The Outlaw Fort
Mysterious "Canisteo Castle" was located along the Canisteo River near
the present village of Canisteo, about 60 miles south of Rochester.
Facts about "Canisteo Castle" are few and difficult to come by. The first
written eyewitness report we have of a substantial settlement there is
by the French commander Sieur de Villiers who in 1690 estimated there
were several score of good houses at the site.
In the History of Steuben County, New York (1879) Clayton describes
"Canisteo Castle" as consisting of 60 "luxurious barracks of hewed logs
and stone fireplaces." In his book with a similar title (1911) historian
Near reports that each of the buildings had four stone chimneys. Information
concerning the fort tends to be repetitive, since writers have to go back
to the same sources, which are few.
The "Castle" was located on the south side of the Canisteo River, east
of the start of the bend where the river stops flowing south, and turns
southeast, its southward progress turned by the highest mountains in Western
New York State.
The site has attracted many different people. Traces of a village inhabited
around 800 A.D. have been found there, and of a later one dating from
1400 A.D., and another that existed in the early 1600s. Archæologists
maintain that there were crude fishing huts prior to 1642 at the location
of "Canisteo Castle."
The choice of the site, for the purpose of an outlaw encampment, was
wise. The site was just within Delaware Indian territory, and was immediately
south of Seneca Indian territory. So it would seem to be in a sort of
No Man's Land.
The mountains immediately to the south and west may have added to the
attractiveness of the site. The outlaws are believed to have had lookout
points on the mountains, and some evidence of this is reported to exist
A location on a major river made transportation by canoe or raft easy
and it provided a source for fish and ducks to eat and water to drink
for humans and their animals and crops.
The Canisteo River was part of The Old War Route, used for possibly thousands,
and certainly for hundreds, of years. The large, laid-up stone structures
that appear to have been route markers, indicate that the pre-Seneca mound
builders, known today as the Hopewell and the Adena people who built large
earth mounds along the upper Genesee River, had a well-defined track from
their settlements on the Genesee to the Old War Route, going near what
is Canaseraga, New York, today, 15 miles north of Canisteo. These are
the only stone structures known to have existed in Allegany County.
At Corning, 30 miles down river from Canisteo, there were several gigantic
rock towers that may have been laid up by early people. Dozens of smaller
ones exist today. The Delaware name for the village there was "Assinisink"
which means "stone upon stone." The remaining stone towers near Corning
are smaller than two of the Allegany County towers, which are more than
head high and more massive in construction. North of the Canisteo River,
near Ganosgago (now Dansville), which was also on the war route, two Hopewell
burials have been found.
The Old War Route was mainly a water route by which Indians from Canada
could reach the Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic with only two portages,
one around three major waterfalls on the north-flowing Genesee River in
what is Rochester today, and another, nine miles long, to reach the south-flowing
Canisteo River near present Arkport. From there on, no reported waterfalls
or serious rapids interfered all the way to the Atlantic.
The French considered this area to be their territory. Following their
attack in 1687 on the large Seneca settlement, Gannagaro, near present
day Fishers, New York, the Seneca established an outpost in or about 1688
at a place they called Ganosgago which means "Under the Slippery Elms,"
and refers to the point where Canaseraga Creek meets the Genesee River.
Whites pronounced Ganosgago "Canaseraga."
Ganosgago also meant "Where the Milk Weed Are," and this meaning referred
to the location of their village on the creek. Indians apparently could
distinguish the two different places from what sounded the same to whites.
The Seneca may have built their outpost at Ganosgago for protection from
the French, and to resist encroachments from the settlement at Canisteo.
People from Canisteo did attack Ganosgago but were driven off. The Seneca,
however, did not follow them, which seems to have been particularly unusual
behavior for them, especially since a popular Seneca chief had been killed.
Either the Seneca felt weakened by his loss, or feared an ambush, or had
some other reason to avoid the settlement at Canisteo.
The governor of New France on hearing of this episode sent Sieur de Villiers
in 1690 with a force of French regulars, Algonquin Indians, Canadian forest
rangers (militia), and Jesuit priests. Numbers are not available, but
the force must have been considerably smaller than de Denonville's French
force of 3,000 to 5,000 that had raided the Seneca three years previously
at Gannagaro, with results poor for both sides.
The 1690 French expedition formed at the eastern end of Lake Ontario
at Catarauqui, where Kingston, Ontario, Canada, is now. The force canoed
130 miles along the shore of Lake Ontario to the Genesee River. There
the force left their lake boats, at the mouth of the Genesee, and constructed
craft suitable for the portages to come. They canoed up the Genesee, which
at that time is thought to have formed the western edge of Seneca territory,
to Canaseraga Creek. They turned southeast up that creek into Seneca territory,
and departed the creek at what became known later as "Big Hill" very near
the site of the battle between the Seneca and the outlaws two years before.
Then they portaged nine miles to the Canisteo River, along what is Route
36 today. The trail they were following was the time-honored Old War Route.
Then the French and Algonquin force canoed for ten miles down the Canisteo
first through forests on both sides of the river, later past cleared,
and presumably cultivated, fields for several miles until the "village
of log houses, large and well made, several score in number" was reached.
And from this village came forth a more disreputable looking crowd of
individuals than the French leader had ever seen.
De Villiers later wrote, "A more worthless lot of renegades and villains
who had no hope of heaven or fear of hell, we never saw." De Villiers
found "Indians of many different tribes, footpads and highwaymen from
most of the coast colonies, runaway slaves from Maryland, Yankees who
fled from Connecticut leaving the gallows behind them, renegade Frenchmen…"
He makes no mention of deserters from the armies of that period, although
other accounts did specify deserters. Nor did de Villiers mention indigenous
Only because de Villiers had a large force with him was his group not
massacred. He raised the French flag, celebrated mass, and returned to
the Genesee River, Lake Ontario and Canada. At no time did the Seneca
interfere with him, although the French were certainly observed by Seneca
scouts from the time they entered the Genesee.
Failure to destroy "Canisteo Castle" must have diminished the French
in the eyes of the Seneca and enhanced the reputation of the outlaws,
and added to the reputation of the site. No further French attempt was
made against "Canisteo Castle."
The Seneca warriors at Ganosgago thought the outlaws "strange and uncouth"
and de Villiers thought them a "disreputable crowd of individuals…"
The reason for their strange appearance has not been explained, and was
not remarked upon 74 years later when the inhabitants of the "Castle"
were pursued by a small Mohawk force and a few British, but of course
they were not then the same people. There is no indication in the 1764
report of the attack that there were white men or escaped slaves then
De Villiers' 1690 account does not imply that there were indigenous Indians
at "Canisteo Castle," mentioning only white criminals, escaped slaves,
and outcast Indians. A brief 1688 account of the outlaws by the Seneca
at Ganosgago appears consistent with this. Based on what accounts survive,
it seems likely that "Canisteo Castle" was inhabited in 1690 by a very
large number of white criminals, runaway slaves and Indian outcasts. The
outlandish appearance may have been caused by smallpox, and in the case
of white men and slaves, by branding, loss of ears, and other refinements
of the criminal code of the time.
It is also possible that the reports surviving from 1688 and 1690, of
the odd appearance of white outlaws and escaped slaves, caused historian
Clayton almost 200 years later to mislabel the inhabitants of Canisteo
as "degraded," since he feels that the people de Villiers encountered
were largely Delaware. The reason for this might be that Clayton would
have read several reports dating from about 1750 and later of the people
at Canisteo being "Indians," with no indication of escaped slaves or white
people being present. He may not have understood that sometime prior to
about 1750 the Seneca forbade travel, except to friends, along part of
The Old War Route leading to Canisteo, and this may have substantially
altered the make up of the inhabitants of the "Castle."
So there are at least two scenarios for the outlaws at Canisteo. De Villiers
in 1690 has them as escaped criminals of some sort and outcast Indians,
and implied that the numbers were large.
On the other hand, historian Clayton in 1879 felt that "Canisteo Castle"
very likely began as a Delaware settlement. The Delaware had been decisively
beaten by the Seneca, and were permitted to settle south of Seneca territory
on a temporary basis. Clayton states that the Indians at Canisteo were
a tribe of "Delaware extraction, reduced to a low state of degradation.
To them had joined themselves a few deserters from the British Army with
a sprinkling of fugitive slaves, escaped convicts, and refugees from various
Roberts in The Historical Gazeteer, Tioga County, N.Y. reports
that the Delaware did not occupy Tioga Point until 1742. It seems likely
that they would have occupied Tioga Point before settling in Canisteo.
It is entirely possible that de Villiers was correct for 1690 and Clayton
for 1750 onward. Historian Alfred Hilbert, indirectly, shows in his "The
Forbidden Trail," (CLR issue #40, July 1991) that the Seneca could have
prevented anyone they did not welcome from reaching Canisteo, or any place
on The Forbidden Trail. If the Canisteo fort became empty of outlaws due
to attrition, it seems natural that nearby Delaware would have occupied
No report indicates that women or children were seen in "Canisteo Castle."
A very few reports since 1750 have a Delaware village located a mile east
of the "Castle." It seems likely that deserters and other outlaws replaced
members of the outlaw establishment, who died, as long as replacements
could reach the refuge. Word-of-mouth advertising was certainly powerful
and far reaching then. No cemetery is mentioned, and none has been found,
but there must have been a local boot hill.
There was an orchard. Maize, oats, wheat and other crops could have been
raised. Game was probably abundant, even near such a permanent settlement,
especially if crops were raised, which de Villiers implied, in a reference
to "cleared fields" in his report. That general area was considered by
the Iroquois, as a whole, as "one of the best hunting grounds…" belonging
The Forbidden Trail ran westward from Tioga (Pa.) to the Allegheny River.
For much of the time since the Revolution the location of the trail after
it left Assinisink (Corning, N.Y.) was in dispute. But the disputed part
of the route is not important to the story of "Canisteo Castle," since
no one doubts that from Tioga to Assinisink, use of the trail was forbidden,
under threat of being burnt at the stake, to all white men and to any
Indians considered not to be friends of the Seneca. The Delaware enforced
this ban at the insistence of the Seneca. It does not seem to be known
for how many years the ban was in force. It may have been started in 1742
when the Delaware occupied Tioga Point. The effect of the ban on "Canisteo
Castle" must have been disastrous, as the Seneca probably intended.
The forbearance of the Seneca, in leaving the outlaws alone, is hardly
believable. The number of Seneca warriors was computed by the English
to have been between 2,000 and 3,000 men in 1660. In 1770 this number
seems to have shrunk to only 1,000 fighting men.
So for much of the period under discussion, the Seneca were the most
formidable military machine to exist in the colonies except for large
regular armies, (and those sometimes were not very effective).
As an example of Seneca prowess, a lecturer at a conference I attended
in Columbus, Georgia, in 1994, deviated from his subject, "Eyewitness
Accounts of Jesuit Priests," to vent his wrath on what he called "The
Iroquois" and the slaughter they continually caused among the Erie and
tribes as far south as Georgia. Those "Iroquois" were the Seneca, of course,
and according to that lecturer, are still hated today by the descendents
of the remnants of the tribes they slaughtered.
And in 1687, three years prior to de Villiers' expedition, de Denonville's
French-Indian force, variously reported at 3,000 to 5,000 experienced
fighters, lost very heavy casualties to a Seneca force of 1,000 stay-at-homes
consisting of boys, squaws, and infirm men, probably poorly armed, while
the Seneca warriors were off raiding the Illinois, as the French and their
allies knew. This does not sound like people who would willingly permit
"Canisteo Castle" to exist on their border.
It is true that General Sullivan with 2,500 men "fit for duty" did destroy
the Seneca in 1779. But for once white troops were intelligently handled,
and they were much better armed than the Seneca. The Seneca were used
to being outnumbered, but this was not a Seneca kind of fight. They were
better at mobile warfare, and better at attacking after having previously
scouted the enemy's position at length.
In 1762 two Indians from Canisteo murdered two traders who were British
subjects. William Stuart in Tales of the Kanestio Valley (1935
edition) writes, "Sir William Johnson asked the Seneca to apprehend and
deliver up to justice the murderers of the traders." The Seneca, who were
supposed to have sovereignty over the Delaware, did not comply, despite
repeated requests by Johnson. After two years, Johnson assigned Captain
Montour and 140 Mohawk to destroy "Canisteo Castle," which seems heavy
handed, even for those times.
A letter dated April 12, 1764, concerning the raid, states "Captin Montour…with
his party, consisting of 140 Indians, with some rangers proceeded to the
large town of Kinestio, containing 60 good houses, which were likewise
burnt…as well as other towns, killed a number of cattle, and sent parties
in pursuit of the enemy…"
The reference to "other towns" would be puzzling if "Canisteo Castle"
was the sole objective of Montour's force. But there were two other forts,
similar to, but less substantial than "Canisteo Castle" that were likewise
destroyed by Montour's force, although they seem entirely uninvolved in
the murders. So it is possible that the destruction of "Canisteo Castle"
was part of a larger plan to destroy strongpoints in Delaware territory.
Historians Clayton and Hilbert indicate a reason—that the Delaware
and the western Seneca although nominally British allies were more favorably
inclined toward the French.
A fort at Tioga Point, near where Athens, Pennsylvania, is today, was
the first fort destroyed by Montour's force. According to historian Clayton,
it consisted of "36 good houses built of square logs and having stone
chimneys." Then the force went to Canisteo "…the largest of the Delaware
towns…" There were "…horses, cattle and swine. No effort was made to defend
But once destroyed, why was the site not looted by the Seneca or the
Delaware or others? Useful tools, including a copper kettle and the lock
from a rifle, have been found in modern times in a small part of the debris.
Why did the Seneca refuse to cooperate with the British in 1762 and 1763
when pushed by the British? The excuse, as given by Clayton, was that
they considered they had no sovereignty over a tribe consisting of outcasts
from all nations. So at that point Clayton was saying that the "Castle"
was not occupied primarily by the Delaware, but by "outcasts of all nations,"
which certainly casts some doubt on his earlier view that the fort was
occupied almost exclusively by Delawares.
It does not sound like the Seneca to be put off by this or anything else,
unless there was something about "Canisteo Castle" we do not understand.
Did they think the inhabitants insane, and thus under the protection of
the Great Spirit? Or was the outlaw establishment occasionally stricken
with smallpox? The Seneca were very leary of that disease, and were much
more successful than most in avoiding it. Or, following the attack on
Ganosgago, did the Seneca conclude a treaty banning armed hostilities
between themselves and the inhabitants of "Canisteo Castle"? The Seneca
were meticulous in observing treaties, unlike the French and English of
the period, or the Americans later, if the treaty was with Indians.
Whatever the reason, we are unlikely to learn of it after all this time;
very likely the reason for Seneca forbearance is none of the above. There
is so little we know. But it is odd that when the fugitives left "Canisteo
Castle," it was to a Seneca village on the Genesee they fled for sanctuary,
which was ultimately refused, but historians say that was because those
Seneca did not have enough food for themselves.
"Canisteo Castle" quickly passed into oblivion once it had been burnt
to the ground and the remnants of the refugees were in British captivity.
No one seems to have reported what happened to the group as a whole after
that. Only one murderer of the traders remained alive then, and he appears
to have been pardoned by the British.
Who built the forts at "Canisteo Castle"? And at Tioga Point and Corning?
If there were large numbers of outlaws, then it is possible that some
unusual leader could have organized the effort that caused 126 very similar,
substantial fortified houses to have been built in three clusters along
The Old War Route. In so far as "Canisteo Castle" is concerned, this probably
would have been in about a ten year span for most of the houses, from
about 1640 to 1650.
De Villiers described the fort in 1690 as consisting of several score
of good houses, and Captain Montour's force in 1764 counted "60 good houses,"
it would seem that few additions were made to the settlement between 1690
and 1764, which is indicative of a lack of manpower. As it happened, Montour's
force missed two very well engineered forts that are believed to have
been constructed by British deserters after de Villiers' excursion. Those
forts were in deep woods at a distance from the main collection of barracks,
and were still in existence when settlers arrived after the Revolution.
But if historian Clayton is correct, there never was any large number
of outlaws. In that case, the forts were built by other than outlaws and
were occupied by indigenous Indians and a few others after the forts had
been vacated by the builders for some reason: disease, massacre, or simply
If so, originally there must have been a very motivated, cohesive, disciplined
large group involved in the planning of the location, and in the construction
of the forts. The reason for the unmilitary division of force into three
locations was probably due to the need for the inhabitants of each fort
to be self sufficient in food, and the varying number of fortified buildings
may represent the builders estimate of the number of people each location
It seems to have been an almost unbelievable undertaking for a group
of outlaws. The construction of the buildings was different from that
used by either the Seneca or the Delaware that early, although it was
later copied by the Seneca in a few instances. A few Delaware did live,
for a short time, in modest log cabins built for them in Wyoming Valley
(near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, today). The cabins were built by Pennsylvanians
for the Indians in Wyoming Valley around 1760 to entice them to remain
there as a bulwark against invading Yankees from Connecticut, who also
claimed Wyoming Valley. The log cabins were soon burned, possibly by the
Yankees. These cabins were built 70, and probably 100 years after the
squared log buildings along the Canisteo.
It seems safe to say that "Canisteo Castle" was built to specifications
beyond anything seen in the ususal outlying pioneer villages. And, surprisingly,
built without any record of the builders finding its way into the history
The barracks builders, if they were not outlaws, need not have come en
masse from the coastal colonies. They might have come from Canada, seeking
refuge in what was an unpopulated secluded valley with good soil and ample
game. The builders could have been a religious group willing to accept
unfortunates who came to them. Apparently, "The Hidden Valley" was well
enough known among many Indian tribes, and by slaves seeking to escape,
and by white criminals and army deserters. Some walked hundreds of miles
to reach sanctuary. The Senecas may have tolerated the settlement and
the pillages of some of its members because they recognized it as a haven.
There may have been other similar settlements in the region of the Old
War Route that have not been found. I am curious to learn of reports of
any such locations.