Letter from C. Dewey to Henry R. Schoolcraft

Letter from C. Dewey to Henry R. Schoolcraft,

Fort Hill.

Sketch of the Ancient entrenchments on Fort Hill, near Le Roy, Genesee County
Sketch of the Ancient entrenchments on Fort Hill, near Le Roy, Genesee County

This is celebrated as being the remains of some ancient work, and was supposed to have been a fort. Though the name is pronounced as if hill was the name of some individual, yet the place is a fort on a hill, in the loose use of the word. The name designates the place as Fort Hill, to distinguish it from the hills which have no fort on them. Neither is it a hill, except as you rise from the swale on the north, for it is lower than the land to which it naturally belongs.

As you pass towards Fort Hill in the road from LeRoy village, which is about three miles to the south, you descend a little most of the distance to this place. The road passes a little west of the middle of the space nearly north and south.

The shape is quadrangular, and is shown in the diagram or ground plot.

On the right and east side is the deep water course of Allen s Creek, cut down through the rocks for a mile or more, perhaps one hundred and thirty feet deep; on the north is that of Fordham’s Brook, of nearly the same depth, which drains a wide swale from the north and northwest; and on the west is a short and deep ravine, which is a water course in some seasons of the year, where the waters fall over a precipice a little south of the quadrangular space, or fortification. This ravine is not so deep as the watercourses on the east and north. The descent is quite steep on these three sides. At the northeast Allen s Creek turns to the east and receives the waters from Fordham’s Brook.

The quadrangular space, D, A, B, C, was enclosed by a trench, D A, nearly a north line on the east, by A B on the north, and B C on the west.

A B is the north trench about sixty rods long, and nearly east and west. A D is about thirty rods, and B C is fifteen rods, and terminates at the ravine at C. The trench D A, and A B lies on the brow of the descent to the streams below. At D the bend of the ravine stops the trench. At the northwest corner B, a trench is continued about 15 to the right and down the declivity 15 rods to a spring; 50 feet perhaps below A B, and B G is the brow of the descent west of the trench at B, and G C is the edge of the ravine on the west. Q, W is Allen s Creek on the east; H I K is Fordham’s Brook on the north, and L P M is the water course on the west to the precipice at M, over which the water falls at some seasons, and the surface at M is only a few feet lower than the general level of the quadrangle. The space F was a burying ground, as bones, skulls, pipes, beads, have been ploughed up there. The road R N passes through the middle nearly of the space enclosed by the trench, and at N turns to the right to descend to the flat below; but formerly the road turned to the right at U and passed down at the right of the trench at D to T.

The place was pointed out to me by H. M. Ward, Esq., who was familiar with it when it was covered with the forest. He states that the trench must have been eight to ten feet deep and as many wide; that the earth was thrown either way, but much of it inwards; that the forest trees were standing in the trench and on the sides of it and of the same apparent age and magnitude as on the ground generally; that the heart-wood of black cherry trees of large size was scattered over the ground, evidently the remains of a forest anterior to the then growth of maple and beech, and that this black cherry was used by the settlers for timber; that the road, when first made, crossed the trench at N by a bridge; that the trench at D and A was cut down the bank a few feet, or else in time water had worn a passage from the trench downwards; that there was no tradition heard of among the Indians of the country, in respect to the use or design of the work.

The underlying rock is the hydraulic limestone of this section, which is fully exposed at the falls of Allen s Creek, half a mile south of Fort Hill. This rock was struck in digging the trench on the north line in some places, and portions of it were thrown out with the earth.

Of the pipes found at F one was formed from granular limestone; one was of baked clay, in the form of the rude outlines of a man s head and face, nose, eyes, &c., and it reminds one of the figures in some of Stephens Plates of the ruins of Palenque. It has the hollows for the ears to be fastened on, and shows no little effort. The top of the head is surrounded by a fillet or wreath, and behind are two more fillets. At the bottom of the neck is a similar ornament, and on the front is another below it. This is the most curious.

Another pipe is of reddish baked clay, with some pits or dots for ornament upon it, two rows of dots around it and another below like a chain suspended at several points and curved by its own weight.

The forest has been removed. Not a tree remains on the quadrangle, and only a few on the edge of the ravine on the west. By cultivating the land, the trench is nearly filled in some places, though the line of it is clearly seen. On the north side the trench is considerable, and where the road crosses it, is three or four feet deep at the sides of the road. It will take only a few years more to oblate rate it entirely, as not even a stump remains to mark out its line.

From this view it may be seen or inferred,

  1. That a real trench bounded three sides of the quadrangle. On the south side there was not found any trace of trench, palisadoes, blocks, &c.
  2. It was formed long before the whites came into the country. The large trees on the ground and in the trench carry us back to an early era.
  3. The workers must have had some convenient tools for excavation.
  4. The direction of the sides may have had some reference to the four cardinal points, though the situation of the ravines naturally marked out the lines.
  5. It cannot have been designed merely to catch wild animals to be driven into it from the south. The oblique cut down to the spring is opposed to this supposition, as well as the insufficiency of such a trench to confine the animals of the forest.
  6. The same reasons render it improbable that the quadrangle was designed to confine and protect domestic animals.
  7. It was probably a sort of fortified place. There might have been a defense on the south by a stockade or some similar means, which might have entirely disappeared.

By what people was this work done?

The articles found in the burying ground at F. offer no certain reply. The axes, chissels, &c. found on the Indian grounds in this part of the State, were evidently made of the greenstone or trap of New England, like those found on the Connecticut River, in Massachusetts. The pipe of limestone might be from that part of the country. The pipes seem to belong to different eras.

  1. The limestone pipe indicates the work of the savage, or aborigines.
  2. The third indicates the age of French influence over the Indians. An intelligent French gentleman says such clay pipes are frequent among the town population in parts of France.
  3. The second and most curious seems to indicate an earlier age and people.

The beads found at Fort Hill are long and coarse, made of baked clay, and may have had the same origin as the third pipe.

Fort Hill cannot have been formed by the French, as one of their posts to aid in the destruction of the English colonies.

In 1689, or 156 years ago, the French in Canada made various attempts to destroy the English colony of New York. If the French had made Fort Hill a post as early as 1660, or 185 years ago, and then deserted it, the trees could not have grown to the size of the forest generally in 1810, or in 150 years afterwards. The white settlements had extended only “twelve miles west of Avon” in 1798, and some years after 1800, Fort Hill was covered with a dense forest. A chestnut tree cut down in 1842, at Rochester, showed 254 concentric circles of wood, and must have been more than 200 years old in 1800. So opposed is the notion that this was a deserted French post.

Must we not refer Fort Hill to that race which peopled this country before the Indians, who raised so many monuments greatly exceeding the power of the Indians, and who lived at a remote era?”

H. R. SCHOOLCRAFT, Esq.: I forward you the observations on Fort Hill, for your use. My speculations are added for my pleasure, and you will use them as you please. In great haste, I am obliged to close.

Your obedient,

Iroquois, Letter,

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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