Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Professor Kurt Jordan’s position at Cornell, the year of a map (1806 not 1800), the time period of the Middle Woodland era, and the title of Samuel Parker.
ITHACA, N.Y. — Kurt A. Jordan, associate professor in Cornell University’s department of anthropology and American Indian studies, has found evidence through his research that suggests several parts of Ithaca lies above ancient burial grounds of Haudenosaunee Indians.
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Jordan said his finding are based on a “paper trail” of books and documents, some dating centuries ago, because he doesn’t seek to excavate in Ithaca.
During the process, he said he realized just how few records exist of the indigenous lives in Ithaca, likely due to the carelessness the settlers showed toward the indigenous people and their culture.
Based on his research, he gave a lecture on Saturday at the History Center in Tompkins County entitled “Destroyed, Forgotten, Never Noted: Ithaca’s Hidden Indigenous History.”
The history of Native Americans in Ithaca
According to Jordan, Native Americans have been living and passing through what is now Ithaca for as long as 13,000 years ago. Those who settled became part of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) people about 500-1,000 years ago.
Before the American Revolution, Jordan said there was only light contact between outsiders, especially Christian missionaries, and indigenous people. He hypothesized that the missionaries were afraid to interact closely with the natives, who had their own strong religious beliefs, out of fear of being persecuted by them.
By late 18th Century, the Ithaca region was given the name of Ulysses Township. The westernization of the indigenous lands had begun.
A 1790 map of Ulysses Township marked most of the current flat regions of Ithaca as swamps. By 1806, a new map, this time titled “Map of Ithaca” shows construction of some streets and buildings. Jordan said this was possible via a massive reconstruction of the land in which soil from hills as high as 40 feet were displaced to cover swamplands and streams were diverted elsewhere.
Grave mounds cleared near Commons
One of the documents Jordan used was an unpublished manuscript written around 1895 by physician Samuel Parker reserved in the Cornell archives. In it, Parker described clearing of indigenous lands in 1830s, especially grave mounds, for construction of what is today Parker Street near the Commons.
“[In the] early 1800s, in order to get the landscape to where you could put roads like that, there were lot of natural and cultural features that [the settlers] had to obliterate,” Jordan said.
According to Parker, about 50 graves were removed from the Parker Street site alone. In these mounds, settlers dug up copper-based kettlers with “a heavy iron band around their tops” that were probably buried with the dead as offerings. However, Jordan said there are no artifacts of these kettles preserved because the workers probably took the kettles home for their kitchens or to use the copper as scraps.
These kettles, Jordan said, could have offered insights into the lives of indigenous people and their interaction with Europeans, because the copper likely came from either indirect or direct trade with non-Natives.
Parker also wrote: “Another spot for such graves was the bluff or height south of Six Mile Creek…just west of the continuation of Aurora St. up south hill, and extending to the site of the McGraw house, on the rise of ground south of the head of Tioga St. Also on the new removed knoll just south of Fall Creek. Doubtless, nearly the whole of these ‘Moraine’ knolls, of the former levels of Cayuga Lake contained more or less of these graves.”
‘Very cavalier treatment’
This negligence of indigenous culture and native burial grounds continued in the 20th Century. Jordan said a man named W. Fullhart sold a stone smoking pipe used by the Natives during the Middle Woodland era (100-900 AD) to the Rochester Museum in 1938. This pipe is believed to be found while clearing burial mounds on the Cornell campus. However, the specifics of where or when this pipe was found is still unclear to this day, largely because Fullhart didn’t bother to keep record of it.
“What you see is a very cavalier treatment of burial grounds by the settlers. Washing them away, digging into them to get artifacts, and in most instances, the skeletal remains are no longer with the artifacts,” he said in his lecture. “This is something the native people have protested back and forth but our predecessors; the settlers of Ithaca apparently didn’t see anything wrong with it.”
Due to the fact that the traditions of Native Americans and artifacts of their lives have been largely ignored and consequently unrecorded by the settlers who made what is today’s Ithaca, Jordan said the history of Ithaca as a land of the indigenous people may never be understood.
“There’s generally a pretty serious lack of documented archaic findings in Ithaca…but I think this is probably from a lack of drive. It’s that people haven’t been doing this particularly diligently,” he said.
He also attributed the lack of historical records to the fact that formal archeology didn’t exist in the 1800s, and so the settlers didn’t conserve and document artifacts.
He said the only ones who could have knowledge of that are the people of the Cayuga tribe, which is a part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
However, according to the Cayuga Nation’s website, there are fewer than 500 Cayuga people in New York. Jordan said that the Cayuga people are not inclined to tell an outsider, like himself, their history with Ithaca. Furthermore, the Cayuga tribe is unhappy with Cornell’s lake cooling system, which the University adopted in 2000 to use cool water from the Cayuga Lake to chill its buildings, making partnership between the Cayugas and a Cornell researcher even more unlikely.
“They sort of have a fraught relationship with Cornell and archeologists in general,” he said.
Despite this difficulty, Jordan said he feels it is morally right to learn about the history of the Cayuga people and their connection to Ithaca because their tribe is still alive.
“There’s very little left in terms of archeology but it’s important because the Cayugas are still here and the indigenous people are still here. The settlers need to understand that you’re dealing with people who still have value to this land, maybe even more so than the settlers do and certainly you’re gonna run across native people sooner or later,” he said.
“I think it’s a matter of morality, ethics and respect to figure out how to interact with present native people and the choices of their ancestors.”
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