Above the fireplace of the Ontario County Historical Society building in Canandaigua are carved the words NEH-KO, GAH-GIS-DAN-YEN-DUK, a Seneca Indian phrase meaning “Other Council Fires Were Here Before Ours.” A great hill at the south eastern end of Canandaigua Lake, originally in Ontario County, now in Yates County, marks the place where the Seneca became one of the original five nations of the Iroquois Confederation and were the “Keepers of the Western Door.”
Jesuit priests brought the first European contact to the Indians of this region. They established missions at the larger villages including Gannagarao (south of Victor) and Gandagourae (on Mud Creek in East Bloomfield). As the French lost their foothold in this area, the Jesuits returned to Canada. In a last ditch effort to seize control of the area for the French, the Marquis DeNonville, the Governor-General of Canada, came from Montreal and marched overland to burn Gannagaro and Gandagourae as well as large Seneca villages at Lima and Rochester Junction. This scattered the Seneca who showed up later in smaller villages at Canandaigua and Geneva.
In 1779, the Indians were again dealt a bitter blow. General John Sullivan was sent into the Seneca Territory in retaliation for Indian Massacres at Cherry Valley. He burned not only the villages but the orchards and crops as well. This broke the back of the Seneca. They fled to the protection of the British at Fort Niagara.
In 1787 Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham of Connecticut bought Western New York from the State of Massachusetts, which had obtained the pre-emption rights to the area in a compromise of land claims between Massachusetts and New York State.
Up to 1789, all of the land west of the Hudson River was Montgomery County with the county seat at Fonda. Because of the new settlements being made in the western part of the county, it was felt that a new county should be formed so that the trip to the county seat would not take so many days. So the State formed Ontario County which included all the land from Seneca Lake to the Niagara River except for a one mile strip along the river which the Indians wanted to retain for themselves.
Phelps and Gorham had bought from Massachusetts only the preemption rights to buy from the Indians, who truly owned the land. Accordingly, Washington sent Timothy Pickering, in 1794, to effect a treaty with the Indians. After six weeks of preliminary negotiations they finally signed the treaty on the courthouse lawn in Canandaigua wit 59 sachems and chiefs signing for the tribes of the Iroquois Nation.
Ontario County can truly be called the mother of counties, at least in western New York. Fourteen counties in this section of the state were formed from the original Ontario County including: Steuben, Genesee, Niagara, Erie, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Yates, Wayne, and parts of Monroe, Livingston, and Allegany counties. The original towns of the county were Bristol, Canandaigua, Bloomfield, Farmington, Middletown (Naples), and Pittstown (Richmond).
Ontario County is in the heart of the Finger Lakes. The topography of the county varies from the glacial drumlins in the north to a flat section in the middle and the steep Bristol Hills west of Canandaigua Lake. In Grimes Glen, near Naples, was found the fossil remains of the oldest tree in the world.
When the first glaciers moved over the land they followed the river valleys changing thee V-shaped river valleys into U-shaped valleys. They reversed the water drainage, causing the flow to be from south to north. Dammed by glacial dumping and fed by run-off water and springs, the glacial valleys formed the Finger Lakes. Some early white settlers believed that God had placed his hand on the land, blessed it, and left his fingerprints, forming the Finger Lakes.
Whatever the cause for the Finger Lakes, the Seneca Indians called the land and water “Kanandaque, the Chosen Spot.” Since then thousands of residents and vacationers have responded likewise and have chosen Ontario County and the Finger Lakes as their place to live, work, and play.