Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


In a cemetery high on a promontory overlooking the broad waters of the new Allegheny Reservoir in northwestern Pennsylvania stands a stone monument to a once powerful and celebrated Seneca Indian war chief, The Cornplanter, who fought with the British against the Americans during the Revolution, and then became a loyal friend of the United States and a steadfast protector of American families settling in the wilderness of the upper Ohio River basin. The monument has not been at its present site long. In 1964, amid controversy, anger, and the protests of many Seneca Indians, the United States Army Corps of Engineers moved the memorial shaft, together with what was left of the earthly remains of The Cornplanter and more than 300 of his followers and descendants, from an Indian cemetery (“our Arlington,” pleaded a Seneca woman) that was about to be inundated by rising waters behind the engineers’ new Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River.

In the Seneca language, which many of the Indians still speak, kinzua means “fish on spear” and refers to a site on the river 198 river miles above Pittsburgh, just south of the New York state line, where the dam was built. Finished in 1965 at a cost of almost $120,000,000, it is the largest concrete and earth-fill dam in the eastern United States, almost 1,900 feet long and 179 feet high. It is designed to help control floods, as well as to regulate the flow of water for navigation and for the dilution of polluting waste matter poured into the river by mills above Pittsburgh. Among the dam’s important by-products is hydroelectric power, now being exploited by private developers, and the provision of new recreational facilities for the region. Behind the dam is the new Allegheny Reservoir, whose size changes constantly depending on rainfall and the season of the year. At its maximum, in time of severe flood conditions, the lake would extend thirty-five miles npriver to Salamanca, New York, and would have a water surface of more than 21,000 acres. But under ordinary conditions it extends in summer twenty-seven miles, more or less, covers some 12,000 acres, and has a shore line of ninety-one miles. Jn winter it is a considerably smaller pool, covering a minimum of about 6,6oo acres and exposing large areas of mud flats. To the summer vacationer, tourist, and lover of water sports, the reservoir has provided a large new recreation center in the forested mountain country of western New York and Pennsylvania and has already borne out the army engineers’ promise that the dam and its lake would result in the development of a relatively untouched part of the Northeast in the time-honored tradition of American progress.

But there was a cost beyond the cost of the dam, and the raising of a moral question that pricked the conscience of the nation on what has long been an extremely sore point. In creating the Allegheny Reservoir behind Kinzua Dam, the army engineers gutted the Seneca Indians’ reservation, drowning approximately 10,000 acres of the Indians’ only habitable land, which ran along the Allegheny River, and deliberately breaking an Indian treaty in order to do so. In this instance the violated obligation was the federal government’s oldest active treaty, made in 1794 with The Cornplanter’s Senecas and five other Indian nations at a time when the new American republic urgently needed their friendship on the turbulent northwest frontier, and resting ever since then on solemn guarantees which were given by President George Washington and which were supposed to endure through the life of the United States itself.

To many non-Indians who were aware of the engineers’ treaty-breaking action, it was, as Florida Congressman fames Halcy of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee said on May 18, igß’j, “a horrible tragedy, a horribly tragic thing,” underscored especially by the fact that the United States was, at the same time, insisting that the rest of the world honor and respect the sacredness of treaties. To the Senecas and to many other American Indians it was, moreover, another painful reminder that the history of white men’s injustices to them had not ended. Indian wars are no more, for the tribes’ power to resist with arms lias vanished. But their defensive actions still go on, quietly now and with little or no publicity, in courts of law, and the Indians, more often than not, still continue to lose what they are defending. Jn their sadness they increasingly ask the white man: Why feel guilty and sorry about what happened in the nineteenth century? Pay closer attention to what you are still doing to us.

To the Senccas, the new body of water behind Kinzua Dam is known today as Lake Perfidy. And many a bitter Seneca tells his children and grandchildren that no one knows for sure whose bones lie beneath the transplanted monument above the lake: the way the moving took place, the remains could be those of another Indian from the old cemetery. The great Cornplanter, perhaps, now rests beneath the waters of the reservoir.