Visitors to today's Council Grounds are following a very old tradition. For over a century, guests of Mr. Letchworth have come to the shady bluff above the Glen Iris to take a journey into the past.
William Pryor Letchworth had a life long interest in history, and when he purchased and developed his Glen Iris Estate he became fascinated by the native heritage of the Genesee Valley. He read extensively and journeyed with other members of the Buffalo Historical Society to archaeological sites throughout the valley. Letchworth, like other gentlemen archaeologists, had begun a "cabinet" of "Indian curiosities". He soon would take a much more serious and significant role in preserving the Valley's past.
Letchworth discovered that the old Council House on the former Caneadea Reservation was still standing, but not for long. It had served as the home of the Joel Seaton family for several years after the Reservation was sold, but despite being moved some forty feet and the slight alterations by the Seaton family, it was still much the same as it had been when it was built by the British and Seneca before the Revolutionary War.
Letchworth purchased the log building, carefully numbered each piece, and then moved it on the Genesee Valley Canal to his estate. He hired John Shanks, one of Mary Jemison's Seneca grandsons, to carry out the reconstruction work. The work was completed by the fall of 1872 when Letchworth invited the descendants of the Iroquois leaders for a "Last" Council Fire on the Genesee. (see our "Mementoes Historic - Old Indian Council Grounds)
The Council Fire was held on October 1, 1872. After the speeches and the rededication of the Council House, the Senecas held another ceremony, adopting Letchworth as Hai-wa-ye-is-tah, the "Man who always Does Right.". Before they left, the Iroquois and other guests, which included former President Millard Fillmore, planted memorial trees and signed their names in a special guest register. (The practice of signing the Council Grounds guest registers would be followed until Mr. Letchworth's death. These historic registers are now carefully preserved by the Park.)
Over the next three decades Mr. Letchworth continued to work on his Council Grounds. He agreed to a request by the Jemison family to bring the remains of Dehgewanus, the Old White Woman, back to the Valley. She was reburied near the Council House in 1874. The Nancy Jemison Cabin from Gardeau was added, as was a portion of the Big Tree from Geneseo. A rustic arbor and an entrance lodge were built, the latter serving as museum until the Genesee Valley Museum was built in 1898. A swiss cottage, which stood near the present day parking lot, served as a caretaker's house.
A few years after Mr. Letchworth's death, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society decided to make radical changes to the Grounds. They moved the Council House and Jemison Cabin further from Mary's grave and tore down the cottage, entrance lodge, arbor, and a small pavilion covering the piece of the Big Tree. The Museum was also taken down, it's contents moved to the new Museum on the Glen Iris grounds.
No major changes were made to the Grounds in the decades that followed. An iron fence was place around the grave, black top paths were added, and lights were installed in the Council House and Cabin. But the significance of the Grounds was not forgotten. In September of 1983 a Mary Jemison Native American Day was held to commemorate the 150 year anniversary of Dehgewanus' death. On that day the Council House again was filled with guests and speakers, including Jemison descendents and Seneca leaders. Once more the words of traditional Seneca prayers and speeches echoed from the ancient logs, as they had in the days when the entire Valley had belonged to the Seneca.
As the Park's Centennial approached, plans were made to do much needed conservation work on the buildings and statue and to restore the Grounds as much as possible to what it looked liked during Mr. Letchworth's lifetime. (See our Glimpse of the Council Grounds work). The work was completed in May of 2006 in time for the opening Centennial Ceremonies.
Despite the many changes to the Council Grounds, visitors who journey to the bluff can still partake in the tradition established long ago. Each of them comes as guests of William Pryor Letchworth, who still invites them to explore the native history of the Genesee Valley.
Photograph of the Mary Jemison Statue
Mary Jemison's Epitaphs
Visitors to the Council House
Council Ground Souvenir
Council Grounds Restoration Project
Anderson, Genesee Echoes....
Howland, A Guide.....
WM P Letchworth Papers, Letchworth State Park