February 1996

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Canisteo Castle Builders Found?


David D. Robinson

Canisteo Castle: The Outlaw Fort by David D. Robinson
More on Canisteo Castle by George Dickey

The November 1995 issue of The Crooked Lake Review contained an article concerning Canisteo Castle, which asked the question, Who built the fort at Canisteo Castle?

Information provided by the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Columbia Encyclopedia, and the Historical Society of Delaware suggests an answer. (This article will be more readily understood if the November article in the CLR, concerning Canisteo Castle, is read first.)

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1950) states that the first building constructed of horizontal logs in the New World was erected by Swedes in 1638 in New Sweden at Fort Christina, now Wilmington, Delaware. The encyclopedias also state that it was nearly 1765 before log cabins became a generally accepted method of building a house in the New World by other than Swedes, Finns (who were Swedish subjects), or Germans.

But Germans did not arrive in the New World in any numbers until 1710. Canisteo Castle supposedly dates from around 1642. Neither Indians, English, French nor Dutch built houses of horizontal logs in the 17th Century—The Log Cabin Myth by H. R. Shurtleff (1967).

Although the names of the builders of the log fort at Canisteo are not known, it can be worked out that in general it was built by Swedes and/or their Finnish subjects.

It seems unlikely that there were any Swedes along the Canisteo River as early as the date given in the Canisteo Village Centennial booklet for the start of the permanent settlement there, 1642. If the date is correct, whatever was constructed there of a semi-permanent nature may have been a log stockade, and not a Swedish log house. But a Swedish log structure cannot entirely be ruled out there as early as 1642.

Delaware territory stretched from the Delaware River area northward to the southern part of what is now western New York State, the more northern part of this territory being upon the sufferance of the Seneca. The name "Delaware" came from Cape Delaware, so named in 1610 by British ship captain Sir Samuel Argall after the then governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Baron De La Ware. The Delaware Indians called themselves the Lenni-Lenape, literally "person" or "the people."

Swedes and Delawares got along well together in New Sweden. Had any Swedes needed sanctuary, and had they made this known to the Delaware, it is very likely that the Delaware would have directed them to Canisteo. The French appear to have known as early as 1640 that deserters from their armies found shelter there. It appears to have been 10 or 15 years later before the English discovered the same thing regarding deserters from their armies.

To us, the distance from Wilmington, Delaware, to Canisteo, New York, seems too great to travel on foot, especially considering the wilderness conditions of the time. But it would not have seemed too difficult for desperate groups in the 17th century accompanied by Delaware guides. There seem to have been at least a few such groups, although it is not known which groups arrived at Canisteo.

The Swedes and Finns could construct a log cabin very rapidly. Johnson, in his book Swedish Settlements, reports that on Tinicum Island, Delaware, a large house was built out of logs in eight days by three teams of four men each, but only one team was working on the log house at a time. The Swedes commonly used squared logs in building log houses, and often built fireplaces in the houses, of stone if it was available, otherwise of clay or brick. The Swedes built many log forts in Delaware, often two stories in height, some with two or more fireplaces. There is no record of anybody, except Swedes and Finns, building anything like this in the New World in the 17th century.

On the surface, it seems unlikely that the Swedes who built Canisteo became outlaws. The Swedes were among the best citizens in the New World in the 17th century—sober, law abiding and hard working. But one Swede, known as "Long Finn" tried to start a rebellion in 1669 in a region along the Delaware River that had recently been captured from the Dutch by the British, and he had obtained a following of sorts. He was eventually captured and sold into slavery in Barbados, after first being branded on the face and breast and publicly whipped. His followers might have fled to a place of refuge. Canisteo was widely known as such. Treatment similar to that meted out to Long Finn could have caused the outlandish appearance the Seneca observed in the outlaws who attacked them in 1688.

In March of 1656, the Swedish ship Mercurius with a crew of 20 plus 120 Finnish and a few Swedish immigrants arrived at Casimir, later New Castle, Delaware, which had been Swedish, but was captured by the Dutch after the Mercurius had sailed from Sweden. The Dutch refused to permit the Swedish ship to land, and directed it to sail to New Amsterdam (New York) or return to Sweden. A number of local Delaware, who preferred the Swedes to the Dutch, along with some local Swedes, boarded the ship, and proceeded up river in defiance of Dutch orders. The Dutch did not dare fire on the ship for fear of starting a war. The immigrants landed at Tinicum, which was under the Dutch flag, but they were protected by the Delaware. Where the 120 Finnish colonists who defied the Dutch went thereafter is not known, but the numbers and time are about right for Canisteo.

In 1664, the British defeated the Dutch force at New Castle, Delaware, and sold the Dutch soldiers into slavery in Virginia. Along with them were many black slaves from New Castle and three hundred from South Amboy, also captured by the British. Ironically, their Dutch owners had just saved them from earlier capture by the British in New York.

E. M. Waterbury, one-time city editor of The Evening Tribune (Hornell, New York) was quoted by Robert F. Oakes in an article appearing in that newspaper on 20 May, 1981, as stating that slave owners hated Canisteo because it received and harbored runaway slaves.

So according to Waterbury, slaves did escape and flee to Canisteo, where they were welcomed. Enslaved Dutch soldiers would have known of the Canisteo sanctuary. It is not known if any of the soldiers captured at New Castle, and enslaved by their captors in Virginia, managed to escape, but there would seem to be a likely mix of desperate potential Canisteo recruits. Some Dutch were reported to be in the outlaw establishment in 1690, as were runaway slaves and "renegade Frenchmen."

These are just three, for what may have been many, possible examples of sources of recruits for Canisteo in the 17th century. The cruelty of some of the European powers in the New World in the 17th century ensured that there were many potential Canisteo-dwellers around even if most of them could not construct log forts unless taught by the Swedes and Finns.

If anyone has input, I would like to receive it. David D. Robinson, Box 26, Swain, NY 14884, 607-545-6213.

1995, David D. Robinson
Canisteo Castle: The Outlaw Fort by David D. Robinson
More on Canisteo Castle by George Dickey
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