose of tying prisoners. They were in the rear and laid low. The battle was still more deepcrate. They finally came in hand-in-hand. Then they made use of their war clubs. At this time the Squawkihows summoned to their aid their reserved company, which they kept in the rear. The young women came on the flank of the Senecas’ ranks, and beat them with clubs, which made the Senecas falter for a while. Finally they called on their reserved warriors, who made a desperate charge on the enemy and made them retreat. The Senecas began taking prisoners. They tied their hands behind them to trees. In this way they took a great many prisoners, particularly the females. The warriors rallied and fought as they retreated. After a while a company suddenly broke off from their ranks and ran away. In a moment they had disappeared in the forest. Those that remained rallied again and fought as they were retreating until evening, when all at once the whole company wheeled right around, gave a spring, and off they went. The Senecas made their pursuit, every now and then taking a prisoner until dark, when they rested and camped for the night.

The next morning they selected the best runners, the ablest bodied and the most skilled in the arts of war, who were sent out to exterminate the nation, to begin at the settlement of fort Gau-strau-yea, and so on south to the other settlements of the nation.

When the Seneca invaders came at the fort (Gau-strau-yea), they found it was evacuated and all the settlement had fled. The trail they left behind pointed southward plainly. The invaders followed to the next settlement at Gill Creek, above Niagara Falls, which they found vacated. They still followed on, bent on retaliation. They then came to the settlement of Kah-kwas, which they also found evacuated. They kept on the pursuit until they came to the settlement of the Eries, and also found it evacuated as the others. Still they kept on their pursuit, and when they came to the Alleghany river they saw pieces floating, which indicated the making of canoes. They immediately ascended the river. After they had gone some ways they found where the enemies had been encamped, and saw indications where they had built several canoes. The fires indicated that they must have just embarked that morning and rowed down the river. They they went down the river some distance, and finally gave up the chase. The invaders returned to their settlement—the Seneca nation. A glorious victory crowned their severe trial and labor.

A grand council was called of the Seneca nation for the just returned warriors to make their report of the glory they had won, and the complete overthrow of the enemy. After they had finished making their report a great feast was made, and after that they were again permitted to smoke the calumet of peace, and once more settle down as heretofore, as one of the bright stars of heaven, among the several nations of the Iroquois. At night they had a general dance, both young and old, irrespective of sex, to celebrate the great victory they had won.

The Squawkihows have never been heard of since, as a nation, to the present time. It is supposed that they must have gone in the far west and changed their name: but this is merely a supposition. Those that the Senecas took captives are still among the different settlements of the Seneca nation, more particularly among the Cattaraugus reservation.

That is the way the Senecas came in possession of so large a dominion. They held their domain east of the Genesee river, and also took possession of the dominion of the Squawkihows, which run from Lake Ontario and along Niagara river and Lake Erie to the Pennsylvania line.

The office of the Queen Ge-keah-sau-sa, of fort Gau-strau-yea, for several hundred years (it is said by the Senecas about six hundred years ago she evacuated the fort), the Iroquois did not reordain, for the reason, as it is alleged by them, that the female is the weaker sex of humanity. Physically, it must follow that they are weaker also mentally, as it is evinced by the treachery of the Queen in her easily being decoyed in making her rash decision concerning the massacre in the fort, and also in the giving up of the Seneca nation in the hands of their enemy. They considered it not prudent to vest so much authority in the weaker sex. And as no one has been considered capable or worthy of the high honor that Ge-keah-sau-wa once reigned, until about twenty-five years ago, from the year 1878, there was a Virgin selected from among the Tonawanda band of the Seneca nation by the name of Caroline Parker, sister to Eli Parker, once in General Grant’s staff, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who was ordained to the high office of Queen, or Ge-keah-sau-sa. She is now the wife of a noted Sachem of the Tuscarora nation, Mr. John Mount Pleasant, of no common wealth. She is located about two miles southwest of the antique fort Gah-strau-yea, or Kienuka, on the Tuscarora reservation, where she ever held open her hospitable house, not only to the Iroquois, but of every nation, including the pale faces. Allegorical speaking, she has ever had a kettle of hominy hanging over her fire-place, ready to appease the hunger of those who trod her threshold.

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