Frontenac Island – The Original Allure of the Finger Lakes Region

By Carmelo “Mel” Russo

Today, people come to the Finger Lakes area to gaze at its unequivocal, scenic beauty and its wealth of both civilized and natural history. In addition, they come for a pleasing retirement, vacation, and perhaps for regional employment – sometimes locally – and often people working in different directions at one of several cities within an hour or so. In the Finger Lakes area, there is exists the unique opportunity to live ‘on vacation’ when just visiting or more simply, coming home from work.

This was not always the case, however. For no pre-determined reason, other than the random discovery of an abundance of food sources, people settled here more than 5000 years ago. One theory puts the initial intercontinental immigration starting possibly up to sixty thousand years ago, when several different bands of early humans crossed the Bering Strait over dry land or ice from northeast Asia and/or northern Japan to Alaska. Another has stone age Europeans crossing the northern Atlantic about 20,000 years ago. In any event, the initial migration would have taken place during the most recent ice age, when much of the fresh water of the northern hemisphere was spread over more than half of the continent as part of the last glacier. It is thought that the stalking of various proboscidians, like the mammoths and the mastodons led the early peoples to the new continent. Thousands of years later and after the invention of fluted spear points then unique to North America, some of the various bands of people ended up in what is now New York State. This new arrival of primitive people to New York was facilitated by the recession of the glacier and Lake Iroquois, an over-sized Lake Ontario that extended into the lowly elevated Cayuga Lake Basin. This giant lake persisted for several thousand years until about 8000 years ago when the arctic ice caps began reconstituting, opening up more rich, dry land around the Great Lakes for habitation by terrestrial life. This new, dry land included Frontenac Island.

About 5500 years ago (3500 BC), one of the bands of wandering people settled in the Lamoka/Waneta Lake area (Lamoka people), between the south ends of Keuka and Seneca Lakes. About 1500 years later (2000 BC) a different group settled at the foot of Oneida Lake and on the Oneida River. This group was known as the Brewerton people. There was also a Geneva site (2400 BC) but much of its documentabale history was lost in early road excavations. Sometime within these eras, however, a third group settled on Frontenac Island (3000 BC), a limestone base island at the northeast end of Cayuga Lake. Each of these sites was lush with fish and game, as it is today, for these early New Yorkers. On Frontenac, the people savored bullheads, perch, sunfish types, and pike while feasting on their main staple, the white tail deer from the mainland. Other foods of significance included bear, elk, squirrel, turtles, woodchucks, raccoon, turkey, and passenger pigeons (now extinct).

Through detailed analysis of the artifacts found on the island, it was determined that the ancient, tiny Frontenac population had assimilated the culture and individuals from both the Brewerton people and the Lamokans. Several tools, traditions and cranial types were the same as found in the other sites. Other items appeared for the first time in New York State history on Frontenac Island.

From further analysis of skeletons and especially skulls that were exhumed at the three New York prehistoric locations, it was determined that each ancient site had its own, characteristic, differentiated form of human. However, hybrids with the islanders and those from the two other sites were found for the first time, right here on this small island in Cayuga Lake.

It appears that at a later date in their existence, these advanced stone-age Cayuga County people were peacefully and commercially interacting with the other groups of the greater region. At other times in the human habitation history of Frontenac, however, it was certain that warfare played a role in assimilating the individuals, tools, and customs of other groups into the camp. Some items excavated came from as far away as Lake Superior, some 500 miles away.

The islanders kept a bald eagle, presumably used for hunting. Dogs were also used in hunting. Remains of a terrier sized dog found were similar to those dogs found at the Lamoka site. However, again, for the first time in New York State history, a larger, collie sized dog was found among the Frontenac people remains. The Fronteac canines were occasionally buried with humans but some of the dogs had their own, special grave site with obvious devotion and respect for the animals.

Indeed, life on Frontenac Island must have been somewhat adventuresome in 3000 BC. Individuals were found buried with broken limbs, head trauma, and spear points embedded in their skeletons. It is intriguing to think that while the ancient Egyptians were building pyramids, raising wheat, and sheep, using metals, writing hieroglyphics and rolling things around on wheels, the people on Frontenac Island in Cayuga Lake were having a big time hunting, fishing, gathering, fighting, dragging things around, using stones and bones for tools, assimilating, and eventually socializing in a pleasant place still visible in Cayuga Lake. The peaceful magnetism of the area continues today.

In 1859, nearly one third of the island was removed for use as an embankment for the nearby New York Central Railroad along the east shore of the lake without regard for artifacts. In the mid 20th Century, the island was scientifically excavated for study and display by the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences.

Source: Ritchie (1965)