Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


On April 21, Bowen followed up the suggestion and wrote to Colonel Hammer, telling him that O’Hopp’s alternative proposals did not reflect a “clear understanding” of the needs and desires of the Cornplanter descendants, and then explaining in detail why the Indians wished to retain the Weber tract. On receipt of the letter, Hammer decided that nothing more could come of further discussions with the Cornplanter heirs, and he ordered condemnation proceedings to be started against the Weber property. Withholding this information from the Cornplanters, Hammer wrote Bowen on May 13 a curt note stating, “I have carefully considered the contents of your letter, but I am unable to find a valid basis for changing the determination … that the Weber tract in its entirety is essential to the needs of the Project.”

When Bowen got the letter, he telegraphed Hammer, asking for a meeting with him personally. On May 21 Hammer’s deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce W. Jamison, replied evasively in a letter that “the Corps” would be pleased to be “represented at such conference as you may arrange,” and also notified the Seneca, almost as an afterthought, that “in line with” Colonel Hammer’s letter of May 13, the corps was commencing eminent domain proceedings for the acquisition of the Weber tract. “As you know,” Jamison concluded, “the negotiations for acquisition by purchase were not productive of a mutually agreeable price.” The Indians could not have known such a thing, because there had never been any negotiations with them over a price.

Meanwhile, the Quaker representative living among the Senecas had written President Johnson an appeal for his assistance in behalf of the Cornplanters, who were still being pushed around. The letter was referred by the White House to Lieutenant General W. K. Wilson, Jr., chief of engineers, in Washington, who sent it to Colonel Hammer in Pittsburgh for his comments. On May 27 General Wilson replied to the Quaker representative, passing on several pieces of misinformation supplied him by Hammer, among them that Hammer “had met with Mr. Bowen on several occasions to negotiate the acquisition of the land for the project” (they had not met face-to-face once, despite Bowen’s request for such a meeting), and that when the Webers had given the land to the Indians, “it was well known that the ‘Weber’ tract was scheduled for acquisition by the Corps” (an untruth that Bowen and the Webers had already set straight). “The entire ‘Weber’ tract is essential to the needs of the project and must be acquired,” General Wilson concluded, employing the same words that Hammer had used in his note of May 13 to Bowen.

The Army had its back up, and neither General Wilson nor anyone else in the corps could see the silliness of their bureaucratic rigidity. Insisting that a small, sixty-five-acre tract for recreation was essential to the success of the Kinzua Dam project would have been farcical had it not been so unhappy for the Indians. Nor did the Army stop there. From its point of view, the Quaker representative had made a grievous mistake in appealing to the President, and now the Senecas would pay for it.

On May 28, in reply to another telegraphed appeal from Bowen, Colonel Hammer let the Cornplanter leader know that there was nothing more to discuss about the Weber property and that the Army had already instituted eminent-domain proceedings. Recognizing that the engineers could not be stopped, the Cornplanter heirs finally surrendered on June 15, writing Colonel Hammer that they would give up the Weber land but wished to discuss use of the sixty-three acres across the river that Hunter and O’Hopp had mentioned the previous March and April. Hammer replied, asking Bowen to set up the meeting, but shortly afterward Bowen’s wife died, and the conference did not occur until September 16. It proved to be the last straw. Hunter and O’Hopp appeared for the engineers and announced that, because of the Indians’ “procrastination,” the offer of sixty-three acres had been reduced to 8.42 acres, almost entirely hillside, covered with trees and brush. The Indians were shocked, but they could get nowhere with the corps’s negotiators. In a last pitiful appeal, Bowen asked if Hunter could get the engineers to tack on another two acres at the bottom of the hill where the ground was level and the Cornplanters could hold their picnics without danger of sliding. Hunter said he would try, but the next day he called back and reported that the answer was No. Some day, he said, there might be a ski development “back in that direction,” and the level land would be needed for a road on which to get in.

So the Cornplanters, in the end, accepted an exclusive but revokable license to use the 8.42 isolated acres of steep land. They have not used it yet, and probably will never use it. On September 24, 1965, Bowen wrote a final letter to Senator Clark, who, although an insistent advocate of the building of Kinzua Dam, had also tried to help the Cornplanters. Telling the Pennsylvania Senator of the outcome of their struggle, Bowen urged him to make no further effort in their behalf. “We have been informed,” he said, “that our prior efforts to obtain your assistance and that of President Johnson have merely irritated the Corps of Engineers and possibly damaged our case. Your intervention now might only bring about some excuse to take away the few crumbs still offered to us.”

His reason for writing the Senator, Bowen went on, was “to give you the benefit of our sad experience as you may find legislative opportunities to improve the approach of the Corps of Engineers to other people in the future—people who may be as inexperienced, poor, and lacking in shrewdness and legal services as we have been.”