It should surprise no one that most of New York’s upstate cities were once Iroquoian capitals. Even in the prehistoric Northeast, the natural features that made for community-growth have to do with commerce and travel, hence, in this landscape, lake-harbors and river-meetings.
Owasco Lake was the center of gravity of the Cayuga population. Auburn, NY, just north of it, was their major community. Two of Auburn’s distinctions overlap. One is the illustrious Fort Hill Cemetery based around the burial ground and earthwork of a pre-Iroquoian culture. Upstate pioneers and national heroes – including Harriet Tubman – are buried here. The other is an unwelcome one, the infestation of migrating crows that drops on this historic burying-ground twice a year.
It’s no shock that Fort Hill would have been sacred/burial-ground to prehistoric Hopewellians, contact-era Cayuga, and contemporary European-Americans. It’s in fact one of the oldest fixtures of world-tradition, that sites that have been dedicated to a definite purpose by one culture will be readapted for it by each supplanting one. We see this pattern more than most of us would expect in upstate New York. We see nothing anywhere like these crows.
Every autumn for as long as we have records this biennial bio-bomb has filled the perches of the cemetery and ravaged the nearby city before setting off on the journey to its winter rest. All the months that the snows hurl over the upstate, fifty to seventy thousand coal-black scavengers breed and season on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. On their return from Maya country, they stop here again every spring, filling the city with all their disruption. They aren’t alone in commending the site.
There were several clusters of earthworks at the top of the high ground above the Owasco Creek. The Cayuga palisade nicknamed “Fort Osco” was in the immediate area. A settler named James McCauley studied the remains of the neglected fort in 1820 and judged from the rings of the trees growing through its foundations that it went back at least as far as Columbus’ arrival. But something else on the site was older.
“Fort Allegan,” as it’s called, was a Hopewellian fort, and at least 1500 years old. Similar in style to the most ancient megalithic – earth-and-stone – constructions in North America, this big ring-fort held eight open spaces that might have been entrances.
There are many curiosities to Native American landscape architecture, not the least of them concerning these earth-rings like that once topping Fort Hill. The first white settlers and explorers of North America found many of these monuments, particularly in Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania, and Western New York. The geometrically-shaped walls of earth – ovals, octagons, circles or squares - were at first interpreted to be forts, and a whole 19th century mythos based on ancient culture-clash developed.
But many of these structures lack proper defensive features, and it’s been recently presumed that classifying them all as forts was too simple. Their “moats,” when they have them, for instance, are often on the inside of the walls. From this it’s speculated that their purpose was ritual and even incantatory. They were magic churches, using the water-barriers to trap summoned spirits within rather than to keep fellow mortals out.
But other structures almost exactly like them were sited on high points, equipped with springs, and surrounded by the evidence of conflict. The point of these was almost surely military. The thinking of the cutting edge today seems to hold that many of them could have been both sacred and defensive, and even other things besides. This is best in keeping with the Native American mind, which has no trouble accommodating qualities that to the Western mind – based on Aristotle and Plato – seem to conflict. Something is no less "this," to the Native Americans, because it’s also "that."
Maybe as a sign of its deep and mystical roots, the city of Auburn became passionately involved in some of America’s 19th century movements like Spiritualism, Abolition, and Women’s Suffrage. Today’s Fort Hill is a grand cemetery in which spiritualists, suffragettes, and abolitionists rest. Dedicated in 1852, Fort Hill has spilled well beyond its original bounds. But at the core of it is the famous earthwork. The old henge - ring-ditch – as the Europeans would call it is almost invisible today due to the development around it and its natural settling. All those winters have had their effect.
But you can find it easily yourself. It’s the “Fort Allegan” section of the Fort Hill Cemetery, rooted at its core by the monument to the part-Cayuga chief John Logan (1725-1780). Logan was a scrapper who fought white expansion in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and everywhere else he encountered it. His touching short speech at the end of Lord Dunmore’s War (1774) was as brave and noble as Caractacus’ address to the Roman Senate, and it impressed Thomas Jefferson enough to write about it. Though Logan died near Detroit - killed in a drunken brawl by one of his relatives - his 56-foot monument of local stone rests at the heart of Cayuga territory, at the center of the old fort.
By the development of psychic folklore we often spot power-places like these. When you see the flowers – apparitions – you wonder what sort of garden may be underneath. The whole cemetery seems, of course, to be haunted, just not by Native American ghosts. The apparition reports we get about this suggestive, powerful site Fort Hill are like those of many New York graveyards not rooted around an ancient earthwork: archetypal images like the seemingly omnipresent “Little Girl Ghost” and the little-less-common Woman in White. Mystery-lights and a pale horse or two are legion in the upstate, and they have no known explanations in the folk tradition of this cemetery. There could surely be something we have missed.
A region’s ghosts are seldom frozen onto either the natural landscape or the one of the folk-memory. Psychic folklore is so plastic a thing that the reports you get of a site or region can vary radically depending on the decade you interview. We keep coming back, though, to those crows.
Birds in general are symbols to most world societies, often as emissaries of the soul. Intermediaries between the realms of earth and sky, they rise, vanish, and rest again on the earthly plane, often seeming to bear ambiguous messages.
The dark scavenger-birds, though, crows and ravens, are usually even more than that. These battlefield-birds are everywhere associated with war and destiny. They know where death is soon to be found and where bodies are to be had. In their visits with the eternal, they inquire the fates of heroes. They know the end of empires. But why are they here?
According to the histories of Cayuga County, "Deagogaya" – the old name of the outlet of Owasco Lake - meant “the Place Where Men Are Killed.” Many have sensed that it must have been a memory of some tragic event that took place at Fort Hill. Was this one of the well-known Iroquois torture-posts? Was it a pre-Columbian clash-site? Was this even the spot of a gigantic prehistoric battle, maybe one that preceded the Iroquois? What do the crows remember in their imprinting, if not their genes? Are they drawn by something else? This is a strange, mystical, powerful place, Fort Hill, one of the most impressive in the Northeast.