Dan Weiskotten's Answer (7/1/1998)
This is one of the things in local history that just frustrate the hell out of me. Many people have disproved the story over and over again but a local contingent is very vocal about the traditional story which has no basis in fact. It is sad that more ink has to be wasted over this mess - lets rip the signs out and look at the park as the heritage site that it is - an Oneida Iroquois village site of the late 15th century.
The Real Battle of Nichols Pond
Daniel H. Weiskotten July 1, 1998
The "Traditionalists" say
that 1615 Nichols Pond was the site of a several-day battle in which Samuel
de Champlain and a large number of his Algonquin allies laid siege to a
large palisaded village of the Onondaga Iroquois. This battle, which actually
took place, was only the second contact between the French and the Iroquois
and thus the Iroquois were thereafter the sworn enemies of the French.
Traditionalists use the description of the route taken by Champlain, Champlain's
description and illustration of the fort that he attacked, the description
of a body of water that lay near the fort, and a small selection of artifacts
from the archaeological site as proof that Nichols Pond was the site of
the battle of 1615.
The problem with this is that not one of the venues followed by the Traditionalists holds up to any scrutiny. Professional archaeologists have looked closely at the site, its situation in the landscape, the morphology of the pond, and the artifacts, and have concluded again and again only that the site was one of a series of Oneida Iroquois villages occupied long before the Europeans ever ventured into Central New York. The best estimate, obtained by comparative analysis of the artifact collections or "assemblages" of hundreds of sites, both prehistoric and historic, is that the site lies well into the prehistoric period and probably at the end of the 15th century (c. AD 1480). Dr. Peter P. Pratt, who lives just north of Cazenovia on the far northern end of Ridge Road, conducted a large excavation there in the 1950s as part of his graduate studies and he has since conducted smaller digs whenever Madison County wanted to make improvements to the park. It is Pratt's findings that show beyond a doubt that the site could not be the one attacked by Champlain. His work was not to find the site that was attacked, but only to define the history of the Iroquoian occupation at Nichols Pond and how it relates to the other archaeological sites in the area.
The resulting conflict that has arisen because of Pratt's findings is what I call "The Real Battle of Nichols Pond" because I know, as a researcher, that the events of tradition could not have taken place at that spot. This battle of the 20th century is not being fought with the arrow or arquebus but with words and methodology.
On one side, which I support, are the ardent researchers who use raw data to tell the story of the site = artifacts, settlement patterns (soil stain patterns indicating the location of the palisade and houses), and comparison with other sites. The players on this side include both professional and avocational archeologists and historians who have learned how to weigh the evidence at hand and use their knowledge to judge the probable events. On the other side, which I cannot support, are the "Traditionalists" who will not let go of their version of the story despite a lack of viable evidence and overwhelming information that is contradictory to what they believe. The disciplines under which historians and archaeologists should conduct their research are based on properly assessing the validity of the information and logical reasoning and interpretation. The researcher shouldn't choose the path of the findings ("this is the site attacked by Champlain") and mustn't discard new ideas because they "don't fit what we already know." To follow the old story in the face of contradictory evidence is to invite corruption of the final conclusion.
The origins of the identity of Nichols Pond as the site of the 1615 battle can be traced back to 1867 when John S. Clark of Auburn pronounced that this was, with out doubt, the site of the battle. Earlier historians had believed that the battle took place on the shores of Onondaga Lake, but Clark's proclamation was supported by Lambertus W. Ledyard, the domineering "Renaissance Man" of a prominent Cazenovia family. Both of these men had nothing on which to base their conclusions, but since they were from the upper class, were well educated, and spoke and wrote prolifically on the subject of local history and Indian lore, they were held to be authorities beyond question.
In the twentieth century local historians and amateur archaeologists such as Arthur I. Tyler, Jabez W. Abell, Erl Bates, Marshall Hope, A.G. Zeller, William Houghton, Roy W. Cary, and Russel Cary (the present caretaker of the site) have continued to interpret the site as having been attacked by Champlain. Their conclusion is drawn entirely and without question from Clark's interpretation and it has varied not one bit from that proclaimed in 1867 - despite 40 years of controlled archaeological inquiry that says otherwise. A number of archaeologists, both professional and professionally respected amateurs, have examined the Nichols Pond site and its artifacts. William M. Beauchamp was the earliest historian with extensive local archaeological knowledge to explore the site and did not dispute that Nichols Pond was the site of an Oneida village but expressed some reservation of it being the site attacked by Champlain. Beauchamp noted that only prehistoric artifacts had been found there except several "French" axes (which had been dubiously found in the grain pits east of the site). Arthur C. Parker, who followed in Beauchamp's footsteps but was more likely to succumb to local legends, was somewhat more sure that Nichols Pond was the battle site but noted that the "relics" found within the site itself showed no European influence. Later excavators such as State Archaeologist William A. Ritchie and Peter P. Pratt, who has done the most work at the site, show that the site was occupied long before 1615.
Despite Traditionalist claims of acknowledgement of the site's significance by State Officials, Nichols Pond has never been formally acknowledged by State or Federal authorities to be the site of the battle. Small excavations by the State Museum under Parker and then Ritchie, as well as some work done by the National Park Service in the 1940s have not convinced the Traditionalists although all of these officials walked away with serious reservations regarding the traditional interpretation of the site. (The Traditionalsist only say that "Dr Ritchie dug at the site" and use this as proof of their cause.)
It was Arthur I. Tyler's application to an unknowing and unquestioning State historical commission in 1927 that got an historical marker placed at the site. Not long after Tyler's "victory" Arthur C. Flick, who was State Historian at the time of Tyler's applications, soon regretted the decision to place the marker at the site without proper confirmation of the premise. His successors also regretted the action as Traditionalists quickly used this to claim their powerful "official recognition" of the site's history. Even in 1951 when State Historian Albert B. Corey was asked to help develop the Nichols Pond site as a State or National Park commemorating upcoming 350th year of the Champlain Battle of 1615, he had serious reservations about accepting the traditional interpretation. He was against the acquisition because of a severe lack of supporting evidence. The Traditional crowd blamed the failure on that year's budget cuts.
As late as 1983, nearly 30 years after Pratt's work disproved the notion of the battle site, the traditionalists were still attempting to get the State Office of Parks and Recreation to take over the site. In 1984 a proposed reconstruction of the site was discussed by the Madison County Board of Supervisors but was turned down not because this was not the site of the battle but from the fear of vandalism and insect problems! While the State and local officials soon pass on to other positions the unrelenting Traditionalists continue their campaigns and continue to present their dreams to each successive generation of officials
and unwitting historians.
The Evidence For
The primary reason for choosing Nichols Pond as the site of the battle appears to be that it was situated on a small body of water as shown in Champlain's drawing of the event. Traditionalists even claim that there are small streams leading in and out of the pond exactly as shown by Champlain. The village drawn by Champlain had six sides and the Traditionalists claim that the palisade section excavated in 1955 has a characteristic angle in it - exactly like that drawn by Champlain!. Artifact wise, the Traditionalists have focused on only three particular artifacts: iron axes reported to have been found in food storage pits, part of an "arquebus" muzzle, and a lead musket ball.
The Evidence Against
First, let's defuse the Traditionalist's evidence, and then get on to the other data that the archeologists have seen. As for the pond, even the earliest writers noted that it wasn't much of a body of water and only part of the year was wet. In 1924 Arthur I. Tyler wrote that the pond was "now nearly dry" and a shadow of its former self. He believed that the beavers that had dammed it during the time of the Indian occupation had been wiped out by settlers - even though he should have known that no intelligent beaver would have lived there at the time of the Indians! Soil surveys by Gordon C. DeAngelo found that the shallow "pond" was more correctly a swamp, and that it had been thus for perhaps thousands of years. He also found that the pattern of streams in and out of the pond were in no way similar to those shown in Champlain's drawing of the siege and identified at the site by Traditionalists. In 1993 a crew of youths, participating in the Madison County Conservation Corps, at the request of the caretaker who is the foremost of the modern Traditionalists, constructed a dam to raise the water in the swamp so as to finally create a pond of standing water - fitting to the Traditional interpretation.
The palisade line excavated in the 1950s by Peter Pratt was actually curved but when a drawing of Pratt's findings was published by Traditionalist A.G. Zeller he redrafted it to have a nice sharp corner - as shown by Champlain. In reality the site appears to be round, but there is no distinctive six sided form as shown in great detail by Champlain. The three artifacts cited by the Traditionalists turned out to be non-existent. The iron axes came from pits that had already been disturbed (the pits weren't even on the site!); the "arquebus" fragment turned out to be part of a brass bell made of metal that was produced with a process not invented until the 19th century; and the single "musket ball" turned out to be a nodule of galena.
Besides all the disproving evidence of the swamp, curved palisade line, and erroneously identified "artifacts" the Traditional faction has stubbornly refused to budge in the face of the most telling evidence of all. While they were rejoicing over the finding historic artifacts (an old broken school bell and hunk of naturally occurring mineral) (for they knew that historic period sites would have such European-made items), they somehow failed to realize that an Iroquois village of 1615 would have had an overwhelming number of European made artifacts versus the number of native made items in its refuse deposits - not just a few. It had long been well known, but apparently ignored by the Traditionalists, that by 1615 the Iroquois had been trading with Europeans for many years and had acquired vast amounts of European made goods such as glass beads; iron axes, awls, and knives; brass kettles and ornaments; as well as other items of foreign source. The artifact "assemblage" from Nichols Pond includes none of these items and is clearly prehistoric with pottery vessels and smoking pipes; stone projectile points (arrow and spear heads), knives, axes, and adzes; and awls and combs and other items made of animal bone.
We don't know where the village site attacked by Champlain was located, but it was clearly not high in the hills of Fenner at Nichols Pond. There was a time when the temporal relationship of artifacts was not well understood, but even the earliest supporters of tradition knew that one should find historic period artifacts. They lamented that such items were lacking but rejoiced at the finding of several iron axes in the vicinity of the grain pits and cited this as proof of the site's 1615 date. Later finds of brass and galena further supported their beliefs. Even the arcahology proved beyond a doubt that this was not the site of the siege. This site and the traditions associated with it are overwhelming examples of how the closed minds the Traditionalists are detrimental to the interpretation of history.
Nichols Pond has been owned by Madison County since the 1930s and there have been many repeated efforts over the years to get the site turned into a state or national park to commemorate the battle of 1615, but in every attempt the County and the Traditionalists have been stymied. This is simply because those making the decisions have been cautious enough to avoid getting involved with something that cannot be proved, or which appears to have no merit. When the Madison County Historical Society published Country Roads, Revisited in 1983, we (I was a consultant and contributing author) decided that it was time to put the tradition to rest by pointing out that there was no evidence to support it. Despite the efforts of many scholars, historians, and archaeologists the tradition is alive and well because of the efforts of many who will not accept that the tradition is founded upon false assumptions and has no basis in fact.
The Nichols Pond site is not something that needs to be forgotten just because it is not what some have claimed it to be. For it to be interpreted as the heritage site that it really is would be a grand thing. It is a village site representative of the formation of the Oneida Iroquois nation and it should be interpreted as such. It is early enough to be untainted by European influences, and late enough to be considered the habitation site of the direct ancestors of the Oneidas - the inhabitants themselves surely considered themselves Oneidas. It is time to give the site its due place in our history. The professional community has accepted it, now it is necessary for the general public to accept it also.
If you have further questions or comments about this paper, please e-mail me, Dan Weiskotten