Canisteo Castle Builders Found?
The November 1995 issue of The Crooked Lake Review contained
an article concerning Canisteo Castle, which asked the question, Who
built the fort at Canisteo Castle?
Information provided by the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Columbia
Encyclopedia, and the Historical Society of Delaware suggests an
answer. (This article will be more readily understood if the November
article in the CLR, concerning Canisteo Castle, is read first.)
The Encyclopedia Britannica (1950) states that the first building
constructed of horizontal logs in the New World was erected by Swedes
in 1638 in New Sweden at Fort Christina, now Wilmington, Delaware. The
encyclopedias also state that it was nearly 1765 before log cabins became
a generally accepted method of building a house in the New World by other
than Swedes, Finns (who were Swedish subjects), or Germans.
But Germans did not arrive in the New World in any numbers until 1710.
Canisteo Castle supposedly dates from around 1642. Neither Indians, English,
French nor Dutch built houses of horizontal logs in the 17th Century—The
Log Cabin Myth by H. R. Shurtleff (1967).
Although the names of the builders of the log fort at Canisteo are not
known, it can be worked out that in general it was built by Swedes and/or
their Finnish subjects.
It seems unlikely that there were any Swedes along the Canisteo River
as early as the date given in the Canisteo Village Centennial booklet
for the start of the permanent settlement there, 1642. If the date is
correct, whatever was constructed there of a semi-permanent nature may
have been a log stockade, and not a Swedish log house. But a Swedish log
structure cannot entirely be ruled out there as early as 1642.
Delaware territory stretched from the Delaware River area northward to
the southern part of what is now western New York State, the more northern
part of this territory being upon the sufferance of the Seneca. The name
"Delaware" came from Cape Delaware, so named in 1610 by British ship captain
Sir Samuel Argall after the then governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Baron
De La Ware. The Delaware Indians called themselves the Lenni-Lenape, literally
"person" or "the people."
Swedes and Delawares got along well together in New Sweden. Had any Swedes
needed sanctuary, and had they made this known to the Delaware, it is
very likely that the Delaware would have directed them to Canisteo. The
French appear to have known as early as 1640 that deserters from their
armies found shelter there. It appears to have been 10 or 15 years later
before the English discovered the same thing regarding deserters from
To us, the distance from Wilmington, Delaware, to Canisteo, New York,
seems too great to travel on foot, especially considering the wilderness
conditions of the time. But it would not have seemed too difficult for
desperate groups in the 17th century accompanied by Delaware guides. There
seem to have been at least a few such groups, although it is not known
which groups arrived at Canisteo.
The Swedes and Finns could construct a log cabin very rapidly. Johnson,
in his book Swedish Settlements, reports that on Tinicum Island,
Delaware, a large house was built out of logs in eight days by three teams
of four men each, but only one team was working on the log house at a
time. The Swedes commonly used squared logs in building log houses, and
often built fireplaces in the houses, of stone if it was available, otherwise
of clay or brick. The Swedes built many log forts in Delaware, often two
stories in height, some with two or more fireplaces. There is no record
of anybody, except Swedes and Finns, building anything like this in the
New World in the 17th century.
On the surface, it seems unlikely that the Swedes who built Canisteo
became outlaws. The Swedes were among the best citizens in the New World
in the 17th century—sober, law abiding and hard working. But one
Swede, known as "Long Finn" tried to start a rebellion in 1669 in a region
along the Delaware River that had recently been captured from the Dutch
by the British, and he had obtained a following of sorts. He was eventually
captured and sold into slavery in Barbados, after first being branded
on the face and breast and publicly whipped. His followers might have
fled to a place of refuge. Canisteo was widely known as such. Treatment
similar to that meted out to Long Finn could have caused the outlandish
appearance the Seneca observed in the outlaws who attacked them in 1688.
In March of 1656, the Swedish ship Mercurius with a crew of
20 plus 120 Finnish and a few Swedish immigrants arrived at Casimir, later
New Castle, Delaware, which had been Swedish, but was captured by the
Dutch after the Mercurius had sailed from Sweden. The Dutch refused
to permit the Swedish ship to land, and directed it to sail to New Amsterdam
(New York) or return to Sweden. A number of local Delaware, who preferred
the Swedes to the Dutch, along with some local Swedes, boarded the ship,
and proceeded up river in defiance of Dutch orders. The Dutch did not
dare fire on the ship for fear of starting a war. The immigrants landed
at Tinicum, which was under the Dutch flag, but they were protected by
the Delaware. Where the 120 Finnish colonists who defied the Dutch went
thereafter is not known, but the numbers and time are about right for
In 1664, the British defeated the Dutch force at New Castle, Delaware,
and sold the Dutch soldiers into slavery in Virginia. Along with them
were many black slaves from New Castle and three hundred from South Amboy,
also captured by the British. Ironically, their Dutch owners had just
saved them from earlier capture by the British in New York.
E. M. Waterbury, one-time city editor of The Evening Tribune
(Hornell, New York) was quoted by Robert F. Oakes in an article appearing
in that newspaper on 20 May, 1981, as stating that slave owners hated
Canisteo because it received and harbored runaway slaves.
So according to Waterbury, slaves did escape and flee to Canisteo, where
they were welcomed. Enslaved Dutch soldiers would have known of the Canisteo
sanctuary. It is not known if any of the soldiers captured at New Castle,
and enslaved by their captors in Virginia, managed to escape, but there
would seem to be a likely mix of desperate potential Canisteo recruits.
Some Dutch were reported to be in the outlaw establishment in 1690, as
were runaway slaves and "renegade Frenchmen."
These are just three, for what may have been many, possible examples
of sources of recruits for Canisteo in the 17th century. The cruelty of
some of the European powers in the New World in the 17th century ensured
that there were many potential Canisteo-dwellers around even if most of
them could not construct log forts unless taught by the Swedes and Finns.
If anyone has input, I would like to receive it. David D. Robinson, Box
26, Swain, NY 14884, 607-545-6213.