History of Goat Island, NY
From: Goat Island
By Peter A. Porter 1900.


In taking up its history chronologically, let us start with Goat Island, in the very early pre-Colurabian days, when this section was inhabited or certainly visited by those unknown Indians to whom we refer as Aborigines.

We do not know the name of the tribe that inhabited this section prior to about 1600, but at that time the Neuter nation dwelt on both sides of the Niagara river. In 1651 the Seneca, the nearest neighbors of the Neuters on the east, and themselves the westernmost tribe of the Iroquois, suddenly attacked the Neuters and annihilated them; and by reason of the conquest claimed their lands. And this claim was recognized as valid by the other Indian tribes, and therefore later on by the white man. In this way Goat Island passed into the hands of the Senecas, who held it for over 100 years. To the Senecas, as well as to the Neuters and the Aborigines, Goat Island was a sacred spot. To them it was the abode of the Great Spirit of Niagara. In the spray they saw the manifestation of their Deity, in the thunder of the cataract they heard his voice-

And the poor Indian whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds and hears him in the wind'

believed that he could sometimes even see, in the ever shifting clouds of mist, the outlined figure of Him whom he worshiped. The Island's use to the Aborigines appears. to have been as a burial ground, and tradition says that in its soil rest the remains of many an Indian warrior, interred there hundreds of years ago; over whose mounds to-day stand trees of great age. Here, says the same untraceable tradition, was interred the body, when recovered, of the "fairest maiden of the tribe," who was annually sent over the Falls, in a white canoe decked with flowers, as the noblest possible sacrifice to the Great Spirit.

There is no written nor published record, that I know of, of any Indian burial taking place on the Island. Hennepin makes no mention of this use of it, as he would in all probability have done had the Senecas, or even had their immediate predecessors, the Neuters, buried their warriors here. But he says "the island is inaccessible." Hence we can only assume that these graves long antedate his visit, and are the graves of Aborigines.

In 1834, the skeleton of a young female that had been dug up on Goat Island shortly before, was in the Museum of the Boston Medical College. This may possibly have been the skeleton of that heroine of the "Legend of the White Canoe," who was the last "fairest maiden" to be sacrificed to Niagara's Deity. It was found interred in a sitting posture; and it is said that "the graves on the island were in a sandy spot, each body in a separate grave, always in a sitting or squatting posture, and without ornaments." Can this position of burying their dead be any aid in tracing the tribe or stock to which the Aborigines about Niagara belonged? It has been further advanced as possible that these Indian burials on the Island took place when the Island was a part of the mainland, but this seems to me to be improbable.

Goat Island, practically as it is to-day, has existed for many hundred years, and its insular position, so difficult of access, added to its sacred character as the home of Deity, must have been one of the main reasons for its selection by the Indians as their warriors' burying ground.

Tradition tells us that the Indians of long ago made annual pilgrimages to Niagara, often coming great distances, to offer to the Great Spirit sacrifices of the spoils of the chase, of war, and of the crops. Further, the chiefs and warriors, invoking blessings for the future, used to cast into its waters offerings of their weapons and adornments. We must assume that at least these offerings were made from Goat Island, as no "brave" would have been considered worthy of the name who could not reach the insular abode of the Great Spirit, from thence to offer up his invocation.

While there are references to Niagara Falls, though not by name, in works published from 1604 on-in Champlain, in the Jesuit Relations, in De Creuxius, etc.-I know of no reference to Goat Island until Hennepin, who first saw it in December, 1678, mentions it, saying of Niagara: "Its fall is composed of two sheets of water and a cascade with an island sloping down," and in the English edition of his works, he tells of "This wonderful down hill with an isle sloping along the middle of it."

And in the same work, when be again saw Niagara on his return from the West, he says: "After it has run thus violently for six leagues it meets with a small sloping island about half a quarter of a league long and near 300 feet broad, as well as one can guess by the eye, for it is impossible to come at it in a canoe of bark, the waters run with that force. The isle is full of cedar and firr, but the land of it lies no higher than that on the bank of the river. It seems to be all level even as far as the two great cascades that make the main fall. The two sides of the channel which are made by the isle, and run on both sides of it, overflow almost the very surface of the earth of said isle, as well as the land that lies on the banks of the river to the east and west, as it runs south and north. But we must observe that at the end of the isle on the side of the two great falls there is a sloping rock which reaches as far as the Great Guiph into which the said waters fall; and yet the rock is not at all wetted by the two cascades which fall on both sides, because the two torrents which are made by the isle throw themselves with a prodigious force, one towards the east and the other towards the west, from off the end of the isle where the Great Fall is."

La Hontan, who saw Niagara in 1687, when he accompanied De Nouville in the expedition to build Fort Niagara, wrote of the Island: "Towards the middle of the water-fall of Niagara we descry an island that leans toward the precipice as if it were ready to fall."

These remarks of Hennepin and La Hontan show that 200 years ago the upper portion of the western end of Goat Island projected out over the gorge, and, as the softer shale at the base of the cliff above the debris slope had then crumbled away, it must have given to this end of the island that sloping or aboutto-fall appearance mentioned.

All of this overhanging cliff has, since 1790, tumbled into the gorge below.

In speaking of the beasts that try to cross the river just above it La Hontan calls it "that unfortunate island." He published no view of Niagara. He was a soldier and possible sites for forts interested him more than wonderful scenery.

For seventy years after Hennepin published his, the first known picture of Niagara Falls, and therefore of Goat Island, numerous pictures of them appeared, mostly in geographies and books of travel, published in many languages and in several countries of Europe. All of these pictures, while varying in details, were based mainly on Hennepin's; all showing Goat Island as extending far up stream; but some of them represented it as very narrow at the cliff and throughout its length, while others broadened it even more than Hennepin did.

Between 1719, when Joncaire established his cabin or warehouse at Lewiston, with French attendants, and 1725, when the French built and garrisoned their second Fort Niagara, some of these men may have and probably did visit the Island; indeed there is no one to whom we can, with more probability of being correct, ascribe the honor of having been the first white man to set foot on Goat Island than to Joncaire. He was an adopted child of the Senecas, and the man to whom Charlevoix refers as speaking "with all the good sense of a Frenchman and with all the eloquence of an Iroquois."

As the garrison at Fort Niagara, from 1725 to 1759 was usually a large one, it is more than probable that a number of these adventurous French officers and soldiers were at various times piloted to the Island in the canoes of the Senecas, who lived in this section and who were the firm friends of the French. In January, 1751, there appeared in London, in the Gentlemen's Magazine, a picture of Niagara Falls and a letter from the Swedish Naturalist Peter Kalm, who had visited the Falls the year before.

This picture, without the ladders on the Goast Island cliff, was a fair sample of the pictures of Niagara up to that time, and is reproduced herewith. In the letter, Kalm tells of two Indians who, twelve years before (that is in 1738), had gone in a canoe on the river above the falls, but having some brandy with them, became intoxicated, and lying down to sleep in the canoe, were carried down stream so far that the noise of the falls awakened them. By great effort they reached Goat Island, but their canoe seems to have been carried over the falls. After some time, two or three days probably, being nearly starved, and seeing no other possible way of escape they made ladders of the long vines that grew on the Island, and fastening the ends at the bank above, let them down the cliff and descended by them to the water's edge below. Here they tried to swim across the river, but the waves repeatedly beat them back, bruised, onto the Island's base. Discouraged, they ascended their ladder and finally attracted, by their cries, the attention of two Indians on the main shore. These, seeing the situation, hastened to report it to the commandant at Fort Niagara.

"He caused four poles to be shod with sharp irons. As the waters that ran by the Island were then shallow, two Indians took upon them to walk thereto by the help of these poles, to save the other poor creatures, or perish in the attempt. They took leave of their friends as if they were going to death. Each had two poles in his hands to set to the bottom of the stream to keep them steady. So they went and got to the Island, and having given poles to the two poor Indians there, they all returned safely to the main shore. Those two Indians who in this above mentioned manner were first brought to this Island are still alive. They were nine days on the Island.

"Now, since the road to this island has been found, the Indians go there often to kill deer, which have tried to cross the river above the falls and were driven upon this island by the stream." But, Kalm adds, "If the king of France were to give me all Canada, I would not venture to go to this island; and were you to see it, Sir, I am sure you would have the same sentiment." Kahn also in this letter, makes the first mention I find anywhere of small islands adjacent to Goat Island, saying, "On the west side of this island are several small islands or rocks of no consequence."

Another account of evidently this same story, tells how the rescuers were provided by the blacksmith at Fort Niagara with long stilts shod with iron points, on these they walked to the Island, carrying two extra pairs of stilts, and all four Indians "stilted" back to safety. While the inventor of this last story avoided the incongruity of having men walk on foot across a channel where the water now at least is ten or twelve feet deep, his stilt story is almost as absurd.

Later on a traveler heard the story in this way: "By making long bark ropes and carrying them a considerable distance up the stream, they succeeded in floating one end against the Island by which means they were enabled to rescue the poor wretches from certain death." The inventor of this story evidently did not know that the current would carry the end of the rope away from, not towards, Goat Island. In 1759 the English captured Fort Niagara and secured complete control of all this section. In 1763 the Senecas planned and executed the Devils Hole massacre, from which only one man of the English escort escaped, John Stedman by name. Amid a shower of bullets and arrows he spurred his horse and dashed in safety to Fort Schlosser, nearly five miles away. He subsequently claimed that the Senecas, marvelling at his escape, and believing the Great Spirit had given him a charmed life, gave him all the land between the Niagara river and the line of his flight, some five thousand acres in all. The Senecas do not appear to have paid any attention to his claim, althougn during his lifetime Stedman seems to have occupied unmolested, such lands in his claimed grant as he chose, but only a. small part thereof. When his descendants set up their claim, under this Seneca grant they could produce no deed nor proof of one. They claimed that Stedman gave the deed to Sir William Johnson for safe keeping, and that it was destroyed when Sir William's residence, Johnson Hall, was burned.

They kept up the fight until about 1823, when the State of New York, after their claim had been declared worthless, ejected them from such lands as they occupied under the claim.

In 1764, at the great treaty held at Fort Niagara, between Great Britain and nearly all the Indian tribes of North America, Sir William Johnson obtained for England from the Senecas all the land along the Niagara river, four miles wide, averaging two miles in width on each side thereof, from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. The diplomatic Senecas specially excepted from this grant all the islands in the river.

Only the year before that nation had attacked the English, in the Devils Hole Massacre, and had then been obliged to sue to Sir William Johnson for peace and reconciliation. And even at this great treaty gathering they had not kept their promise to him of being present, and had come to it only after be had arrived at the fort and finding them unrepresented, bad sent a special messenger to them and threatened to send Bradstreet's army to punish them if they did not at once appear and fulfil their former promises. These they had just fulfilled, and now they begged Sir William Johnson personally to accept from them all the islands in the Niagara river "as a token of their regard for him, and in remembrance of the trouble they had from time to time given him."

Johnson's influence with the Indians was unbounded. He had been married to a sister of the great Mohawk warrior Brant, he was England's Indian agent, and so far as dealing with Indians of all tribes was concerned, he was the most influential white man that ever trod the continent of North America. Such a man's friendship was worth having at any time, especially to the Senecas at that time, even if paid for by the gift of many islands, Goat Island included.

Sir William Johnson accepted the proffered gift, fearing a loss of influence with the Senecas if he refused. But the English military law of that period forbade officers to accept presents, and certainly in cases of gifts of land, which could not be kept secret, the law was obeyed. So Sir William at once presented all these islands to the English Crown. And thus in 1764, this wondrous, though as yet unnamed Island, passed from the possession of the Senecas and into the possession of the Crown of England.

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