Some of you may have seen the new History Channel series The Search for the Lost Giants. A Facebook friend gave me a tag while discussing his enthusiasm for the show, and it’s gotten me updating my comments on the subject of Giant Skeleton Reports (GSR from now on). In the earlier article in this series (see here) I commented on the historic reports of human giants, the program, and my meeting with its host.
Western New York is no slouch when it comes to GSR. In fact, the territory of the historic Seneca nation was actually quite rich in them, as was anything else in the sphere of the Adena and Mississippian trade network. These old Native American cultures and those they influenced were marked by a tendency to rework the landscape into massive and often eye-catching earthworks. If you spend even a few seconds speculating that there could have been a pre-Columbian caste, tribe or population of extra-large human beings, the concentration of so many GSR sites along river valleys on the underside of the Great Lakes gets you fancying about ancient kingdoms and echelons of alternate populations. (I hear a Game of Thronescoming, North American style.) For what it’s worth, here are my top ten favorite GSR in Western New York, bottom to top, with comment:
10) Penn Yan. Stafford Cleveland’s History and Directory of Yates County (1873) noted that a circular burial mound along Keuka Lake had been opened up sometime in the 1800s. One of the examiners was a Penn Yan doctor who counted a number of seven-footers among the skeletons that emerged. A mystery-culture of some kind could quite well have been at work in the region. The bluff above Y-shaped Keuka Lake was the site of the most confounding set of ancient structures ever reported about New York State. Look up “the Bluff Point Stoneworks” for an earful. When queried by the first whites to settle the area, the Seneca had no idea who built them – or weren’t saying.
9) East Aurora. The village of East Aurora has a couple ancient mysteries in its track record. In History of the Holland Purchase (1850), Orsamus Turner reported that an East Aurora villager, Chas. P. Pierson, uncovered an exceptionally large skeleton while digging his basement. The thigh bones indicated that the former owner had been inches taller than the tallest white American known.
8) Ellisburg (PA). Jim Brandon’s 1978 book Weird America is a Fortean (“weird-osities”) classic. In it, Brandon recounts a curious find from Ellisburg, P.A., just over the border south of Wellsville, N.Y. A burial mound torn apart in 1886 was found to contain the bones of an eight-footer.
7) Cassadaga. About seven miles south of Fredonia, Cassadaga’s Upper, Middle, and Lower lakes make the form of a blobby L on the map. Nestled just north of the figurative elbow is today’s Spiritualist community Lily Dale. From the number of earthwork monuments found by the early settlers on the east side of the Cassadaga Lakes, we judge that this was a place “of ancient sanctity,” in the phrase of British author-researcher John Michell. Lily Dale appears to have been a prehistoric necropolis, a pan-Native American “city of the dead.” (Now, whoda thunk that? Lily Dale.)
Somewhere between the lakes and today’s north-south Rt. 60 was a mound in the yard of Dr. Thomas Phillips that was seven feet high when historian/local explorer Dr. T. Apoleon Cheney visited it in 1859. It was even then much diminished from the effects of the plow and the assaults of Rambo archaeologists looking for buried treasure. The mound was only five feet high when antiquarian Obed Edson visited in 1870. In “Notes on the Aboriginal Occupation of the Cassadaga Valley,” Edson reported that the mound had disgorged several human skeletons during an early 1820s excavation, one of remarkable size. (Doc Cheney judged it to be a nine-footer, which inspired Randolph, NY, resident Charles Hunnington to make two gigantic “wooden Indians” which have been on display at the Little Valley, N.Y., museum since 1938.) I hear that at least one of the Lily Dale mounds is still standing, and on private property, so don’t get any ideas about Indiana Jones-style prospecting. It may be worth mentioning that there were some better-than-average 19th century Bigfoot reports in this swamp and creek valley.
6) Rochester. A natural sand mound revealed a surprise in 1796. “On the shore of Lake Ontario on a high bluff near Irondequoit Bay… the bank caved off and untombed a great quantity of human bones of a large size,” observed Rochester resident Oliver Culver. A number of sources preserve his account, including Turner’s History of the Pioneer Settlement of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase (1851). “As late as 1830 human bones of an unusually large size were occasionally seen projecting from the face of the bluff or lying on the beach,” reported G. H. Harris in Aboriginal Occupation of the Lower Genesee County (1884). “The arm and leg bones, upon comparison, were much larger than those of our own race,” wrote Arthur Caswell Parker in The Archaeological History of New York (1922). By that I think the great Seneca scholar meant, “the human race.” I doubt that a thorough excavation was ever made here. If the local landscaping hasn’t been too dramatic, some bones could still be left. FYI, I hear this spot was on the west side of Irondequoit Bay.
5) Conewango. The Conewango Creek is a slow-moving, 70-mile long tributary of the Allegany River that cuts through Little Valley and meanders back and forth over the border between Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. Its course does in places cut a nifty valley, and Doc Cheney noted the prevalence of earthwork ring-forts at high places along it. In Illustrations of the Ancient Monuments in Western New York (1859), Cheney reported on a 12-foot high elliptical mound on the Cattaraugus County side that held eight big skeletons. Most crumbled, but a thigh bone that held together was found to be 28 inches in length. (Yours, gentle reader, is one fourth your height, say, 15-20”.) That bruiser was a nine-footer. Exquisite stone points, enamelwork, and Mesoamerican-like jewelry were also unearthed in the vicinity.
4) Carrolton. About five miles southeast of Salamanca is Carrollton, a Cattaraugus County town alongside the Allegany River. “Fort Limestone” was an egg-shaped earthwork that enclosed five Carrollton acres. Shadows of the Western Door recycled reports that, in 1851, a farmer removing a stump within it turned up a trove of bones, some of them huge. This was one of the sites in which the skeletal remains were sturdy enough to be examined and even handled. One Franklinville resident named Marvin Older paraded about the excavation site wearing a skull like a football helmet. A shinbone went from his ankle to well over his knee, and a rib curved all the way around him. It’s hard to argue that people were mistaken about the size of the finds. If you could find “Fort Limestone,” this might also be a good place to dig for leftovers. Incidentally, a peculiar but precise egglike shape called “the flattened oval” was virtually standardized for some of the stone circles of England. It would be interesting to know the exact geometry of Fort Limestone to see if there could have been any connection to other structures, either on or off the continent. That’s another argument for preservation: you never know when you might learn something later.
3) Tonawanda. Right offshore from the village of North Tonawanda is a small island in the Niagara River upon which the Stephen White family once dwelt in their fine Federal-style mansion. Another structure had been there when the Whites arrived: a ten-foot high burial mound people could see from shore. Someone decided to take it apart sometime in the 1820s, and at least two of the skeletons found within were head-scratchers. One had to be that of an eight-footer. Several period commenters referred to the two bestial, semi-human crania. [“The skulls are said to differ from the ordinary type,” wrote Truman White cautiously in Volume I of Our County and Its People, A Descriptive Work on Erie County (1898).] If there is a Bigfoot, the proof could have been here.
2) Shelby. Many early commenters – including E. G. Squier, Henry Schoolcraft, and Rev. Samuel Kirkland, Protestant missionary to the Iroquois – noted the prevalence of ancient forts and monuments in a region running from the Ridge Road (Rt. 104) southwest all the way to the Buffalo Creek. This chunk of the Niagara Frontier had been a busy place for the mound-builders. Orsamus Turner noted that, about a mile and a half west of today’s Shelby Center, was an old earthwork that looked like it had undergone a siege. Piles of good throwing-stones (or slingstones) were found there in the 1800s, and a number of skeletons were unearthed, as I read it, inside the fortification. The big ones were reported to be those of seven- and even eight-footers. About a mile west of this fort was a sand hill from which a few hundred violence-marked normal-sized skeletons were taken. While some interpret this construction as an ossuary – a bone-pit burial – such as were fairly common among some Native nations, the popular explanation of the day was that this was a battlefield, and that seems to be a lasting impression. (“That was a nasty site,” said one of my historian friends.) This contrast between burned and bashed ordinary bodies and apparently honored giant ones leads to flights of romantic speculation. Were the mass burials those of the attackers left behind? Were the giants buried inside the fort killed while defending it? I hear a self-published fantasy novel calling. This would be the ideal spot to excavate now, if anyone would let you.
1) Sayre (P.A). One of the oddest and most sensational GSR I can think of is this one from 1886 just south of Elmira, N.Y., recycled in Jim Brandon’s book. A burial mound in Sayre, P.A., was opened up by dozens of locals, with many professional people among them. (The crew might have included Dr. G.P. Donehoo, A. B. Skinner of the American Investigating Museum, and W. K. Morehead of the Phillips Academy, Andover, MA.) Hardly the cast of Hee Haw or the heavies in Deliverance, they should have been in a good position to handle remains, interpret finds, and corroborate stories. Several dozen skeletons were unearthed. A good number of them were seven-footers, and some were reported to be even bigger. Strangest of all, some of the skulls had knobs like stubby devil-horns on their foreheads. Just what this anomaly really was or what these people could have looked like in life is quite the wonder. To add to the mystery, the remains were conveyed to the American Investigating Museum in Philadelphia and never heard from again. Locals even inquired afterward with the Museum and got stonewalled. For you conspiracy-freaks, this ought to suggest a coverup.
It is interesting to note that the Iroquois maintained legends of giants about this region near the meeting of the Susquehanna and Chemung rivers of New York State. It was reputed to be the territory of the Andastes, a powerful nation of wizard-warriors who stood up to the Iroquois about as well as anyone did in pre-Contact New York. About ten miles east of Elmira is something called “Spanish Hill” in Waverly, N.Y., rumored to be their stronghold. This might be a great spot to go looking for the remains of the old fort, if not those of its defenders.
©2015 Mason Winfield
Mason Winfield is the author of eleven books on supernatural-paranormal subjects.
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