Saint George, the Serpent
and the Seneca Indians
Saint George and the Dragon had an American Indian counterpart in the boy and girl who are the legendary founders of the Seneca Tribe of Indians in New York State, and in the serpent they slew to save themselves. The location of this deed is somewhat confusing, and I want to give the two most authoritative legends I can find. Both accounts are legends, after all, and no great accuracy is expected as to exact location. But the different meanings given to almost identical names in the Seneca language are puzzling.
The legend of the Great Serpent of the Seneca Indians takes at least 63 forms, I was told by Seneca Indian Historian George Abrams, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. The legend he seems to prefer, which I have reproduced in shortened form below, appears to take place entirely on South Hill "at the foot of Canandaigua Lake." But the account written by Arthur C. Parker, onetime head of the New York State Department of Archeology in Albany, and partly of Seneca Indian descent, starts at South Hill and transfers to Bare Hill.
It is confusing that George Abrams calls South Hill "Ge-nun-de-wah-ga" and gives the English Translation as "The Great Hill," while Arthur Parker states that the name of Bare Hill is "Genundowa" and means "The Hill of the Serpent."
Different, adjacent hills, of course, but almost identical names in the very complex Seneca language, with far different meanings.
George Abrams states that the Seneca were known as "The Great Hill People" and also as "The People of Stone." Webster's Third New International Dictionary on page 2066 gives "Standing Rock" as the meaning of the name "Seneca," and its origin as coming from the Mahican "A sinnika." It is generally believed that French soldiers pronounced "A'sinnika" as "Seneca" and the name stuck.
To take Abram's account of the serpent first, on pages 6 and 7 of his book The Seneca People (published in 1976) Abrams states (I have shortened the account somewhat) "After the Creator caused the original Seneca to be formed in the interior of the Great Hill, they emerged from a hole in the top and built their first village on it. They found that they were entirely encircled by a huge snake whose insatiable appetite and poisonous breath killed all those who attempted to escape ... It swallowed all members of the small tribe except two children ... By means of an oracle, the Creator later instructed the two surviving children to make a willow bow and arrow tipped with a special poison with which to kill the serpent. Bravely the orphan children approached the the snake and shot the arrow under the scales. Immediately the snake began to thrash violently about, uncoiling from around the hill, and as he vomited the skulls of the dead Seneca, these rolled down the side of the hill into the lake and immediately petrified. They can be seen at the bottom of the lake in the form of large, round stones. As the snake convulsed in its death throes, it rolled down the hillside uprooting trees in its path and creating a cleft in the hillside...The Seneca Indians sprang from these two heroic orphans."
Arthur Parker's account differs substantially. In a small pamphlet Nundawao and the Coming of the Senecas, published in 1954, on pages 1 and 2, Parker writes: "Two majestic hills on the east side of Canandaigua Lake stand out in bold relief, and are expecially prominent when viewed from the west.
"To the north is Bare Hill, called by the Indians Genundowa. It is known as the Hill of the Serpent, and sacrificial fires in which incense was cast were long held there, even up to 75 years ago.
"Beyond to the south is the long hill often called South Hill or Whaleback. It was this hill that was especially revered by the Seneca Indians. At its south westerly side is a deep gorge that is formed by a stream that starts 1,100 feet above the floor of the valley. This gorge, and an ancient cave once believed to have been there, is regarded as the birth place of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. They believe that their first town, Nundawao, was built on the flats below it, bordering West River."
To continue with a shortened version of Arthur Parker's "The Legend of The Great Serpent" on page 3 (of his pamphlet) which is an American Indian, David Cusick's, account published in the early 1800s: A youth took home (This would have been to Nundawao.) a snake he found in the swamp. Soon the snake grew into a large serpent, and hunters exhausted the game in the region to feed it, whereupon "The people became alarmed and fled to their fort on Bare Hill but the great snake which they called Osaista Wanna pursued and coiled about the stockade. The people nearly starved, and in seeking to escape in the dark, ran down the serpent's throat.
"A youth and his sister were told in a dream how to slay the monster. A hickory bow was to be made and strung with the sister's hair.. .The youth shot the dart and pierced the monster's heart. It lashed the hill in its dying agony and made the hillside bare. It has been called Bare Hill ever since."
(The hill is not bare today, but was when the white men first arrived according to S. C. Cleveland's History of Yates County, New York, published in 1873. On page 589 he states, "The hill was literally bare when the white race took possession of the country. But since that time the forest has sprung up thickly wherever it was allowed to grow ... South Hill was found heavily covered with timber.")
Parker's account goes on: "As the snake twisted about, it disgorged the heads of its victims and they rolled out, into the rocks and into the water. The Indians believed the concretions called 'turtle stones' were the heads of their ancestors..."
Both legends have the tribe being created on South Hill. And in both legends the serpent puts in its first appearance at South Hill. In Abram's account the serpent is killed there. In Parker's account the Seneca fled to "their" fort atop Bare Hill, and the serpent followed them and was killed there.
Both legends have trees uprooted by the serpent. South Hill is geologically similar to Bare Hill, and may also have been bare long before the white men came. Trees grow very, very slowly on South Hill. Both legends refer to the concretions (skulls) which are almost a peculiarity of Canandaigua Lake, and probably had much to do with the creation of the legend, along with a hill that was shorn of trees.
The fort referred to atop Bare Hill still existed in dilapidated form when the white men came. Cleveland, on page 588 states: "The traces of an ancient fort, covering about an acre, and surrounded by a ditch, and formerly by a formidable wall, are still to be seen on the top of Bare Hill. They indicate defenses raised by Indian hands, or more probably belong to the labors of a race that preceded the Indian occupation. The wall is now tumbled down, the stones seem somewhat scattered and the ground is overgrown with brush."
The Ohio Mound Builders, Hopewell for short in this article, might be the people who erected the pre-Seneca Indian stone fort on top of Bare Hill. At least, there is a Hopewell cemetery at the bottom of Bare Hill, and they have done considerable work with stone in other places, which the Seneca have not. So the stone fort seems to have been "adopted" in some versions of the legend by the Senecas as their legendary birthplace.
But oddly enough, after all the various versions of The Legend of the Great Serpent of the Senecas, and attempts to explain it as allegorical, the serpent seems to have actually existed, although it is impossible to see from the ground today.
Now bear in mind that archeologists agree that the first small village of the Seneca, Nundawao, was built near West River. And Abram's legend has the Seneca being created at the top of South Hill, surrounded by the serpent.
Aerial photos taken in 1954 show the remains of a circular henge (an earthen ring) much damaged by farming, crossing a stream bed above the location of Nundawao. The earth ring would have been more than a half mile in diameter had it been completed. But the circle was only about one third completed, as it appears in that photo.
It is impossible that the Seneca could have lived so close and not have known of the partial earthen henge, or serpent as, probably, they saw it. It may even have been a complete circle in their time. While we shall never know, it seems likely that the henge was the Great Serpent of the Seneca. Anything else calls for just too much of a coincidence.
The British author John Michell in his book The View over Atlantis in the June 1977 printing on page 58, regarding the Saint George and the Dragon legends gives the most complete form of the legend "...the family heir, fishing in the River Wear, caught a small worm..." and the legend goes on very like the Great Serpent Legend related by Arthur Parker. According to Michell the legend goes back thru Celtic times and even to Babylonian times.
And according to Michell, the dragon legends usually involved a mound or fort, which certainly makes the Seneca legend even more remarkable. But I doubt that any one but the first Seneca had an earthen "serpent" just above their village to spark their imagination.
© 1994, David D. Robinson
Abrams, George H. J., The Seneca People (1976) Indian Tribal Series, Phoenix, AZ
Kelly, A. R., in Brose and Gerber's Hopewell Archaeololgy (1979) Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.
Cleveland, Stafford C, History of Yates County, New York (1873) W. E. Morrison, Ovid, NY.
Michell, John, The View Over Atlantis (1972) Ballantine Books, New York, NY.
Parker, Arthur C, Nundawao and the Coming of the Senecas (1954) Pamphlet privately published by the Nundawaga Society, Naples, NY.