The story of New York State's Finger Lakes is one of the most colorful chapters in American history. According to the Smithsonian Institution's bulletin on American Ethnology, the northern Iroquois tribes, consisting of the Seneca's, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and the Tuscarorus, were second to no other Indian people north of Mexico in their political organization, statecraft, and military prowess. These were the people that settled in the Finger Lakes.
Their leaders included the great prophet Dekanawida, and the eloquent orator Hiawatha. Dekanawida's shrewdness enabled the Iroquois to persevere in spite of seasonal food shortages and hostile indian neighbors. Hiawatha was his spokesman. Together they worked for universal peace among the indians. Their efforts resulted in the formation of the League of the Iroquois or the Iroquois Confederacy. Through Hiawatha, Dekanawida taught that there is strength in union and that the Iroquois should strive for peace through reason and compromise, a plan very similiar to that of the original thirteen colonies when they drew up the Constitution and even compares to the hopes of 1945, when the United Nations was established.
The influence of the Confederacy was felt from the upper Hudson River to the southeastern shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, and from the St. Lawrence to the Chesapeake. At the height of the Confederacy's influence the English presence in America was for the most part a string of settlements along the Atlantic coast. Little was known about the rest of the New World
so only the most hearty and bravest of men dared venture as far west as the Finger Lakes.
The first white men to enter these wilderness lands were French explorers led by Samuel de Champlain in the years 1603-1609, Fifty years later Jesuit missionaries, including a man named Father Simon LeMoyne, he is credited for trying to colonize the area. Father LeMoyne is also credited with the discovery of salt deposits in Onondaga Lake, which is a short distance from the present city of Syracuse. Years later this discovery would provide the incentive to start the first industry in the area.
For about the next 150 years, the English colonies prospered and grew, the French and the British competed with the Iroquois for control of the lake country. All was settled in 1760 when the British defeated the French and their Indian allies. At the same time the start of the Iroquois Confederacy declined as a political force in America. By the end of the American Revolution in 1787 the villages of the Iroquois had all but disappeared. Most of the territory they had occupied was divided into 600-acre parcels and given to US Army veterans as compensation for military service.
The Finger Lakes region developed rapidly under the land-grant program. By 1804 the first salt works opened in Syracuse, creating jobs and other related industries. Two decades later the Erie Canal was completed. Construction of the canal was the most enterprising project attempted in the 19th century. Revolutionizing transportation between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, the canal made economic history. It created towns and cities, and made New York the 'Empire State'. By 1840 the railroads, speeding across the country side, made the canal obsolete and the Finger Lakes, once thought beyond the frontiers of human knowledge, had become a place of vigorous activity.
The Finger Lake had been named by the Iroquois. They extend from 11 to 40 miles in length.
Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles are the largest. The smaller lakes are Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, and Otisco.
The Onondagas say that their ancient tribesmen believed this area to be an enormous turtle and that the lakes were pools between the ridges of the creature's shell.
Another version of the lake country's origin is that the lakes were caused by the imprint of the Creator's fingers as he blessed the land.