Regional History


(This 819th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 10, 2006.)


Over the years much of my hiking has been solitary. Even when I join partners like Duke Colborn, Jim DeWan or more recently Jerry Lazarczyk, I spend much time alone with my thoughts.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Joseph Brant, A Mohawk Tribal Leader

Caught between the British and the Americans

Portrait by Gilbert Stuart


Other hikers will recognize what I am talking about. It's simply easier: you walk faster or, in my case especially, slower than your fellow hiker so you often trudge along separately, meeting occasionally at rest stops, prospects, campgrounds or the trailhead.


I enjoy those times and not just because of the scenery or the wildlife. Non-hikers rapidly become bored with those aspects and, truth be told, there are long stretches between interesting sightings. Instead, my enjoyment comes from what is becoming increasingly rare in our modern society, the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts. No conversation, no internet, no telephone. (Admittedly I now carry a cell phone for emergencies but I have yet to use it while hiking.) Just my own imaginings.


The form those imaginings often takes is ghosts. I don't mean the spooks I feared as a child; rather, my ghosts are those of the people who have passed this way, the events that have occurred here.


There is much to contemplate. I am really considering the history of the area through which I am walking and how that history differs from what I "knew" a half century ago.


Indeed, our region overflows with history. Half-mile high glaciers once covered all but Allegany State Park. I know that the ground I'm walking on is still rebounding slowly from that crushing weight.


Then the native Americans populated the area. At least 500 years before Europeans arrived, five tribes -- including the Seneca of our area -- stopped fighting and joined to become the Haudenosaunee or what most of us know as the Iroquois League. A sixth joined this remarkable association later.


My knowledge of these people came from school books and from the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Edmunds' Drums along the Mohawk, and the novels of Kenneth Roberts. And, of course, from the movies.


The general impression my generation gained was us versus them, good colonists against vicious savages. At best we saw Indians as nomadic bow-and-arrow hunters.


Now I know how wrong-headed that view was. As I walk along the Conservation Trail or the Genesee Greenway or the Finger Lakes Trail, I know that I am often traversing Seneca lands that included orchards and cornfields.


Then we Europeans arrived. Our first contribution was disease. Without built-up immunity, the native Americans suffered terribly. Estimates of population loss across the Western Hemisphere range as high as 95% -- comparable to the population of Western New York reduced to those you could seat in Bills Stadium.


One effect of this was positive. Captured colonists who would otherwise almost certainly have been killed -- Mary Jemison was one -- were often adopted into tribes to replace their losses. Benjamin Franklin pointed out that these "victims" rarely accepted repatriation.


And we newcomers fought each other -- British against French, then Americans against British -- drawing the Indians into choosing sides.


For the Iroquois the Revolutionary War was a tragedy. Of the Iroquois all but the Oneidas fought on the British side and, in response to the British and Indian raid on Cherry Valley, George Washington ordered General Sullivan to advance into New York and not by any means "to listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected."


According to Sullivan's official report, the army burned 40 Indian towns and their surrounding fields; consuming at least 160,000 bushels of corn, "with a vast quantity of vegetables of every kind." So much for the Indians as simple hunter-gatherers.


But it is also too easy to reverse our thinking from our comfortable vantage point: us squatters as bad guys, the Indians as good. People then were acting more like people today in the Near East. With guns blazing all around, with your neighbors being killed and with attack imminent, it is far harder to think in philosophical terms.


How would I have acted in those circumstances? It is too simple to think that I would have done things differently. And then: how differently are we acting today?


I continue to find much to think about as I pace along. -- Gerry Rising