Seneca Ceremony, 1731

Throughout the greater part of the region once occupied by the Five Nations are- discovered their ancient cemeteries, often situated near the sites of their former villages. Some have been examined, and these usually reveal the human remains, now rapidly disappearing, lying in an extended position. Few accounts of the ceremonies which attended the death and burial of these people have been preserved, but one of the most interesting relates to the Seneca, as enacted during the month of June, 1731. True, the two persons who were buried at this Seneca village were not members of the tribe, but, nevertheless, the rites were those of the latter. The relation is preserved in the journal of a Frenchman who visited the Seneca at that time, accompanied by a small party of Algonquian Indians. During the visit one of the Algonquian women was killed by her husband and he in turn was executed by the Seneca. The double funeral which followed was described by the French traveler, who recorded many interesting details. Re first referred to a structure where the bodies were kept for several days after death and there prepared for burial, and when he arrived at this cabin it was already crowded with men and women, “all seated or rather squatting on their knees, with the exception of four women, who, with disheveled locks, were lying face downward, at the feet of the dead woman.” These were the chief mourners. The body of the woman was placed on an elevated stage. It was dressed in blue and white garments and a wampum belt was the only ornament. The face was painted, with vermilion on the lips. In her right hand was placed a garden implement, “to denote that during her life she had been a good worker,” and in the left hand rested ” the end of a rope, the other end of which, floating in a large bark dish, indicated the sad fate which brought her life to an end.” This refers to her having been drowned. The body of her husband, who had been executed by the Seneca, was on the opposite side of the cabin, ” but in a most humiliating posture, for he had been stretched at length on his blanket, face downward, with his hands joined over his head, as if to bear witness to the despair or the repentance which he would have felt for his crime, had he been alive.” His body and face were painted with white and black, and he was partly covered with rags. Suspended from a pole placed for the purpose between his legs were “his gun, his hatchet, his knife, his pouch of tobacco, and all his belongings.” The interior of the cabin was crowded, and as many more were grouped about outside, and now the ” Mistress of Ceremonies . . . began to chant her doleful lamentations.” She related how the two had met their deaths, and “scarcely had she made the first movement, weeping alone, when the four other women whom I have mentioned, arose and responded regularly to her cadence that is to say, they made their lamentations in turn and with the same intonation as the leader, whose every gesture they imitated. . . . These women tore their hair, joined their hands toward heaven, and poured forth in a plaintive tone a torrent of words suitable to the person, whose part they represented, according to the different degrees of

relationship or connection, which this same person bore to the deceased man or woman.” This chanting continued for nearly half an hour, when “an Algonquian, who was no relation of the dead woman, imposed silence, rising, and instantly no more lamentations were heard. This Indian first made the Funeral Oration of this unfortunate woman, whose good qualities he set forth in particular, as I was told, to make it understood that she must be happy in the land of departed souls, and that her relatives should be consoled for her loss.” The Algonquian speaker was immediately followed by an old man of the Iroquois, who “made a defense for the dead man, that is to say he undertook to account for his action in representing to the assembly that this unfortunate husband had doubtless been possessed with the evil Spirit on the clay that he had drowned his wife, and that consequently this Indian not having been master of himself at the tune of this evil deed, he rather merited pity than the condemnation of the present assembly.” He referred to the dead man as a great warrior and hunter, and deplored the act which made it necessary for the Tsonnontouanne to slay him. He then called attention to the position of the body. ” Finally, in order the more to excite the compassion of the spectators, this Iroquois threw himself at the feet of the dead woman whose pardon he besought, in the name of her husband, and he protested that had it been in his power to restore her to life, she would certainly not be in her sad plight. Then to crown his discourse he addressed the father-in-law of the executed man and asked if he was not satisfied with the repentance of his late son-in-law. At these last words, this good man replied ‘Etho,’ which means yes.” The body of the man was then carried to the river, near the village, where it was thoroughly washed, all traces of paint being removed, then “four young men carried it back with great ceremony into the same cabin from which they had taken it. As soon as it was replaced it was repainted, but in beautiful and divers colors, after which it was neatly clothed, a gun was placed in his hand, a pipe in his mouth, and he was seated beside his wife.” Thus the bodies remained during the night and until the following morning, and this interval ” was spent in condolences among a number of Indians who came by turn to speak to the two corpses.” The burial occurred on the following day, June 17, 1731. That morning all were quiet in the village; they were seated or lying about, with heads on their knees and often wrapped in blankets, and each cabin was to hold a feast for the dead. The Frenchman again entered the cabin and there saw the bodies ” each in a coffin made of a piece of white bark, without covering, so that the face and body were visible.” Both were dressed as on the previous day. ” Their knees were raised so as to support a cross four feet high, which had been placed with each body in such a way that, the coffin of the woman being opposite to that of her husband, the two crosses formed a sort of arch, under which all. the Indians passed back and forth, prostrating themselves to the ground, and in turn offering prayers to the Great Spirit for the repose of the souls of these two dead people. About eleven o’clock the doleful lamentations began again and were heard on all sides. The chief mourners seemed only to serve as leaders to show the other women how they should groan or weep. The men said no word and one heard only the groanings and lamentations of the women. However, this pitiful music did not last long as the chief made a sign for them to stop, to make way for the Orators of the occasion to speak. At the end of their speech, which was sad and very short, one of the old people made presents, of marten and beaver skins to the Algonquians, relations of the deceased, he also gave some marten skins to my Abenaquis, to the mourners, and to several other Indians among the company. At last they took the crosses off the bodies, after which four young Indians painted black, raising the husband’s body, and four others painted white and red, taking the wife’s body, carried them on their shoulders to the village cemetery, about 40 or 50 fathoms [toises] distant. The two young men who served as Cross bearers preceded the funeral procession. Immediately after them came the Mistress of Ceremonies for the mourners, she was followed by her four female mourners around the two bodies, and lastly the men carrying their guns brought up the rear of the funeral procession. As soon as the two bodies had reached the cemetery they were placed at the side of the graves which had been prepared for them, and all their clothing and ornaments were taken off.” The old engraving showing the procession after it had entered the cemetery is here reproduced as plate 11, b. The open graves are shown, all surrounded by a palisade; and be yond are the cabins. “Whilst this last office was being performed the men formed a large circle around them, said prayers in a loud voice, and sung three hymns as follows, one after the style of our Dies irae, dies illa, the other like our Libera me Domine and another like our De Profondis; these hymns were really the same as ours, which the Jesuits had doubtless translated for them. After the Indians had finished these three Canticles each one placed their hands on those of the two bodies, as if to say good bye. Then they cut a lock of hair from the tops of their heads which were given to the nearest relative, and they were lowered into the graves. It was then that the women vied with each other in making grimaces and shedding tears, and groaning in a horrible manner. It was now that they said indeed: Adieu my good friend, the great warrior, the splendid hunter. Adieu then Jeanne, the fine singer, the graceful dancer.” The bodies were placed in separate graves, very deep. “The graves were filled in with straw and they were not filled up with earth. They were simply covered with strong pieces of bark placed in the form of a roof, surmounted by stones. Finally they placed at the head of the graves the same crosses which had been on the bodies. There were a number of others in the cemetery. When these crosses begin to decay the Indians are careful to renew them, as well as the palisade with which the burial ground is surrounded, for fear that dogs or wild beasts might come and dig up the dead.” The writer continues, saying that in earlier days the graves of these people were `’ hollowed out round like pits.” This was the principal town of the Seneca, and the river which flowed near by, and to which the body of the man was carried to wash away the black and white with which it had, at first, been covered, was the Genesee. The valley of this stream, passing through the counties of Monroe and Livingston, was the home of the Seneca, and, as Squier wrote when describing the latter region, “It is unsurpassed in beauty and fertility by any territory of equal extent in the State, and abounds with mementoes of its aboriginal possessors, who yielded it reluctantly into the hands of the invading whites. Here, too, once existed a considerable number of ancient earthworks, but the levelling plough has passed over most of them; and though their sites are still remembered by the early settlers, but few are sufficiently well preserved to admit of exact survey and measurement.” But although the embankments which once surrounded the ancient villages are rapidly disappearing, and all traces of the palisades Dave vanished, nevertheless the cemeteries are to be discovered, and the same writer continued: “At various places in the county large cemeteries are found; but most, if not all, of them may be with safety referred to the Senecas. Indeed, many articles of European origin accompany the skeletons. A cemetery of large size, and, from the character of the relics found in the graves, of high antiquity, is now in part covered by the village of Lima. Pipes, pottery, etc., are discovered here in great abundance: and it is worthy of remark, they are identical with those found within the ancient enclosures.” Possibly the cemetery in which the two Algonquians were buried during the month of June, 1731, was among those examined by Squier. It is of interest to add that on the left bank of the

Genesee, nearly opposite Avon, stood the town of Canawaugus, the birthplace of the great Chief Cornplanter, and on the site are found objects of both European and native origin. Just north of the preceding site, on the western edge of Scottsville, in Monroe County, is an old cemetery “in a gravel pit. The skeletons are drawn up, but no articles are found except a flat stone at the feet of each.” This seems to refer to flexed remains as distinguished from the extended bodies discovered in the more recent graves, and may have been those “hollowed out round like pits,” mentioned by Le Beau as being the older form.

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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