Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


From the very beginning, when army lawyers first looked into the problem of acquiring land for the dam and the reservoir, the Corps of Engineers had little concern for the uniqueness of the treaty-secured Seneca position. The corps is a highly efficient and capable expression of the modern technological age, able to build great dams, move mountains, control roaring rivers, and alter any manner of landscape. But to many persons the corps exemplifies, at the same time, the big, self-propelled, faceless juggernauts of the world that grind ahead, seemingly unmoved by the outcries of the people whose lives they affect. As an autocratically tinged bureaucracy and one of the most irresistible lobbies in the nation (relying on the “pork barrel” support of political groups everywhere who sooner or later want public works for their own areas), it befriends the American people in the mass and in the abstract, and makes war on the same people when, as individuals or in small numbers, they get in the way. In iyGG a special study group composed of two colonels and a civilian official of the corps reported that “too often the [engineers’] planning effort is confined to refining the concept and proving the justification for one or a few promising projects. Too few reports contain evidence that adequate consideration was given to alternatives and to all factors pertinent to producing an optimum solution.” In the case of the building of Kinzua Dam, an “optimum solution” required that the engineers possess enough of an understanding of, and a concern for, the Senccas’ 1794 treaty to deter them from breaking it. The Senecas whom the engineers confronted in the 1950#8217;s were descendants of the westernmost of the five confederated Iroquois tribes who for numerous centuries had occupied present-day upper New York state from Lake Champlain to the Genesce River. From east to west they were, in order, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Joined about 1712 by the Ttiscaroras, Iroquoian-speaking relatives who had been driven out of North Carolina by the white man, the Iroquois Confederacy became known as the League of the Six Nations. In tlip mid-tfioo’s. several hands of Senecas had moved southwcstward from the Genesee River to the upper Allegheny Valley, and during the next hundred years they established domination over a large area of western New York and Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, swelling their own numbers and power by absorbing many Indian captives and refugee groups. Both French and English traders were welcomed in the region, but no white settlement was permitted.

Toward the mid-1700’s, trouble came foi the western Senecas when English and French military groups began to fight for authority over the upper Ohio Valley. The Senecas were catight between the two sides, but when the struggle erupted into the full-fledged French and Indian War, many of the Senecas sided with the French. With the defeat of the latter in 1763, the stillpowerful Senecas retired up the Allegheny River to their towns along the New York-Pennsylvania border.

With the coming of the American Revolution, pressure was again exerted on the individual tribes, this time by both the British and the colonists. The Oncidas and some of the Tuscaroras sided with the Americans, many of the Cayugas and Senecas joined Joseph Brant and his Mohawks as allies of the British, and other groups remained neutral.

Under The Cornplanter, whom they elected as their war leader and whom the British commissioned as a captain, the western Senecas from the Genesee and Allegheny valleys conducted raids against American posts and settlements. The Cornplanter, then about forty years old, was already one of the strongest and best known of the Iroquois war chiefs. Born in a Seneca town on the Gcnesce near present-day Avon, New York, sometime between 1732 and 1740, he was the half-breed son of a prominent Dutch trader from Albany named John Abccl and a Seneca woman. By the time of the Revolution he was the principal war chief and a leading spokesman of the western Senecas.

The Revolution was disastrous for the Iroquois. In retaliation for their raids and for the help the Indians had given the British, American punitive expeditions invaded the countries of the Senecas and other tribes in 1779, burning towns, destroying crops, and driving the people from their homelands. Many of the proBritish Senecas joined Brant at Fort Niagara. In 1780, following the departure of the Americans, some of the Indians drifted back to their homes. Others formed a large permanent settlement at Buffalo Creek. Cornplanter and the Genesee River Senecas found their country in ruins and moved to the Allegheny River settlements along the New York-Pennsylvania border. There Cornplantcr took over the civil leadership of his people from an elderly uncle, Kiasulha.

Under the protection of the British along the Niagara, where English troops and trailers remained on American soil until after (ay’s Treaty of 1794, the displaced eastern Senecas at Buffalo Creek kept up a bitter hostility to the Americans. And along the Allegheny, Cornplantcr and the western Senecas were a threat closer to the Pennsylvania and New York settlements. The danger was acute, for at any time one or all of the disaffected Iroquois groups, under the influence of the British, could join the Ohio country Indians in an allout, catastrophic: war on the settlers.