The Indian Born from a Cider Barrel
Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
For more than a century the name of Guyanoga (Gu-ya-no-ga) has been important in the town of Jerusalem in Yates County. A historical marker and a statue representing him stands in front of an eighteenth century tavern in the valley that bears his name. He was, according to tradition, an extraordinary Indian, a giant of a man, a Seneca chief who was a friend of General George Washington and the early colonists. No greater Indian hero could be imagined.
The first known reference to Guyanoga in print is a newspaper clipping originating from Penn Yan, New York, dated October 15, no year given. Information for the article came from Samuel Botsford and James A. Cole, residents of the town of Jerusalem. Botsford was a member of a large family who were followers of Jemima Wilkinson the Public Universal Friend, the original settlers of Yates County and Jerusalem Township. According to the article, stories about Guyanoga had circulated in what folklorists call the "oral tradition" for many years. When Botsford's father first settled in Jerusalem in the 1790s, he became acquainted with a French Canadian woodsman named Francois or Frank DuBolt. It was from DuBolt that he learned of Guyanoga, an Indian "of noble presence, marked intelligence, and standing at least six feet in his moccasins." When DuBolt, who often visited Guyanoga's "wigwam," knew him, the Indian was about sixty years old and was a sub-chief of the Senecas. He had served under the infamous Colonel Butler during the Revolution and had participated in the Wyoming Massacre, but he declared that his people had made a mistake in taking sides with the English against the Americans.
He had a son named Panther, "nearly his equal in stature and fully his equal in prowess," who was killed in the Battle of the Chemung Valley in 1779. Botsford reported that the skeleton of a person over six feet tall was unearthed near the site of Guyanoga's "wigwam" in 1850 and suggested that it could be that of the great chief himself. The article contained a suggestion by James A. Cole that the valley, originally known as the Vale of Kindron in the Friend's time, and for many decades subsequently as Larzelere's Hollow, should be renamed the Guyanoga Valley. The suggestion was endorsed by the editor of the newspaper. The date of the clipping is unknown but it has to be before 1888 when Samuel Botsford died and no earlier than 1873 when Moses Cleveland published his history of the county without mentioning Guyanoga.
Through the years, Guyanoga grew in height to six feet, four inches, and became an associate of General George Washington and a saviour of the American forces in the Revolution. In 1910, a monument to Guyanoga was erected in front of the former Larzelere's tavern, then the home of Guyanoga Valley Grange. It was a metal statue of an Indian with a bow and arrow that was originally a Hudson River steamboat decoration and had been a weather vane on a barn in Branchport, an interesting example of primitive folk art. It was compared to a similar Indian statue at Painted Post.
The statue was unveiled by James A. Cole and Frank Botsford, son of Samuel, in a dedication ceremony that attracted some 400 people to the event. The program included a "farmer's picnic," a band concert, a baseball game (Guyanoga beat Bluff Point 9 to 3), an "Indian Princess," and several speeches. Local historian Miles Davis (1844 - 1923), a native of Jerusalem, presented a paper about Indian lore in general and Guyanoga in particular. His 1910 speech was reprinted in his History of Jerusalem published in 1912. Davis added many interesting details to the legend of Guyanoga. He cited as his sources, "accounts that have drifted down through various ways.
Davis described Guyanoga as "a veritable Roman of the New World," "one of the noblest Men of the Woods," "dignified and reserved, like many of his race, yet exceedingly kind, courteous, and thoroughly hospitable." He was "an honor to his race and a faithful friend to the settlers who eventually came into possession of the land he loved." Davis revised the first account of Guyanoga that declared that he regretted that he fought on the side of the British, declaring that he was "a noble Indian, a loyal and devoted friend of the colonists during the dark days of the Revolution…Gu-ya-no-ga had a friendly understanding with General Washington, who recognized the value of the services and information which Gu-ya-no-ga rendered the continental army at various times in the perilous period which tried men's souls."
Davis gave the location of Guyanoga's "wigwam" as on Frank Botsford's land, west of his residence and on the same side of the road. He gave as his source for this information, Mrs. Margaret Botsford, Frank Botsford's grandmother. It was, he thought, a reasonable inference that the bones of a large and tall man discovered in an Indian cemetery not far away was the skeleton of the celebrated chief.
The problem with Miles Davis's account of Guyanoga is that no mention of his name can be found in any source from the time that he was said to have lived. The Seneca Indians who have preserved the names of their leaders in their own oral tradition have no knowledge of a Gu-ya-no-ga who would have been a contemporary of the familiar and well-documented Red Jacket, Cornplanter, Good Peter, and the Mohawk Joseph Brant. No mention of Gu-ya-no-ga can be found in either colonial or Indian records.
Nor do letters, diaries, and reminiscences of the followers of Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Public Friend, the earliest settlers of Yates county and Jerusalem, make reference to this remarkable Indian, or, for that matter, to a Francois DuBolt who was supposed to be in the area when they arrived. Stafford C. Cleveland, in his two-volume History and Directory of Yates County, published in 1873, has nothing to say about Guyanoga, although he writes about the Indian background of the county and devotes a page to the claim that Red Jacket was born near Branchport. The name of Guyanoga does not appear in print in any source until about 1885.
An explanation why this is so can be found in an unpublished biography of Jemima Wilkinson written by Arnold Potter (1881-1951). Arnold Potter was the son of Elizabeth Friend Brown Potter and grandson of James Brown, Jr., trustee of the Society of Universal Friends after the death of Jemima Wilkinson in 1819. Brown lived not far from the Friend's house and it was he who supervised the removal of her body from a crypt in the basement and its reburial in a secret location. Arnold Potter in herited the papers of the society and other items, including the famous portrait of the Friend herself. He was fiercely protective of the Friend's reputation, but as a graduate of Cornell, he was an educated person with a sense of history. His biography of Jemima Wilkinson has never been published, in part because he refused to edit it or have it edited, and also because of his many digressions from the main topic.
One such digression was his account of the origin of Guyanoga. Arnold Potter wrote, "He is nothing but the figment of the imagination of several men who by chance met one night, during a timbering operation up in Jerusalem, and one of them had to contribute a column for the Friday edition of one of the county papers. Two of the party had a very extensive knowledge of the Indian legends of this section, and the suggestion was why not give them an Indian. Well, Red Jacket had had his turn, so it had to be a new one, one whom no had ever heard of before.
"In order to aid in creating such an Indian, recourse was had to Mr. Cole's cider barrel, to aid their creation. As the cider went down in Cole's barrel, Guyanoga came floating out of the bung hole. He grew taller and taller, more and more noble, until it turns out that he was a personal friend of General Washington, a guide and friend to all the settlers, in fact, the best type of Pollyanna Indian of the whole lot. In fact, they had such a noble man that one of them then and there dedicated a part of his farm as the birthplace and residence, and later found his unmarked grave.
"This is not guess work, and not desiring to involve too many of my neighbors, my own father was there and helped foster this hoax, which gave them all a great laugh, and Mr. Cole's granddaughter confirms the story, and that Guyanoga was always a great laugh in the household. The county papers took him and published with pride their find of such a noble son of our virgin soil."
It is clear from Arnold Potter's account that the Guyanoga hoax, unlike that of the famous Cardiff Giant, was intended as a joke and not to make money, and certainly not to hurt anyone. The joke was more successful than its perpetrators could have imagined and Guyanoga was accepted so quickly by the press and local people that they were reluctant to expose it. As one of them told Arnold Potter, "Don't tell, we did not think he would take hold like that; we did it all for fun." The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution adopted the name of Guyanoga and even taught the "correct" pronunciation to the members. The monument to Guyanoga was erected in the valley that bore his name. Guyanoga's story entered a local history book and papers were written and talks about him were given to various organizations.
For a number of people, the Guyanoga story was an "in-joke." The late Frank Swann, former Yates County Historian, knew the story and tried to determine who knew or suspected the truth and who were true believers. He found that many of the descendants of the families involved were extremely sensitive if the subject was even hinted at. Such hoaxes are common in the literature of folklore. The Cardiff giant is one of the most popular exhibits in the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown although it is well known as a hoax.
Although the "real" Guyanoga may never have actually existed, he is as much a part of the history of Yates County as the Cardiff Giant is of New York State. Mark Twain, who was responsible for some outrageous hoaxes himself never ceased to be amazed that when he set out to have some fun in print, he was taken seriously; and when he was deadly serious, people laughed.
This article is a revision of a paper read at a meeting of the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society on April 26, 1977.
© 1992, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.