May 1996

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Bluff Point Ruin


David D. Robinson

Following the publication of my article about the Bluff Point Ruin in the Crooked Lake Review in November 1993, some very pertinent information concerning the ruin has come to light.

The Bluff Point Ruin no longer exists above ground, although much may still exist underground. All traces of the original stone-faced earth walls, recorded in 1880, have been plowed out of existence. Some of the walls were still visible as recently as 1954 according to A. Glen Rogers in his Forgotten Stories of the Finger Lakes. There is about one mile of walls shown on the map. The stone-faced, earth walls are described as being from one to two feet high, and from three to eight feet wide. There were depressions where the walls crossed each other which the Wrights, who surveyed the site in 1880, thought were the result of large posts having been located there long ago. What the posts were for is not known. They might have been supports for platforms, or supports for roofs in some cases, or to carry clan insignia if more than one clan was involved in the construction of the site, etc.

Almost from the start, the Bluff Point Site was dogged by stories, often by respected geologists, that the ruin was actually a natural phenomenon, caused by upthrust ridges of rock, the result of "lines of force" below the surface of the ground. Undoubtedly aiding this view were the large number of shale rocks used to face both sides of the earth "walls" or "graded ways" as they were called at the time, a seemingly almost endless task if done by men.

But Professor Lawrence W. Lundgren, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester, states unequivocally that it is impossible that the site depicted in the 1880 map is the result of natural forces. It completely lacks the haphazard appearance which results when rocks are pushed to the surface naturally. Nor is there the mix of different kinds of rocks seen when a site is formed by glacial debris. All of which means that the minority of earlier geologists who thought the site was naturally formed were wrong, and the Bluff Point walls were made by people.

We do not know who made the ruin. And we do not know why it was made. But the excavations of 1938 and 1939 did uncover charcoal well underground. Technology available today enables charcoal to be carbon dated. If a new excavation uncovers charcoal, the date of use of that part of the site could be determined, which would go a long way toward establishing who built it. We probably will never learn "why?"

To review the known history of the site: in 1880 Dr. Samuel Hart Wright and his son, Berlin Hart Wright made a geological survey of Yates County, the first such made in New York State. The survey resulted because Berlin, then a 29 year-old Dresden, New York, school teacher, was conducting his students on Saturday excursions to the construction site of a nearby railroad where fossil material had been uncovered. Using "New York Reports" Berlin classified the fossils for the students, and gave estimated ages for the fossils.

The students took the story home, enraging many parents, since the age Berlin gave for the fossils was much older than the age of the earth according to the Bible. A meeting was called in a local church, and Berlin was given the pulpit on a Sunday night to defend himself to a packed audience. Berlin later reported, "No riot resulted, but…a complete exoneration of the charges." The upshot was that Berlin's father, Samuel Hart Wright, a well-respected former doctor, who had to give up his medical career when he became deaf, was asked to make a geological survey of Yates County. He was known as a scientist, and had become a land surveyor. In this survey, he was assisted by Berlin. The "map" of the Bluff Point Earthworks is the best known relic of the geological survey of Yates County.

As the map shows, it was a very unusual site. Around 13 acres of the 20 acre site was shown in the map, although the site is often referred to as being around 7 or 8 acres in extent, that probably being the extent of the most interesting portion in 1880.

There are at least three similar appearing sites in Europe, but none other in the New World that I have been able to find. The most similar likeness is a Celtic, later Norse, settlement, with many fine Celtic tombs, on the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island in the Orkney Islands, near Skara Brae, in Scotland. There is no indication in the Birsay site of stone covered earth walls, just many parallel stone walls arranged in geological patterns that are in some respects similar to the grid pattern of the Bluff Point walls.

The Bluff Point Site was well known for excellent building stone: large rectangular slabs of shale rock often several inches thick. The Wrights reported that Howard Hemphill "had dug out the stones that had been in the walls east of the road to use in building his house, and some of the larger slabs had been hauled to the end of the point for use in the walls of the great Wagener house. This latter fact was confirmed in a conversation…with its builder, Mr. Sullivan…' Mr. Hemphill's house probably predated the Wagener Mansion by a number of years. The Wagener Mansion was completed in 1833.

So Howard Hemphill reported that slabs of rock were taken from "the walls," which are probably the "graded ways." Dr. Samuel H. Wright, in a communication dated March 28, 1898, to Miles A. Davis, which is included in Davis' History of Jerusalem (1912) states in part: "The curious structure consists of…graded ways of from three to eight feet wide and now about one foot high, with a vast number of large flat stones set in the ground edgewise on each side of the ways, the stones leaning toward the middle of the ways…The dirt used to make the ways was taken from (the areas between the walls)…" So according to Samuel H. Wright, the ways or walls were constructed of dirt with the only stones being the facing slabs, set in the ground edgeways. This is consistent with Howard Hemphill's statement that his stones "came from the walls." And should have rendered it unlikely to any geologist that the walls were natural.

Even as late as 1880, that part of the site that lies in Township 6 west of Skyline Drive had been relatively untouched by white men. The Senecas avoided the site. No Indian artifacts have been found at the site, although the surrounding countryside was particularly rich in Indian artifacts. Mr. Marland Griffith found an extremely finely built copper arrowhead several miles from the site, that Mr. Brian L. Nagel, Research Archeologist of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, dated to four thousand years ago (which is long before the Hopewell are thought to have inhabited the region, and who the Wrights appear to have assumed built the Bluff Point walls). The Wrights themselves found, hidden under rocks at the site, a cache of unusually shaped, burned corn. The kernels were smaller and more pointed than any they had seen locally, although similar to corn known to have been grown by the Mayans, according to the Wrights. The corn crumbled when handled.

In 1938 and 1939 Canandaigua newspaper reporter Gilbert ("Gil") Brewer carried out excavations at the Bluff Point site, and reportedly found man-made stone walls and metal artifacts well below ground. Buried stone walls attributed to the Hopewell have been found elsewhere (The Growing World, W. M. Patterson, 1882, page 55.) but not in anything like the grid pattern shown in the Wright's map. Gil felt that the metal artifacts were of European origin, some Nordic, which is certainly interesting, considering the somewhat similar appearing Norse settlement at the Brough of Birsay in Scotland. But the "Gil Brewer Collection" did not survive his death in St. Petersburg, Florida, sometime prior to 1953. The excavations have been largely filled in.

But that is past. What is the future of the Bluff Point Site?

The next step would seem to be another excavation. Whatever is below ground that was not removed during Gil Brewer's excavation is still there. A now retired farmer, who as a boy aided Gil Brewer in the excavation reports that the underpinnings of the earth walls were very impressive slabs of rock laid up by people.

Research Archeologist Mr. Brian L. Nagel visited the site in September of 1995, but reported that if it was Indian, archeologists could not dig there, but the landowner could. The landowner is agreeable to an excavation. What is needed now is a group or groups who will undertake the task. Although the graded ways themselves have been plowed out of existence, the collection of boulders shown in the map still exists, now buried under many feet of stones cleared from fields. From the pile of boulders, the approximate location of some of the original graded ways can be estimated. Or the original Gil Brewer excavations might be expanded instead. Several people who aided in the original excavation could be consulted. It might not take much of a trench to find what was below the graded ways, and thus perhaps learn who built them, when, and perhaps even why.

The office of the Yates County Historian in Penn Yan (Yates County Building, 110 Court Street Penn Yan, NY, 14527, 315-536-5147) would seem to be one logical starting place to record volunteers and establish a plan. This might be a good project for a service club or school group. In these days of tight public money, it is unfair to ask the county for funds for this project. The project should be manned by volunteers, and be locally directed.

All suggestions are welcome.

© 1998, David D. Robinson
More articles by David Robinson about the archeology of Bare Hill and Bluff Point
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