Heritage Moments: For the Tuscarora, an end to wandering, at Niagara

Jan 2, 2018

Before there were the Six Nations, there were only the Five – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca, who all lived between the Hudson and Genesee rivers in what is now New York State. The Five Nations knew little of the Tuscarora people, who lived far to the south, in what is today North Carolina.

In the early 1700s, after losing a bloody war with the English colonists of the Carolinas, some Tuscarora fled north. There they encountered the Five Nations, whose languages, though quite different from the Tuscaroras’, was clearly related. The Five Nations invited them to settle the lands near present-day Binghamton, and in 1722 the Oneida agreed to sponsor the Tuscarora for adoption into the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, as the Sixth Nation. More Tuscaroras moved north to settle their new home in south-central New York.

During the American Revolution, British troops burned Tuscarora and Oneida villages, and the Tuscaroras sought to move again. This time they were sponsored by the Seneca, who in the 1600s had conquered everything west of the Genesee and even beyond the Niagara, all but wiping out the Erie, Wenro and Neutral peoples. What is today Niagara County was still virtually empty more than a hundred years after the Seneca’s conquests, and the Senecas, the Holland Land Company and the new U.S. government granted some of that territory to the Tuscarora. By 1803, the Tuscarora people had established residence near Lewiston, on the land they still call home today.

Just two dozen years later, in 1827, David Cusick, a Tuscarora author, published a remarkable book that provided a history of the land his people now resided upon – believed to be the first Indigenous narratives published in the English language by an Indigenous person. In 1828 he put out a second, expanded edition. Published at Lewiston, its title is “David Cusick’s Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations.”

The book is by turns fantastical, bizarre, rambling – and one of the most significant landmarks in North American literature. Its tales of Flying Heads, Stonish Giants, voracious snakes and other hideous, implacable monsters read like pure folklore. (One passage: “About this time a great horned serpent appeared on the lake Ontario, the serpent produced diseases and many of the people died, but by the aid of thunder bolts the monster was compelled to retire. A blazing star fell into a fort situated on the St. Lawrence and destroyed the people; this event was considered as a warning of their destruction.”)

And yet the narrative also seems tied to actual events otherwise lost to conventional history. Cusick writes of a queen named Yagowanea, who presided over a fort that served as a house of peace, where no killing or warfare was permitted. But Yagowanea allowed two Senecas staying there to be murdered, precipitating a war in which hundreds were slaughtered. That fort, Cusick wrote, was located near the Tuscarora reservation. Indeed, in the 1800s the bones from hundreds of skeletons were found in the town of Cambria, and in the 1900s, the ruins of a fortified structure dating back to the 14th century. Cusick’s narrative seems to be a recounting of the wars in which the Seneca drove out the peoples who lived on the future Tuscarora lands.

Today, the homes and fields along the Niagara Escarpment are quiet, peaceful and beautiful, and the Tuscarora people are but one integral piece in the gorgeous mosaic of cultures of the region. But make no mistake: no group has had a more tumultuous, incredible journey to get here than the Tuscarora, the Sixth Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Cast (in order of appearance):

David Cusick: Eric Gansworth

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters

Hand drum performance: From the 169th Tuscarora Nation Picnic and Field Days hand drum competition (2014)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Neil Patterson Sr., coordinator, Tuscarora Nation Picnic and Field Day

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)