1794, A Year of Consequence

Painting of The Road to Fallen Timbers, by H. Charles McBarron
The Road to Fallen Timbers, by H. Charles McBarron (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

What would have happened if the Senecas of the Genesee Valley joined with the northwestern conferederates? The possibility frightened American policy makers. Late in the summer of 1794, American general Anthony Wayne led his force of three thousand soldiers toward the Maumee Valley. There, on August 20, he defeated the confederated tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Although casualties were roughly the same on each side, the Americans took the field, and razed the Indian towns. The fleeing warriors headed toward the British post at Fort Miami. British agents had remained active in the Northwest since the close of the Revolution, and they had armed and encouraged the natives’ resistance to American expansion. Now, however, they kept closed the gates to their forts and refused to fire upon the pursuing Americans. Once again, the British abandoned their native allies and demonstrated, if the point still required demonstration, that native peoples in the Old Northwest needed the British more than the British needed them.

They now had no choice but to make peace with the United States. A year after the battle, at Greenville, the Potawatomis, Shawnees, Delawares, Ottawas, Chippewas, Miamis, Weas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws and Kaskaskias agreed to a peace that “shall be perpetual . . . between the United States and Indian tribes.” They paid as the price of that peace a massive cession of lands to the United States. The confederated tribes gave up tracts of land in Indiana and Illinois, and, more significantly, all of southern and eastern Ohio.

The Greenville treaty revealed the sort of changes that the United States hoped to bring to its defeated enemies. Each of the nations signing the treaty would receive an annuity, a yearly payment of money and other items the tribe could use to supply its wants. If the tribes should “desire that a part of their annuity should be furnished in domestic animals, implements of husbandry, and other utensils convenient for them, and in compensation to useful artificers who may reside with or near them, and be employed for their benefit,” they need only to inform the federal agent stationed nearby and “the same shall at the subsequent annual deliveries be furnished accordingly.” The United States would thus see to the civilization of the Indians, by transforming them from wandering hunters into settled farmers on the American model. Because farming required less land than the hunt, the thinking went, more land soon would be opened for settlement and expansion. To make this argument, of course, required the Americans who wrote the treaties, like Wayne, and those who ratified and proclaimed them, like the members of Senate and the President, to ignore the vast Indian cornfields that American forces destroyed, or the herds of cattle and swine that even now native peoples relied upon for food. To save the Indians, Americans would civilize them, and civilization required that they live upon less land. Americans took native land in the name of helping native peoples become civilized. Taking, as one historian put it, became giving.

As Anthony Wayne invaded the Maumee valley, the American commissioner Timothy Pickering met with the Six Nations at Canandaigua in western New York. He hoped to resolve long standing difficulties with the Senecas. Their lands formed the central issue at the council. The resulting negotiations certainly mattered to the Senecas of the Genesee Valley, some of whom had returned to the scarred homelands shortly after the Sullivan campaign. In October of 1791, the missionary Samuel Kirkland completed a census of the Iroquois. For the Senecas residing on the west side of the Genesee River, he mentioned “six small villages.” “Kanawages—about 20 miles south of Lake Ontario containing 14 wigwams—Oahgwataiyegh alias hot-bread their chief. 112 lived there. 120 people were at Big Tree’s town, “about 8 miles farther south, containing 15 houses. Big tree, alias Kaondowanea their chief.” “Little Beard’s town, about five miles south and on the great flatts—containing 14 wigwams.” 112 people lived there. Also, “the town upon the hill, about 3 miles south & near the forks of the Genesee River—containing 26 houses, under the direction of Big Tree & Little Beard.” 208 lived there. There was also “Onondaough 12 miles southwardly lyong on the west branch of the Genesee—6 houses–& under the direction of Big Tree & Little Beard.” 48 lived there. Finally there was “Haloughyatilong—12 miles farther south–& on the forementioned branch containing 22 houses.” Population here was 176. Furthermore, there were 25 houses of Tuscaroras with a population of 208 living near Big Tree. This would be the site of Ohagi. Meanwhile, there were 2048 Senecas, Onondagas, and Cayugas residing on Buffalo Creek.

Through the Treaty of Canandaigua, signed on November 11, 1794, Pickering and the Senecas redefined the boundaries of the Seneca estate. The new western boundary of their lands ran “along the river Niagara to Lake Erie.” It is important to recognize at the outset that the Senecas gave up no lands in the Treaty of Canandaigua. In 1794 they negotiated an agreement that returned to them land along the Niagara that they had been forced to give up at Fort Stanwix and Fort Harmar in 1784 and 1789. It seems that the Senecas expected the lands guaranteed to them to be large enough to serve the needs of the different communities located within this vast territory. They would be left alone to manage these lands as they saw fit, and to govern them according to their own norms and values. They did accept the premise that the annuities promised by Pickering would take the form of agricultural implements and other objects designed to effect culture change. Senecas were themselves divided in their approach to the federal “Civilization Program.”

This gave the Senecas access to the river and the islands and access to British Canada to their west, a freedom, they hoped, that gave them an outlet and the opportunity to avoid the fate of other encircled Indian tribes. The Senecas did not wish to become “mere makers of baskets and brooms.” This was an important concession. The ability to move through space, to interact with Haudenosaunee communities distant from them, was of immense importance to Iroquois peoples. Pickering also agreed to pay to the Senecas “a quantity of goods to the value of ten thousand dollars,” and, further, that “with a view to promote the future welfare of the Six Nations,” an annuity of $4500.

As with the treaty negotiated eight months later at Greenville, the United States sought to civilize the Six Nations and transform them into farmers on an American model. To the Senecas, however, the 1794 Canandaigua treaty recognized their sovereignty. Pickering pledged that the United States would never claim the Senecas’ lands, “nor disturb the Seneka nation, or any of the Six Nations, or their Indian friends residing thereon and united with them, in the free use and enjoyment thereof.” They could, they hoped, live upon their lands without the interference of outside authorities, and with the protection of the United States against unlawful intrusion. The treaty, the Senecas believed, recognized their right to exist upon their ancestral lands as a nation free from outside interference. The entire region from the Genesee to the Niagara and Lake Erie belonged to the Senecas, and the United States recognized their right to the “free use and enjoyment” of those lands until they chose to sell.

Further Reading:

Abler, Thomas S. Cornplanter: Chief Warrior of the Allegany Senecas. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007).

Campisi, Jack and William A. Starna, “On the Road to Canandaigua: The Treaty of 1794,” American Indian Quarterly, 19 (Autumn 1995), 467-490.

Oberg, Michael Leroy. Peacemakers: The Iroquois, the United States, and the Treaty of Canadaigua,1794. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Starna, William M. “ ‘The United States will protect you’: The Iroquois, New York, and the 1790 Nonintercourse Act,” New York History, 83 (Winter 2002), 4-33.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, (New York,1970).