They Burned the Corn: Ganondagan State Historic Site

Photo by Michael Kleen

After over three centuries, few remember this raid on an Indian settlement in east-central New York, but a state historic site tells the story of the native people who once lived there.

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The Battle of Ganondagan (or Canagora/Gandagora) was fought on July 13, 1687 between French forces and their native allies commanded by Marquis de Denonville and Chief Athasata and a force of Seneca Indians near present-day Victor, New York during the Beaver Wars. The battle was both a tactical and strategic (albeit temporary) French victory. They succeeded in destroying Ganondagan and its grain stores, as well as several other nearby villages.

King Louis XIV appointed Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville Governor General of New France in 1685, and he wasted little time in making an impression on the continent. In 1686, Denonville lured 50 chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy to a meeting under a flag of truce, then put them in chains and shipped them back to Europe as galley slaves. The next spring he set out with approximately 800 colonial regulars, 900 Canadian militia, and 550 Indian allies on a punitive expedition to break the Seneca tribe. They landed at Irondequoit Bay on Lake Ontario on July 10, 1687.

On July 13, a stiflingly hot day, the French-led column made its way south toward the Seneca heartland and the village of Ganondagan. Seneca warriors decided to ambush Denonville’s army in a marsh approximately three miles north of the village. They divided into two groups of 300 and 500 men. The larger group would block Denonville’s advance while the smaller group would wait until his army passed before rising up and attacking them from the rear.

Unfortunately for the Seneca, Denonville also divided his army. The ambush trapped his advance column, and many of Denonville’s native allies fled, but the main body escaped the ruse and quickly assumed battle formations. The disorganized Seneca were no match for French colonial regulars and fled in terror. Denonville’s army cautiously slept on the battlefield that night, keen to avoid another ambush. When they finally entered the village the next day, they found it a smouldering ruin. They slaughtered the hogs and torched any remaining grain before moving on to do the same at other nearby villages.

Casualty figures for the battle are unreliable. According to L’Abbe de Belmont, 14 Iroquois were killed or wounded and died immediately, and another 60 were wounded and died days later. The French and their allies lost at least five killed and “three wounded savages and many Frenchmen.” Denonville himself reported 5-6 killed and 20 wounded, and for the enemy, 45 killed and 60 severely wounded.

The Beaver Wars were fought between 1629 and 1701 between Algonquin Indians supported by France and the Iroquois Confederacy supported first by the Dutch and later by Great Britain. The Iroquois peoples, consisting of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes, sought to control the lucrative fur trade in North America. France defeated the Mohawks and made peace with the Iroquois in 1666, but Great Britain interfered and war erupted again. The French decided it would be better to cooperate with the Iroquois than continue fighting, so they signed the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701.

After over 330 years, it’s no surprise the area around which this battle took place has changed significantly. While the site of Ganondagan and its granary are now a state park, the battlefield is even more developed. A sign indicating the ambush site sits along a residential road in the shadow of the I-90 and I-490 interchange, just a short drive from the massive Eastview Mall and Victor Crossing shopping center. A trail runs through the woods along the interstate highway, where you can almost imagine the Seneca warriors lying in wait for Denonville’s troops.

Ganondagan State Historic Site is located at 1488 NY-444 south of Victor, New York. There is a large musuem dedicated to the Seneca and Iroquois people, and a re-creation of a bark longhouse. There is a walking trail around Fort Hill, the site of the palisade granary, and interpretive signs tell the story of Denonville’s Raid. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults during peak season (May 1 – October 31) and $6 at all other times. The Denonville ambush site sign is located on Willowbrook Road at 43°00’26.9″N 77°25’54.8″W.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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