Dispossessing the Senecas

Handsome Lake’s message spread, and without question sparked something of a reformation in the morals and conduct of his adherents. But he could do nothing to stop the relentless pressure exerted by outsiders to acquire the Senecas’ lands in western New York. Big Tree was a blow to the Senecas, but they preserved the right to hunt and fish on all the ceded lands, something that very closely approximated Seneca understandings of land ownership.

In 1802, those who sought Seneca lands tried again on two separate occasions.Oliver Phelps, of the Phelps and Gorham purchase, was involved in the purchase of Little Beard’s Town along the Genesee in June of 1802. In return for twelve hundred dollars, a handful of Chenussio Senecas sold to Phelps, Isaac Bronson, and Horatio Jones “Little Beard’s Reservation…bounded on the east by the Genesee River and Little Beard’s Creek, on the south and west by other lands of the said parties of the second part, and on the north by the Big Tree Reservation, containing two square miles, or twelve hundred and eighty acres, together with all and singular the hereditaments and appurtenances whatsoever, thereunto belonging, or in anywise appertaining, to hold to them.” The other sale involved a strip of land along the Niagara River.

Little Beard’s Town was a major Seneca settlement that predated the Revolution. It had been burned by Sullivan in 1779, but the Senecas reoccupied it a short time later. The Senecas believed that they were selling a two square mile chunk of land along the Genesee and a mile strip along the Niagara River to the United States. This land, over which they previously had a recognized right to free use and enjoyment thereof, in American eyes they possessed title too no longer. Nonetheless, they made the sale on condition that they would still have access to the river as they traveled through the region. So what changed? Very little. The Senecas still retained the right to hunt and fish wherever they needed to. While their aboriginal right of occupancy may have been eliminated to one of the reservations recognized in 1797 and a strip along the water to the west, they still retained a recognized right to use the land.

This is such an important point. Both sides understood that the Senecas reserved rights in the lands sold in 1802. Red Jacket could not have made this more clear. During the council in Albany that led to the sale of the mile strip, he addressed John Tayler, the federal commissioner, and New York’s governor George Clinton. He insisted that

We proposed to sell you the whole tract, with the reservation however of all of the islands; the line to the edge of the water, but the use of the river to be free to you—We wish to reserve also the privilege of using the beach to encamp on, and wood to make fires, together with the uninterrupted use of the river for the purpose of fishing; and likewise the privilege of passing the bridge and the turnpike, when made, free from toll, and keeping a ferry service across the river—for the whole tract we ask $7500. We think this is reasonable, and that in a few years it will refund you much more than this sum.”

In the 1802 mile strip treaty, the Senecas reserved “to themselves…the right and privilege of encamping their fishing parties on the beac ohf said river, for the purpose of fishing, which is the common right of both parties, and to be enjoyed without hindrance or interruption from either; and while there encamped, to use the drift-wood for fuel, but not to trespass on or injure, the proprietor or proprietors of the adjacent lands.” They also reserved the right to cross on any ferries and any bridges to be built in the future without tolls.

No force played a larger role in Seneca dispossession, than David A. Ogden, who acquired from the Holland Land Company in 1810 the pre-emptive rights to purchase the eleven Seneca reservations remaining to the tribe after the Big Tree Treaty of 1797. The Wadsworth family, whose estate dominated one end of Main Street in Geneseo, was heavily invested in Ogden’s venture. Ogden and his associates wanted to remove the Senecas to some location in the west, whether Mississippi or Arkansas or someplace “in the neighborhood of Green Bay.” Their goal was always, among other things, to completely erase Seneca land-holding in the western part of New York State and in the Genesee Valley, that part of the state that soon would become Livingston County.

The well-connected Company called upon its allies for help. With Company support, Jasper Parrish, the federal agent charged with protecting Seneca lands, traveled to Washington in 1817 to persuade Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that removal was in the Indians’ best interest. The agents lacked the power to preserve order, and frontier pressure on Seneca lands “causes the agents considerable time and trouble to settle with and satisfy the injured person, so as to preserve our peace and friendship unbroken.” Parrish, like a growing number of Americans, believed that “under these circumstances I think it would be for the interest of the United States, and also for the welfare and the happiness of the Six Nations could they be persuaded to concentrate themselves.” Removal he saw as a means to protect the Indians from the citizens of the state of New York, who encroached upon their lands, stole their possessions, and threatened the safety of all concerned.

Ogden, meanwhile, painted a bleak picture of the Senecas’ future if they remained in New York State. “The History of every Indian tribe on the Atlantic Coast,” Ogden wrote, “proves that they cannot long exist in their savage character in the Neighborhood of civilized Society, that becoming partly Christian, partly Pagan, partly civilized, and partly savage, they are rendered more and more debased and degenerate and finally become extinct, without having rendered themselves capable of any national enjoyment, or having contributed in any degree, to the stock of the public good.” Ogden hoped that the President would get his point: “The Savage,” he said, “must and ought to yield to the civilized state, and that this change cannot be effected otherwise than by the Agency of the Government.”

Ogden found allies in the New York State Legislature. Some of the most powerful men in New York State had their eyes fixed on Seneca country, on the lands that would soon be set aside as Livingston County. Regarding the Indians, a legislative committee asserted in 1819 that “their independence as a nation ought to cease,” and “they ought to yield to the public interest, and by a proper application of power they ought to be brought within the pale of civilization and law and if left to themselves will never reach that condition; that such bodies retaining such savage traits ought not to be in an independent condition and that our laws and manners ought to succeed theirs; suitable quantities of lands to be reserved for them.” Think for a second what Liancourt said about one the county’s founding fathers, Mr. Livingston, whose house he was as a noisome hovel. Native peoples may have lived lives less different from the growing numbers of white farmers than many Americans think. The State Senate, shortly afterwards, nonetheless requested that the governor “cooperate with the Government of the United States in such measures . . . to induce the several Indian tribes within this State to concentrate themselves in some suitable situation.” The Senate, however, in a statement that aptly characterized the state’s approach to dealing with its Indians, insisted that the Governor take these actions “either with or without the cooperation of the government of the United States.”

Rhetoric such as this from New York State mirrored the arguments occurring at the same time in the southern states, where a states’ rights ideology nourished disputes over federal Indian policy. As the federal government and its agents among the Creeks and Cherokees sought, half-heartedly and ineffectively, to protect Indians from their neighbors, and as missionaries and philanthropists promoted their “civilization” and “improvement,” southern state legislatures and courts argued that all who resided within a state, including Indians, must conform to its laws. The United States Supreme Court, later, would reject this limited federalism, but southerners had the power to blithely ignore officials of the national government. The resolution of 1819 shows that New Yorkers shared a similar states’ rights ideology when it came to native peoples. The Senecas, and the rest of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, faced a relentless and grasping foe determined to drive them from their homelands. Many forces conspired for their removal.

Secretary of War Calhoun believed that Indians depended on the United States like a child relied upon its parents. Removal seemed to Calhoun a logical solution to the “Indian Problem.” If they relocated to the western side of the Mississippi River, they would distance themselves from the unsavory influence of frontier whites, and gain additional time to become “civilized.” Taking once again became giving. He believed that the United States, rather than the tribes themselves, must decide what was in the Indians’ best interest.

Morris Miller, the United States agent appointed by Calhoun to negotiate on the Ogden Company’s behalf, told the Senecas that the President sees “you scattered here and there, in small parcels everywhere, surrounded by white people. He sees,” Miller continued, that “you are fast losing your national character, and are daily more and more exposed to the bad examples of your white Brothers, without the restraint of their laws and religion. He sees that this frequent and uncontrolled intercourse, instead of doing good is doing injury to you and to them. Your great Father sees all these things, with grief and concern. He lays them much to heart; and thinks it impossible for you, under such circumstances, to retain the character of an independent nation.” Removal was in your best interest, Morris told them. But the Great Father must look after his white children as well, Miller continued, and from them he heard their discontent “at seeing the lands in your occupation remain wild and uncultivated; neither paying taxes, nor assisting to make roads and other improvements; nor in any way contributing to the public burthens, as white peoples’ lands do.” The President knew “that you occupy more land than you can advantageously till, or use for any valuable purpose; whilst at this same time the scarcity of game prevents your engaging in those pursuits, to which your fathers were accustomed.” The solution was simple. The President, Miller told the Senecas, desires “that you should live at a greater distance from white people, so that you may be more secure in the enjoyment of your property. And that he can with greater convenience, and less expense cause you to be instructed in agriculture, and the useful arts; and your children to be taught to read and write, and that your nation may thus be rendered an industrious and happy people.”

The Senecas rallied to oppose land cessions. Quaker missionaries, too, supported the Senecas. Led by Red Jacket, the Senecas refused to sell to the Ogden Company in 1819, and successfully resisted the Ogden Company’s efforts to acquire their largest reservations.

It was not “savage” Senecas that the land barons worried about, but those who had adopted selectively elements of the Quakers’ civilization program to strengthen their hold on a homeland increasingly surrounded by white New Yorkers. If the Friends hoped to preserve the Senecas by insulating them from corrupting outside forces and transform them into a nation of self-sufficient subsistence farmers, the Senecas made choices designed to protect their independence. To make a living and to acquire cash, some Senecas sold alcohol in western New York that they acquired downstream in Pittsburgh. Others continued to hunt. Even as the white population in western New York increased, Seneca hunters still found deer plentiful, as well as raccoon, mink, and muskrats, all of which seemed to thrive as the white population increased. According to the Mohawk John Norton, who visited the Senecas in 1809, they could “conveniently take skins, meat and timber to Pittsburgh, where they generally get a good price for these articles.” The trip downriver took only two or three days.

Seneca farmers found markets for their crops. The flax Seneca farmers planted they sold to whites rather than use it for themselves or their families. Non-Indian observers writing during the War of 1812, a time of scarcity in western New York, reported buying corn from Indian women. The Senecas used their land, one observer noted, “not only for their own subsistence but sell considerable to white people.” At Allegany, eighty Seneca families consisting of 439 individuals possessed 479 cattle, 58 horses, 350 hogs, and 699 acres of improved land in which 70 acres of meadow is included.”

Some of the swine kept by Senecas they butchered and salted for family consumption but much of the rest they sold for cash. The Quakers encouraged the Senecas to acquire livestock, for food and as draft animals. But the Senecas, much to the concern of at least some members of the Society of Friends, seemed more interested in acquiring horses than oxen. The Senecas’ white neighbors used horses for labor and transport in their lumbering activities; Quakers, who were concerned about the Senecas’ participation in the timber economy, thus viewed the growth of the Senecas’ horse herds as a potential problem.

Senecas frequently asked the Quakers to assist them in erecting sawmills. Cornplanter operated the first sawmill in Cattaraugus County beginning as early as 1795. Friends helped the Senecas operate their own mills, too, where they cut their timber, formed them into rafts, “and float them down to Pittsburgh, at the time of high water.” The Senecas carried with them “their Peltry, furrs, and good canoes, to push up their return cargoes.” The Senecas’ desire for clearing land, which the Quakers mentioned frequently, was less about readying fields for the plow than it was about selling lumber for a profit. The Quakers could only appeal to them and ask them to consider “whether you would not have been in a better situation generally if you had employed the same time which you have spent in cutting and rafting timber in cultivating your good land.”

By the 1820s, Senecas interested in participating in the timber trade cut trees, hauled the logs to the Allegany River, and rafted the unmilled logs downstream to Warren, Franklin, and Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania. Some Senecas earned reputations as especially skilled pilots, a talent for which they were well-paid. As with the sale of their agricultural produce, Seneca timbermen, floating downriver with their logs and other items, participated in a complex regional economy. Senecas traveled widely to exchange raw materials in the form of unmilled logs, processed items like furs and salted pork, and finished goods like moccasins, shingles and finished lumber, for cash and goods unavailable to them locally.

In parts of Livingston County, they interacted peacefully with local settlers. The first settlers in the region, like James Calder and his wife Elizabeth, natives both of Sterlingshire in Scotland, took up land along one of the many well-recognized “Old Indian Trails” that passed through town. They frequently encountered Senecas as they traveled the region. According to Mary Root’s 1940 history of the Town of York, David Piffard, after whom the Livingston County town is named, arrived with his young wife in 1825. “Mrs. Piffard was an accomplished musician and brought the first piano into our town,” Root wrote. “It has been told me that one day, in Mr. Piffard’s absence, she was sitting at the piano, playing and singing, when she suddenly felt or sensed that there was someone in the room. Glancing around she discovered that quite a number of Indians were in the room, having entered noiselessly. Naturally she was frightened stiff, expecting any minute to have a tomahawk cleave her head, but continued playing and occasionally singing. Finally, her husband returned and taking in the situation, went to his wife’s side, and she promptly fainted in his arms. The Indians were very friendly and came many more times to hear her play.”

While elements of this story are reasonably questioned, it is interesting to note that decades after the Treaty of Big Tree, and at the same time that the Ogden Land Company clamored to acquire the Senecas’ Genesee Valley lands, Indigenous peoples still passed through Livingston County to visit with settlers. Indeed, early Anglo-American settlers in Livingston County used Indigenous places as points of reference. The cheese factory on the Upper Mount Morris Road, for instance, was described in the nineteenth century as being located close to where one of Mary Jemison’s sons was killed. White settlers knew where they were by reference to Native American spaces.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Quakers’ contributions to Seneca economic life. But the Senecas always engaged with the missionaries on their own terms. They accepted elements of the Friends’ technology and advice and much of the economic change that they advocated, but they did not become Quakers. They did not alter their religion. They engaged selectively with the market economy, preserving much of their freedom of movement, a significant degree of their autonomy, and their connections to Iroquois people living on their reservations and elsewhere.

Seneca resistance to the Ogden Company was strongest on these western reserves, but along the Genesee River in the newly-created Livingston County the Company enjoyed more success. A little background might be in order. The Ogden Company operated essentially in two parts of the state: around the larger reservations in the west—Allegany, Cattaraugus, Buffalo Creek, and Tonawanda– and in the Genesee Valley, where the lands set aside at Big Tree in 1797 were much smaller. In the west, Senecas had forcefully resisted any attempt to purchase their lands. In the Genesee Valley, this resistance was more difficult to maintain.

Horatio Jones (1763–1836)

Owing to bribes paid out by Horatio Jones and Jellis Clute, and the pressure white squatters placed on Seneca lands in the Genesee Valley, by the middle of the 1820s, some there were willing to contemplate a sale of lands. Indeed, in 1823 in Moscow (today’s Leicester, NY), Mary Jemison ceded all but two square miles of the Gardeau Reservation to John Greig and Henry Gibson. Greig was an employee of the Ogden Land Company. The cession, acquired for $4286 (less than .30 an acre) was never submitted to the Senate for ratification.

How did this happen and how did Mary Jemison have the standing to make this sale? In April of 1817 Micah Brooks and Thomas Clute successfully persuaded the New York State Legislature to pass a bill making Jemison a citizen of the State of New York and confirming her title to the Gardeau Reservation. Four days after this bill was passed, according to Hauptman, in return for $3000 and a mortgage to secure $4286, the aged Jemison executed a deed of seven thousand acres on the east side of the reservation to the same Micah Brooks and Jellis Clute. At the urging of John Jemison, Mary’s son, Mary agreed, because of her advanced age and her inability to manage her property, to hire Thomas Clute as her guardian. In payment for his services Thomas Clute was given a great deal of land on the west side of the Gardeau Reservation. On August 24, 1817, Mary Jemison leased all of the remaining Gardeau reservation, except for four thousand acres and Thomas Clute’s lot, to Micah Brooks and Jellis Clute. Jemison’s words are revealing about this transaction: ‘Finding their [Brooks and Clute] title still incomplete, on account of the United States government and Seneca chiefs not having sanctioned my acts, they [Brooks and Clute] solicited me to renew the contract, and have the conveyance made to them in such a manner as that they should thereby be constituted sole proprietors of the soil.”

In the 1823 cession, the Senecas relinquished to Grieg and Gibson all but two square miles of the reservation, which would remain Seneca property “in as full and ample a manner, as if these presents had not been executed: together with all and singular the rights, privileges, hereditaments, and appurtenances, to the said hereby granted premises belonging or in anywise appertaining, and all the estate, right, title, and interest, whatsoever, of them the said parties of the first part, and of their nation, of, in, and to, the said tract of land above described.”

In February of 1824, Secretary of War Calhoun wrote to Jasper Parrish and informed him that the Gardeau purchase did not require Senate ratification “because it was ‘considered in the nature of a private contract [that] does not require the special ratification of the Government as in treaties between the Indians and the United States.” Calhoun believed that as a result, “there is nothing to prevent its execution by the parties concerned, as soon as they may think it proper.” Three years later, the commissioner of Indian affairs wrote the secretary of war, indicating that the Gardeau deed did not need Senate approval because it was “esteemed to be a useless ceremony; the President approving it only.”

All this was prelude to the disastrous and corrupt treaty of 1826, a signal event in the history of Livingston County. In May of 1826, the House Committee on Indian Affairs published a report with the title, “To Hold a Treaty with the Seneca Indians.” In it, the House committee members claimed that most Senecas wanted to sell their lands, that they wanted to become “civilized” on an American model, and that a federal commissioner should be appointed by the president to negotiate with them. Oliver Forward, a Buffalo politician, was appointed federal commissioner.

The treaty council, which was held at Buffalo Creek, was a debacle. The treaty was signed at the end of August in 1826. In it the Senecas’ ceded all their lands along the Genesee to the Ogden Land Company. Furthermore, the size of the Buffalo Creek, Tonawanda, and Cattaraugus Reservations was reduced significantly as well. All told, the Seneca estate had been reduced by 86,887 acres, being, Forward said, “something more than one third of the lands they own in the western part of this state.

In exchange for this enormous cession, the Ogden Company agreed to deliver over a sum of $48,260, “lawful money of the United States.” As with the Big Tree Treaty of 1797, most of these funds were invested, with the annual interest earned on the purchase price paid out to the Seneca. This annual payment, calculated at an interest rate of 6% per year, came to be known as the Greig and Gibson annuity. Although the treaty said nothing about it, the Ogden Company apparently agreed to pay as well certain life annuities to Seneca leaders who aided in the negotiation of the agreement. Ten Seneca leaders received payments each year totaling $460.00. Addressing concerns about these payments in a letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas L. McKenney, Jasper Parrish said that the negotiations had “been conducted with perfect fairness, openness and propriety,” and that “no threats, or menaces, or bribes were made use of to my knowledge: but, as in every case of the kind, certain gratuities were made, after the conclusion of the treaty.” Only $43,050 was ever invested, leaving close to $5000.00 from the purchase price missing.

The Senecas and their supporters immediately challenged and contested the legality and the morality of the treaty. Some Senecas opposed the treaty, while others sent petitions and memorials to Washington supporting it. To sort all this out took some time. Those who signed the treaty, according to the author of the best account of the period, did so because they feared that if they did not sell, they would lose their lands outright to the squatters that nobody seemed able to control. Some of the chiefs who signed the treaty, moreover, believed that by doing so they would satisfy the Ogden Company’s voracious appetite for Seneca lands. They sold lands to avoid the prospect of removal to the west. They expected that after this cession, which they agreed to reluctantly, the Ogden Company would leave the Senecas in peace upon their remaining lands. The United States Senate finally voted on the treaty in late February of 1828 but the vote was a 20-20 tie. John C. Calhoun, now vice-president, was not in attendance to break the tie. The agreement thus did not receive the two-third vote required by the Constitution for ratification, but the Senators, apparently in an effort to clarify the reason for their vote, passed an unprecedented resolution that read that “by the refusal of the Senate to ratify the treaty with the Seneca Indians, it is not intended to express any disapprobation of the terms of the contract entered into by individuals who are parties to the contract, but merely to disclaim the necessity of an interference by the Senate with the subject matter.” Viewed by more than twenty senators as a private agreement between the Ogden investors and the Senecas, they apparently believed that no reason existed for them to interfere.

Protests from Red Jacket, from the Quakers, and from others continued, however, and they finally had an effect on President John Quincy Adams. He ordered his secretary of war to conduct an investigation. Richard Livingston undertook the task. He conducted his investigation, and found evidence of considerable corruption and fraud at the treaty council. According to Seneca informants, the interpreters at the council threatened the gathered Indians with removal if they refused to sell. Jasper Parrish, an employee of the United States in Indian affairs, reportedly offered bribes to certain Senecas in return for signatures. As a result, the flawed treaty was never resubmitted to the senate, and it never received proper ratification. Still, the damage had been done, and by doing nothing, the United States government in effect acquiesced in a fraudulent, unethical and illegal treaty that carved a huge gash of territory out of the Seneca estate.

What was the Ogden Company trying to accomplish? Its understanding of the treaty is best seen in an 1819 memorial that Thomas L. Ogden sent to President James Monroe. In that document, Ogden referred to himself as the “proprietor” of the lands presently “occupied by the Remains of the Seneca Nation of Indians.” Ogden, four years before the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. McIntosh, asserted that he was the titleholder to the remaining Seneca reservations in the state of New York, and the Indians mere occupants.

It is clear that the Senecas did not share this view. Ogden wrote to Madison in the aftermath of Seneca refusals to sell their lands. Indeed the Senecas seemed uninterested in listening to the Ogden appeals to sell, and seemed genuinely offended by the Ogden men. In the Memorial, Ogden seemed surprised that the Senecas asserted “an unqualified title to the lands they occupy.” To prove their points, the Senecas produced their copy of the Treaty of Canandaigua, and cited it as evidence of their title to their lands.

The Ogden Company’s position had supporters within the United States government. Shortly after Ogden’s memorial, Attorney General William Wirt wrote an opinion addressing the question of the Senecas’ land title. He said that their right to the land, “however narrow,” was still “a title in fee simple” that the Senecas held as “a title of perpetual inheritance because it will be admitted on all hands that neither the present occupants nor their heirs so long as the nation subsists can be rightfully driven from their possessions.’ But that ‘fee simple’ title was qualified in some way, and Wirt saw it as “legal anomaly” because the Senecas, he believed, lacked the ‘right of alienation.” Wirt asserted that the Senecas had a right to lease as well as to sell their land, and he endorsed significant restrictions in the ways that Senecas might legally use their property. He wrote, “They have no more right to sell the standing timber, the natural production of the soil as an article of traffic than they have to sell the soil itself.” Wirt believed that the Senecas might use their land for “the purpose of subsistence,” but not a type of property they might exploit, use or develop for their community’s good. Cutting and selling timber would “waste” or destroy the value of their reserves; therefore, not only was logging without the Senecas’ permission illegal—it was “a trespass against their right”—but even timber harvesting by the Senecas themselves or their lessees was prohibited because it violated the rights of preemption title holders.

However, Wirt’s view was not accepted by all inside the government. Robert Montgomery Livinston, appointed by President John Quincy Adams to investigate charges of bribery, corruption and coercion in the negotiation of the 1826 treaty, argued that “It cannot be that the Company can say to the Indians ‘when the right of preemption was granted[,] your Hunter condition was a Guarrantee to the purchasers that you should always remain wandering & never till the ground or cut the timber (which until recently was as valueless except to cover the game—as the game is now & could not have entered into the estimate at the time of the Purchase).’’ It is a fascinating statement. Livingston recognized Seneca social and economic transformation, and the importance of land in that process. Remember, the final article of the Canandaigua treaty: it provided an annuity to be paid in livestock, tools, and supplies to help the Indians make the transformation to an agrarian style of life similar to that of white American farmers. Statements from Washington, Henry Knox, and many others echoed this desire. Indians would stay on their lands, and in the eyes of the United States become “civilized.”

Livingston recognized that the Senecas were doing just that. “The Company seeks to restrict the Indians to their aboriginal use of their acknowledged right of occupancy. I assumed the liberty of telling the Indians that they had the right of occupancy in perpetuity unrestricted as to the mode of occupying and that as they had left the Hunter state & adopted the agricultural they had the right to fell their trees to make room for the plough—that it would be advancing their interests to do so—that the trees cut with such intentions would be theirs.” Free use and enjoyment, right? This is all spelled out in Livingston’s report on the 1826 treaty, which you have in the uploaded materials.

It is important to realize that despite this defeat in a rigged game, the Senecas did not give up. They had reserved the right to the “free use and enjoyment of their lands” in 1794 at Canandaigua. At Big Tree, which extinguished the “Indian title” to a large chunk of those lands, the Senecas retained the right to hunt and fish throughout the vast region. In 1802, as well. And 1826 did nothing to take away that right belonging to the Senecas.

So in August of 1826, Senecas along the river ceded their land to the Ogdens and agreed to reductions in the size of the Buffalo Creek, Tonawanda, and Cattaraugus reservations. They sold more than one-third of their remaining lands. But the sale, it turned out, did not represent the wishes of the majority of the Senecas, and they and their supporters immediately contested the legality and the morality of the treaty. Many of those who signed it, the Senecas argued, feared that if they did not sell they would lose their lands outright to squatters that nobody seemed able to control. Others believed that by signing the treaty they would satisfy the Ogden Company’s voracious appetite for Seneca lands. Some of them hoped that after this cession, which they agreed to reluctantly, the Ogden Company would leave the Senecas in peace upon their remaining lands.

Other Senecas, however, painted a much more sinister portrait, and their numerous protests finally caught the attention of President John Quincy Adams. According to Seneca informants, the interpreters at the council threatened the gathered Indians with removal if they refused to sell. Jasper Parrish, the federal agent, offered bribes to certain Senecas in return for their signatures. This disturbing evidence delayed the treaty’s consideration by the Senate, and the agreement never received proper ratification. But the government did nothing more, and in effect acquiesced in a fraudulent, unethical and illegal treaty that carved a huge gash of territory out of the Seneca estate. Acquiring Indian land was the goal, and too often the corrupt means used to obtain it were ignored entirely. Nearly all the Senecas in Livingston County departed for Tonawanda, or Allegany, Cattaraugus or Buffalo Creek to the west.

The Senecas worked within a system of rules they had not chosen. Indian land sales involved elements both of choice and coercion. Indians simply could not afford to ignore the efforts of their white neighbors to purchase their lands. It is in this light that we ought to view the several treaties and deeds which representatives of the Seneca nation signed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If the Senecas, and native peoples similarly situated, refused to sell their lands, they faced losing them outright to the squatters, outlaws and speculators that regularly exploited the weakness of government on the frontier.

And whether or not the preemption-holders paid a fair price, the Senecas did receive payments for “the use and benefit of the nation” in exchange for their lands. The funds held in trust by the President of the United States as part of the 1797 treaty at Big Tree, the Senecas argued were so held because “our Father,” the President, “loved his red children, and would take care of our money, and plant it in a field, where it would bear seed forever, as long as trees grew, or water run.” Federal Indian agent Erastus Granger believed that an efficiently expended and applied annuity would help the Senecas live better on less land, and “might be used to great advantage in furthering agriculture and in generally ameliorating the condition of the Indians.”

When Congress or the state of New York failed to appropriate the necessary funds, or other factors delayed or prevented the timely payment of annuities, the Senecas suffered. “Our money,” a group of Seneca chiefs wrote in a petition to the President, had been of great service to the nation. “It has helpt us to support our old people, and our Women and children,” they wrote. The Senecas’ agent in 1838 asserted that “the annuities paid to them by the United States and the state of New York constitute a considerable portion of their means of living.”

It was a struggle to remain where they were. In an 1810 address urging the Secretary of War to honor Seneca treaties, Red Jacket said that “For three years past we have received injuries from the white people. Our cattle and horses,” he continued, “have been stolen and carried off; and although we have made complaint to your agent yet we have not received any compensation for our losses.” New Yorkers, who sat on juries, seldom convicted their peers of these crimes.Indeed, the Senecas’ reservations, Jasper Parrish observed later, “are surrounded by settlements of whites.” The result, he said, is “frequent depredations, petty thefts, and trespasses committed on each other by whites and Indians; most frequently commencing on the part of the former.”

Parrish, and others, saw in the inability of frontier agents to protect the Iroquois from the worst abuses of the white frontier population an important rationale for the removal of the New York Indians. But the Senecas did not want to relocate, and despite bitter factionalism at times, and the pressure placed upon them by land speculators, settlers, missionaries, and government agents, they found a way to resist their complete dispossession and wholesale removal to the west.

In New York, the Senecas continued to contend with their “steady enemy,” the Ogden Land Company. Aided by Quakers who opposed Jacksonian Indian policy, the Six Nations put up a courageous fight. The chiefs and warriors of the Senecas, Oneidas and Onondagas at Buffalo Creek asked the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to inform President Jackson that they “were fully satisfied with our present location, and prefer to remain on these lands which the Great Spirit gave to our fathers.” Owing to their efforts no one in Washington with even a passing familiarity with Indian affairs could doubt that the majority of Iroquois did not want to leave western New York.

But Indian removal was not about what Indians wanted. The Ogden Company appealed to the interests of land hungry frontier settlers. They appealed to the benevolence of reformers as well, arguing with no apparent sense of contradiction that removal would benefit the Indians by isolating them from the unsavory influence of those land hungry settlers. This was an old argument indeed: we must remove the Indians to save them. If we do nothing, they will become extinct and pass into history.

The Ogden Company had too much invested to rely solely on arguments. Prior to the 1838 Buffalo Creek Treaty and after its revision by the Senate in 1839, the Company’s agents bribed Indians to persuade their brethren to accept relocation in the west. They met in a tavern, the better to “facilitate” negotiations with gifts of alcohol. They used threats of violence. Seneca chiefs learned that “if we do not consent to emigrate to the West, that measures will be taken by the General and State Governments by which we shall be made to remove.” A number of Seneca chiefs who had opposed any removal were alarmed to find that they had signed statements indicating that they understood and approved of the Buffalo Creek Treaty. How did this happen? According to the Seneca chiefs in question, “the agents of the Ogden Land Company,” they said, “have taken private Indians to the Commissioners pretending to him that they were chiefs & have hired them to misname themselves by adopting the names of chiefs in the opposition & have so obtained many names now affixed” to the treaty. They found imposters. The American commissioner, the chiefs added, was “as ready to deceive as any agents of the Company.”

Through the fraudulent Buffalo Creek Treaty, the Senecas relinquished all their remaining lands. All the Indians living at Buffalo Creek, Tonawanda, Cattaraugus and Allegheny would remove to new homes in the Indian Territory within five years. After a long debate, President Van Buren proclaimed the accord in 1839, but he did so reluctantly, and a powerful protest campaign led by the Senecas and their Quaker allies prevented the implementation of the treaty. Senecas sent delegations to Washington, and they confiscated the timber cut by trespassers on what they still considered their lands. They lobbied, and acted with determination to defend their nation’s interests. In 1842, the Quakers and officials from the Ogden Land Company broke the impasse and negotiated a supplement to the Buffalo Creek Treaty. Both parties understood that the Senecas disliked the 1838 treaty. The Indians would reluctantly have given up a portion of the lands on each of their remaining reservations, but they never would have consented to relinquishing any of them in their entirety. Under the 1842 Supplemental Treaty, however, that is precisely what happened. The Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations, where Quaker missionary activities were strongest, would be returned to the Senecas; Tonawanda and Buffalo Creek would remain in the hands of the Ogden Company. After a long hard fight the Tonawanda Senecas would in 1857 “win” the right to purchase back a portion of their original reservation, even after they had opposed all attempts to acquire their lands. Buffalo Creek, already overrun by white settlers, and close to the growing city of Buffalo, was gone. Most of the Indians there removed to Cattaraugus.

In 1846, a man named Abram Hogeboom traveled to the remaining reservations in New York State. He had authorization from the United States government to recruit Indians to relocate to the Indian territory. Hogeboom, with some difficulty, gathered 192 prospective immigrants, among them 66 Senecas. They appear to have desired, not to assimilate, but to continue to live their lives as Haudenosaunee away from the aggressive New Yorkers. All but one of the immigrants survived the arduous process of moving across the country, an incredible stroke of good fortune, but they found life once they arrived at the Osage Agency in Kansas tough. The new arrivals began to die rapidly. They buried 82 of their fellow emigrants between 1846 and 1847. After this they wanted to go home. 94 of the original 192 emigrants arrived back in New York in 1847. Only a handful chose to stay behind.

Only a small number of Senecas moved west, and most of the survivors of that horrible year returned home where “with scarcely an exception” they “lived in a destitute condition, and many of them are yet suffering from disease.” As these emigrants conducted their odyssey into the west, political ferment manifested itself on the Seneca reservations in New York State. Fearful, according to their Quaker supporters, “lest again, these remnants of their land might be wrongfully wrested from them,” a group of Senecas petitioned the New York State legislature for a law to protect them “from their own chiefs.” The petition, according to the Quakers, presented “to the world, the curious spectacle of a nation seeking from a foreign state, a security against the officers of their own government.”

The Senecas had made considerable adjustments to their way of life in order to survive in western New York. They grew corn, oats, wheat, potatoes, and a variety of garden crops. Thousands of fruit trees stood in Seneca orchards. They raised cattle and kept hogs, horses, and sheep. According to Henry Schoolcraft, who visited them in 1846, “the style of their buildings, fences and household furnishings,” he wrote, “as well as the dress of the males, is not essentially different, and little, often nothing at all, inferior to that of their white neighbors.”

In addition to their agricultural pursuits, the Senecas lived by renting land to their white neighbors, selling timber and finished lumber, fishing and hunting, and working as agricultural laborers. And they looked to the future as well. A small number of Senecas had acquired “a collegiate or academic education,” and 350 children attended various “private or missionary schools” near the reservation. They hoped to stay on their lands.

Yet to many Senecas, their traditional chiefs had failed them during the removal crisis. Some had taken bribes. Some misused the Senecas’ annuity funds, the monies the Senecas had received for the sale of their lands. The New York State Legislature in May 1845 enacted a law “for the protection and improvement of the Seneca Indians.” Through the enactment, the state of New York determined a framework of government for the Seneca reservations that bore little resemblance to Seneca tradition. The state certainly had no legitimate right to do this, for the law interfered with Seneca internal affairs and seemed to violate the 1794 Canandaigua treaty. But, very quickly, the Senecas began to organize into “Law” and “Anti-Law” factions, based on whether or not they approved of the state’s handiwork. The conflict lasted until 1847, when the state amended its original law to allow for the popular election of the officers it identified initially in 1845. In the meantime, the United States allowed for the payment of all annuities “to the heads of families and other individuals entitled to participate therein.”

These legislative enactments provided the backdrop against which the Senecas acted out their Revolution in 1848. The chiefs traditionally had received and distributed annuities, and they resisted any change in that arrangement. As Quaker observers reported, “to be deprived of the power to handle the people’s money was more than they could bear.” The majority of the Senecas, however, “became convinced, that neither peace nor security could be enjoyed by the people, until the chiefs should be shorn or every vestige of their official power.” Thus a national council late in 1848 declared itself a constitutional convention and announced the creation and founding of the Seneca Nation of Indians. The constitution that this convention produced described the failure of the chiefs, and the delegates present declared that “we cannot enumerate the evils growing out of a system so defective, nor calculate its overpowering weight on the progress of improvement.” In particular, the chiefs had withheld portions of the annuity for the purposes of government, calling the withholding of the annuity a “tax.” The manipulation and improper use of the annuity funds led to the overthrow of government by the chiefs.

The Senecas had suffered much. All native peoples had. Here, however, was evidence of a native nation organizing and acting to protect its interests within the American republic. The new Seneca constitution, which both the State of New York and the United States recognized, established a government consisting of an elected council presided over by an executive department consisting of a President, a Clerk, and a Treasurer. It marked the transformation of the Senecas from a kinship-based community to a territorial government based on residence at the two remaining Seneca reservations (the Tonawanda Senecas remained apart from the Seneca Nation of Indians and a member of the Iroquois League). By the mid 1850s, the Seneca Constitution had achieved legitimacy. Though political contests could be as partisan and competitive as those in the surrounding non-Indian communities, and though the Senecas might disagree deeply over the course the Seneca Nation should follow, all grew to accept a constitution that emerged from a conflict over how the nation’s lands ought best to contribute to the survival of the nation.

Further Reading:

Conable, Barbara M. “A Steady Enemy: The Ogden Land Company and the Seneca Indians,” Ph.D dissertation, University of Rochester, 1994.

Haake, Claudia B. “Appeals to Civilization and Customary ‘Forest Diplomacy: Arguments against Removal in Letters Written by the Iroquois, 1830-1857,” Wicazo Sa Review, 30 (Fall 2015), 100-128.

Harris, George H. “The Life of Horatio Jones,” Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, 6 (1903), 381-526.

Hauptman, Laurence M. Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997).

Houghton, Frederick. History of the Buffalo Creek Reservation. In Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, Vol 24, Frank H. Severance, ed., (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1920.

Isaacs, Hope L. “Orenda and the Concept of Power among the Tonawanda Senecas,” in Raymond D. Fogelson and Richard N. Adams, eds., The Anthropology of Power: Ethnographic Studies from Asia, Oceania, and the New World, (New York: Academic Press, 1977).

Mt. Pleasant, Alyssa. “After the Whirlwind: Maintaining a Haudenosaunee Place at Buffalo Creek, 1780-1825,” Ph.D dissertation, Cornell University, 2007.

Oberg, Michael Leroy. Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

Ryan, Beth. “Crowding the Banks: The Historical Archaeology of Ohagi and the Post Revolutionary Haudenosaunee Confederacy, ca. 1780-1826,” Ph.D. diss, Cornell University, 2017.

Saunt, Claudio. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to the Indian Territory, (New York: Norton, 2020).