Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


The owners and residents of the Cornplanter grant, across the state line in Pennsylvania, were treated even more highhandedly by the engineers. Acquiring that plot, sacred to the chief’s descendants and to the followers of the Handsome Lake religion, required delicate treatment by the engineers; instead, its owners were treated like any other citizens being ousted from their property. As early as February, 1961, the Cornplanter heirs, organized as the Cornplanter Indian Landowners Corporation, accepted the fact that most of the grant would have to be given up to the reservoir and that The Cornplanter’s grave and monument would have to be moved. As a means of persuading the Senecas to accept this decision quickly and without a legal contest, the engineers promised Merrill W. Bowen, president of the Cornplanter group, that the cemetery would be moved to a place of the Indians’ choice.

The Senecas first selected a site on the highest part of the grant, which would not be flooded, but the engineers turned it down with the argument that they could not build an access road to it. Then, on August 23, 1963, the Senecas were given a sixty-five-acre tract above the level of the reservoir by the family of Latham B. Weber, publisher of the Salamanca Republican-Press . The site was ideal. It was on the west side of the river, close to the old grant and contiguous to the southern boundary of the Allegany Reservation. But no sooner had the newspaper announced the gift than the engineers informed both Bowen and the Webers that they needed that tract too, not for the reservoir but for public recreation purposes! “It is essential to the needs of the project,” the engineers wrote.

There then began a protracted attempt by the Senecas to change the engineers’ mind, an attempt that floundered in a sea of deafness, evasions, and red tape. On October i, 1963, despite their original promise to relocate Cornplanter’s grave in a place of the Indians’ choice, the engineers announced in a newspaper release that all the graves on the grant would be moved to a new cemetery on a hill across the river, which the Indians would share with whites who were losing their cemetery too. More than 150 Cornplanter heirs signed a petition in protest, but the engineers were unmoved and on March 31, 1964, received authority from a federal court in Erie, Pennsylvania, to relocate the Indian graves wherever they wished. The relocation to the site across the river, which began on August 26, was attended by threats, rumors, and charges. Fearful of trouble (one Indian, it was claimed, did try to stop the work), the engineers were overly secretive about the matter, and on the day that the monument was to be moved and Cornplanter’s grave opened, only two heirs were notified to be present as witnesses. Two others showed up, however, and charges later appeared in newspapers and were filed with the engineers and with the office of Senator Joseph S. Clark of Pennsylvania, claiming rough and irreverent handling of the remains, mixing of the bones, and other misdeeds by those carrying out the work. The engineers went to great length to deny the charges, though they did not take affidavits from those who made them. True or not, the charges reflected the state of tension and hostility between the Cornplanter heirs and the engineers.

The conflict was not over, for the Cornplanters still had no land for a memorial and meeting grounds to take the place of the old grant. In December, 1964, Senator Clark made a personal appeal to Colonel James C. Hammer, the district engineer in Pittsburgh, to allow the Indians to keep the Weber tract. Hammer first told Clark’s office that the Webers had given the land to the Senecas only after they had known it was to be condemned, which was totally untrue and which the Webers and Bowen were quick to deny. Hammer then replied formally on January 27, 1965, suggesting that the corps meet with the Indians to try to help them find a suitable site, but implying that they could not have the Weber tract, which provided “a prime location for recreational facilities.” In February, Curtis F. Hunter, a corps representative in Warren, Pennsylvania, near the dam site, met with Bowen and the Webers’ attorney in Salamanca, proposed certain alternative possibilities, including the Indians’ use of the Weber tract by license rather than ownership, and suggested that they all meet with Colonel Hammer the next time that officer was in the area. On March 14 Hunter called for a meeting on the following day. Hammer did not show up, and instead of talking about the Weber tract, Hunter seemed anxious to pressure the Indians into acceptance of the use of an alternative site across the river. When an impasse was reached, he promised to write Colonel Hammer a letter explaining the Indians’ reasons for wanting to retain the Weber tract and told Bowen he would send him a copy. He failed to do this; instead, on April i, one of his colleagues in Warren, a real-estate official named Stanley O’Hopp, asked the Senecas for another meeting on April 5. At that conference, O’Hopp told them that they could not keep the Weber property, but he offered them three alternative sites, the biggest of which, across the river, totalled about sixty-three acres. When the Indians again argued for the Weber tract, he told them to state their position on paper and submit it to the corps for consideration.