Ossuaries as a Form of Burial Custom

Many ossuaries have been encountered in the western counties of the State of New York, which, however, may be attributed to the influence of the Huron. These great pits often contain vast quantities of skeletal remains, together with numbers of objects of native origin which had been deposited as offerings to the dead, and material obtained from the early traders is sometimes found associated with the later burials. The ossuaries appear to have been rectangular in form, to have occupied rather prominent positions, and to have been carefully prepared. Such a communal burial place was discovered in May, 1909, about 1 mile southwest of Gasport, Niagara County, but unfortunately no detailed record of its contents was preserved. A part of the excavation is shown in plate 10, b.

Graham’s Magazine

A note in Graham’s Magazine, January, 1853, page 102, may refer to the discovery of an ossuary, similar to those already described, but if so it was not recognized as such. The note stated that ” Workmen on the line of the New York, Corning, and Buffalo Rail Road, on the east side of the Genesee River, and about fifteen rods from the water’s edge, while cutting through a sand-bank, have exhumed many human skeletons, piled one above another, with every sign of a hasty military burial. . . . These discoveries strengthen a belief long entertained, that in 1687 the Marquis de Nouvelle fought his famous battle with the Senecas at or near the burial place mentioned, that on the banks of the Genesee, within the limits of Avon, Frank and Red Man closed in mortal death-struggle.” This would have been across the river, and not far distant from Canawaugus, and may have been a burial place belonging to that village.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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