Frances Johnson

Local man debunks legend of “Finger Lakes” name

Michael Brewster’s curiosity about the history of the Finger Lakes began with the question of why Oneida Lake, just east of Syracuse, is not a part of the Finger Lakes.

I knew that it wasn’t in the official set, but I didn’t know the answer of ‘why not?’” Brewster said.

Initially, Brewster tried to find the answer of why Oneida Lake is not a part of the Finger Lakes, but repeatedly came across the idea that the Finger Lakes were named after a Native American legend in which the Great Spirit blessed the land with his hands, creating the lakes. Knowing this was not true, he changed his research path began to do more research on how the Finger Lakes got their name.

Since beginning his research this January, Brewster has published a two-part series called “How the Finger Lakes Really Got Their Name” on Exploring Upstate, a website that allows writers to contribute stories and little-known facts about Upstate New York. Part one, published on Feb. 3, explains the Native American legend behind the name “Finger Lakes.”

“The first part I tried to write more like a conversation because, since it dealt folklore and religion, it was like a conversation I’d have with my friends,” Brewster said. “Like, ‘Hey, look what I found out,’ or something like that.”

Part one of the series gives the history of the Native American legend attached to the name of the Finger Lakes. Brewster wrote that an Internet search would yield results from Arch Merrill, a 20th century author known for his writing on the Finger Lakes region. Merrill’s book, “Slim Fingers Beckon,” was published in 1952, but earlier references to the Native American legend appeared in the 1920s.

Brewster, a native of the Finger Lakes region who grew up on the north end of Cayuga Lake, continued researching. A former English teacher and graduate student at SUNY Cortland, he is finishing a master’s degree in English, and working on his thesis on Haudenosaunee/Iroquois contemporary literature.

“I looked at a few things on the Internet and kept coming across this idea that the Finger Lakes were named because of this old Indian legend and I knew that wasn’t true from my research in Haudenosaunee culture,” Brewster said. “But I didn’t know why it wasn’t true.”

Part two of “How the Finger Lakes Really Got Their Name,” published on Feb. 29, is technical and statistic-heavy, Brewster said. It examines documents and publications from the American colonial era to the early 20th century for any references to the Finger Lakes. Brewster could not find any references during the colonial settlement period or the Civil War. It was not until 1882 when Thomas Chamberlain, a geologist and professor from Wisconsin, coined the term “finger lakes” in the “Preliminary paper on the terminal moraine of the second glacial epoch” published by the United States Geological Survey.

Brewster was surprised that the term had not been used earlier to describe the lakes.

I had intuited that it was sort of a thing that you see from space, you see in maps, so it couldn’t be too old,” Brewster said. “The Erie Canal was built in 1825 so the population grew in this area around that time, so I didn’t think it could go back too far before that. But I was surprised to see that it was so late that the word ‘finger’ became involved.


The reception of Brewster’s research has been positive. His first initial post of his article on Facebook had 50 or 60 shares. The research took him just over a month to complete, but Brewster said his favorite part of it was debunking myths and legends.

I’ve done a lot of debunking of Indian legends based on actual history that I can find. I know that growing up in the area, people pass on this sort of stuff, ‘There’s this old Indian graveyard that causes this place to be haunted,’ and these stories just get passed on” Brewster said. “To me, that’s fascinating.”

Brewster knows his research will probably not have the power to change people’s minds about passing down these cherished legends to their children or friends, but discovering the truth behind the name of the Finger Lakes and knowing the real story exists is enough for him.

“They’re not going to take my debunking as the truth,” Brewster said. “They don’t want to hear that. They’re going to keep going on and I understand that that. I just think it’s interesting that the information is there and you can do with it what you will and life will still go on.”


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This entry was posted on March 11, 2016 by .
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