Long before present-day Syracuse dominated the lake that bears their name, the Onondaga lived in this area. Onondaga means “hill people”, and there are certainly plenty of those in the region. If you look at a map of the area, you see that there’s another dominant feature in this region: water. Lake Ontario is just to the north and west of Lake Onondaga. The finger lakes are southwest. And the Mohawk River cuts an East-West corridor from Albany to roughly Lake Oneida, which connects to Lake Onondaga via the Oneida and Seneca Rivers. This network of waterways was a superhighway for native populations, and later for Basque and French traders, and eventually British colonists and the waves of settlers who followed them. Salt production was a major industry for early settlers to the Syracuse area as they tapped into the massive natural deposits around the southern part of Lake Onondaga.
In my fourth year of crew, I rowed on Lake Onondaga in the summer of 1988 in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta. This regatta was memorable for me for a few reasons. That year Northeastern University had an accident on the way to the regatta and their rigger was killed. The Heavyweight Men went on to win the IRA’s that year, and I witnessed the race. To say Northeastern was a sentimental favorite after that event is an understatement.
When you drive down I-90 you cross the lake outlet between the Seneca River and Lake Onondaga where Syracuse has their boathouse. This is where we launched during the IRA’s and I still have vivid memories of my time there that bubble to the surface whenever I cross this outlet in the daylight.
The Onondaga were one of the five original tribes in the Iroquois Nation. The Oneida and Mohawk were to their East, and the Seneca and Cayuga were to their West. So the Onondaga as the middle tribe were the logical “keepers of the fire” for the five nations.
During the Revolutionary War, the Onondaga fought on the British side and paid for this in 1779 Sullivan Campaign led by Major General John Sullivan. George Washington brought the fight to them in a series of coordinated raids in when the United States won. Thousands of Iroquois fled to Canada and many starved in the winter of 1779-1780. Their homeland was settled by New York veterans of the Revolutionary War as part of the Military Tract of Central New York. Today there are roughly 500 people living in the Onondaga Nation Reservation just south of Syracuse.
Lake Onondaga has suffered its own affront, as a company called Allied-Signal, which later became Honeywell, and other companies used the lake as a dumping ground for Mercury and other toxic chemicals. Years of dredging and capping the bottom of the lake were completed in 2017. The Onondaga consider the lake sacred. Corporations considered it a convenient dumping ground. It seems to me that the way the Onondaga lived on the land and the waterways that cut across it is preferable to the way that those who came after them have treated each. I know that in 1988 I wasn’t thinking about how much mercury I was rowing over as we competed in the IRA’s.