Spring 1997

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Who Built the "Old Fort" on Bare Hill

and other Pre-Seneca Structures in Yates County, N. Y.?


David D. Robinson

Bare Hill is located in the Town of Middlesex, which was originally part
of Ontario County, later incorporated into Yates County

The first printed reference to a fort on top of Bare Hill above Canandaigua Lake near Middlesex, New York, was made in 1825 by David Cusick in his history of the Seneca Indians. An account of Cusick's version of the legend of the creation of the Seneca People, which does involve the fort, may be found in the Spring, 1988, issue of the magazine Turtle Quarterly. Cusick does not describe the fort, other than to mention that in the legend, "…the serpent …surrounded the gate." A gate in the fort is also mentioned by Henry R. Schoolcraft in his 1847 book Notes on the Iroquois (page 98) in connection with the legend. His description is too vague to be of any use. Charles F. Milliken also mentions a gate in his version of the legend, in his Ontario County, New York, and Its People (1911), "…a monstrous serpent…lay with its mouth open at the gate…" His description of the fort is also vague.

Hard facts about the Old Fort are not easy to come by. The most widely quoted description of the Old Fort appears in S. C. Cleveland's History of Yates County, New York (1873): "The traces of an ancient fort, covering about an acre, and surrounded by a ditch, and formerly by a formidable wall, are still to be seen on top of Bare Hill. They indicate defenses raised by Indian hands, or more probably belong to the labors of a race that preceded the Indian occupation. The wall is now about tumbled down, the stones seem somewhat scattered, and the ground is overgrown with brush. "

This description although meager, is the best I have found in the 16 years I have been attempting to learn more about the fort. No one seems to have taken photographs of the site as it was before it was destroyed about 1933. Did Cleveland actually see the fort he described? It is likely that none of the historians had visited the site, but had depended upon the descriptions of others.

The Seneca Indians, who were in possession of the site of the fort when the white settlers arrived in the late 1780s, say that they did not build the fort. In fact the Seneca deny that they built any of the earth and stone structures in Yates County. The structures were old, they say, when they arrived on the scene. This is considered to be around 1400 to 1500 AD. The Seneca are thought to have moved from the shores of the Seneca River where they had dwelt with the Cayuga Indians. The north-flowing Seneca River is the outlet of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes.

The Fort in Recent Years

The Old Fort cannot be seen today. Not only was the material that made up the fort dug up with a steam shovel in the early 1920s to provide road fill, but the Town of Middlesex highway crew dug down three feet deep around the spring at the site of the fort for still more road fill. All that is left of the site of the fort is a three-foot-deep hole in the ground about 45 feet wide and 75 feet long. It is assumed that the ground around the spring was softer than that farther away, and it was worth the effort to obtain road fill there.

No person I have talked to recalls the shape of the fort, nor the location of the ditch in reference to the wall. Emily McCombs White, in her December, 1986, "The Story of Bare Hill," which is on file in the Middlesex Historian's office, states that "…under Supervisor Glenn Martin…the road men took [a] steam shovel and equipment and went up to where the rocks at the top of the hill [were] and dug out the rocks and brought them down on a stoneboat…[then]…they would load them on the truck and bring them down to the North Vine Valley [Road]. "

The Vine Valley Burial Ground

Emily McCombs White's story continues: "When Steltz Lafler was digging out a knoll at the top of Vine Valley Hill, he dug into an Indian [who] was buried there, sitting half way up, a hand held a pipe in it. It scared Steltz and he hollered to dad to come up there and see what he found…dad [contacted] Mr. Arthur Parker and [the Rochester Museum] took the relics. "

The site of the burial was Glen McCombs' gravel pit, at the bottom of Bare Hill, inside the steep hairpin curve in the North Vine Valley Road. In 1904 Glen's father, Theodore McCombs discovered Indian burials there, but not a great deal was done with them until Arthur C. Parker of the Rochester Museum, later head of the department of archeology of New York State, and William A. Ritchie, also from the Rochester Museum, conducted a formal archeological excavation of the burials there. The time of the discovery of the half-sitting-up Indian with a pipe in his hand seems to have been in 1920 during the widening and reconstruction of the Overacker's Corners-Vine Valley Road, later renamed the North Vine Valley Road.

Who Were the People Buried at the Foot of Bare Hill?

In William A. Ritchie's The Pre-Iroquoian Occupations of New York State (1944) and in his The Archeology of New York State (revised in 1980), Ritchie makes it clear that the people buried at the foot of Bare Hill were of the late Adena culture. Which means that they were not the other principal mound building people in pre-Columbian North America, the Hopewell, who were somewhat more advanced than the Adena. The Hopewell were more slightly built than the Adena, with narrow skulls. Both were much more advanced than any native people found by white settlers when they arrived in North America.

The term "Hopewell Culture" comes from Captain M. C. Hopewell, who owned a farm near Chillicothe, Ohio, which contained a 110 acre enclosure with more than thirty mounds inside it. The richest trove of artifacts exhibited in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair came from Captain Hopewell's farm. The name "Hopewell" was subsequently given to similar sites, and was eventually given to the people of this culture.

The name "Adena" comes from the name of the estate of Ohio governor Thomas Worthington. The estate was on a hilltop overlooking Chillicothe, Ohio. It was here in 1901 that artifacts different from Hopewell artifacts were excavated. This seems to have been the first indication that another mound-building people had been active in Ohio.

Dates for the start and ending of the Adena Culture vary with each person who considers himself to be an authority, as do dates for the beginning and ending of the Hopewell Culture. But 1,000 BC to 300 AD seems a good guess for the span of the Adena. This comes from an Atlas of Ancient Civilizations printed in England in 1989. The magazine Early Man, Winter, 1979, gives dates for the Hopewell as from 100 BC until around 500 AD. Other authorities would put dates for the Hopewell back to at least 200 BC. And every authority would argue with these dates, or any others presented, except his own.

Such evidence as was discovered at Vine Valley (skeletons, but with many skulls and other bones missing) indicates that the Adena buried there were round headed with broad skulls and prominent brow ridges and jaws, without the flat back of the skulls often found among the Adena, artificially induced in early childhood by the use of crib boards. Nor were these Adena the "giants," sometimes reported at Adena sites farther west in New York Sate and elsewhere—six foot women and seven foot men.

The Adena may have had a two-tier society: the leaders being the giants, and the workers the strong, squat people. In a great many Adena burials, the bodies had first been cremated, or were subjected to "platform burials" wherein the bodies had been exposed to the elements on raised platforms until the flesh was gone, and the remnants were wrapped in animal skins and buried. These practices often did not leave much for archeologists to examine. It seems that in Vine Valley the children and the more important people in the community were buried intact, often with a dog killed for the purpose.

Were the builders of the Old Fort those "Indians" who were buried at the foot of Bare Hill? The people buried in Glen McCombs' gravel pit have been identified as a small segment of an advanced race who once inhabited much of what is now the eastern United States. But this race, whose tenure lasted for more than a thousand years, is not known to have ever constructed an enclosure made of stones. Their major construction efforts that survived until destroyed by white settlers, were thousands of large earth mounds, usually burial mounds, and hundreds of circular earth enclosures, differing in size, although "about an acre" describes many of them, most with a gate and an interior ditch. While there was enough earth on top of Bare Hill so that they could dig a ditch, there does not seem to have been enough to build more than a low earthen wall. It appears that the ditch was symbolic in this case, rather than a practical ditch. This in turn seems to indicate that the custom of building the enclosures was long established by the time the "fort" on Bare Hill was built, and the reason for the ditch may have been forgotten.

Adena Earth Rings

The Adena constructed their rings of earth with internal ditches all over Ohio, Indiana, and adjoining states. Rings of about an acre in extent were common, and most of them had an opening. Most drawings of the "Sacred Circles" as they were often called by the settlers, showed the opening faced either to the north, or east, or south. Earth circles with a diameter of 250 feet were the most common found. This indicates that the Adena had a unit of measure, which is an advanced concept. A circle with a diameter of 250 feet has an area of about one and one tenth acres, certainly close to being "about an acre in extent," as stated in one description of the Bare Hill "Fort." No Adena sacred circle has been found that exceeds 500 feet in diameter, according to Robert Silverberg on page 187 in The Mound Builders (reprinted in 1989).

Except for their large size, these earth rings are not unlike the kivas of the southwestern Anasazi, considering the mound outside the ditch as the bench of the Anasazi kiva. We do not know that the sacred circles were used as kivas, but they were certainly ceremonial in nature. So were the kivas, most of them essentially men's clubs, and possibly a way for the men to get away from their wives, who were ususally not permitted inside. Nothing new under the sun.

While the kiva might be an adaptation of the Adena sacred circle, the sacred circle might instead have been an adaptation of the kiva. The kiva is thought to have started in the Southwest as an adaptation of Basket Makers' pit houses by new tribes who moved into Basket Makers' territory around 500 BC. The new tribes also flattened the backs of their children's heads, as did some of the Adena. Thus there appears to be more than chance similarity between the Adena and the tribes who came after the Basket Makers and eventually became the Pueblo Indians.

But a case is made by some archeologists that the many Mexican characteristics of the Adena, including such things as flattened skulls and building burial mounds, came after the Adena, who Squier (see below) felt started in western New York State, came in contact with people from Mexico, and adopted many of their customs.

The stone circles of England (Avebury is the outstanding example) sometimes were surrounded by a ditch and an earth wall outside the ditch. It has been discovered that this type of construction results in an odd aerodynamic advantage to people in the center of the circle—no wind. Today some tennis courts are constructed employing this principle. The advantage to people attempting to hold a religious service, or ceremonial ritual, inside such a ditch and wall are obvious.

Hopewell Structures

Ritchie feels that the Hopewell first became a distinct people in what is now central New York State or in the area of Ontario, Canada, then migrated to the area of Ohio and eventually drove the Adena out of parts of that region.

It is difficult to give the Hopewell too much credit for their earthworks. Some of the earthworks show an understanding of mathematics superior to anything known in western Europe until years after the Hopewell disappeared as a distinct people. The Hopewell earthworks at Newark, Ohio, are well known, very large, and were duplicated by the Hopewell elsewhere. They consisted of, among other things, immense squares as well as circles. Some of these figures leave us a record of how they solved the supposedly impossible problem of geometrically squaring the circle. One of the "squares" that makes up the octagon at Newark, and the circle near it have the same area. It is only recently that it was discovered by Dr. James Scherz while surveying the earthworks there, that the distance between the circle and the square showed (to that particular professor of mathematics) how the Hopewell derived their formula.

Silverberg, speaking of Hopewell earthworks on page 13 of his The Mound Builders states "On hilltops overlooking valleys huge 'forts' had been erected, with formidable walls of earth sometimes reinforced by stone. These obviously defensive works covered many acres.

"In lowland sites there were striking geometric enclosures—octagons, squares, circles, ellipses—of a clearly non-military nature. The lines of embankments were 5 to 30 feet high, and the enclosures had areas of as much as 200 acres. Running out from the enclosures were often parallel walls many miles long, forming great avenues. " This sounds similar to some of the stone and earth structures found by settlers in Yates County, except the Yates County structures are not so sizeable as those Silverberg describes.

Other Earthworks in Yates County
Including One Reinforced with Flat Slabs of Stone

When settlers arrived in the Town of Jerusalem, Yates County, they found three interesting pre-Seneca structures. One was also found in the Town of Milo. These, of course, are in addition to the Old Fort on Bare Hill in the Town of Middlesex.

The mysterious ruin on Bluff Point has received some publicity lately, and will be mentioned again below.

David B. Kelley's Pre-Colonial Earthen & Stone Ruins in Yates County, January 1, 1988 states: "Another earthwork, this one circular, and covering two acres" in the Town of Milo was reported by a resident to be very distinct in the early 1800s, but had been obliterated by 1873.

There was a square earthwork found in Sherman's Hollow in Jerusalem Township according to the Smithsonian Institute's Manuscript #1273, but the exact location, size and condition were not specified. This is important in that the Adena are not recorded as having built square earthworks, only the Hopewell.

Also found in Sherman's Hollow, in Lots 25 and 48, covering almost five acres, was an "Elliptical raised earthwork with 12 gateways, the traverse diameter of which was 545 feet and the congrugate diameter of which was 485 feet; the gates were alternately 8 feet wide and 14 feet wide; a deep and wide trench surrounded the structure; earthwork walls of from 4 to 10 feet in height; 20 rods southeast of the enclosure skeletons in sitting position which were facing east were found; a spring was found at the site. " This description, from David B. Kelley, was probably written by Dr. Samuel H. Wright, who surveyed the earthwork on 28 July, 1880.

Miles Davis on pages 6 and 7 in his History of Jerusalem (1912) goes on to say regarding the same earthwork, that there was a large spring 50 feet from the enclosure.

The remaining earthwork of note in Yates County is the "Mysterious Ruin on Bluff Point," as mysterious today as ever despite considerable attention in recent years. The bulk of the ruin consisted, before being destroyed by agricultural activity, of parallel low walls of earth faced on their sides with flat slabs of rock.

All that remains today to tell us what the ruin once looked like is a map made by Samuel Hart Wright in 1880, based on a survey made by him and his son, Berlin Hart Wright. The survey was commissioned by Yates County, as a means of recording the geology of the county. The ruin also included vertical slabs of rock in three locations, one slab being eight feet high. At another location the vertical slabs formed two stone circles, similar to European stone circles in that the stones were set into the ground upright, similar to megaliths. They were not circles simply made of boulders sitting on top of the ground.

The Hopewell are known to have constructed relatively substantial earth walls, eight feet high or so, faced with rocks in a few locations. Stone circles made of boulders sitting on the surface of the ground were also made by the Hopewell in a very few locations. But the Bluff Point "walls" were only a foot or so high, and faced with flat slabs of stone. The length of the walls totaled about a mile, a substantial undertaking for no reason that we can see. Neither walls such as these, nor stone circles such as the two recorded by the Wrights, are known to have been built by the Hopewell elsewhere.

The Bluff Point walls generally oriented either to around 150 degrees, plus or minus about 5 degrees (South South East) or oriented to around 75 degrees, plus or minus 5 degrees or so (East North East). Or oriented 180 degrees in the opposite direction. These readings were not made by a surveyor.

Computer expert and author Keith Clark of Pleasanton, California, has noted a number of alignments from Bluff Point that seem to involve the equinoxes and solstices. Alignments to equinoxes and solstices were of more interest to Europeans of the period than to the Adena or Hopewell. But this brings up a point: Are there other definite lines of earth or rocks that seem to have been made by the Adena or Hopewell in Yates County?


Unlike Europe, where alignments abound, particularly the ley lines of Britain and the "Heilig Linien" (holy lines) of Germany, alignments of sites are not common in American archeology, but some exist. The best known is at Newark, Ohio, where the main axis of the circle and octagon is oriented to the rising moon at its northernmost limit, a line at 51. 8 degrees, according to archeologists. There is a similar line at the High Banks earthwork in Ross County, Ohio, that is oriented to 143 degrees, to the southernmost moonrise. It seem fair to say that these alignments of the Hopewell were more sophisticated than the ley lines of Britain or the Heilig Linien of Germany. And there is no reason they should be of a simlar nature. Many of the European alignments pre-date the Hopewell alignments by at least a thousand years.

There are two other compass directions indicated by stonework at old sites in Yates County, although neither of them indicate a celestial orientation, nor are they orientated to each other.

On Bare Hill, a short distance south of the site of the Old Fort are two stone wall bases, all that remain of what were probably once stone walls, before somebody removed the stones for another purpose. Both wall bases are close to the farm road used by the Middlesex Highway Department in the early 1920s to move the stones from the Old Fort down to the highway at the base of the hill.

The larger wall base once crossed the farm road. In other words, when the farm roaad was created, the stone wall had to be taken apart at that point to permit the farm road to continue. In fact, the top inch or so of some of the stones that made up the wall base can be seen just above ground in the farm road.

The wall base extends up hill for 125 feet above the farm road. At the top is a small "megalith" three and a half feet tall, a foot and a half wide and a foot thick. That wall base also extends downhill below the farm road for 95 feet at 204 degrees, or 24 degrees west of south.

The remains of a less impressive stone wall can be seen 90 feet to the east of the large wall base, running roughly parallel with it. That wall base is only 80 feet long, and the upper end is below the farm road. If we were to walk uphill toward the fort, going between the two stone walls, we would be on an "avenue" that seems as if it might once have indicated a path that led to the Old Fort. The Mound Builders often constructed walled avenues to their enclosures (Silberberg, page 88 referring to E. G. Squier's 1848 book Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley).

Another line exists today on South Hill. To emphasize the possible importance of the form this line takes, I'd like to quote A. R. Kelly writing in Brose and Greber's Hopewell Archeology (1979) on page 1 and 2, concerning what Kelly calls "small subsidiary mounds. " There is a photograph of Kelly standing next to such a stone mound, less than knee height on the uphill side, and perhaps five feet across. Of such small stone "mounds," Kelly writes:

Stone mounds in various forms (effigies, linears, platforms, cairns, etc. ) abound in the southern Appalachians. In recent years definitive results…fixed a few sites in the Middle Woodland period… Stone mounds… have remained baffling and frustrating… Yet they remain one of the most numerous and pervasive site categories in archeology and probably constitute one of the most promising sources for probing the Adena-Hopewell syndrome.

On South Hill, at a site mentioned by Parker, there are 17 stone mounds larger than shown in Kelly's article, extending downhill in a line, six degrees east of south. Not far away is a platform built of laid up stones in the form of a square and circle connected by a rectangle. This appears to represent the square and circle in the Newark, Ohio, earthworks connected by an imaginary rectangle necessary (in Dr. James Scherz's reconstruction of Hopewell mathematics) to geometrically create a circle with the same area as the square.

The stones in the "square" mentioned above on South Hill are much more scattered than they were in 1982 when I first found the platform. Today a viewer would have to take it on faith that that "stone pile" formed a square only a few years ago.

There are at least two other stone "mounds" on South Hill. Both are small solid circles built of laid-up stones, perhaps 10 or 12 feet in diameter. One is four feet high, the other only a foot high. Stone mounds of exactly this appearance in Allegany County seem to constitute route markers, leading from the mounds on the Genesee River to the Old War Route that once went from Canaseraga Creek to the Canisteo River. But concerning the two on South Hill, placing a ruler across them on a map does not indicate a logical route between the stone piles on South Hill and the Old Fort on Bare Hill. Of course, they might have marked a route important to the mound builders, which we know nothing about. Or they may have had a different purpose.

The 17 stone piles on South Hill were viewed by an archeologist from the New York State Department of Archeology in Albany, who stated that the piles of stones had not been made as a part of a field clearance project, but the stones had been stacked up to form small platforms.


Only one firm conclusion can be drawn about the pre-Seneca sites in Yates County, and that is that the burial ground at the base of Bare Hill contained Adena burials, perhaps with some cultural infusion from other local people of the period. (Ritchie 1944 and 1980. )

In his 1980 work, Ritchie makes it clear that there was a strong Hopewell presence in western New York State, particularly along the Genesee River. Carbon 14 dates from one site there indicate a period around the time of the disappearance of the Adena as a separate, distinct people. So the Hopewell apparently were in western New York State for a long time after the Adena disappeared.

The following are assumptions:

1. The Old Fort on the top of Bare Hill probably was built originally by the Adena. Since we do not know whether the ditch was inside or outside the stone wall, the fact that there was a ditch cannot be used to determine the builders. But there was a gate, and in the four legends that mention the Old Fort, no legend mentions more than one gate. The Seneca were better observers than the settlers, and such details of the Old Fort as existed when the Seneca were in possession were known to them. Hopewell construction that employed gates used many, not just one. Adena construction of sacred circles used just one gate. There was an Adena burial ground at the base of Bare Hill. It does not seem to be reaching too far to assume that the Adena built the Old Fort.

2. But it may be that the fort as seen by the settlers had been built in two stages. Stage one being Adena, building an earth enclosure with an internal ditch and with a gate possibly facing south. Stage two being the erection by the Hopewell of a stone wall on top of the Adena low earthwall. The Adena earth wall there would have been low because of the difficulty of digging there, as white settlers later attested. The Adena are not known to have ever used rocks to enhance their sacred circles. The Hopewell often used rocks on their structures.

3. The stone walls south of and below the Old Fort on Bare Hill were probably built by the Hopewell to enhance the approach to the Old Fort. The Hopewell had done this in other locations.

4. The elliptical earthwork in Sherman's Hollow must have been built by the Hopewell. This is typical Hopewell construction. The best known Hopewell elliptical earthwork is probably the Baum work in Ross County, Ohio. The Baum earthwork had a square earthwork nearby.

5. The square earthwork in Sherman's Hollow, size, location and condition not specified, was probably built by the Hopewell. Sherman's Hollow is not large. A square earthwork near the elliptical earthwork might have been expected from Hopewell builders.

6. The circular earthwork in Milo Township could have been built by either the Adena or the Hopewell.

7. The Ruin on Bluff Point was built either by Europeans (European artifacts were reportedly found buried there) or by the Hopewell (if the report of European artifacts is in error). The Hopewell used flat rocks to prevent erosion of earth walls in other locations.

8. The once laid up rock cairns on South Hill, pointing 6 degrees east of south, and the rock platform near them, were probably the work of the Hopewell, since the platform partially duplicates in miniature the most important of the Hopewell earth structures at Newark, Ohio.

That is the end for now of one conclusion and several assumptions concerning pre-Seneca structures in Yates County.

© 1997, David D. Robinson
More articles by David Robinson about the archeology of Bare Hill and Bluff Point
I am particularly indebted to Emily McCombs White, and Town of Middlesex Historian, Stuart Mitchell, and to Town of Naples Historian, Beth Flory. It is hoped that this article will act as a springboard for more investigation by others.


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