November 1995

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The Outlaw Fort

Canisteo Castle


David D. Robinson

Canisteo Castle Builders Found? by David D. Robinson
More on Canisteo Castle by George Dickey

Mysterious "Canisteo Castle" was located along the Canisteo River near the present village of Canisteo, about 60 miles south of Rochester.

Facts about "Canisteo Castle" are few and difficult to come by. The first written eyewitness report we have of a substantial settlement there is by the French commander Sieur de Villiers who in 1690 estimated there were several score of good houses at the site.

In the History of Steuben County, New York (1879) Clayton describes "Canisteo Castle" as consisting of 60 "luxurious barracks of hewed logs and stone fireplaces." In his book with a similar title (1911) historian Near reports that each of the buildings had four stone chimneys. Information concerning the fort tends to be repetitive, since writers have to go back to the same sources, which are few.

The "Castle" was located on the south side of the Canisteo River, east of the start of the bend where the river stops flowing south, and turns southeast, its southward progress turned by the highest mountains in Western New York State.

The site has attracted many different people. Traces of a village inhabited around 800 A.D. have been found there, and of a later one dating from 1400 A.D., and another that existed in the early 1600s. Archæologists maintain that there were crude fishing huts prior to 1642 at the location of "Canisteo Castle."

The choice of the site, for the purpose of an outlaw encampment, was wise. The site was just within Delaware Indian territory, and was immediately south of Seneca Indian territory. So it would seem to be in a sort of No Man's Land.

The mountains immediately to the south and west may have added to the attractiveness of the site. The outlaws are believed to have had lookout points on the mountains, and some evidence of this is reported to exist today.

A location on a major river made transportation by canoe or raft easy and it provided a source for fish and ducks to eat and water to drink for humans and their animals and crops.

The Canisteo River was part of The Old War Route, used for possibly thousands, and certainly for hundreds, of years. The large, laid-up stone structures that appear to have been route markers, indicate that the pre-Seneca mound builders, known today as the Hopewell and the Adena people who built large earth mounds along the upper Genesee River, had a well-defined track from their settlements on the Genesee to the Old War Route, going near what is Canaseraga, New York, today, 15 miles north of Canisteo. These are the only stone structures known to have existed in Allegany County.

At Corning, 30 miles down river from Canisteo, there were several gigantic rock towers that may have been laid up by early people. Dozens of smaller ones exist today. The Delaware name for the village there was "Assinisink" which means "stone upon stone." The remaining stone towers near Corning are smaller than two of the Allegany County towers, which are more than head high and more massive in construction. North of the Canisteo River, near Ganosgago (now Dansville), which was also on the war route, two Hopewell burials have been found.

The Old War Route was mainly a water route by which Indians from Canada could reach the Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic with only two portages, one around three major waterfalls on the north-flowing Genesee River in what is Rochester today, and another, nine miles long, to reach the south-flowing Canisteo River near present Arkport. From there on, no reported waterfalls or serious rapids interfered all the way to the Atlantic.

The French considered this area to be their territory. Following their attack in 1687 on the large Seneca settlement, Gannagaro, near present day Fishers, New York, the Seneca established an outpost in or about 1688 at a place they called Ganosgago which means "Under the Slippery Elms," and refers to the point where Canaseraga Creek meets the Genesee River. Whites pronounced Ganosgago "Canaseraga."

Ganosgago also meant "Where the Milk Weed Are," and this meaning referred to the location of their village on the creek. Indians apparently could distinguish the two different places from what sounded the same to whites.

The Seneca may have built their outpost at Ganosgago for protection from the French, and to resist encroachments from the settlement at Canisteo. People from Canisteo did attack Ganosgago but were driven off. The Seneca, however, did not follow them, which seems to have been particularly unusual behavior for them, especially since a popular Seneca chief had been killed. Either the Seneca felt weakened by his loss, or feared an ambush, or had some other reason to avoid the settlement at Canisteo.

The governor of New France on hearing of this episode sent Sieur de Villiers in 1690 with a force of French regulars, Algonquin Indians, Canadian forest rangers (militia), and Jesuit priests. Numbers are not available, but the force must have been considerably smaller than de Denonville's French force of 3,000 to 5,000 that had raided the Seneca three years previously at Gannagaro, with results poor for both sides.

The 1690 French expedition formed at the eastern end of Lake Ontario at Catarauqui, where Kingston, Ontario, Canada, is now. The force canoed 130 miles along the shore of Lake Ontario to the Genesee River. There the force left their lake boats, at the mouth of the Genesee, and constructed craft suitable for the portages to come. They canoed up the Genesee, which at that time is thought to have formed the western edge of Seneca territory, to Canaseraga Creek. They turned southeast up that creek into Seneca territory, and departed the creek at what became known later as "Big Hill" very near the site of the battle between the Seneca and the outlaws two years before. Then they portaged nine miles to the Canisteo River, along what is Route 36 today. The trail they were following was the time-honored Old War Route.

Then the French and Algonquin force canoed for ten miles down the Canisteo first through forests on both sides of the river, later past cleared, and presumably cultivated, fields for several miles until the "village of log houses, large and well made, several score in number" was reached. And from this village came forth a more disreputable looking crowd of individuals than the French leader had ever seen.

De Villiers later wrote, "A more worthless lot of renegades and villains who had no hope of heaven or fear of hell, we never saw." De Villiers found "Indians of many different tribes, footpads and highwaymen from most of the coast colonies, runaway slaves from Maryland, Yankees who fled from Connecticut leaving the gallows behind them, renegade Frenchmen…" He makes no mention of deserters from the armies of that period, although other accounts did specify deserters. Nor did de Villiers mention indigenous Indians.

Only because de Villiers had a large force with him was his group not massacred. He raised the French flag, celebrated mass, and returned to the Genesee River, Lake Ontario and Canada. At no time did the Seneca interfere with him, although the French were certainly observed by Seneca scouts from the time they entered the Genesee.

Failure to destroy "Canisteo Castle" must have diminished the French in the eyes of the Seneca and enhanced the reputation of the outlaws, and added to the reputation of the site. No further French attempt was made against "Canisteo Castle."

The Seneca warriors at Ganosgago thought the outlaws "strange and uncouth" and de Villiers thought them a "disreputable crowd of individuals…"

The reason for their strange appearance has not been explained, and was not remarked upon 74 years later when the inhabitants of the "Castle" were pursued by a small Mohawk force and a few British, but of course they were not then the same people. There is no indication in the 1764 report of the attack that there were white men or escaped slaves then at Canisteo.

De Villiers' 1690 account does not imply that there were indigenous Indians at "Canisteo Castle," mentioning only white criminals, escaped slaves, and outcast Indians. A brief 1688 account of the outlaws by the Seneca at Ganosgago appears consistent with this. Based on what accounts survive, it seems likely that "Canisteo Castle" was inhabited in 1690 by a very large number of white criminals, runaway slaves and Indian outcasts. The outlandish appearance may have been caused by smallpox, and in the case of white men and slaves, by branding, loss of ears, and other refinements of the criminal code of the time.

It is also possible that the reports surviving from 1688 and 1690, of the odd appearance of white outlaws and escaped slaves, caused historian Clayton almost 200 years later to mislabel the inhabitants of Canisteo as "degraded," since he feels that the people de Villiers encountered were largely Delaware. The reason for this might be that Clayton would have read several reports dating from about 1750 and later of the people at Canisteo being "Indians," with no indication of escaped slaves or white people being present. He may not have understood that sometime prior to about 1750 the Seneca forbade travel, except to friends, along part of The Old War Route leading to Canisteo, and this may have substantially altered the make up of the inhabitants of the "Castle."

So there are at least two scenarios for the outlaws at Canisteo. De Villiers in 1690 has them as escaped criminals of some sort and outcast Indians, and implied that the numbers were large.

On the other hand, historian Clayton in 1879 felt that "Canisteo Castle" very likely began as a Delaware settlement. The Delaware had been decisively beaten by the Seneca, and were permitted to settle south of Seneca territory on a temporary basis. Clayton states that the Indians at Canisteo were a tribe of "Delaware extraction, reduced to a low state of degradation. To them had joined themselves a few deserters from the British Army with a sprinkling of fugitive slaves, escaped convicts, and refugees from various Indian tribes."

Roberts in The Historical Gazeteer, Tioga County, N.Y. reports that the Delaware did not occupy Tioga Point until 1742. It seems likely that they would have occupied Tioga Point before settling in Canisteo.

It is entirely possible that de Villiers was correct for 1690 and Clayton for 1750 onward. Historian Alfred Hilbert, indirectly, shows in his "The Forbidden Trail," (CLR issue #40, July 1991) that the Seneca could have prevented anyone they did not welcome from reaching Canisteo, or any place on The Forbidden Trail. If the Canisteo fort became empty of outlaws due to attrition, it seems natural that nearby Delaware would have occupied it.

No report indicates that women or children were seen in "Canisteo Castle." A very few reports since 1750 have a Delaware village located a mile east of the "Castle." It seems likely that deserters and other outlaws replaced members of the outlaw establishment, who died, as long as replacements could reach the refuge. Word-of-mouth advertising was certainly powerful and far reaching then. No cemetery is mentioned, and none has been found, but there must have been a local boot hill.

There was an orchard. Maize, oats, wheat and other crops could have been raised. Game was probably abundant, even near such a permanent settlement, especially if crops were raised, which de Villiers implied, in a reference to "cleared fields" in his report. That general area was considered by the Iroquois, as a whole, as "one of the best hunting grounds…" belonging to them.

The Forbidden Trail ran westward from Tioga (Pa.) to the Allegheny River. For much of the time since the Revolution the location of the trail after it left Assinisink (Corning, N.Y.) was in dispute. But the disputed part of the route is not important to the story of "Canisteo Castle," since no one doubts that from Tioga to Assinisink, use of the trail was forbidden, under threat of being burnt at the stake, to all white men and to any Indians considered not to be friends of the Seneca. The Delaware enforced this ban at the insistence of the Seneca. It does not seem to be known for how many years the ban was in force. It may have been started in 1742 when the Delaware occupied Tioga Point. The effect of the ban on "Canisteo Castle" must have been disastrous, as the Seneca probably intended.

The forbearance of the Seneca, in leaving the outlaws alone, is hardly believable. The number of Seneca warriors was computed by the English to have been between 2,000 and 3,000 men in 1660. In 1770 this number seems to have shrunk to only 1,000 fighting men.

So for much of the period under discussion, the Seneca were the most formidable military machine to exist in the colonies except for large regular armies, (and those sometimes were not very effective).

As an example of Seneca prowess, a lecturer at a conference I attended in Columbus, Georgia, in 1994, deviated from his subject, "Eyewitness Accounts of Jesuit Priests," to vent his wrath on what he called "The Iroquois" and the slaughter they continually caused among the Erie and tribes as far south as Georgia. Those "Iroquois" were the Seneca, of course, and according to that lecturer, are still hated today by the descendents of the remnants of the tribes they slaughtered.

And in 1687, three years prior to de Villiers' expedition, de Denonville's French-Indian force, variously reported at 3,000 to 5,000 experienced fighters, lost very heavy casualties to a Seneca force of 1,000 stay-at-homes consisting of boys, squaws, and infirm men, probably poorly armed, while the Seneca warriors were off raiding the Illinois, as the French and their allies knew. This does not sound like people who would willingly permit "Canisteo Castle" to exist on their border.

It is true that General Sullivan with 2,500 men "fit for duty" did destroy the Seneca in 1779. But for once white troops were intelligently handled, and they were much better armed than the Seneca. The Seneca were used to being outnumbered, but this was not a Seneca kind of fight. They were better at mobile warfare, and better at attacking after having previously scouted the enemy's position at length.

In 1762 two Indians from Canisteo murdered two traders who were British subjects. William Stuart in Tales of the Kanestio Valley (1935 edition) writes, "Sir William Johnson asked the Seneca to apprehend and deliver up to justice the murderers of the traders." The Seneca, who were supposed to have sovereignty over the Delaware, did not comply, despite repeated requests by Johnson. After two years, Johnson assigned Captain Montour and 140 Mohawk to destroy "Canisteo Castle," which seems heavy handed, even for those times.

A letter dated April 12, 1764, concerning the raid, states "Captin Montour…with his party, consisting of 140 Indians, with some rangers proceeded to the large town of Kinestio, containing 60 good houses, which were likewise burnt…as well as other towns, killed a number of cattle, and sent parties in pursuit of the enemy…"

The reference to "other towns" would be puzzling if "Canisteo Castle" was the sole objective of Montour's force. But there were two other forts, similar to, but less substantial than "Canisteo Castle" that were likewise destroyed by Montour's force, although they seem entirely uninvolved in the murders. So it is possible that the destruction of "Canisteo Castle" was part of a larger plan to destroy strongpoints in Delaware territory. Historians Clayton and Hilbert indicate a reason—that the Delaware and the western Seneca although nominally British allies were more favorably inclined toward the French.

A fort at Tioga Point, near where Athens, Pennsylvania, is today, was the first fort destroyed by Montour's force. According to historian Clayton, it consisted of "36 good houses built of square logs and having stone chimneys." Then the force went to Canisteo "…the largest of the Delaware towns…" There were "…horses, cattle and swine. No effort was made to defend the town."

But once destroyed, why was the site not looted by the Seneca or the Delaware or others? Useful tools, including a copper kettle and the lock from a rifle, have been found in modern times in a small part of the debris.

Why did the Seneca refuse to cooperate with the British in 1762 and 1763 when pushed by the British? The excuse, as given by Clayton, was that they considered they had no sovereignty over a tribe consisting of outcasts from all nations. So at that point Clayton was saying that the "Castle" was not occupied primarily by the Delaware, but by "outcasts of all nations," which certainly casts some doubt on his earlier view that the fort was occupied almost exclusively by Delawares.

It does not sound like the Seneca to be put off by this or anything else, unless there was something about "Canisteo Castle" we do not understand. Did they think the inhabitants insane, and thus under the protection of the Great Spirit? Or was the outlaw establishment occasionally stricken with smallpox? The Seneca were very leary of that disease, and were much more successful than most in avoiding it. Or, following the attack on Ganosgago, did the Seneca conclude a treaty banning armed hostilities between themselves and the inhabitants of "Canisteo Castle"? The Seneca were meticulous in observing treaties, unlike the French and English of the period, or the Americans later, if the treaty was with Indians.

Whatever the reason, we are unlikely to learn of it after all this time; very likely the reason for Seneca forbearance is none of the above. There is so little we know. But it is odd that when the fugitives left "Canisteo Castle," it was to a Seneca village on the Genesee they fled for sanctuary, which was ultimately refused, but historians say that was because those Seneca did not have enough food for themselves.

"Canisteo Castle" quickly passed into oblivion once it had been burnt to the ground and the remnants of the refugees were in British captivity. No one seems to have reported what happened to the group as a whole after that. Only one murderer of the traders remained alive then, and he appears to have been pardoned by the British.

Who built the forts at "Canisteo Castle"? And at Tioga Point and Corning? If there were large numbers of outlaws, then it is possible that some unusual leader could have organized the effort that caused 126 very similar, substantial fortified houses to have been built in three clusters along The Old War Route. In so far as "Canisteo Castle" is concerned, this probably would have been in about a ten year span for most of the houses, from about 1640 to 1650.

De Villiers described the fort in 1690 as consisting of several score of good houses, and Captain Montour's force in 1764 counted "60 good houses," it would seem that few additions were made to the settlement between 1690 and 1764, which is indicative of a lack of manpower. As it happened, Montour's force missed two very well engineered forts that are believed to have been constructed by British deserters after de Villiers' excursion. Those forts were in deep woods at a distance from the main collection of barracks, and were still in existence when settlers arrived after the Revolution.

But if historian Clayton is correct, there never was any large number of outlaws. In that case, the forts were built by other than outlaws and were occupied by indigenous Indians and a few others after the forts had been vacated by the builders for some reason: disease, massacre, or simply moving on.

If so, originally there must have been a very motivated, cohesive, disciplined large group involved in the planning of the location, and in the construction of the forts. The reason for the unmilitary division of force into three locations was probably due to the need for the inhabitants of each fort to be self sufficient in food, and the varying number of fortified buildings may represent the builders estimate of the number of people each location could support.

It seems to have been an almost unbelievable undertaking for a group of outlaws. The construction of the buildings was different from that used by either the Seneca or the Delaware that early, although it was later copied by the Seneca in a few instances. A few Delaware did live, for a short time, in modest log cabins built for them in Wyoming Valley (near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, today). The cabins were built by Pennsylvanians for the Indians in Wyoming Valley around 1760 to entice them to remain there as a bulwark against invading Yankees from Connecticut, who also claimed Wyoming Valley. The log cabins were soon burned, possibly by the Yankees. These cabins were built 70, and probably 100 years after the squared log buildings along the Canisteo.

It seems safe to say that "Canisteo Castle" was built to specifications beyond anything seen in the ususal outlying pioneer villages. And, surprisingly, built without any record of the builders finding its way into the history books.

The barracks builders, if they were not outlaws, need not have come en masse from the coastal colonies. They might have come from Canada, seeking refuge in what was an unpopulated secluded valley with good soil and ample game. The builders could have been a religious group willing to accept unfortunates who came to them. Apparently, "The Hidden Valley" was well enough known among many Indian tribes, and by slaves seeking to escape, and by white criminals and army deserters. Some walked hundreds of miles to reach sanctuary. The Senecas may have tolerated the settlement and the pillages of some of its members because they recognized it as a haven.

There may have been other similar settlements in the region of the Old War Route that have not been found. I am curious to learn of reports of any such locations.

© 1992, David D. Robinson
Canisteo Castle Builders Found? by David D. Robinson
More on Canisteo Castle by George Dickey
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