Critique of Oneida Iroquois Archaeology:
Next time around let's touch all the bases
Daniel H. Weiskotten
March 9, 1998

For more than twenty years I have been in some way studying the Oneida Iroquois. I began my archaeological work as a weekend avocationalist with the other members of the Chenango Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association who had for many years been conducting limited excavation on several Oneida sites looking for artifacts and settlement data. Their work has concentrated primarily on the late prehistoric, protohistoric, and early historic period sites which are found in eastern Madison and western Oneida counties. At this same time my father and I were also investigating nearby Onondaga sites on our own and with Jim Bradley. In 1988 and 1989 I worked for Peter Pratt who had done his doctoral studies looking at prehistoric Oneida village sites in central Madison county.

Cazenovia Lake, near where I grew up, had traditionally been known as the dividing line between the territory of the Onondaga and Oneida Iroquois. Being interested in local history as well as archaeology I early on became aware that there were many Iroquois sites in the Cazenovia area, several of which were "lost" and unexplored. Clues to these lost sites were found hidden in historical narratives and old newspaper accounts, and some of the collections of local "relics" contained a few pieces from them.

Since these sites, located east of Cazenovia, in the Chittenango Creek drainage, were unknown they had never been included in the Oneida research conducted by Peter Pratt or the members of the Chenango Chapter. Jim Tuck and Jim Bradley had examined seven hundred years of Onondaga archaeology, so, I thought, why has no one attempted to look at more than three hundred years (1450-1750) of Oneida archaeology?

The task of relocating these lost sites near Cazenovia has not been easy. In most instances only a brief mention of a village site was found in a local history book, an old newspaper account told of local farmer finding skeletons and relics, or a century old collection contained a few sherds found on the land of a farmer who had been dead for a century and a half. Talks to school groups often ended with a seven year old student telling me of pieces of pottery (usually stoneware) found in a field near their house. But this was all that was needed to send me on the search for the "lost" sites of the Oneidas. Such vague clues and hundreds of hours spent criss-crossing the country side have allowed me to, so far, positively relocate only one of the five early Oneida (proto-Oneida) sites that I have record of near Cazenovia (Footnote 1).

Enough data is available for these sites to give me a good idea of their location and for three sites, most importantly, I can estimate their approximate place in the Oneida sequence. The handful of sherds available for study show that they were Iroquoian, and that they were somewhat earlier than the sherds from known Oneida sites. With this as a starting place I could now begin to look at where the Oneida Iroquois came from. I could also try to tie them into the chronology of village movements constructed by Peter Pratt and the Chenango Chapter.

When site locations (in general) and approximate relative dates were determined, a sequence of village sites was seen to run from the Jackson site (near Cazenovia village) through the Schmidka and Hodge sites and northward towards the Dougherty site. Dougherty was the oldest of the sites examined by Pratt and this probable sequence can now be connected into the larger "known" Oneida series of village movements.

I had begun to consider the importance of these unstudied (and yet to be located) sites and more importantly I began to wonder if these sites were the earliest Oneida sites or were there others to be found. By extending the sequence back farther I also opened up a new area to search for earlier sites in the sequence (Footnote 2).

Having spent ten years searching for these sites with little physical evidence to show for my effort, I turned to various other studies of similar Iroquoian groups to see if any patterns or models of development could be recognised and then applied and adapted to fit my findings and goals. In 1987 I began examination of some of the traditional cosmological myths, as well as early historical and archaeological narratives in search of clues to where the Oneida had come from. My research soon turned the examination of the work of others in the fields of language evolution, ceramic evidence, and recent scholarly archaeological work in Onondaga and other Iroquois areas.

Nothing of any importance was gained from study of the cosmological or historical record. The migration hypothesis, based on the idea that the Iroquois had not originated in the area in which they were found by Europeans (AD 1600 on), was an overwhelming theme throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. I had hoped that these many and widely varied ideas were based on some form of true event but the more I learned the less likely they became. It was not until the middle of this century that archaeological investigations were being made that showed how unfounded the various migration hypotheses were. (Note Dean Snow's Incursion Hypothesis below for the most recent Iroquois origin theory.)

In 1952 Richard MacNeish published his research on New York ceramics. He had hoped to identify the movements of the tribal groups, tribal differentiation, and changes in culture, so that the cultural dynamics of the Iroquois could be better understood (MacNeish 1952:1). His study is today supposed to be the basis for the "In-situ" hypothesis of Iroquois development, as well as supportive of an indigenous Iroquois population, but this is not really evident as I read his report. According to MacNeish the Onondaga-Oneida group had long occupied the Watertown, New York, area and around 1535 they experienced a "great fluorescence" which spread their culture into present Onondaga and Madison counties where they eventually diverged into two distinct tribal groups about historic times (about AD 1600) (1952:89).

Several of MacNeish's conclusions are obviously based on the old migration hypothesis which was supposed to have been replaced by his study! At least one of the reasons for failure to create a totally new (and useful) hypothesis is seen in his Oneida data. MacNeish made little note of the fact that his entire set of Oneida data was derived from only four sites out of some twenty-five ceramic bearing Oneida sites then known. Only 78 sherds were examined from the protohistoric Diable site (c.1580), 364 from the historic Thurston site (c.1635), and only 80 from the "Munnsville" site (could be the Marshall site of c.1640 or the Quarry site of c.1650). The only prehistoric Oneida site examined was that at Nichols Pond, dated by Pratt at about AD 1480, but believed by MacNeish to be the Onondaga village attacked by Champlain in 1615! Only a few sherds from Nichols Pond were studied, but the misidentification of the site as Onondaga obviously affected how his model was constructed.

Linguistic studies by Floyd Lounsbury (1978:334-343) also support the indigenous and in-situ development of the Iroquois. He saw the Iroquois as developing from a long occupation of central New York and south-central Pennsylvania, perhaps over a period of 4,000 years. Lounsbury's work indicates that there is a close linguistic relationship between the Five Nations Iroquois (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk) and the Susquehannock, with the (Stadaconian) St. Lawrence Iroquois as being different (there is no record of the "Jefferson County" language).

He found that, of the Five Nations Iroquois, each is most closely related to it's nearest neighbor, but only the very close relationship of the mutually intelligible Mohawk and Oneida language (divergent dialects of a single language) can be asserted with confidence. Lounsbury thought that the divergence into Mohawk and Oneida dialects occurred perhaps a few centuries before the formation of the Iroquois League (formed about AD 1450-1550?).

When Grassman (1969) discussed why the Oneidas were sometimes referred to as the "children" of the Mohawk he referred to the quote that follows from the Jesuit Relations. He passed over something that seems perhaps to be of great significance that he would not have recognized outside of the context of the linguistic relation of the Mohawks and Oneidas. In the 1644, according to the Jesuit Relations:

(one of) two captives escaped on the way (to the Huron country). He belonged to a village called Ononjote (Oneida) that was angered to the last degree against the Hurons; for that nation had, in a battle, exterminated nearly all the men of that village, which was compelled to send to the Hiroquois who are called the Agnierronons (Mohawks) ... for men to marry the girls, and the women who were left without husbands so that their tribe might not become extinct. This is why the Hiroquois call that village their Child; and, because Monsieur the Governor had sent them presents, and made peace with those who had repeopled their village, they also called him its Father (Jesuit Relations 27:295-297, also noted in 28:281-283).
Might not it be inferred from this account, if correct, that a combination of Mohawk and Oneida languages eventually melded together in this one-way exchange of population to form, by necessity, a mutually intelligible form of Oneida-Mohawk? The archaeological and documentary records of the Oneidas during this time period indicate that there had been only one main village with little or no evidence of satellite or outlier habitation sites and their population was likely to be no more than 4-500 individuals (Jesuit Relations; Van den Bogaert's Journal [Gehring and Starna 1988], and Weiskotten's [1995] site size population calculations). Other than the adoption of captives and refugee groups this is the only record of such a population change within the Iroquois that I have found and, if factual, it may indeed offer reasoning behind the closeness of the Oneida and Mohawk languages.

Snow also follows this track to a degree when he identifies Failing Site in the Mohawk Valley as an Oneida Village plunked down among the Mohawks (1995:294-297). This cannot be as he calculates the population of the Failing Site at about 1500 individuals, while my research finds that this is the equivalent of the entire Oneida homeland population at that time. Besides this, my study of Oneida site sizes and population estimates found that the Oneida population remained relatively stable at the time that Snow thinks they moved en-masse to the Mohawk Valley (Weiskotten 1995).

It is also probable that this event of 1644 had another profound affect on the Oneida population. One could also ask what the consequences of this population shift would be upon the genetic pool of the Oneidas. Such a great loss of Oneida genes and subsequent infusion of Mohawk genes would, presumably, have greatly affected the Oneida gene pool. This would have been especially significant to the small Oneida population since small groups are most affected by such genetic drift. If a modern study were to show a close genetic relationship between these two groups its cause might be related to this event of 1644. A comparison of pre- and post-1644 Oneida genetic material could be very interesting - if we could find any (see Weiskotten 1997).

As Grassman was attempting to infer, the exodus of Mohawk men to Oneida may have also brought about unparalleled political connections which caused the Oneidas to be considered a dependant "younger child" of the League and the Mohawks in particular. This so stated relationship of the Oneidas to the other groups is first found with this event of 1644 and it is restated many times over in the following century and a half (it is impossible to cite negative evidence, only note it).

Although the Oneidas had a much smaller population than the Senecas, Onondagas, or the Mohawks, it was thought that a pattern of development or settlement might be observable among the different Iroquois groups which would be helpful in recognising a change in the Oneida pattern.

Research conducted a number of years ago by James Tuck, and later by James W. Bradley, into Onondaga Iroquois prehistory has shown that the Onondagas had been a single, identifiable group as early as AD 1100 (Tuck 1972:19, 210; Bradley 1987:45) when they were situated in the Skaneateles Creek drainage in western Onondaga county. Tuck and Bradley present a gradual west-to-east movement for the Onondagas extending across to eastern Onondaga county where they were found at the time of European contact. A similar situation might be seen in the pattern of settlement movement of the eastern Seneca Iroquois group as shown by Wray (1973) and in the Cayuga Iroquois as presented in DeOrio (1980 figures 2 and 3). The Mohawk data for this period appears to be too complex for a similar pattern to be seen, also their physiographic situation is somewhat different than the other groups.

My research is showing that the Oneidas also followed a west-to-east pattern of movement. The earliest of the Oneida sites (proto-Oneida) that I am working with, the Jackson site, may date as early as AD 1300 and is located in the Chittenango Creek drainage. This is some 45 km (25 mi) from where the Onondagas were situated at that same time. This proto-Oneida group or groups moved northward and then eastward and by about 1500 they were located in the hills of central Madison county (Footnote 3). From here they gradually moved into the Oneida Creek valley where they were to remain through historic times.

A crude map drawn in the 1930s by Arthur I. Tyler, a local collector, shows that he knew of these now lost sites and that he believed them to be early in the Oneida sequence. Unfortunately I found other documentation (in the New York State Historian's Historic Marker Files) that showed that this was only one of several ideas that Tyler had about these sites and, depending on whom he was sharing his knowledge with, he differently identified these sites as Oneida or Onondaga, or temporally rearranged them! It is also unfortunate that Tyler never wrote about his findings near Cazenovia, because most of the known material from these lost sites is to be found in his collection which is now at the Cazenovia Public Library. His work, although helpful in some ways, did nothing to get these sites into the Oneida sequence.

Another supposition, not exactly a model, is that all of the Five Nations Iroquois had similar burial patterns. This is based on early nonsystematic observations and upon the extensive work on Seneca burial sites (Wray 1973). The pattern observed and extended to the other Nations is that burials were made in small "clan" cemeteries which were located just outside of the village, and the body, in a flexed position, was often accompanied by grave goods. Through time the grave goods increased and the bodies were placed in a flexed position, but the cemeteries were still close to the villages. An exhaustive search of the literature for references to Iroquoian burial patterns (Weiskotten 1997) shows that this pattern is far from equally present among the New York Iroquois, in fact, despite nearly a century of systematic investigations, there is very little burial data for the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, or Cayuga (also the Susquehannock which buried in a similar fashion). Of more than thirty Oneida village sites only seven have any quantitative burial data - cemeteries have not been found for the other sites. The New York Iroquois mode of burial is also very different from the ossuary burials practiced by the Iroquoian groups to the north and west.

Looking at the perspective of the origin of the Iroquois groups Dean Snow (1991) has hypothesised that the Iroquois were late comers to the New York, St. Lawrence, and Ontario areas rather than the indigenous groups that developed in-situ. His "Incursion" hypothesis may seem at first glance to be a flashback to the long obsolete migration hypotheses of a century ago, but it is much more than that. It may be that his incursion hypothesis will be very useful in showing that the Oneidas developed out of a population located southerly of the Oneida sequence. The "Hunter's Home" Phase White site in central-eastern Chenango county was the site I had in mind (unfortunately I never formally stated this) when I proposed that other sites would be found in southern Madison and Chenango counties which would complete the "Oneida" sequence for a period of "a thousand years or more"(Weiskotten 1988)

The incursion hypothesis is based on the idea that sometime between AD 800 and 1100 there was an incursion of a horticultural matrilocal society into the New York and Ontario regions which dominated over the local foraging populations. The foraging peoples could not compete for resources and space with the new group (from Clemson Island populations of central Pennsylvania?) and were absorbed into the new group. A few cultural traits, primarily ceramic, lingered on for a short while to show that there was not a total replacement, but there was a large change in ceramic style and settlement and subsistence patterns. The "Owasco" sites which are believed to mark the new group settlements differ greatly from the slightly earlier Point Peninsula sites. In further support there is various evidence that maize horticulture first came to the New York area about AD 1000, and there is a noted discontinuity in the cultural evidence in Ontario around AD 900. Snow says that we should look for similar discontinuity in New York.

This discontinuity in New York, evidenced by a change from Point Peninsula to Owasco traits, is seen in several "Hunter's Home Phase" sites including the Chenango county White site which yielded a sample of carbon dated (uncalibrated) at AD 905 250 years, and the Willow Tree site in the west-central Mohawk Valley dated to AD 955 250 years (Ritchie 1965:260).

In looking at other tribal groups of the Iroquois we see by Saunders and Sempowski (1991) that no one has attempted to address the question of Seneca prehistory, the sequence beginning with the early protohistoric period. Neimczycki (1991:29) indicates ceramic design continuity back to 1250-1300 in the Cayuga Lake region (Cayuga Iroquois only) with occupation as early as AD 1100 (late Owasco). Tuck (1972) and Bradley (1986) show possible continuity from about AD 1100 on for the Onondaga. As for the Mohawk, I still find this too confusing to make any attempt to report on the present status of any origin theory.

Snow (1991) goes on further in illustrating the growth and development of the Iroquois by explaining that climate change during the "Medieval Maximum" allowed horticulturalists in the northeast to prosper. It is also seen that the "Little Ice Age" (AD 1550-1750) caused a clustering of Iroquois populations so that they can be identified as discrete nations by the time of European contact (c. AD 1600). Snow writes: "The scenario is one of small communities growing and splitting when reaching some critical size ... Daughter communities establish themselves farther and farther north."

In studying the prehistoric peoples of the northeast many researchers concentrate on a single tribe or location. To understand the origins or fate of a single unit one must investigate many resources that may seem unconnected to the topic. In finding where the Oneida Iroquois originated I could simply say that they, as a cultural identity, most surely had their beginnings in the vicinity of Cazenovia about AD 1300 (having origins in Cazenovia myself I do not intend any bias by this statement). We also need to look at the development of the Oneida's neighbors to see what patterns are visible in their records which might have correlation in Oneida.

To find the ancestors of the Oneidas we have to go back further than AD 1300 which, unfortunately, is about as far as the known but sketchy chronology might extend. In examining the archaeological record of Chenango county, which lies to the south, we find sites of all ages, ranging from Archaic fishing sites as old as 6000 BC, to Owasco-Hunter's Home village sites dating to about AD 1000. One form that is lacking in Chenango county is the typical Iroquois village site. In Madison county we find a small amount of widely scattered material dating as early as 5000 BC, and very little evidence of Owasco period occupation, but of prime importance is the vast number of Iroquoian village sites.

Studying the distribution of sites in Chenango and Madison counties, I wonder if the origins of the Oneidas could not be traced back further in time, unidentified sites filling the gap between the older sites to the south and the later occupations near Cazenovia. A gradual movement from the south of not more than 50 km (30 mi) over a period of a century or more seems quite plausible, but obviously much work needs to be done on this course before a fuller hypothesis can be proposed. More work needs to be done on the Cazenovia area sites to confirm their suspected relationship to the later Oneida sites.

A study of the archaeological record, specifically that of the village movements and settlement patterns, seems to be the best method to employ if we are to discover the origins of the Oneida Iroquois. I feel that if archaeological work could be conducted in the vicinity of Cazenovia we would be able to push the known and accepted sequence back perhaps another two hundred years. This step back, in conjunction with research in Chenango or southern Madison counties, could lead to a more complete chronology of population movements or relations that may extend for several hundred years more.

Although a relationship between the Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Iroquois is shown in the models of evolution derived from the ceramic and linguistic studies, the same relationships are not evident in the archaeological record as presently interpreted. We are being held back in our work by three major models that do not agree with each other, as well as a mistaken "similarity" in burial patterns. Several points for concern have been expressed in this paper regarding linguistic, ceramic, and settlement studies and these problems must be addressed before we can come to any form of agreement or solution. Further research may still reveal convincing settlement patterns or linguistic and ceramic models that would indicate a common base for these groups. Or it may not. We must still achieve some high degree of agreement between the models.

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  1.  No one else knows of my research towards this goal (no one seems to be concerned with it) and no excavation has taken place. The Schmidka site, which has been relocated, is a "Parker Site" and has a New York State Museum number. It was found through notes scribbled inside the cover of Schoolcraft's Notes on the Iroquois at Lorenzo State Historic Site and was confirmed by the finding of chert flakes, unmarked ceramics, and a Madison point on the site. Several other occupation sites found in vague references have been found, but they are not included as they are not Iroquoian.
  1. Pratt, nor anyone else, never seems to have asked "where were the Oneidas before Dougherty?"
  1. Some temporal problems present the question that there may have been two proto-Oneida groups which came together some time not long before the protohistoric period (c.1550, at the large Olcott and Vaillancourt sites). During the protohistoric (c.1570-1644) there were again two contemporaneous Oneida populations which leap-frogged their village sites through the Oneida Creek drainage.

Bradley, James W.
1987 Evolution of the Onondaga Iroquois. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, NY

DeOrio, Robert N.
1980 "Perspectives on the Prehistoric Cayuga, Post Owasco Tradition, Through the Correlation of Ceramic Types with Area Development". Proceedings of the 1979 Iroquois Pottery Conference. Research Records No. 13, 1980, pp. 65-85. Research Division, Rochester Museum and Science Center. Rochester, NY

Gehring, Charles T., & William A. Starna (ed.)
1988 A Journey into the Mohawk and Oneida Country 1634-1635. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, NY

Grassman, Rev. Thomas
1969 The Mohawk Indians and Their Valley. Mohawk-Caughnawaga Museum. Fonda, NY

Lounsbury, Floyd G.
1978 "Iroquoian Languages". Hand Book of the North American Indian. Vol. 15. Bruce E. Trigger, volume editor. Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.

MacNeish, Richard S.
1952 Iroquois Pottery Types: A Technique for the Study of Iroquois Prehistory. National Museum of Canada Bulletin No. 124

Neimczycki, Mary ann Palmer
1991 "Cayuga Archaeology: Where Do We Go From Here?" The Bulletin. New York State Archaeological Association. No. 102, Spring 1991, pp. 27-33.

Pratt, Peter P.
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Ritchie, William A.
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Saunders, Lorrane P., and Martha L. Sempowski
1991 "The Seneca Site Sequence and Chronology: The Baby or the Bathwater?" The Bulletin. New York State Archaeological Association. No. 102, Spring 1991, pp. 13-26.

Snow Dean R.
(1991) "Great Lakes Archeaology and Paleoecology: Exploring Interdisciplinary Initiatives For The Nineties". Manuscript from the author, SUNY at Albany.

Snow, Dean R.
1995 Mohawk Valley Archaeology: The Sites. Institute for Archaeological Studies, SUNY at Albany. Albany, NY

Thwaites, Reuben Gold (ed.)
1896-1901 The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. 73 Vols.. Burrows Brothers Co.. Cleveland OH

Tuck, James A.
1971 Onondaga Iroquois Prehistory: A Study in Settlement Archaeology. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, NY

Weiskotten, Daniel H.
1988 "Origins of the Oneida Iroquois: Fact and Fallacy, Past and Present." Chenango Chapter Bulletin, NYSAA. Vol. 22 No. 4. January 1988, revised March 7, 1991.

Weiskotten, Daniel H.
1995 "Sizing up the Oneida, Keeping Pace with Harmen Myndertz van den Bogaert". New York State Archaeological Association, Annual Conference, Syracuse, NY, April 22, 1995

Weiskotten, Daniel H.
1997 "Patterns of Iroquois Burial." unpublished Masters Research Paper, SUNY at Albany.

Wray, Charles F.
1973 Manual for Seneca Iroquois Archaeology. Cultures Primitive. Honeoye, NY

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