People have asked me with surprising frequency, about the inspiration for these history posts.
I say surprising, because that frequency, 91.3 MHz, is usually reserved for public radio stations.
Maybe that has something to do living one block from the WITI Tower, which for a time, was the tallest radio/TV tower in the world. (On humid days, I’ll suddenly start receiving 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, crystal clear, on my toaster. When they’re playing soul, I don’t mind, the toast comes out great, golden-browned and tasty. But when it picks up heavy metal, everything gets charred, and when it’s streaming alternative art-rock bands, the bread stays pale, limp, and apathetic.)
And as for how inspiration strikes, well lately, inspiration has been on strike more than a French trade union.
Actually, no one has ever asked where these ideas came from, they just express a wish that they’d stayed there. Well, the process is simple – I just flip through old photos, and try to remember why I took them.
This photo, for example. I saw this bow & arrow oddity, at a little crossroads in the country, not far from Keuka Lake, surrounded by corn fields and pastures. I guessed, the highly inaccurate brave was originally an advertising emblem, or an old tin weathervane, that blew off a barn roof one night, and the thrifty local farmers repurposed it for this memorial. (Turns out, that might be exactly right. Or it may have been a decoration from an old steamboat.)
So one rainy day, I looked it up, and that’s what this post is about.
First off, what are we to call this bit of homely roadside whimsy?
There’s a substantial stone obelisk, but the tin Indian is two-dimensional, and it seems like, it doesn’t really qualify as a “statue.”
So let’s call it a “Folk Art Effigy,” or “Naïve Tribute to Indigenous Peoples.”
Yep, I’m just a self-appointed roving rural art critic. We, the editorial staff here at UpState & Away, are all about sounding pretentious, artsy, and serious-minded.
Like those little dots on naïve. How cool! My imaginary editor seizes upon any chance to use umlauts, diaeresis, dipththong, all that fancy-schmancy stuff.
(Doesn’t diaeresis sound like an unpleasant digestive disorder?)
(and dipththong?? an abbreviated swimsuit, for someone with a lisp?? I have no idea.)
According to the blue sign next to it, which is an official 1932 New York State Department of Education Commemorative Plaque, that tin Indian is meant to be a “Chief of the Seneca Nation, and a Friend of the Revolution.”
“Seneca” is kind of a big deal in this part of the world. It seemed odd that I’d never heard of this chief, Gu-Ya-No-Ga.
During colonial days, the Iroquois Confederacy was the most powerful alliance of natives in the northeast, feared and courted by the Dutch, English, and French. In 1776, the Seneca tribe was the largest in the alliance, in fact, larger that all the others (Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora ) combined.
Famous leaders included Cornplanter and Red Jacket, who fought with the British during the Revolution, and then negotiated with George Washington afterwards. And Half King, who helped George kick off the Seven Years’ War by ambushing some French-Canadian soldiers. Col. Ely Parker, General Grant’s wartime aide and later Commissioner of Indian Affairs, was also a Seneca sachem.
After the Revolution, the tribe was eventually pushed onto reservations in the western part of the state, and fragments ended up in Oklahoma and Canada. But the name still plasters the area. Town of Seneca, County of Seneca, Seneca Falls, Seneca Lake, Seneca Castle, Seneca Army Depot, Seneca Mills, Seneca Point, Seneca Foods Corp, and innumerable streets.
For many decades, “Seneca Chief” was the brand name for the most popular sweet corn in the region. One of the largest razor and cutlery manufacturers in the world was once in Geneva, NY, and many of their old “cutthroat” straight razors were stamped with “Seneca Chief” and an (inaccurate) image of a Native American.
And the first packet boat to travel the length of the Erie Canal, in 1825, with bands playing and cannons firing, was the Seneca Chief. (A replica boat is now being built in Buffalo.)
The name wasn’t always so popular in some circles. For European settlers, during the colonial times, it was loaded with menace. All during the Revolution, Seneca warriors terrorized the borderland towns of New York and Pennsylvania, a long ordeal of mostly-forgotten skirmishes, raids, ambushes, and massacres.
So anyway, this memorial to Gu-Ya-No-Ga puzzled me – – a leader of a tribe that fought a bitter and bloody war against the colonists, who somehow was a “friend of the Revolution,” and then somehow, forgotten.
Were they thinking of Gu-Ya-Su-Ta (aka Guisuta, Kayasota, etc. ) who guided Washington to a meeting with the French, in 1753, just before war broke out? But during the Revolution, that chief fought against the colonists, as did most of the Iroquois.
(The Oneida and Tuscarora tribes were the exceptions, and provided the rebels with scouts, guides, messengers, and warriors, even aiding the 1779 Sullivan Campaign, when Washington sent an army through this region on a scorched-earth mission, burning Iroquois villages, crops, orchards, and food supplies.)
The Iroquois were often given more that one name during their lifetime, and these names were often mangled by translations through French-to-Dutch-to-English, etc.. Others are known by nicknames applied by the colonists, which also might have variations, so it’s easy to get confused.*
But I’d read a lot about the Iroquois, as an undergrad history major, writing my senior project about them. And it surprised me that I’d never heard of this particular chief, who broke with his people to aid the revolutionaries. And the first description, when I googled him, claimed he was a close personal friend of Geo. Washington! How could I have read so many books and period documents, and missed this guy??
Well, here’s a clue. The old house in back of the monument, was once a tavern.
And as one version tells it, one night in the 1880’s, the locals were drinking hard cider, and made the whole thing up. As you likely have guessed by now, there was no such Seneca chief.
But in 1910, hundreds gathered to see this goofy monument go up. Were they all in on the joke, or had they started to believe the story? Another twenty-two years goes by, and the state education department puts up an official plaque, further legitimizing the tale. How a bunch of back-of-beyond farmers managed all this, I have no idea, but they’re kind of my heroes.
If you do a search, there’s several article about the hoax online, I think this one may be the best:
This state has always produced and attracted all kinds of hoaxes, jokesters and con men. At the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, you can still see the “Cardiff Giant,” a ten-foot-tall fossilized man, dug up by a farmer, south of Syracuse.
Which is where his cousin had buried it, a year earlier, after having a stonecarver create it. (There was a copycat “Taughannock Giant” which they dragged up to Cornell to study.)
P.T. Barnum (“There’s a sucker born every minute”) was a Connecticut Yankee, but he knew just where to open his museum/circus/menagerie – – NYC, right on Broadway. Where he displayed the “Fiji Mermaid” (in reality, a hideous mashup of taxidermied monkey and fish), an old lady posing as George Washington’s 161-year-old nanny and other con jobs.
Farther back in time, 1823, in the midst of an epidemic/depression, a couple of guys hired some fife & drum bands, and organized a parade of 1,000 workers, who paraded up Manhattan, with shovels, picks, saws, etc. for an emergency, massive operation. The workers had been persuaded, by a stirring speech and a barrel of whiskey, that to save their city from sinking, they needed to cut the island in half, and anchor it with massive iron chains.
Except…the story, which I’ve seen mentioned in a number of books and magazine articles, is itself baloney, and never happened.
I suppose Washington Irving qualifies as a hoax-ster for his Knickerbocker “history” of early New York, but it’s harmless, good fun, has some real history blended in, and is a wonderful and charming piece of writing.
More recently, in the 1980’s, George Plimpton wrote a Sports Illustrated article, and eventually a book, about Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch, who studied yoga in Tibet, played French horn, and pitched 168 MPH fastballs for the Mets.
New York has also produced some less charming cons, like Bernie Madoff and Clifford Irving (who not only wrote a fake bio of Howard Hughes, but after he got out of jail, had the brass to peddle another book about his deception, The Hoax.) And what’s-his-name, who left NYC for Washington, always tweeting gibberish from his bathroom.
In the old days, sometimes it took a cast-iron plaque, bronze statue, or carved stone tablet to create a persuasive myth. And those were simple country folk, pre-Internet. Apparently, all us modern-day sophisticates can be cozened & bamboozled with something as ephemeral as a tweet — a tissue, or rather, toilet paper of lies.
So…this little monument. Misinformation? Propaganda? Thou shalt not bear false witness, etc.? Let us ponder this, deeply.
Nah. This is Upstate New York, and it’s November – – so chill out. I guess some people might find this folk art/fake memorial, to be offensive and disrespectful, but personally, I’m filing Gu-Ya-No-Ga under the “mostly harmless, and kinda funny” category. It’s really not about Native Americans at all, it’s about some rural types, indulging in a bit of storytelling, maybe putting one over on the local newspaper editor. And the story, and strange little monument, have been hanging around long enough, they’re historical items in their own right.
I’m going to write more about these blue history markers, which are getting to be antiques themselves, that’ll be my next post. So far, scanning through hundreds of them online, the Go-Ya-No-Ga plaque is the only one I’ve found, that is simply baloney-on-a-stick.
This illustration is from “The Pilgrims’ Party” (1931), one of a series of histories for children by Sadyebeth and Anson Lowitz.
More of a fable, a bubbe-meise (grandmother’s tale) than real history. The sanitized Disney/Hallmark version of Thanksgiving may stick in your craw, but perhaps it’s a way to get kids interested in history, and real Native Americans, maybe not such a bad place to begin telling the more complex tale, about the reality of what happened between the Puritans and Wampanoags.
Well, like Squanto in the children’s book, it’s time to go prepare the traditional holiday pop corn, or parched maize. Maybe they didn’t really have popcorn at the first Thanksgiving, but Native Americans, including the Iroquois, did cultivate a number of varieties of corn, and some of it really was popped in heated clay vessels.
I’m feeling grateful, relieved, and thankful for quite a number of things, this Thanksgiving, and glad we have this holiday, cheers.
P.S. about complicated names:
- You’ll find George Washington’s affectionate nickname, “Town-Destroyer,” which is still used by the Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”) can be rendered as Conotocarius, Conotocaurious, Caunotaucarius, Conotocarious, Hanodaganears, and Hanadahguyus. If you search for these on the web, you’ll find history websites using all of those examples. And despite their centuries-old alliance, each Iroquoian tribe in NY had it’s own language, which also complicates things. (If you want to hear a bit of Onondaga, you could watch the children’s movie “The Indian in the Cupboard” (1995), when the character Little Bear is singing in that language.)
- There were quite a few leaders, from different tribes, called “Half King,” for example, not to be confused with “Half-Town,” who was Cornplanter’s brother. A chief called Tah-won-ne-ahs (or Tenh-Wen-Nyos, or Thaonawyuthe) was known to the colonists as Chainbreaker, or Governor Blacksnake. OK, you get the idea. Confusing.
37 thoughts on “Walks Around the Finger Lakes. Yates County ~ ~ ~ Gu-Ya-No-Ga, The Seneca Chief”
Well that was an entertaining history lesson! We have a Seneca college here. I have no idea why it was thus named but I am assuming Ontario must have some Seneca history.
Thank you, Anne! I know from reading about the post-Revolutionary period, that there’s a Six Nations reserve in Ontario, with all the Iroquois tribes represented, at Grand River, somewhere west of Niagara Falls, but I’ve never been there.
Thanks for that highly interesting and educating post. :
Thank you, Pit! Glad you liked it.
Speaking of radio stations, I heard a joke last night on a low frequency station in the Philadelphia burbs. Here it is.
Question: What do you get when you cross a turkey with a banjo?
Answer: A bird that will pluck itself.
haha! pretty good!
As soon as I saw the post’s title, I figured Gu-ya-no-ga was one of your made-up characters, so I did a search and turned up the 2019 article at
with the title “GUYANOGA – THE INDIAN LEADER THAT NEVER WAS?” Then I came back to your post and noticed the New York State plaque in your photograph, which says that officials fell for the tale, too. But it’s no tall tale to wish you a happy Thanksgiving.
Thanks, Steve, same to you!
I thoroughly enjoyed your amusing history lesson from your corner of the world, Robert. An Indian band from the Okanagan has been digging around at various places to find evidence of their territorial existence in our area. I would not be surprised if they discover some artifacts or the gravesite of one of their ancestral chiefs to substantiate their claim..
Thank you, Peter. The Cayuga (who lived in the region where I grew up) didn’t retain a reservation in NY after the Revolution. They ended up in Oklahoma and Ontario, but fifty years ago, filed a suit to reclaim the land in NY. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled against them. But the tribe has instead been purchasing properties, and then fighting with local authorities over taxes, and fighting internally over revenues, etc. from the properties.
Earlier this year, the internal debate involved the ruling faction sending bulldozers to knock down a gas station, daycare center, etc. run by rivals!
We have experienced similar development here in Canada.
On a more serious note, I really wonder how much accepted history is false. Leaving aside the fact that ‘history is written by the victors’, False Memory Syndrome, and misinterpreted archaeology, you now throw us the curved ball of mischievous fiction!
Howard Zinn said “If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”
Zinn also pointed out the sweeping power of relegating other peoples’ history, like that of Native Americans, to mere footnotes.
“One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions…[the historian] refuses to lie…He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.
But he does something else-he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes,
mass murder took place, but it’s not that important-it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.”
I’ll think about that, Robert, and return to it later.
That jab about the alternative toast was cute…and all this malarkey about your Seneca finding lots of fun. I like how you blend your studies and unique optic on life, your whimsy into these tales. Must be proximity to that radio tower, changes in the atmospheric pressure…your receiver, and so on. Happy holidays buddy!
Thanks, Bill! Happy Thanksgiving. Yeah, I’ll probably start lining my hats with foil any day now.
Ha ha! Well done! Appreciate you and your sharp wit.
I surely have mentioned to you that when I hear the word ‘Seneca,’ the first thing that comes to mind is Homer Laughlin dinnerware. From about 1880-1910, there were any number of shapes named after places in your area: not only Seneca, but Niagara, Genesee, Colonial. I’ve never heard of this Seneca chief, though, and your exploration of his history/legend was fascinating.
I confess I burst out laughing at your first photo. The venerable chief with his bow and arrow pointed straight at the ‘dead end’ sign is hilarious, especially since anyone trying to track down the truth about Gu-Ya-No-Ga is going to hit a dead end sooner or later.
I was thinking about how much this chief reminded me of Hiawatha, another leader who ended up with a legacy that combines fact and fiction. What I didn’t know is that the historical Hiawatha co-founded the Iroquois Confederacy (Five Nations League), which was comprised of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida Nations. Thanks to Longfellow, I’d always identified Hiawatha with the upper midwest, but that’s wrong, too.
This was a great post, and I learned a lot. I am interested in the genesis of the name Half King. Cornplanter and Red Jacket make sense, but Half King? Was there a twin brother somewhere?
There were a number of “Half Kings,” I’ve seen them compared to “viceroys,” but kind of an example of square pegs/round holes – – miscomprehension of another culture. The European were trying to fit the natives into European roles and patterns. But the Iroquois had no kings or supreme chiefs. These “half kings” couldn’t speak for, or give orders to, all the Seneca, much less all the Iroquois. There were numerous sachems, who headed villages and clans, and tried to rule by persuasion and consensus. Clan mothers determined the chiefs, usually but not always hereditary, and if they really got fed up, they could remove a chief, too. Or factions could simply vote with their feet, and move to another village, even if it was a different tribe’s. The Europeans found this all confusing and frustrating, and tried to step in and manipulate things, to create a single, cooperative warrior-king, whose loyalty they could buy, and who could supply warriors for the colonial armies.
Joseph Brant, a Mohawk war chief, is usually mentioned as the most important leader during the war, and he had enough prestige and British connections, to persuade portions of all the tribes to emigrate to Canada after the Revolution, but many Iroquois tried to stay neutral, or supported the rebels, and refused to follow him to Canada – – they clearly didn’t perceive him as their “king.”
A close look at Gu-Ya-No-Ga suggests he was in a fearsome battle. Perhaps with a bolt of lightning, perhaps with a squadron of tin solders. It appears he lost his leg – and had it welded back on again.
Or maybe someone was pulling his leg, and it came off in their hand.
Silliness aside, that was an interesting history. I know almost nothing of the history of the regional tribes out this way. I wonder what stories they could tell?
Hi Dave – I’ve never visited Oregon, but I’ve heard of some of the tribes, like the Paiute and Nez Perce, and the Klamath/Modoc, that sound pretty interesting and unusual. And I guess the coastal tribes did those potlatch celebrations, which might also generate some good stories.
I’m such a pretentious dope I kept wondering who this Geo Washington, was. Now Sidd Finch? I remember that article! That was the first or second year of my very own Sports Illustrated subscription, it was the beginning of when I was crazy about baseball, baseball cards, the Detroit Tigers, sports in general. Even though I was just ten or eleven years old and not very bright I might add (a lifelong affliction), I can remember thinking something……. just didn’t quite add up about Sidd Finch. I’m curious to go back and learn if they really tricked anyone. No self-respecting adult could have possibly fallen for it, right? Hope you’re doing as well as could be expected during a time like this. Hope you wore your beekeeper suit coated with Bengay on the way to Seneca country. and didn’t get stuck near any Dell Griffith types. Are you staying with your folks through the month of December?
Hi Jason – nope, I head back to WI on Monday, but I’ll come back here in December. I like the beekeeper suit/Bengay idea, that should keep germs and other passengers at bay.
I’m impressed you remember that baseball story, and more that at that age, you were on to Sidd Finch, I probably would’ve swallowed the whole story. I got caught by a radio story about suburban moms, driving their kids to school in semi trucks, because they felt safer than SUVs. It was an April Fools but I absolutely believed it.
I love the story of Go-Ya-Go-Na. A drunken prank widely accepted as cultural heritage. Fantastic, and as you rightly say, not a slur on Native Americans, but a comic snapshot of rural life.
The history of the Iroquois is something that fascinates me, although I know very little about it. I think the fascination goes back to reading Last of the Mohicans when I was a kid. I must read up on the real history one day.
Thankfully what’s-his-name will soon be gone (even if he’s dragged kicking and screaming from the seat of power). Unfortunately the damage done by his toilet paper of lies will last longer. But you may have hit on a way to limit the further harm he seems intent on doing before leaving office. If we can convince him that chief Go-Ya-No-Ya is in league with Antifa and planning an ethnic Marxist uprising that could seriously damage what’s-his-name’s chance of reflection in 2024, What’s-his-name might divert all his Tweeting energy in trying to track it down and stamp it out. Should keep him occupied for a couple of months.
I like the way you think, George. In January, El Guano can go questing, roving the boondocks in a Winnebago, hunting for socialist sasquatch.
The Native American vote was dead set against him, and helped to cost him Arizona and Wisconsin.
Iroquois history really is complex and fascinating. One tribe now lives not far from Milwaukee – – the main body of Oneidas began moving to Wisconsin almost 200 years ago, and still live on the land they purchased in the Green Bay area (there’s two smaller groups in Ontario, Canada, and other Oneidas are gradually reestablishing a territory in NY by purchasing land with their casino profits.) Some Cayugas, who didn’t retain any reservations in the state, have also returned to purchase land near my hometown.
I love this is as a writing prompt: Flip through old photos and try to remember why you took them! What a great idea!!! 🙂
Thank you, Cecilia. There’s something like 35,000 pictures on my computer, I really have to do some cleaning one of these days.
As entertaining as ever Robert.
Thanks, Denzil. I’ve been looking through the thousands of historical markers online, and so far, this is the only one I’ve identified that’s clearly based on nonsense.
thank you very much for your entertaining history lesson. Although we had neighbours and friends being Iroquois when living in Montreal and Vermont we didn’t know anything about it. Oh dear, how ignorant!
All the best
The Fab Four of Cley
🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Thank you for your nice comment, always glad to hear from the Fab Four. When I was young, I enjoyed the Iroquois folktales, at heart, sometimes not so different from the Brothers Grimm. And then in college, learning a bit about the politics and diplomacy of that confederation of tribes was fascinating. I’m sorry that their descendants, like the U.S. as a whole, seem to have lost the gift of consensus-building.
The opening gambit had me and my Sigother laughing…and I have fond memories of those blue NYS history markers so I look forward to seeing more. I had a feeling something was off about that sign and I appreciate your even-handed appreciation of the whole scope of the story. It was a smooth move to segue into hoaxes perpetrated by other New Yorkers, especially THAT one. May he be gone soon….
Thank you Lynn. So far, that’s the only marker I’ve seen, that’s complete nonsense. Yes, I don’t believe in sugarcoating or sanitizing history… but maybe parts of the last four years, we can make a few exceptions, some people and ideas are just so ready for the dust heap of history.
Yes! It might be nice to imagine one of those markers dedicated to that unfortunate New Yorker in the White House. I wonder what it would say, and what road it would be next to…
Well, I don’t know what would be on the sign, but we’ll put stuff on both sides, so it’s two-faced. And the road should be really serpentine, and run a crooked mile. And then just stop, so there’s another sign saying “dead end street”
I did fall for the story, too. Until I read Steve’s comment. Great story.
Thank you, Otto. I guess most of us just expect a state-issued historical plaque to be reliable, and turn off our usual skepticism.