- Historic Sites
Cornplanter, Can You Swim?
The new Kinzua Dam floods the Senecas’ ancestral lands —in violation of our oldest Indian treaty.’Lake Perfidy” may even have claimed the bones of their greatest chief
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
At this point, Cornplanter was induced to throw in his lot with the Americans, and the Seneca duel’s influence was decisive with all the Iroquois. By 1794, when General Anthony Wayne crushed the Ohio tribes with finality at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Cornplanter had not only immobilized the Senecas and other Iroquois so that they remained out of the conflict, but had overseen the ceding and sale of large areas of Seneca land in western Pennsylvania and New York to the Americans. His actions had been angrily opposed by many Iroquois chiefs, including Red Jacket, a fiery Seneca orator at Buffalo Creek, but Cornplanter had ignored them, saying, “If we do not sell the land, the whites will take it anyway.”
The grateful Americans were not unaware of Cornplanter’s friendship and the many good services he had rendered them, often at the risk of his life. In December, 1790, he had met President Washington in Philadelphia and had told him that his people were beginning to fear the loss of their own lands to white settlers. On December 29, Washington responded to him in a letter that was to have little meaning to the Army Corps of Engineers when the Senecas presented it to them more than a century and a half later. Washington wrote:
… Your great object seems to be the security of your remaining lands, and I have therefore upon this point, meant to be sufficiently strong and clear. That in future you cannot be defrauded of your lands. That you possess the right to sell, and the right of refusing to sell your lands. That therefore the sale of your lands iti future, will depend entirely upon yourselves.
In 1791 the stale of Pennsylvania, in acknowledgment ol Cornplanter’s services to American settlers, granted him and his heirs “in perpetuity” three tracts of land, each about a mile square, on the upper Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. One of these, near present-day West Hickory, the chief sold in 1795 to a white friend. Another, at what is now Oil City, he sold to two white men in 1818, but claimed he was paid in worthless money and notes. The third tract, an area known since before the Revolution as The Burnthouse, totalled approximately 908 acres and was on the western bank of the Allegheny about three miles south of the New York state line. It included Cornplanter’s own town of Jononhsadegen and two islands in the river. Cornplanter made it his headquarters, settling down there with his followers, who in time built thirty houses for about four hundred people on the grant.
In 1974, discontent arose among many of the Iroquois over increased pressure from the settlers. The Rattle of Fallen Timbers had not yet been fought, and the federal government, fearing again that the Iroquois might join the Ohio tribes who in 1790 and 1791 had indicted serious defeats on American armies, sent Timothy Picketing of Massachusetts as commissioner to meet with the chiefs of the Six Nations at Canandaigua, New York, and establish a lasting peace with them. Pickering’s mission was successful: on November 11, 1794, he signed a treaty with fifty-nine sachems and war chiefs, inducting Cornplanter, Fish Carrier, Red jacket, Half Town, and Handsome Lake for the Senecas, establishing what was to be a permanent peace between the United States and the different Iroquois tribes.
Article three of the treaty, which was signed by Washington, applied only to the Senecas: Now the United States acknowledge all the hind within the aforementioned boundaries, to be the property of the Seneka nation; and the United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneka nation … but it shall remain theirs, until they choose to sell the same to the people ol the United States, who have the right to purchase.
These were the words which the engineers, a century and a half later, were to brush aside. The solemn promise was “never,” and until the 1950’s it gave the Senecas security. In their imagery they made it read, “as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers run,” and with that contract they lived in peace.
Cornplanter died on February 18, 1836, and was buried on his grant. That small plot ot land in the meantime had taken on added meaning for the Senecas, for there, in 1799, Cornplantcr’s half-brother, the prophet Ganiodayo, or Handsome Lake, had had the first of his revelations and had preached the Good Message—a set of new religious beliefs and practices—to all the Iroquois. This new religion, which still permeates Iroquois life, has been described as a blending of old Seneca beliefs with an ethical code borrowed largely from the Quakers. Its birth on the Cornplanter grant, from where it spread, endowed the plot with something of the sacredness of a holy shrine. In ensuing years, the burial of Cornplanter and his followers and descendants on the same grounds added to the grant’s significance, a fact acknowledged by the state of Pennsylvania in 1866 when it erected the stone monument over Cornplanter’s grave.
Under the tutelage of Quakers, who first came to live among the Senecas on the Allegheny River in 1798, the Indians became rapidly acculturated to the white man’s way of living. Indians were educated, and Indian men were induced to farm (the Quakers persuaded families to spread out in homesteads along the liver, out of sight of each other, so the men would not be embarrassed by being seen in the fields, doing what had traditionally been considered women’s work). Beginning in 1803, factional disputes on the Cornplanter grant resulted in a gradual movement by Senecas to new communities higher up on the Allegheny across the New York border, and by 1806 Coldspring, south of present-day Salamanca, had become a new Seneca center.