Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


The idea for Kinzua Dam was born in 1928, following disastrous floods in the Ohio Valley. In 1938 and again in 1941, the chief of engineers asked for and received authorization from Congress to build Kinzua and a number of other dams as part of a general program of flood control for the Ohio River basin. The Senecas were not informed by the engineers of their proposal to construct a dam that would inundate a large part of their reservation, and the engineers, in turn, were so unconcerned about the existence of a treaty which they would have to break if they built the clam that they failed to make much of a point of it in their presentation to Congress. To the corps, it seems, land is land, no matter who lives on it. Proceeding on the assumption that the acquisition of land, ultimately, would be the usual matter of paying individual owners, engineers appeared on the Allegany Reservation in 1939 and 1940. The president and the council of the Seneca Nation, thinking that the engineers were making some studies of the river, offered no objection when they began to make surveys along the banks.

Interruptions by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who wanted Pennsylvania to pay part of the cost of the dam, and then by World War II, temporarily sidetracked the Kinzua project. Through sources other than the Corps of Engineers, however, the Senecas began to learn of the plan for the dam, and by 1955, when the engineers again appeared before the Seneca council to ask permission to continue their surveys on the reservation, the Indians were nervous. The engineers allayed their fears, however, by assuring them that they did not yet know if they wished to build the dam and would not know until they had completed their surveys. Assuming that the engineers would keep them informed, the Indians once more let them make their studies.

The members of the Seneca Nation by this time numbered approximately 4,300, of whom perhaps 1,800 lived on the Allegany Reservation, 2,200 on the Cattaraugus Reservation thirty miles away, and the rest off the reservations. The Allegany Reservation, on which the engineers were focusing their attention, totalled 30,469 acres in a slender, forty-two-mile-long strip, averaging a mile wide, on both sides of the Allegheny River as it wound through a valley to the Pennsylvania border. Some 12,000 acres of the reservation were occupied by Salamanca and the other white towns or were taken by rights of way for roads and railroads, and much of the rest of the land was steep, rocky, forested hillside and therefore uninhabitable. Most of the Indians lived in frame houses or hemlock-board shanties strung out in a long line in clearings and wooded areas on the lower hills and bottomlands along the river. The average annual income of a family was about !3,000 (as against $5,000 for a white family in Salamanca), but the Indians, generally, lived in contentment, with fish, game, and firewood close at hand, and with a privacy and a closeness to nature that many a white visitor envied. South of the Pennsylvania line and separated from the reservation by three miles, about fifteen of Cornplanter’s descendants still lived on his grant, close to the cemetery where his monument stood.

The engineers made their surveys and left, and in 1956 the Senecas were startled to learn that Congress had appropriated funds for plans for Kinzua Dam. Hearings had been held in Washington, and the engineers had testified, but the Indians had neither been invited to the hearings nor been informed that they were occurring. Now thoroughly alarmed, the Senecas and their tribal attorney moved quickly on two fronts. First they sought an injunction to keep the engineers off their land. Next, recognizing the need for flood control, they hired two eminent private engineers, Dr. Arthur E. Morgan, a former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Barton M. Jones, who had built the T.V.A.’s Norris Dam, to make an independent study of the need for Kinzua Dam and, if possible, to propose an alternative dam site that would not involve the flooding of their lands.

The cat was now out of the bag. Newspapers began to publicize the Senecas’ plight, and angry congressmen claimed that the engineers had misled them, that they had not been informed about the treaty. But if the engineers were chagrined, they failed to show it. Ignoring their critics, they got federal courts, early in 1957, to uphold their right to continue to make surveys on the reservation. And that same year, when Morgan and Jones presented an alternative plan for diverting Allegheny flood waters into Lake Erie at what they claimed was a cheaper cost than the Kinzua project, and without inundating reservation land, the engineers testified successfully against it in Congress (with “explicit misstatements and misrepresentations,” according to Dr. Morgan) and won another one-milliondollar appropriation to complete the planning and begin the construction of Kinzua Dam.