February 1991

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Fourteen Minutes

in the Southern Tier


Alfred G. Hilbert

Part II

Part I

In the beginning, The Great Spirit, looking down on His favored Iroquois, pressed His hand on their lands, creating with His outspread fingers the lakes that, besides their beauty, gave to the area a wealth of timber, grasses, fruit, game and easy water transportation. He, with His infinite wisdom, noted that the southern edge of the area was blocked by a mountain barrier and with His thumb gashed the ridge to allow the waters to flow through and provide a southern gate to the lands below. It was through this Tioga Point, the gateway of the Susquehanna River and connecting waterways that the history of our Southern Tier area was developed. This Iroquois legend is easily explained by the glacial action of the several ice ages.

If the Earth's history could be compressed into one year, the first eight months would show no sign of life. Primitive life would then appear, but not until the second week in December would there be signs of mammals. It would not be until the last fifteen minutes of the year, 11:45 pm on December 31st, that Homo Sapiens (man) would appear, and the entire written history of man would be compressed into the last sixty seconds, one minute!

What happened here in our area in the fourteen minutes before recorded colonial history started?

To the geologist, the past is not measured in years, but by periods. The last fifteen minutes of this geological year, is the recent part of the so-called Quaternary Period, or Age of Man. The Quaternary Period is divided into the Recent Era (50,000 years) and the Pleistocene or Glacial Age (one million years).

Prior to the Glacial Age, the entire watershed of what we now call the Susquehanna group of rivers in New York State, the water from the Corning area and from the Binghamton area met, not at Tioga Point, but at Horseheads, and flowed northward past where Montour Falls and Watkins Glen now are, to reach the huge Ontario River or inland sea, sometimes called Lake Iroquois. This river covered the entire Great Lakes area and reached the ocean via the Mississippi Valley.

The advance of the ice sheet first blocked off the St. Lawrence Valley and later the Mississippi River outlet. It forced some of the water to cut through to the east forming the present Mohawk Valley. Even that was blocked as the ice advanced and it eventually forced the Susquehanna to find an opening to the south. Blocked by the ice at Horseheads, it cut through the mountain ridge at Tioga Point. As the glacier retreated, it left piles of sand and gravel debris behind it. One such deposit filled the south end of the Watkins-Horseheads valley. This made the Horseheads area higher than Big Flats or Elmira, so the Chemung River continued to flow southeast. The once mighty Susquehanna no longer poured northward but was permanently diverted southward into Pennsylvania. Catherine Creek carries only local drainage northward through Montour Falls now.

The final receding of the glacier that formed our beautiful Finger Lakes region, left behind a landscape of the sub-arctic tundra type. Into this area moved a high concentration of browsing animals. Mastodon, mammoth, elk and bison appeared on the scene. The early aborigines naturally followed these large animals to hunt them.

Gradually the tundra gave way to an evergreen or conifer landscape, and still later to the deciduous landscape of maples, oaks and beeches, providing nuts and berries. The animal life changed accordingly, but evidently throughout many years, our area remained a great storehouse of available food. Man came in search of it but, because of the still bitter winters, did not stay.

Evidence of the existence of man in this Pleistocene Era has been found in the Delaware Valley near Trenton, and it was from well-known quarries in New Jersey that the early man obtained argillite for his throwing sticks, spears, and knives. (Argillite is a hardened mudstone, similar to slate but with no cleavage lines). Such artifacts have been found on the upper and older, or superior, river terraces of the Chemung Valley and the geologist deems it not unreasonable to date some of the argillite implements to 10,000 years or even more. Just recently a newly discovered site was dated to about 14,000 years old.

Since no extensive finds have been made it seems to indicate that small bands of pre-Algonquin culture, probably hunting people, temporarily occupied the area without permanent settlements.

Lower on these upper terraces, implements of ryolite and soapstone have been found. Again, their rarity has indicated a temporary, roving occupation. Ryolite, a lava or volcanic rock, resembles quartz but has a flow texture. This stone, an improvement over argillite, could be chipped to a sharp cutting edge and is found mainly to the south of this area. The soapstone definitely came from the well-known deposits in Pennsylvania. The soapstone was in the form of cooking utensils and sculptured stoneware. The people who used these appeared and disappeared, leaving behind nothing but their stone artifacts. But more specifically, by the Carbon 14 dating theory, the oldest habitation finds are dated back to 5,000 years to the so-called Lamokan culture.

Throughout the Southern Tier and especially at Lamoka between the two adjacent lakes lived a people who flourished for a time and later disappeared. Extensive excavation and study by archeologists both local and of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences indicate these people, using flint and bone implements, had one of the first semi-permanent locations until they were exterminated by people from the north, probably the Laurentian group. This Laurentian group dominated central and northern New York until about 1,000 B.C.

These people were evidently hunters, or food gatherers, rather than farmers. Their food consisted of fish and game supplemented by roots, berries, and nuts, especially acorns. Roasted acorns were used much as the later Indians used corn. Their implements, both of bone and stone, were of fine craftsmanship. Bone awls, fishhooks, knives, whistles, needles and harpoons were found. The stone implements were of flint. Among them were butterfly or banner stone objects, polished and perforated, whose use is still a matter of debate—some believe them to have been used at ceremonials, others as weights for the end of throwing sticks.

Flints of many hues were found, jet black, light blue, drab yellow, and red. Since flint of this type is not locally available and is found only at the famous flint ridge near Zanesville, Ohio, it is believed that contacts, for raw materials, existed with the Ohio peoples, and that the Lamokans may originally have come from that area. Flint was also available from the Hudson-Mohawk area. Some local flint was available: nodules or pebbles usually under 2" in diameter exist in gravel beds but often the grain is too coarse for good workmanship.

The projectiles and war points were all of a common pattern—long and narrow with a straight stem slightly notched. There was no evidence of stoneware or ceramic art—no smoking pipes. Cooking was done mostly by open fire roasting or broiling, but the evidence of "pot boilers," or cooking stones, indicate some heating in pits or perishable containers. This seems to indicate a people different from the previous cultures, a new, distinct group, as no soapstone containers or clay pots were found. Had there been a gradual transition, the location of the soapstone quarries would have been known, so the use and advantages of cooking utensils would not have disappeared. No cemeteries have been found which indicates the practice of cremation.

Evidently fishing was their principal source of food. Most Lamokan artifacts have been found adjacent to shallow lakes, river rapids and the shallow bays of the larger lakes. From the extensive finds of net stones, we deduce this was their principal method of catching fish, but there also have been found curved bone fragments shaped like our modern lure known as the "flatfish." These lures, naturally without hooks, were so tied to some kind of line that when swallowed by the fish they would wedge in their throats.

About 1000 B. C. the food-gathering, migratory period began to change. The Middlesex people, Algonquins, found their way into New York and the St. Lawrence Valley. Their artifacts showed a higher form of civilization in that they had digging sticks, hoes, pottery and pipes. There followed the cultural evolution from just hunting and fishing to an increasing dependence on food production or agriculture. Later cultures such as the Hopewellian and Point Peninsula groups produced more permanent sites, and about 400 A. D. the bow and arrow appeared for the first time. But it was not until the coming of the Iroquoian groups that the sequence of evolution between prehistoric and historic times was completed. Their refinements of pottery, stone, and wooden implements reveal a basic self-sufficeint economy with heavy agricultural overtones.

Following the Point Peninsula period, the earlier archeologists found a void until the Iroquois period. They often assumed the Iroquois culture moved into the area intact from the West and Great Lakes area. It was, however, the Carbon 14 method of dating, formulated about 1950, that began to fill in this void and change their thinking.

The determination of the dates of sites revealed an intermediate or transitional culture now known as the Owasco or Adena culture. There was no indication of a sudden change due to conquest as earlier suggested. Some authorities felt the void was due to a national multi-year drought that had been recorded in the late 1200s in the Southwest.

Sometime between 1300-1600, there appeared from the north and west along the Great Lakes many groups speaking a common language (the French writer Brebeuf in 1635 names 12 tribes). These people did not use the ceremonial artifacts and implements of polished stone. Ungrooved axes, longbows, arrows and war clubs were their offensive weapons, while for defense, wood and skin shields and even a wooden body armor were used. These warrior groups soon spread across New York State and established semi-permanent settlements, but they let the more peaceful Algonquin remain in New England and along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers.

Next Month: The Iroquois
, 1991, Alfred G. Hilbert
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