by Michael Brewster
Part One: “There’s an old Native American legend…”
A Google search for “How did the Finger Lakes get their name?” will yield millions of hits, and many of them of them will relate some version of what Arch Merrill wrote in his 1951 book Slim Fingers Beckon:
“There is an old Indian legend that the Finger Lakes came
into being when the Great Spirit placed the imprint of his
hand in blessing on the Upstate land.”
If you’re like me, you love Arch Merrill, the man who wrote about everything Upstate. Arch goes on to say:
“There are six major Finger Lakes. Reading from east to
west, their names are Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga,
Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua. They are Indian names
and sometimes strangers stumble a bit over their pronunciation.”
Right away, we’ve entered into the great debate— What makes a lake a “Finger Lake”? If you can wait until Part Two of this story, I’ll dive deeply into that question there. For now, let’s just say “It’s complicated.”
As much as I love Arch Merrill, it’s a complicated love because he does not cite his sources. So I don’t know where he got his old Indian legend from. However, I do have training in historical methodology and have worked through a Master’s degree, so I’m not afraid to do a little research on my own. This, then, is my story. The Absolutely True Story of How The Finger Lakes Got Their Name.
From 1951 to Present
Arch Merrill was born in Sandusky, NY, southeast of Buffalo and went to college for a year at Hobart, where he started his career as a newspaperman. Beginning in 1923, he wrote over 1650 articles, mostly for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, even continuing a weekly column after his retirement in 1963. These articles became the bases for his 24 books about Upstate New York.
We can assume that all these websites repeating this story are working from versions of Arch Merrill’s original, even if they change some of the words. I’ve seen a lot of websites about the Finger Lakes say “There is an old Native American legend…” which updates the language, and even some that say “There is an old Iroquois legend…” which makes the story reflect the actual history of the Finger Lakes. In any event, these stories all trace back to the same place because they all share the same structure. There is a Great Spirit, the Finger Lakes are there because of his handprint. The variations come in the Native American—Indian—Iroquois part and sometimes in the reason for the handprint. Some versions say the Great Spirit rested his hands and made the lakes. Now, if you’re like me, you might recognize something about the resting during creation as familiar, and you would be right. But that’s just a hint we’ll have to hold onto for a few moments. Our next question is— Where did Arch Merrill get the story from?
Before we get into origins, let’s look at a great controversy which arose in the mid-1950s and one that Arch Merrill addressed more than once. On page 3C of the August 28, 1955 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, there is a column titled “Don’t Call Up to Ask: ‘Are There 5 or 6 Finger Lakes?’” Before you get all fired up over the debate, and yes, the debate still rages today— Are There 10 or 11 Finger Lakes? (remember, I’m saving that for Part Two)— back 50 or 60 years ago it was a question whether Keuka Lake should be considered a Finger Lake. In his 1955 article, Arch searches for the Official Answer from New York State. Let me quote him:
“According to an old Indian legend, the Great Spirit laid his hand
in benediction upon this York State land and left the slim blue
Finger Lakes as his mark.”
So far, so good. This jibes with what he published in 1951’s Slim Fingers Beckon. Let’s continue:
“Most hands, even celestial ones, have five fingers. Therefore
most people, including myself, for years believed there were
five Finger Lakes.”
Makes sense, except his 1951 book lists (as we saw above) “six major Finger Lakes” and in the book, he goes on to write:
“West of the Big Six, in the uplands south of Rochester lie
four “Little Finger Lakes.” They are Honeoye, Canadice,
Hemlock and Conesus. Carrying out the story of the
blessing of the five-fingered god, it follows that he put all
ten fingers on the land. Which also disposes of any
dispute between Owasco and Keuka Lakes as to
Finger Lakes status.”
So let’s recap. First, he names ten Finger Lakes, including both Keuka and Owasco. If I didn’t know better (my copy is inscribed as a Father’s Day gift “June-15-1952,” I would have guessed that I had a later edition of the book, because Arch’s 1955 article directly contradicts his own 1951 book. But I guess he had newspapers to sell, and as I’ve said, the debate rages still in some quarters. In the article, Arch receives an answer from Phil Forman, senior state publicity editor and is told that the New York State Vacationlands booklet lists six Finger Lakes. Again, this is what Merrill had written in 1951, but here’s something new:
“Senior Editor Forman, however, did add an interesting angle to
the discussion. He cited one version of the Finger Lakes legend
which represents the giant hand as having an extra finger which
was fork-shaped, causing one lake, Keuka, to disturb the almost
This is a bit of a twist, but if you run a Google search, you’ll find websites repeating this story or the idea that the Great Spirit “slipped” somehow. But the new information about Keuka, once known by white settlers as “Crooked Lake,” doesn’t lead to any older sources, so we’ll have to go back to the five-fingered Great Spirit.
1925-1945 sources other than from Rochester
In 1945, the Sunday, March 8 Poughkeepsie Journal had this space-filler:
From the December 10, 1942 Dunkirk (NY) Evening Observer:
These two little fillers are interesting only for their dates: 1945 and 1942. It looks like Arch Merrill’s 1951 book uses the exact same idea, and since Arch had been writing from the mid-1920s, we could guess that he is the original source. But here comes some curveballs.
In an advertisement published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 21, 1925, the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce shares the Great Spirit-handprint legend and compares the sounds of their waterfalls to tom-toms.
The same ad appears the same day in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
The Cornell Connections 1920s-1930s
Going back in time from 1942, the next reference to the Finger Lakes and the Great Spirit comes in an article from the December 21, 1933 issue of The Erie Independent of Hamburg, NY:
The writer, Dr. E.A. Bates was a professor at Cornell. I looked him up to see if he had written something more about our Indian legend. Dr. Bates founded an American Indian Program at Cornell: “The first American Indians at Cornell were here, in part, because of the work of Earl Bates, who started a program with the goal of helping them become better farmers and housewives.”
This article is one of several I have uncovered from different newspapers of that era, all under the “Tell Me an Indian Story” banner. Notice that he is copyrighting this story, and that it includes a version of the Great Spirit’s hand making the Finger Lakes. While I applaud Dr. Bates for wanting to help indigenous peoples, I have to correct a historical mistake in the story. He states that men were farmers in Haudenosaunee culture, but this was not true before the American Revolution. In traditional Haudenosaunee villages, women and children farmed. It was later during the reservation period that outsiders like the U.S. Government and Quaker missionaries tried to “teach” agriculture to the natives. Their goal was to give the men something to do other than wage war and go hunting on lands coveted by white settlers. But, in 1933, the state of research into Haudenosaunee culture was still apparently sparse.
Heading back further into the 1920s, keeping to sources other than the Arch Merrill ones at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, we find an interesting paragraph in a story from the July 24, 1926 The Daily Messenger from Canandaigua. Nestled in at the foot of Canandaigua Lake, this village was described in 1817 by William Darby (more about him in Part Two):
“Mr. Granger’s elegant mansion stands upon the highest part of the plain, upon which Canandaigua is built, and adds considerably to the decoration of that unequalled village. This expression you may say is extravagant; it is not, however, inaccurate. Viewed in all respects, I am persuaded that no village in the United States can compare in the beauty, variety, and taste of its edifices.”
Canandaigua still retains its charm, and it may well be the quintessential “Finger Lake Village” still. But as we are more interested in digging up the origin of the Great Spirit legend, let’s look at the 1926 article:
On one hand, this is exciting because it expands on Dr. Bate’s idea of the Great Spirit’s “promised land” and is from Ithaca as well. On the other, it clouds the issue a little with a “new” expert, Ross W. Kellogg. Kellogg was a 1912 graduate of Cornell and published a book in 1925 titled The Beautiful Finger Lakes Call You. The November 5, 1925 Cornell Daily Sun has an article written by Kellogg with the title “W. Kellogg ’12 Recounts History and Growth of Finger Lakes Region from Time of Indians” which is probably the source for the 1926 article. The Cornell story has a subhead of “Mid-Section of State Was Once Believed to be a Special Grant of the ‘Happy Hunting Grounds’ of the Iroquois by the Great Spirit.” Boy, does this have it all! But, Kellogg does not directly attribute to the Great Spirit the forming of the Finger Lakes as the 1926 Canandaigua article does. Instead, he gives the Happy Hunting Ground idea in general and skips to a more geological explanation for the lakes.
So, as it turns out, Dr. Bates did not create the legend, despite his copyrighted story (probably just ensuring that other papers didn’t copy his words without paying him), and that Ross Kellogg doesn’t seem to have originated the legend either.
Back to Rochester— the 1920s.
During the 1920s, the rise of the automobile and paved roads were important topics in newspapers, and articles about Upstate parks and landmarks were published frequently. C.S. Edwards, an editor at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle began one such article (Oct. 6, 1929) with this eloquent lede:
“And when the Great Spirit blessed the Iroquois he left the imprint of
his hand and long, tapering fingers in the soil. There did spring up six
idyllic lakes where his hand had touched, with flashing colors and
gleaming waterfalls to match the scintillating jewel’s upon the Master’s
“Thus does an Iroquois legend describe the origin and beauty of the
Finger Lakes country, over which the red men held sway for two
It should not surprise you that Edwards’s opening paragraph, with its flowery words like “idyllic”, “gleaming” and “scintillating”, is found nowhere else on the Internet except for this article. But, if you allow that he spruced up the words a little, this is basically the same story we’ve seen all along, except that it definitively counts six lakes.
Between 1921 and 1929, there were eight articles or multi-article features about the Finger Lakes in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that also mentioned some sort of Indian legend, but Edwards’s article is the only one to mention the Great Spirit handprint legend. As we have already seen, Ross Kellogg had the story in 1925-26 (and it was copied for the Watkins Glen ads), and now we can state definitely that Arch Merrill did not make up the story. So where did it come from?
A Quick Look at Actual Iroquois Stories
From the colonial period through the 19th Century, much research into Iroquois or Haudenosaunee culture was published. The first major book came out in 1828— David Cusick’s Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations. Cusick was a Tuscarora, the “Sixth” Haudenosaunee Nation, and his book is known as the first Native American creation story published in English. In Haudenosaunee mythology, there was a Sky Woman, who fell and was saved by a great turtle who came up out of the waters. This turtle, or Great Island, is what the Haudenosaunee call North America. The Sky Woman bore twin sons, Enigorio, known as the good mind and Enigonhahetgea, the bad mind.
“The good mind continued the works of creation,
and he formed numerous creeks
and rivers on the Great Island, and then created
numerous species of animals of
the smallest and greatest, to inhabit the forests, and fishes of all kinds to inhabit the waters… The bad mind, while his brother was making the universe, went throughout the Island and made numerous high mountains and falls of water, and great steeps, and also creates various reptiles which would be injurious to mankind.”
So, from the actual Haudenosaunee themselves, there is no entity called the “Great Spirit.” When they use the term “Creator,” they mean Enigorio, the good mind. Sometimes the word “Manitou” is used in connection to the Great Spirit, but this is not an Iroquoian word, it is of Algonquian origin and the Great Spirit idea, promoted by Christian missionaries, is a version of the “Gitche Manitou” mythos.
League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois by Lewis Henry Morgan was published in 1851. Morgan credits the Seneca Ely S. Parker as a source for his book. Ely Parker was born on the Tonawanda Reservation as Ha-sa-no-an-da and later baptized with the name Ely. Parker was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and fought in the Civil War as an adjutant alongside General Ulysses S. Grant, who later named him the first Native Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Nowhere in Morgan’s book does the story of the Great Spirit creating the Finger Lakes with his handprint appear. Incidentally, Morgan is the reason the story of Hiawatha as published in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem got screwed up (Hiawatha was Onondaga, not Ojibway).
In the 1920s, Arthur C. Parker, the Seneca grandnephew of Ely was an archaeologist and author. His 1923 book, Seneca Myths and Legends, relates their “Origin of the World” tale, written down from an oral storyteller in 1876:
“In its light, the older brother went forth and made the hills and valleys
and into the valleys he poured out the water of his mouth and it formed
the rivers and creeks, and the waters flowed into the deep valleys and
made lakes. Then he created the stars and the moon and to the moon
he gave the task of marking the months and the years.”
Like Cusick, Parker’s story is authentic and does not mention the handprint idea.
The “Indian Legend” Came From…
In 1920, the Seneca County Historian Fred Teller published a book in Seneca Falls titled The Legend of the Finger Lakes, with Something of Their Indian Lore, Traditions and Present Day Charms. In this book he writes:
“As though nature had not already been profuse enough in the
interior of this same state, are the Finger Lakes. They are situated
in a country that was fashioned by the hand of the Great Spirit. He
created it after the pattern of the Happy Hunting Grounds, the red
man’s future Heaven.
There are many of these lakes in that direction that feed these outlets.
They are of many sizes, some quite small and some much larger bodies ot
water. They stretch a goodly distance across the state of New York.
Altogether they drain the watershed of a very large area of country.
“In shape several of the larger ones are long and narrow. They resemble
very much in form the outstretched fingers of a gigantic hand. Because
of this resemblance they have accordingly been given the name of “The
Here we have, in three paragraphs, the seed of a story that can be condensed down to a single sentence and will be copied countless times across the years. In fact, the multi-volume series The History of New York (Book VII, Chapter I) edited by Dr. James Sullivan, published in 1927, appears to be the source of this condensed version:
“According to an Indian legend, the Great Spirit gave to the Iroquois,
as their happy hunting grounds, the central part of New York State,
known as the finger lakes, and that these same bodies of water are
but the imprints of the Great Spirit’s hand.”
This should end any “Old Indian Legend” nonsense about the Finger Lakes, but with over 2,000,000 hits on Google, it will be hard for the truth to be heard. Either way, Fred Teller, hats off to you!
Some Final Thoughts
For the Iroquois, the important lakes were Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. If there were a legend about the Great Spirit creating lakes with his hand across the earth, it would include those four, because each was within the territory of its namesake tribe. But none of the material we have researched here considers Oneida nor Onondaga to be Finger Lakes. Onondaga was special to the whole Haudenosaunee League, because the Great Law of Peace originated on its north shore. The problem here is Otisco, Skaneateles and Owasco lakes. Even the goofy six-fingered concoctions cannot suddenly become seven. Plus, Cazenovia Lake was in between Oneida and Onondaga lands and would probably have been the fifth lake in the story.
If we’re being honest, what about Canandaigua, Keuka and the rest? All of those lakes are firmly in Seneca lands, and so we might expect a purely Seneca story to cover them. But the Seneca story is about their origin along with the honored place Bare Hill has in that story next to the angry serpent-filled waters. And of course, what about the Mohawk Tribe? Sure, they have the river, a mighty river. But they also had Lake George, Lake Champlain and a host of smaller lakes in that Upper Hudson watershed. Are they not the same “finger” shapes as the rest?
So, if the Haudenosaunee did not come up with the “finger” idea, where did it come from? In Part Two, I will write about historical sources from the settler times through the present.
Resources and Additional Reading
Arch Merrill on Wikipedia
The History of the American Indian Program at Cornell University
Food and Hunting of the Haudenosaunee
William Darby’s 1819 Exploration
David Cusick on Wikipedia
Manitou (god) on Wikipedia
Ely S. Parker on Wikipedia
Arthur C. Parker on Wikipedia
“The Legend of the Finger Lakes, With Something of Their Indian Lore…”
“The History of New York State: Book VII. Chapter 1”
Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center, Syracuse, NY website
Ganondagan Seneca Heritage site, Victor, NY website