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Raising the curtains on Niagara Escarpment, historians reveal not only geology, but humanity

LEWISTON – The Niagara Escarpment, the ridge across Niagara County that produced Niagara Falls and divides the county from west to east, has been a focal point for human – as well as geological – history.

What might have been the worst massacre in the United States before 9/11 occurred in the shadow of the escarpment about 360 years ago, according to Lee Simonson, volunteer director of the Lewiston Historical Association.

A couple of local historians will offer some little-known tales of the escarpment, including information about a long-secret Indian fort and how Ice Age lakes drained down the escarpment, during a presentation from 1 to 3 p.m. next Sunday in the warming house at Bond Lake County Park on Lower Mountain Road.

The escarpment also saw action during the War of 1812, said Ann Marie Linnabery, education director for the History Center of Niagara.

“We’re trying to make people more aware of what has taken place on or near the Niagara Escarpment,” Linnabery said.

She will speak along with Nona McQuay, former curator of the History Center’s Lockport museum.

The Bond Lake Beautification Committee, of which McQuay is a member, is sponsoring next week’s talk, which is based in part on articles that Linnabery published last year in the Niagara County Historical Society newsletter.

Among the stories is that of a fort called Kienuka, built by the Seneca Indians at some point during what in Europe was called the Middle Ages. Kienuka simply means “fort” in the Seneca language. Linnabery said it existed from about 1200 to 1500.

Simonson takes a different view: “I would date it a little earlier than that, about 1000 A.D.”

The first-ever photos of the remains of the fort, showing some piled stone and a trench, were published in 2009 on, of all places, a restaurant place mat. Simonson writes historical information on place mats used by some Lewiston restaurants. The photos of the spot, now on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, feature local researcher Lloyd Draper.

They were taken with the agreement that the exact location wouldn’t be disclosed. “It’s a sacred spot for the Native Americans,” Simonson said.

“From the research I’ve done, it would have been just east of Indian Hill Road, about 4 miles from (the Village of) Lewiston,” Linnabery said. “It was the home of what they called the Peace Queen. It was a fort of sanctuary. Groups of Native Americans who were enemies could meet and talk to each other peacefully.”

Her speech next week will devote considerable time to the history of the Iroquois tribes, including the Senecas and Mohawks and a lost tribe called the Neuters.

Simonson said it appears that the Neuters were wiped out by the Senecas in about 1650 in a massacre that occurred on the downward slope of the escarpment. He pointed to the site as an area on the south side of Lower Mountain Road in Cambria, just west of its intersection with Thrall and Green roads, where a row of relatively new homes stands today.

“My personal take is, this is when the Senecas wiped out the Neuters, because the Neuters disappear from history about 1650,” Simonson said.

The tribe was called the Neuters because it tended to be neutral in disputes involving other Indian nations.

“The Senecas did not like the Neuters because they were getting too friendly with the Hurons in Canada,” Simonson said. The mass killing took about 2,000 lives, maybe more. An article published in the Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences in 1908 made reference to a pit filled with human bones at the Lower Mountain Road site.

A historian who excavated there in 1823 said the ossuary, a place for the storage of bones, covered about 6 acres and was surrounded by a wall. He said hundreds of skeletons were covered with stone slabs.

“Great quantities” of bone fragments were visible on the site in 1908, the Bulletin said, citing earlier authors who said the bones were those of Neuters and that as many as 4,000 bodies were buried there.

Linnabery said the geological history of the escarpment also will be discussed.

About 12,000 years ago, there were two major lakes in what is now Niagara County. A geological survey taken in 1913 dubbed them Lake Tonawanda and Lake Iroquois.

Lake Iroquois was the name given to the part of Lake Ontario that covered what is now land. It extended as far inland as Ridge Road, which is Route 104 and lies just below the escarpment. The lake above the escarpment, Lake Tonawanda, was near but not connected to Lake Erie.

Lake Tonawanda is believed to have drained down the escarpment as the climate changed. The drainage points included what today we would call Niagara Falls, although it wasn’t where it is now.

Linnabery said, “Twelve thousand years ago, Niagara Falls was in Lewiston.” Since then, erosion has pushed it seven miles to the south.

Other drainage points for the prehistoric lake were in Lockport, in Royalton at what is now called Royalton Ravine, and in Holley in Orleans County.

Linnabery said the two Lockport drainage sites were off Upper Mountain Road in what is now called Gulf Wilderness Park and at the site of the Erie Canal locks. That geology helped the 19th century engineers decide that Lockport was the place to have the canal cross the escarpment. Lake Iroquois receded as Lake Ontario assumed its current shape, while the Alabama Swamps in northwestern Genesee County are all that’s left of Lake Tonawanda, Linnabery said.

After European settlers came to Western New York, there was more action along the escarpment. After the American Revolution, the Mohawk Indians moved from the Mohawk Valley in eastern New York to the Lewiston area because they had helped the British in the Revolution. Lewiston was near Fort Niagara, which the British held until 1796 despite having conceded at the end of the war that the Niagara River was to be the boundary between the United States and Canada.

The famed Mohawk chief Joseph Brant lived in Lewiston, and Brant Spring still exists at Ridge and Creek roads. The Mohawks had an elongated village along Ridge Road for about 20 years after their arrival. After the British gave up Fort Niagara, the Mohawks left to get away from the Americans, crossing the river into Canada. Brantford, Ont., is named for Joseph Brant.

Linnabery said she also will talk about a military post called Hardscrabble, which existed during the War of 1812 at the intersection of Ridge and Dickersonville roads. A Methodist church stands on that corner today, but it’s not certain the church is on the site of the forgotten fort; it may have been on one of the other corners.

“People are still trying to figure out where it was,” Linnabery said.

The History Center was involved in research sought by the Western New York Land Conservancy, which is seeking to preserve as much of the early history and ecology of the escarpment as it can.

“Our Niagara Escarpment Legacy Report is just about done,” conservancy spokesman Jajean Rose-Burney said last week. The report is tentatively scheduled for release April 30.

The conservancy already owns one property on Leete Road in Lockport and is working with two other property owners to try to preserve their land by restricting development. Rose-Burney didn’t want to reveal the names of the landowners currently in talks with the conservancy.

“We found rare ecological communities, rare species of plants and animals,” Rose-Burney said, “and four or five properties that we would be interested in preserving.”