Ode to a Once Mighty Oak

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And in that brief moment, its reign ended.

We don’t know how old it really was, but the centuries had exacted their toll. Despite the efforts of the valiant few, the rot that builds with age had eaten its way through the internal fabric that once supported its mighty infrastructure.

When that final gust rushed through, the great citadel had fallen. It had stood for so long that those closest to it, stunned by the fatal reality before their own eyes, could only muster an anemic disbelief.

All that incredulity could not suspend the finality that was. It was gone. Not really. But really.

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The Seneca tribe was a fierce warrior tribe. They had to be. They guarded the “west gate” of the Iroquois Confederacy. From that position, they both protected one flank of their allied nation and provided a secure staging zone from which to proactively launch attacks into the Great Lakes region.

They performed the latter with consistent success. Though their major “cities” lie from the Genesee River to the east, the Seneca warred constantly with their neighbors to the west. Their victories were both cruel (from the point of view of their opponents) and decisive.

Just ask the Wenro and Tabacco people. The Seneca conquered their territories and these defeated tribes sought refuge with the larger population of Hurons.

Just ask the broadly based Hurons. Once the Dutch supplied them with guns, the Seneca pushed them off the battlefield and into Canada.

Just ask the Neutral and Erie tribes. Oh, wait. You can’t. The Seneca exterminated them soon after the Huron fled across the Niagara River.

And those are only a few. There were others. Perhaps too many to mention.

The British, as they established themselves in the New World, quickly recognized the strength of the Iroquois and the Seneca (as well as their eastern-most allies, the Mohawk). They represented valuable and reliable partners in the lucrative fur trade industry that become the first geopolitical economic driver in North America.

The French, though first, had the unfortunate luck of meeting the opponents of the Iroquois.

History does not record how long the Iroquois had been at war with the Algonquin. By all accounts, it was a long stand-off. Until the Europeans arrived.

Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec and New France, serving as an observer to a fur trading expedition, landed in Tadoussac at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers on March 15, 1603. There, fresh from a major victory over the Iroquois, he met a party of celebrating Algonquins.

In the summer of 1609, Champlain formalized an alliance with the Huron, the Algonquin, and other tribes. These northern groups hoped the French would help them in their fight with the Iroquois, who were being armed first by the Dutch and then by the British.

A year later, on June 19, 1610, Champlain engaged the Iroquois for the first time. His forces quickly identified the three opposing chiefs leading the advancing raiders. Champlain and his sharpshooter killed the three at the outset, and the Iroquois immediately retreated.

The tone was set.

Our region throughout the 17th century witnessed an on-again/off-again series of skirmishes known as the Beaver Wars. There was a short peace as the British took over the Dutch territory in New York and the French raided and razed Mohawk villages and crops. The French saw this as an opportunity to win the Iroquois to their side.

The ploy didn’t work. In response, the miffed French sent Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, Marquis de Denonville on a mission to destroy the war making ability of the Seneca, replicating what the French had accomplished two decades earlier.

This is where we come into the story.

The Seneca didn’t have permanent cities. They lived in itinerant but strategic located communities. They would decamp and relocate based on war and the availability of arable land. In the 1680s, the tribe had two major population centers near us. The bigger site was Ganondagan, located on Boughton Hill in Victor. The second was Totiakton, located atop the drumlin in the great bend of Honeoye Creek.

After defeating the Seneca warriors and sacking Ganondagan, Denonville marched his troops to Totiakton and, over six days, burned the village and the entire fertile plain upon which it was built.

Metaphorically, the Seneca had deployed a “bend but not break” strategy. They had other villages to the south, and they soon rebuilt more following Denonville’s departure. They would go on to eventually help the British defeat the French and kick the French out of North America a half century later.

But the French showed the winning path. The Seneca had already seen their numbers depleted by war and disease. In 1779, George Washington sent Major General John Sullivan to duplicate the same methods used by the French a century before. Washington’s orders read, in part:

“The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements… It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

Sullivan would execute Washington’s orders in a way that crippled the Iroquois’ support of the British in the Revolutionary War. That spelled the end of the British colonies and the end of the war-making ability of the Iroquois Confederacy.

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Denonville’s incendiary raid occurred in July, 1687, a little more than 300 years ago. The devastation was complete. Not only was the entire village of Totiakton razed, but the flat fertile fields atop the raised land and all surrounding it were burned beyond use. The lifeless cinders of that expedition spread across the drumlin and down its steep slopes.

From those ashes rose an oak. A mighty oak. It dominated its territory. Even the New York State Department of Transportation yielded to its eminent beauty, purposely curving Route 15A around it and angling the intersection with Plains Road to give the tree plenty of room to thrive.

On Wednesday, October 7, 2020, a turbulent front moved rapidly through Mendon. It was a quick thunderstorm, maybe no more than five or ten minutes.

But it raged with fury, pelting pea-sized hail at all in its path, its blustery gale driving the stinging rain in nearly horizontal lines.

Those scant few seconds proved too much for the tree. Now weary with internal disease despite the best efforts and expense of the tree surgeons hired by the Mendon Foundation, the rotting trunk could no long fight the whoosh of the sudden winds.

In that swift instant, the once mighty oak succumbed to time.

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