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Cornplanter, Can You Swim?

May 2024
29min read

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

In a cemetery high on a promontory overlooking the broad waters of the new Allegheny Reservoir in northwestern Pennsylvania stands a stone monument to a once powerful and celebrated Seneca Indian war chief, The Cornplanter, who fought with the British against the Americans during the Revolution, and then became a loyal friend of the United States and a steadfast protector of American families settling in the wilderness of the upper Ohio River basin. The monument has not been at its present site long. In 1964, amid controversy, anger, and the protests of many Seneca Indians, the United States Army Corps of Engineers moved the memorial shaft, together with what was left of the earthly remains of The Cornplanter and more than 300 of his followers and descendants, from an Indian cemetery (“our Arlington,” pleaded a Seneca woman) that was about to be inundated by rising waters behind the engineers’ new Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River.
In the Seneca language, which many of the Indians still speak, kinzua means “fish on spear” and refers to a site on the river 198 river miles above Pittsburgh, just south of the New York state line, where the dam was built. Finished in 1965 at a cost of almost $120,000,000, it is the largest concrete and earth-fill dam in the eastern United States, almost 1,900 feet long and 179 feet high. It is designed to help control floods, as well as to regulate the flow of water for navigation and for the dilution of polluting waste matter poured into the river by mills above Pittsburgh. Among the dam’s important by-products is hydroelectric power, now being exploited by private developers, and the provision of new recreational facilities for the region. Behind the dam is the new Allegheny Reservoir, whose size changes constantly depending on rainfall and the season of the year. At its maximum, in time of severe flood conditions, the lake would extend thirty-five miles npriver to Salamanca, New York, and would have a water surface of more than 21,000 acres. But under ordinary conditions it extends in summer twenty-seven miles, more or less, covers some 12,000 acres, and has a shore line of ninety-one miles. In winter it is a considerably smaller pool, covering a minimum of about 6,60 acres and exposing large areas of mud flats. To the summer vacationer, tourist, and lover of water sports, the reservoir has provided a large new recreation center in the forested mountain country of western New York and Pennsylvania and has already borne out the army engineers’ promise that the dam and its lake would result in the development of a relatively untouched part of the Northeast in the time-honored tradition of American progress.

But there was a cost beyond the cost of the dam, and the raising of a moral question that pricked the conscience of the nation on what has long been an extremely sore point. In creating the Allegheny Reservoir behind Kinzua Dam, the army engineers gutted the Seneca Indians’ reservation, drowning approximately 10,000 acres of the Indians’ only habitable land, which ran along the Allegheny River, and deliberately breaking an Indian treaty in order to do so. In this instance the violated obligation was the federal government’s oldest active treaty, made in 1794 with The Cornplanter’s Senecas and five other Indian nations at a time when the new American republic urgently needed their friendship on the turbulent northwest frontier, and resting ever since then on solemn guarantees which were given by President George Washington and which were supposed to endure through the life of the United States itself.

To many non-Indians who were aware of the engineers’ treaty-breaking action, it was, as Florida Congressman fames Halcy of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee said on May 18, igß’j, “a horrible tragedy, a horribly tragic thing,” underscored especially by the fact that the United States was, at the same time, insisting that the rest of the world honor and respect the sacredness of treaties. To the Senecas and to many other American Indians it was, moreover, another painful reminder that the history of white men’s injustices to them had not ended. Indian wars are no more, for the tribes’ power to resist with arms lias vanished. But their defensive actions still go on, quietly now and with little or no publicity, in courts of law, and the Indians, more often than not, still continue to lose what they are defending. Jn their sadness they increasingly ask the white man: Why feel guilty and sorry about what happened in the nineteenth century? Pay closer attention to what you are still doing to us.

To the Senccas, the new body of water behind Kinzua Dam is known today as Lake Perfidy. And many a bitter Seneca tells his children and grandchildren that no one knows for sure whose bones lie beneath the transplanted monument above the lake: the way the moving took place, the remains could be those of another Indian from the old cemetery. The great Cornplanter, perhaps, now rests beneath the waters of the reservoir.

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 for the western Senecas when English and French military groups began to fight for authority over the upper Ohio Valley. The Senecas were caught 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 still-powerful 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 Oneidas 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.

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.

As a result of various land sales which they continued to make to settlers and land companies, the Senecas’ territory eventually dwindled to four, and then three, reservations in western New York. They were the Cattaraugus, close to Lake Erie south of Buffalo; the Tonawanda, slightly northeast of Buffalo; and a long, narrow strip along the Allegheny River, from present-day Vandalia, New York, to the Pennsylvania state line. This became known as the Allegany Reservation, its name evolving with a different spelling from that of the river. South of this reservation, across the Pennsylvania line, descendants of Cornplanter still dwelled on his grant, which the)1 had inherited as his heirs.∗

∗The Seneccas also own, hut do not inhabit, a small reservation of sonic 640 acres near Oil Spring in western New York stale.

In 1848, after the Ogden Land Company had almost managed to swindle the Senecas out of their last holdings in New York by getting drunken, venal, or bogus chiefs to sign papers of sale, a group of young Senecas on the Allcgany and Cattaraugus reservations deposed the hereditary chiefs for incompétente and graft and set up a new, republican form of government on those two reservations. Calling themselves the Seneca Nation, they wrote a constitution that separated church and state; provided for a legislative council of eighteen (now sixteen) members and a president and other officers elected annually (now every two years) by all adult males (women now have the vote too); established a judiciary of three “peacemakers” for minor crimes; asked that jurisdiction over serious crimes and major lawsuits be transferred to New York state courts; and detached the two reservations from the League of the Six Nations, which had continued (and still continues, in modified form) to hold together in brotherhood the different Iroquois peoples in the United States and Canada. Today, 120 years later, the Seneca Nation still exists; it has the same form of government, the office of the president rotating every two years between the Allcgany and Cattaraugus reservations.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the Erie and Pennsylvania railroads, pushing across New York, bought rights of way from the Senecas and established a junction on the Allegany Reservation. The site grew into a village originally called Hemlock but renamed for Don Jose Salamanca Mayel, a large stockholder in the Erie Railroad. The rights-of-way purchases, plus certain leases granted by the Senecas to private citizens, were confirmed by federal statute in 1875 and 1890, when Congress gave the Allegany Reservation Senecas the right to grant thereafter ninety-nincyear leases to all white homeowners and businesses in Salamanca and in four other white towns established on the reservation. Hie leases brought ridiculously small returns to the Indians (even today the entire city of Salamanca, with a population of a little more than 9,000, pays the Indians a total of only about S 16,000 a year in rent), but all the leases will lie renegotiated by 1991, and the new rents will unquestionably be higher.


As the years rolled on, the different Iroquois peoples in New York, surrounded by a sea of whites, were all but forgotten. Living quietly on their reservations, they continued to hunt, fish, and farm, educate their children, and in many cases take jobs in the white man’s world. A large number of Allegany Senecas worked in furniture factories or for the railroads in Salamanca. Others followed a path pioneered by the Mohawks and became structural steelworkers, travelling to distant cities for periods of time to help build bridges and skyscrapers. While most of the Iroquois became Christians, many continued to observe tiie beliefs and practices of Handsome Lake, conducting an annual cycle of ceremonies. These were held in Longhouses, rectangular frame buildings which served as both social and religious centers, as well as meeting places, for the Handsome Lake followers. But even the Christians, still holding themselves apart from the whites around them, continued to have pride in their Indian heritage, and it was said that every Iroquois still had “one foot in the Longhouse.”

In the years after World War II, several of the Six Nations were beset by sudden new threats to their reservations. In 1954, when the St. Lawrence Seaway was under construction, its builders wanted to place some of their facilities on the Si. Régis Reservation belonging to lhe Mohawks. The needed land was condemned, and though lhe Indians received $100,000 in compensation, they were left with the uneasy feeling that one day their enure reservation could be taken from them.


Three years later the Tuscaroras, whose reservation lies near Niagara Falls, were treated even more highhandedly by Robert Moses, chairman of the New York Power Authority. Part of his plan for the giant Niagara Power Project was a pump-storage reservoir to be located on the Tuscaroras’ reservation. Their resistance to his original demand for 1,300 acres forced him to scale the reservoir down to 550 acres and to pay the Tuscaroras $88(,ooo for the land, plus the costs of relocating die nine Indian families who were living on it.

Considering the amount of land and the number of Indian families involved, however, none of these incursions matched the assault which the army engineers made on the Senecas’ Allegany Reservation and the Cornplanter grant.

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.

The Indians had friends, in and out of Congress, but not enough of them. Dr. Morgan produced still another alternative proposal—a dam site that would not involve any Indian lands—but a study sponsored by the engineers concluded that Dr. Morgan’s dam would cost more money and take longer to build. Morgan and the Senecas did not agree, and sought an independent comparison, but the engineers prevailed on the Senate to turn aside this request. Treaty or no treaty, the engineers were not going to risk a reversal of their plan, which now, it was revealed, would necessitate the condemnation of slightly more than 10,000 acres of the Indians’ habitable land (leaving them only 2,300 on which they could live); the moving of 134 families, or about 700 people, more than one third of the population of the reservation; the relocation of about 3,000 Seneca graves; and the inundation of the Cornplanter grant in Pennsylvania.

Falling back on the 1794 treaty, which promised that the United States would never claim the Senecas’ land and guaranteed that it should be theirs until they chose to sell it, the Indians, in a case against the Secretary of the Army, now sought to halt construction of the Kinzua project, hoping to force the adoption, instead, of the Morgan plan. On April 14, 1958, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the engineers could take reservation land, the same as any other, by the right of eminent domain, implying, in effect (although the court did not condone it), that the government of the United States, which could make a treaty, could also break it if it wished to do so. The case went on to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and to the Supreme Court, but the judgment stood. Whether by their own ignorance or by the withholding of information from Congress, the engineers had maneuvered Congress into a position of voting, in the 1950’s, to break still another Indian treaty, which it had the constitutional, if not the moral, right to do. By the time Congress realized what it had done, it was too late. The engineers had too many friends on Capitol Hill, and there was no one strong enough to induce the bureaucratic wheels within the corps to reverse themselves.

That this was true became painfully clear to the Senecas when, as a last desperate measure, they appealed to President Kennedy in 1961, hoping that he would use his prerogative to withhold funds appropriated for the dam. On August 9, 1961, Kennedy replied to Basil Williams, the president of the Seneca Nation: “I have now had an opportunity to review the subject and have concluded that it is not possible to halt the construction of Kinzua Dam. .. . Impounding of the funds appropriated by the Congress after long and exhaustive congressional review, and after resolution by our judicial process of the legal right of the Federal Government to acquire the property necessary to the construction of the reservoir, would not be proper.”

And so the dam was built. In his letter to Williams, President Kennedy had added that he would direct federal agencies to assist the Senecas by considering the possibility of finding new land to exchange with the Nation for the area it would lose; by reviewing the recreational potential of the reservoir and methods by which the Senecas could share in that potential; by determining the special damages suffered by the Nation’s loss of so much of its land; by aiding those Senecas who had to give up their homes; and by preparing recommendations for whatever legislation might be required to achieve those ends. The White House sent a copy of the letter two days later with a covering memorandum to Major General William F. Cassidy, director of civil works, Corps of Engineers, ordering the corps to “look into these questions without delay.”

The letter was bucked down through the corps, and although meetings, begun two months later, were held with other government agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as with representatives of the Senecas, the corps behaved as if it were thoroughly irritated with the Indians and had no intention of doing anything for them. The corps did pay the salary of an able and dedicated representative of the B.I.A., Sidney Carney, a Choctaw Indian who was sent to work among the Senecas. But except for that, two full years later, with the dam nearing completion and the Indians still living in their old homes that were threatened by the reservoir, so little had been done by Cassidy and the engineers to carry out Kennedy’s order that some congressmen, moved to anger, introduced bills authorizing payments for the relocation and rehabilitation of the Indians. “Apparently you don’t want to try to do anything for this Indian tribe,” Congressman John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania berated a stony-faced corps witness. “Apparently you have become so calloused and so crass that the breaking of the oldest treaty that the United States has is a matter of little concern to you. … the Corps of Engineers has never intended to do anything whatsoever with regard to the Seneca Indians, and they have intended from the very beginning to treat this as just any other dam and leave the Indians only their recourse in the courts.”


On August 31, 1964, after months ot disagreement between the House and Senate over how much to pay the Senecas—a disagreement caused to some extent by the corps’s influence in urging the Senate to cut down the original House figures and not pay the Indians except via the usual court proceedings—Congress passed a $15,000,573 reparations bill for the Senecas. But added to the bill was a disturbing amendment requiring the Secretary of the Interior to present to Congress within three years a plan for the termination of the Senecas’ relations with the federal government—in effect bringing to an end such things as the tax-exempt status of the reservation and federal approval of leases and trusteeship of Seneca land. (The plan was submitted at the end of the three-year period. That was in 1967, and although Congress has so far failed to act on the Senecas’ termination, it may do so at any time.)

Meanwhile, shortly after President Kennedy had shut the final door on them, the Senecas, who had fought hard to save their land, set about determinedly to prepare for the coming disruption. Under the leadership of George Heron, a past president of the Nation, they set up committees to pick relocation areas for new homes and cemeteries, to plan housing and new community centers, and to propose economic development projects that would aid the people in their new situation. When Congress’s appropriation became available in September, 1964, the Senecas were ready to move quickly. New ranch-type homes of varying designs were built during the wet and wintry months, in two tightly compressed areas that totalled 500 acres. One of them, named Jimersontown, near Salamanca, was laid out in 145 one-acre plots; the other, Steamburg, near the southern end of the reservation, had 160 plots of the same size. The Corps of Engineers built the streets in both of the new settlements. A family could own as many as three plots, but even so, the shift to suburban-type living, with houses close to each other, was a sharp change for people who had been used to privacy and a closeness to the woods and wild game. Other money was used to move 3,000 Seneca graves to two new cemeteries; to build a community center and tribal council headquarters on each reservation; to develop a sixty-acre industrial park on the Cattaraugus Reservation for industry that hopefully would employ Indians; and to set up a i.8-million-dollar educational fund for college and business and vocational school scholarships for young Senecas. In addition, twenty-five public housing rental units on the Allegany Reservation and thirty-five at Cattaraugus were erected with other federal funds.

The hubbub of moving was accentuated by a constant harassment from the engineers, whose plans called for completion of the dam in 1965 and who kept posting deadlines for the Indians to get out of the condemned area. In working with the leadership of the Senecas, the engineers behaved properly and according to orders and regulations, but many Senecas today remember only their cold and officious manner and recall them as the Sioux recall Custer.

It was traditional in the nineteenth century for the government, when it wanted something from the Indians, to promise them anything and then let someone else worry about carrying out the promise—which, more often than not, was never done. In the case of the Senecas, the government revived the tradition. By 1968, with the dam built and the engineers gone from the scene, the Senecas were well on their way to adjustment to a new life on their smaller reservation. But in scores of ways, hopes that the Indians had once held high were still unrealized. Complaints ranged from new homes left unfinished (front steps not provided from the porch to the ground) or already showing signs of shoddy construction, to frustrated attempts to bring revenue to the Nation through use of the area’s new recreational potential. Although the engineers, in response to President Kennedy’s letter, had led the Senecas to believe that they could profit from concessions on the reservoir, the Indians were indefinitely stalled: the water level at their end of the reservoir, the upper portion, rises and falls the most, and through much of the year contains great mud flats. Solving the problem by channelling or other means would have cost much more than the Indians could afford, especially since their concessions would be competing economically with other facilities (some of them free to the public) prepared by the engineers at the taxpayers’ expense lower down on the lake, where the water level is more constant.∗

∗ One way in which the Senecas hoped to profit from the expected flow of visitors was to create a multimillion-dollar tourist attraction called Iroquoia, which would project the Indians’ history and culture in a Williamsburg-like re-creation of Iroquois settlements of the past. The Senecas have not yet decided whether the plan is economically feasible.

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.


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.”

Kinzua Dam was formally dedicated on September 16, 1966. Two hundred and eighty-three years after William Penn had signed his famous treaty, Pennsylvania lost the last of its Indians. At a gala luncheon in the local high school after the ceremonies at the dam, a quartet of girls known as The Kinzua Damsels entertained Governor William Scranton and the other guests with the song “This Is My Country.” And in California, Montana, Alaska, and elsewhere, the Army Corps of Engineers was already threatening other Indian tribes with plans for more Kinzuas.

A Cautionary Tale

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