Osco Temple
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aerial view looking north
Fort Hill Cemetery
Auburn State Prison (top center) - Downtown Auburn (upper right)
Introduction to a Finger Lakes Earth Mystery
Osco Temple
Earth Mounds
of Fort Hill Cemetery
Auburn, New York

by
David Yarrow
© March 1987 all rights reserved

History
of the mounds at Fort Hill Cemetery

Osco Indian Mound sprawls over several acres within the city of Auburn, NY, just west of downtown and one block south of Genesee Street, the principal east-west road through the city. The highest point in Auburn, this ancient earthwork is 2 miles NW of Owasco Lake, fourth in the eastward chain of Finger Lakes. This man-made Mound occupies the high ground south above an "S" bend in the Owasco Lake outlet, and is the only site in Auburn from which Owasco Lake can be seen. Perhaps 75% of the Mound lies within Fort Hill Cemetery and has been preserved since 1853 as a graveyard, suffering little more disturbance than several thousand graves, driveways & grass mowing.
Historical Marker
corner of West Genesee & Fort Streets

Archaeologically it is one of many thousand such constructions which dot the North American landscape. Most are located in the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri valleys, and Fort Hill is recognized as the easternmost of them. My own investigations have turned up other mound constructions in central New York. One is as far east as Cazenovia, 40 miles east of Fort Hill. Another large mound sits in the middle of the village of Elbridge. However, none of these other mounds is as complex as Fort Hill, although a few on the Ontario Lake Plain near Clyde are larger.

Research in Auburn's Historical Library has yielded a few meager facts. The principal source of information about Fort Hill is the original 1853 Fort Hill Cemetery Handbook published by the Cemetery Association. The Handbook contains many pages of history and culture about Fort Hill. It relies on reports filed by official Caucasian historians who visited the Mound in the last century. It seems no archaeologist has ever examined the Mound. The disruption and chaos brought by the Revolutionary War resulted in the rapid decline of the Iroquois in New York immediately after the War. There is little historical information available from Iroquois historians. This makes it difficult to present a native American version of the Mound's history. Therefore, the historical information which follows exclusively presents the official archaeological view.

The earliest whites to visit the Osco Mound describe it as an earthwork designed as a defensive fort surrounding a village. Indeed, when white men first arrived in the Owasco region, a fortified village of Cayuga Indians occupied the site. Early reports all concern themselves with the earthwork of rampart and trench which is at the summit of the Mound. All of them presume the Mound was built by a society at war. Not one examines the topography and geometry of the larger site. And, of course, none of the investigators was a dowser, or employed one in a site survey.
Earthwork Ring
south side summit of main mound

There is controversy over whether the Cayugas or some other tribe constructed the Mound. According to one source, a Chief of the Cayugas claimed the Mound was built by a "wiser but weaker" tribe whom the Cayugas displaced from the site. And North American archaeological research supports the view that Fort Hill Mound was built before the Cayugas and other Iroquois tribes appeared in the Finger Lakes region.

Moundbuilders
Migration from the South?

Most authorities take the view that the original Moundbuilders were another Indian culture who migrated north up the Mississippi and east out of the Ohio valleys a few hundred years before the Iroquois arrived in the Finger Lakes region. Until early in this century these earlier Indians were simply referred to as "Alleghans" after the Alleghany Mountains. The Alleghans remain an unresolved archaeological enigma of North American history, a native American culture which inhabited the middle of the North American continent during an earlier millennium before the arrival of Columbus, and then vanished. A special feature of Alleghan society was their construction of earthen mounds. They left behind tens of thousands of earthworks scattered from the Finger Lakes down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, and also up the Missouri and along the Gulf Coast.
The Hollow
Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, NY

Early European explorers in the heartland of North America reported seeing river landscapes dotted with ancient earthworks. Not just individual mounds, but vast complexes of mounds, ramparts, walls, ditches, and other earthworks laid out in geometric designs. Some sites covered scores of acres. They are so common that a look at any state map in the east will turn up many towns whose names include the word "mound". The mounds themselves were usually simple geometric forms such as pyramids and cones, although many had a more complex geometry. Others were in the form of effigies of animals and insects.

One of the most well known of these is Indian Serpent Mound in southwest Ohio. This effigy is four to five feet high and 200 feet long. It depicts a sinuous snake with tightly coiled tail. Its wide open mouth is about to engulf an oval egg.

Southern Ohio contains an abundance of ancient earthworks, and quite a few have been studied by official archeaologists. These Moundbuilders in southern Ohio have been assigned the name "Hopewell Cult". The view is that a hunting and farming population had been inhabiting this region for several centuries. About 100 BC these indigenous suddenly adopted a new practice of building mounds as part of an elaborate religious funeral ritual. The last earthwork was built about 550 B.C., after which the practice died out.

Another well known site is a few miles northeast of St. Louis in Illinois. This rich river valley region where the Illinois and Missouri rivers join the Mississippi is called the American Bottoms. There are several hundred mounds in this area that once contained the most populous pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. One complex of 120 mounds has been preserved as Cahokia State Park, named after the Indians living there when the French arrived in the 1700's. It includes Monk's Mound, the largest earthwork in the New World, and among the largest built by ancient man.

Monks Mound
Cahokia Mounds State Park, Illinois

a UNESCO World Heritage site

Ancient North American site includes large mounds of various sizes and shapes. Recently drilling into one revealed a heretofore unknown, unexpected solid rock core believed made of limestone. Efforts continue to reveal hidden inner structure of these mounds.
Covering 15 acres, Monk's Mound marks the center of a 125 square mile area of dense population settlement. Monk's Mound is over 700 feet by 1000 feet, and 120 feet above level terrain. It has the shape of an asymmetrical four stepped pyramid, or "platform mound".

The Cahokia complex was one of ten large centers and 50 farming villages which flourished in about 1000 A.D. How¬ever, it appears that by 1200 A.D. the Cahokia complex was in decline, and was largely abandoned by the 1700's. No reason is known for this sudden decline.

There is lots of archaeological speculation about the origin and purpose of these cultures with their unique moundbuilding behavior. Prevailing authority has it that North American mounds belong to not one, but a series of three separate cultural traditions spanning 3,000 years. The most intriguing theory for the origin of moundbuilding places it in central America with Mayan civilization. Either by direct migration, or indirectly by the diffusion of culture, ritual and technology, the Mayan practice of building temple mounds spread into North America along the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio valleys.
Teotihuacan
central Mexico

Archaeology presently traces Mayan culture back to a Formative Period beginning about 2,600 BC. Most of the great temple mounds were constructed during the Classic Period, extending from 250 AD. to 900 AD. Not only was their massive architecture impressive, the Mayas also developed their art, mathematics, astronomy and calendar to a more advanced state than any other in the New World. The last Toltec Kingdom fell shortly after 1000 AD. and was soon supplanted by the Aztecs of central Mexico, who were discovered and brutally subdued by the Spanish conquistadore Cortez in 1521 AD.

Whatever the origin of moundbuilder culture, it seems reasonable that some of these mid-American moundbuilders migrated northeast out of the Ohio Valley into the Ontario region, probably shortly after 1000 A.D. Several mounds attributed to them have been identified in nearly every county in western New York, including Chautauqua, Cattarraugus, Erie, Livingston, Niagara, Wyoming and Genesee counties. None is as large as those in Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois. In official history, Fort Hill is the eastern outpost of this migration of Moundbuilder culture up through North America.
Spiral Knob
Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, NY

Iroquois
Invaders from the North?

According to official archaeology, sometime after about 1200 A.D., several tribes of Indians began descending from the north. Some called themselves "Haudenosaunee." Later, they became known as "Iroquois," a name given them by the French. They migrated down along the St. Lawrence River into the eastern Great Lakes, then the Finger Lakes then were even more a jewel than today, and the hardy northerners began to contest with the Alleghans for possession of the region. In due time the Iroquois overcame their weaker cousins from the south, and the original moundbuilders departed, taking their culture and technology with them.

It would seem that in due time, the speciaI spirit of the Finger Lakes worked its magic upon the Haudenausaunee, and they were transformed from warring nomadic tribes to a strong united society founded on democracy, liberty, reason and peace. By the time of Columbus, five nations of these northern invaders had confederated into the Iroquois League, or Five Nation Confederacy. This powerful alliance controlled territory from the St. Lawrence down the Hudson into the Appalachians and west into Ohio. At that time, the League was the most advanced form of direct participatory democracy in practice on the Earth. The story of the founding of this Iroquois League is one of the most extraordinary tales in the history of government, peace and disarmament. So much so that the Founding Fathers of the United States, especially Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, studied the League as their model to formulate the U.S. Constitution.
The Thumb
north slopes, Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, NY

The eastern Finger Lakes in the area of Osco Mound were occupied by the Cayuga Nation of the Confederacy. The Cayugas were sufficiently impressed by the Osco Mound to make it their "Capitol." It was the principal residence of their ten Sachems (or Senators) who represented them on the Grand Council of the Five Nation Confederacy. The ten villages which composed the Cayuga Nation held their own Councils on the level ground at the east end of the Mound. In 1730, one of the Cayuga Sachems was Shikellimus, the father of Logan, for whom the 56 foot stone obelisk at the center of the Mound is dedicated. (see sidebar)

European Settlement and Exploration

On February 25th, 1789 in the Treaty, of Albany, the Cayuga ceded their lands to the State of New York, and the village at Osco was abandoned. The first official report of the Mound was filed in the notes of the NY Surveyor General of "an Indian fort on an eminence in the Cayuga tract." The country was soon portioned out to soldiers of the American Revolutionary Army and settled. Elijah Miller, an early settler, first saw it in 1810. The entire hill was covered with a heavy forest, and many trees stood atop the embankment and the trenches, partially obscuring them from observers. He recollects that those who settled prior to himself reported the embankment was six feet at the turn of the century.
The Knob
Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, NY

Because of its height, terraced ramparts and strategic location, the Mound was viewed by the European newcomers as a defensive fort, and so was called "Fort Hill." Later, as the story of the Alleghans became known to investigators of North American antiquities, the area atop the Mound was referred to as Fort Alleghan. A map of Fort Hill Cemetery dated 1919 still referred to the heights of the Mound as Fort Alleghan.

Early attention to the site focused exclusively on the irregular ring of earthworks on top of the Mound, since this was the area occupied by a fortified village of Cayugas at the time. No attention was given to the topography of the surrounding land and its geometric relationships to the earthworks atop the Mound.

After careful study, my conviction is that military designs played no role it's original construction. Instead, the Mound's builders utilized design principles which are essentially unknown in modern thinking. It is more useful to imagine there was peace. not war, during the cultural period when the Mound was constructed. However, the earthen ditch and bank atop the Mound are indeed key to an understanding of the design and purpose of the structure.
The Logan Obelisk

The Tale of Logan

At Osco, the main mound's summit is enclosed by a low earthwork ring. At this ring's center is a "ceremonial altar"—a four-foot rise of earth, 25 feet across. Rising from this is a 70 foot high oblisk of native limestone erected in 1854 by the Fort Hill Cemetery Association. Affixed to this stone monument is a white marble plaque, on which is embossed a mysterious query of few words:

Who is there to mourn for Logan?

Logan was the last chief of the Cayuga village at Osco. His father was Shikellimus. one of the sachems who represented the Cayuga Nation at meetings of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Because of his trust and friendship with Europeans, Shikellimus had his son born and baptized a Christian, and Logan grew up among many warm, close relations with the new white hunters, traders and settlers.

During the Revolutionary War, many Senecas and Mohawks fought with the British, while many Oneidas and Cayugas took sides with the colonial rebels. Logan remained steadfast in his commitment to peace, and counseled the Confederacy to remain neutral in the bloody war.

When the Cayugas ceded their lands in 1789, Logan moved with his family to northwestern Pennsylvania, then later to southern Ohio. It was there tragedy struck. Troops under command of a Colonel Cresap ambushed a party of peaceful Cayugas in a mistaken belief they were hostiles. All the Cayugas were massacred, including all of Logan's family—women and children included.

Upon hearing of his family's massacre, Logan became a warrior, joined the rebellious tribes, and fought against the whites in many battles. At the teaty to negociate peace between the native tribes and the Americans, Logan refused to attend, but delivered an address. All who heard it were so greatly moved that is was passed by word of mouth, and eventually written down.


Logan's Lament
at the end of Lord Dunmore's War

[There is some doubt about the authenticity of this speech, but the following version was transcribed by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on Virginia.]

I appeal to any white to say, if ever he entered Logan’s cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat: if he ever came cold and naked, and he clothed him not.

During the course of the last long bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love or the whites, hat my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said "Logan is the friend of white men."

I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man. Colonel Cresap, last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan; not even sparing my women and children.

There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it. I have killed many. I have fully glutted my vengeance.

For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life.

Who is there to mourn for Logan?

Not one!

In 1825 historian MacCauley visited the Mound and noted the condition of the earthwork in his History of the State. He found "the embankment in eight pieces, varying from 100 to 300 paces, with intervals between. The east and west sides fall, first moderately, then rapidly; on the south, abruptly; and in the direction of the village, gently. The circumference was 436 paces, or 1380 feet. The enclosure was 134 paces long and 110 wide. It is as near to a circle as the ground would admit. The bank was two to two and a half feet high, eight to ten feet wide, of earth taken from a ditch twelve to eighteen inches deep." The trench has been filled in, and is now occupied by the cemetery drive.

MacCauley found a chestnut stump in the moat three feet two inches in diameter at two and a half feet above the ground. In the trunk of a tree lying nearby, he counted 235 annual growth rings, to which he added 30 more for a decayed center. Adding several years since the tree had fallen yielded a date before 1555 A.D. Another fallen chestnut in the moat was 270 years old, and yielded a date before Columbus' discovery of America. MacCauley admitted that for all he knew, several growths of timber may have gone before the desertion of the Mound, and he concluded that this and other similar works were constructed long before America was known to Europeans. My own dowsing determines a much older age of 4,200 years for the Mound.

In 1845, under direction of the NYS Secretary of State, historian Schoolcraft examined Fort Hill, which he refers as "Osco". This name means "crossing," and was derived from the name given by an Onondaga chief. Schoolcraft wrote: "Fort Hill attracted notice from earliest times. Its height renders it a commanding spot. Crowned with earthen ramparts and palisades, it {was} an impregnable stronghold during early wars. The site, the highest in the vicinity, affords the best views of Owasco Valley and Auburn. The elipsis enclosed by embankments with intervening spaces has a circumference of 1200 feet.

Immediately below the embankment are deep ravines separated by acute ridges which made this work difficult of approach. In the north, the ground descends gradually 70 feet to a perfect acclivity. A natural extension to the east of several hundred yards {is broken by} a depression {which} separates the east terminus from its crown at the fort. It is not known if excavations have been made."

Like many others, Schoolcraft puzzles at the irregular nature of the earthen ring atop the Mound. He continues: "Viewed as a military work, the breaks and openings in the wall are characteristic. They are of various and irregular width. The widest opening of 136 feet is north. The next is south. It {is} difficult to decide why they are so numerous. If for egress or ingress, they {reduce} security, unless they were defended by destructible materials which have disappeared. But to render the entire wall defensible, it must have had palisades."

Schoolcraft concludes: "The work conforms to the genius and character of the red races who occupied the Ohio Valley, and who waged battle for possession of the valuable part of the country prior to the era of the discovery of America ere the Iroquois tribes had confederated and made themselves masters of the soil.” Thus he supports the idea that Fort Hill was constructed, not by the Iroquois, but by the same Alleghan tribes who constructed the mounds dotting the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys.

In 1850, the antiquarian E. G. Squires visited Fort Hill, which he stated was "the best preserved and most interesting work in the state." At that time, "the embankments are two to three feet high, and the trenches of corresponding depth. The work and ground around it are covered with forest trees. There are several depressions, probably the caches of ancient occupants. A number of relics have been recovered, among them the head of a banner staff 14 inches long and ten inches broad, probably of French or English origin and buried by the Indians." Like others, Squires was convinced that the Mound was a defensive fort, but he, too, notes ''the number and relative proportions of wide unprotected gateways or openings conflicts with the supposition that the work had a defensive origin."

In 1851, most of the land occupied by the Mound was sold for $1 to a cemetery association. Thus an archaeological treasure of an ancient civilization became a graveyard. Fort Hill Cemetery was consecrated on July 7, 1852. Buried there is William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State who purchased Alaska, and Captain Myles W. Keogh, who died with Custer's ill fated U.S. 7th Cavalry in an attack on Sioux Indians.

In 1853, the Cemetery Association completed construction of a 56-foot-high obelisk of native limestone atop what had been the Ceremonial Altar of the site. This monument, in a multitude of tragic ironies, was named in honor of Logan, last chief the Cayuga village at the site. (see sidebar)

The Cemetery Handbook speculates about the "sacrificial mound within the enclosure. The elevation there was plainly visible before the ground was graded for cemetery purposes. Such a tumuli was present in all fortified villages of Alleghans. Their place of worship was generally within the walls of their fortress, as the burial of the dead was without. It may be assumed that an earthen altar for sacrifice and worship once existed at or near the site of the Logan monument. These then are the precious relics of a people who retired from this eminence in the 13th century; who were wiser yet weaker than the Iroquois, and unable to maintain their superior military force. The Alleghans receded to the Ohio Valley from whence they came, leaving their fortress, altar and ashes of their dead behind."

Portions of the northeast corner remained private property and are developed into houses. And a row of houses along Woodlawn Avenue is crowded against the northern slopes of the Mound.

Historical records indicate several features of Osco which are no longer evident. A rampart seven feet high and a trench ten feet wide and three feet deep which enclosed the site was erased by plowing during the early years of white settlement. One small piece of it is still evident in the backyards of houses between Woodlawn Av. and Genesee St. north of the Mound. There is also mention of a spring and gateway on the northeast.

Every time I've visited Fort Hill there has been a flock of at least a dozen crows cawing through the treetops. On one occasion in November, 1986, shortly after the national elections, there was a convention of well over 200 crows walking around on the ground—undoubtedly caucusing. The month before, a loud and long outburst of caws from the crows announced the passage high overhead of a circling migration of hawks.

Osco is a beautiful and peaceful setting. Amidst the noise and activity of a small city, it offers a quiet natural setting to reflect and relax. Numerous large and aged mature trees cover the Mound. Unfortunately, many of them are old, weak and diseased, a visible sign that the natural vitality of the site is at a low ebb. The knarled and broken crowns of these giants contribute an odd atmosphere to the place. In the spring the cemetery lawn erupts in a profusion of wildflowers, lending a delightful sense of magic to the Mound.


The Northern Slopes
Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, NY


The Green DragonDavid YarrowTurtle EyeLandwww.championtrees.orgupdated 4/30/2006