Pieces of the Past
Artifacts, Documents, and Primary Sources
from Letchworth Park History

"The Valley of the Genesee"

A two volume set entitled "Picturesque America" was published in 1874. The work, edited by William Cullen Bryant was a popular book in its day, for it provided Americans with glimpses into the rustic beauty and history of the American landscape.

Volume 2 includes the chapter on the "Valley of the Genesee". You can read the parts of the chapter relating to Letchworth Park below. To see the original illustrations by J. Douglas Woodward click here.


In its early course, the Genesee is not marked by any exceptional beauty or peculiar charm of surroundings. Nor is it till the falls at Portage are reached that the river asserts its claim to recognition as one of the most beautiful and picturesque of all our Eastern streams.

The summer tourist, if he leave the car of the Erie Railway at Portage Village, will be first attracted by what is the least picturesque though an important feature in the foreground; and that is the great bridge which spans the ravine and river at this point - a work which will well repay a careful survey, since it is regarded as triumph of the bridge-builder's skill. This bridge, or, more properly, viaduct, is said to be the largest wooden structure of its kind in the world. It crosses the river at a point hardly a stone's-throw above the brink of the First or Upper Fall; and its lightly-framed piers, with their straight lines reaching from the granite base to the road-way above, contrast strangely with the wild roughness of the natural chasm it spans.

The reason given by the artist for not presenting an extended and architecturally complete view of this great work is not without force. " This is a search of the picturesque," he says; " and the straight lines, sharp angles, and cut-stone buttresses of a railway-bridge do not belong to that order of beauty." Assenting to this just estimate of the artist's mission, we turn away from this hasty survey of the bridge to the contemplation of the rough-hewn, ruffed walls of the chasm it spans.

Divided for an instant by the stone buttresses of the bridge, the waters of the river unite again, just in time to present a bold and unbroken front upon the brink of the first fall. As the body of water which passes over these falls in comparatively small- except in seasons of flood - and as the first precipice is but sixty-eight feet in height, the effect would be of little moment, were it not for the striking character of the surroundings.

Entering the gorge a short distance above the brink of this Upper Fall, the river has cut for itself a wild, rugged channel, the walls of which rise in a perpendicular height of from two to six hundred feet, each successive fall resulting in a deepening of the chasm, and a consequent increase in the height of the rocky barriers.

It is this chasm that constitutes the distictive feature in the upper course of the Genesee. Beginning abruptly at a point not far above the Upper Fall, it increases in depth and wildness until the village of Mount Morris is reached, at which point the stream makes its exit from the rocky confines as abruptly as it entered them, and, as though to atone for the wildness of its early course, settles at once into a gentle and life-giving current, gliding through rich meadows and fertile lowlands, its way marked by a luxuriant growth of grass and woodland. But there are other features in the region of Portage which deserve more extended notice, and to these we willingly return.

Having recovered from their first bold leap,the waters unite and flow onward in gentle current, with an occasional ripple or miniature rapid, for the distance of half a mile, when the brink of the second and highest fall is reached. Over this the waters pour, in a unbroken sheet, a distance of one hundred and ten feet. At the base of this fall the waters have carved out, on the western side, a dark cave, which may be approached by a wooden stairway, standing at the foot of which we see the sky as from the depths of a crater.

Ascending again to the plateau that reaches out o a line with the brink of this fall, we come in sight of Glen Iris, a rural home, the fortunate owner of which is evidently the possessor of a sympathizing and appreciative taste for the beauties which which he is surrounded.

Upon the lawn that divides Glen-Iris Cottage from the brink of the precipice stands a rude log-cabin, which is in the possession of a history so closely linked with that of the first inhabitants of this wild region that it becomes at once a monument of peculiar interest. The form of this cabin is given by the artist with so careful a regard for truth that description is not needed. We have called it merely a log-cabin; and yet it is, in truth, an ancient Indian council-house, and stands alone, the only ruin of what was once a village of the Iroquois.

This ancient council-house of Caneadea stood originally upon a bluff of land overlooking the Genesee, about twenty-two miles above its present site. It was the last relic of aboriginal sovereignty in the valley, and it is not surprising that it should be so jealously guarded by its present owner, Mr. Letchworth, on whose lawn it stands. During the India wars, all the white captives brought in from the South and East were here received, and compelled to run the gantlet before this council-house, its doors being their only goal of safety. Among the famous captives who were thus put to the test was Major Moses van Campen, a name distinguished in the annals of the wars with the Iroquois. This building sheltered Mary Jemison, "the white woman of the Genesee," after her long fearful march from the Ohio to her home and final resting place in the valley beyond.

It was here that the chiefs of the Seven Nations were wont to hold their council of war. There is no record of the date of its construction, but upon one of the logs is the sign of a cross, the same as that which the early Jesuit fathers were known to have adopted as the symbol of their faith. Besides this single evidence of the presence of the stranger, the old council-house bears upon its rough sides the marks and signs of the Indians who are now without a home of a country, and yet who once could call all these wild passes, royal forests, and broad acres, their own, by virtue of of a long inheritance. When the Indians took their departure to more western reservations, the old council-house came into the possession of a white squatter,who guarded it against decay, and made it his home for fifty years.

It is this council-house that now stands on the lawn at Glen Iris, in full view of the distant bluffs, and within but a stone's-throw of the Middle Fall. Prompted by his own worthy interest in this last relic of the old league, Mr. Letchworth caused the council-house to be removed from its original site at Caneadea, and erected where it now stands. In effecting this removal, great care was taken to place the building precisely as it originally stood, each stick occupying the same relative position to the others. At the rededication of the building, in the autumn of 1872, there were present twenty two Indians. Among these justly- distinguished guests were the grandsons of Mary Jemison,Cornplanter, Red-Jacket, Tall Chief, Captain Brant, Governor Blacksnake, and other chiefs whose names are associated with the early history of this region. Many of these strange guests wore the costumes of their tribes.

The council-fire was again lighted; the pipe of peace - the identical one presented by Washington to Red-Jacket - was passed again around the circle of grave and dignified chiefs, many of whom were natives of the valley, and whose ancestors were once the sole possessors of all this land. These men were said to be fine representatives of their race; and the speeches that followed the first silent ceremony were delivered in the Seneca tongue, with all the old eloquence and fire. It was an occasion worthy of a lasting record, as this was, no doubt, the last Indian Council that will ever be held in the valley of the Genesee.

After the Revolutionary War the league of the Iroquois was broken, the Mohawks, with Brant at their head, entering the service of the British, while the Senecas met only as enemies; nor was the feud healed until the day of this their last council, when the grandsons of Brant and Cornplanter shook hands across the council-fire, and there smoked the pipe of peace.

The lonely council-house, the dying embers, and the dull rustle of the falling autumn leaves-all seemed in accord with this the last scene in the history of the wild race whose lights has gone out with the rising of the new sun.

Turning again to the river, we follow down a wild mountain-road for the distance of two miles, at which point a narrow, winding foot-path leads down a steep and rugged defile. Descending this, and guided by the rush of waters below, we suddenly come upon the Lower Falls. Here the waters of the river are gradually led into narrower channels, until the stream becomes a deep-cut canal, which, rushing down in swift current between its narrow limits, widens out just upon the brink of the fall, that more nearly resembles a steep rapid that either of the others. Standing upon one of the projecting rocks which are a feature of this fall, we can only catch occasional glimpses of the cavern's bed, so dense and obscuring are the mist-clouds. A second and more hazardous pathway leads from these rocky observatories to the base of this the lasts of the Portage falls; and the course of the river now lies deep down in its rock-enclosed limits, until the broad valley is reached.

To this rocky defile the general name of High Banks is given - a name rendered more definite by a prefix denoting their immediate locality. Thus we have the High Banks at Portage, the Mount-Morris High Banks, and, at the lower end of the valley, the high Banks below the lower fall at Rochester.

To the tourist who is possessed of a full measure of courage and strength, a journey along the river's shore from the lower falls to the valley will reveal wonders of natural architecture hardly exceeded by the canyons of the far West. Here, hidden beneath the shadows of the overhanging walls of rock , it is hard to imagine that, just beyond that line of Norway pines that forms a fringe against the sky above, lie fertile fields and quiet homes. A just idea of the depth of this continuous ravine can best be secured by an ascent to one of the projecting points above, where, resting on a ledge of rock, the river is seen at one point six hundred feet below, a distance which changes with the varying surface of the land above. At certain points the river seems to have worn out a wider channel that it can now fill, and here are long, narrow levels of rich alluvial soil; and, if it be the harvest season, we can catch glimpses of life in these deep-down valleys, pigmy men and horses gathering in a miniature harvest of maize or wheat; while, at noonday, the rich golden yellow of the ripened grain contrasts strangely with the deep, emerald green of the sloping sides or the dull gray of the slaty walls beyond.

Although the point where the river enters the ravine at Portage is but twelve miles in a direct line from that of its exit at Mount Morris, the distance, following its winding course among the hills, is much greater. Having traversed this distance, however, we are brought suddenly in the presence of a scene the direct antithesis of all that has gone before. Emerging through what is literally a rocky gate-way, the whole mood of the river seems to have changed with that of its surroundings. In order to make this change as conspicuous as possible,we ascend to one of the two summits of the terminal hills. Standing upon this, and shaded by the grand oaks which crown it, we have but to turn the the southward to take in at a glance the whole valley below, which is a grand park, reaching far away to the south. The sloping highlands are dotted here and there with rural villages, whose white church-spires glisten in the rich, warm sunlight. Below and around are the meadows and alluvial places known as the Genesee Flats.



Bryant, William Cullen, ed.,"Valley of the Genesee" Picturesque America, Volume II, New York: D Appleton and Company, 1874. pgs 353-363



Go to the original illustrations.


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