As the end of the Revolutionary War approached, Americans viewed native lands as conquered territory. “A bare recollection of the facts,” a committee of the Continental Congress declared, “is sufficient to manifest the obligation they are under to make atonement for the enormities which they have perpetrated.” Indians, American political leaders believed, had been “aggressors in the war, without even a pretence of provocation,” and now must yield their lands to the citizens of the new republic.
Land rested at the center of American concerns after the Revolution. Cash poor and deeply in debt, land provided the national government and the individual states a way to pay their soldiers and meet their obligations. States like New York, for instance, saw in the sale of Iroquois lands a way to pay for its government without resorting to a politically inexpedient program of taxation. Continental soldiers, marching through what would become Livingston County, marveled at the land’s rich bounty, the product of careful Seneca stewardship and management. Land speculators could easily imagine the wealth they might accumulate were they able to oversee the sale of these tracts. The dreams of both groups relied on the dispossession of the Senecas.
Title to the land—the actual ownership of the soil—the states asserted belonged to them and, in the territories that had not yet been formed into states, to the Confederation as a whole. Native peoples possessed nothing more than a right of occupancy, in American eyes. They could use the land, but they could only sell those lands to the owner of the right of preemption. The United States, or the individual states within their boundaries, claimed an exclusive right to acquire and extinguish the Indians’ rights to the soil.
The results were predictable. Land was a commodity during the early years of the republic, and Americans felt that by conquest and as a result of the peace treaty with Great Britain that the Indians’ lands were now theirs. Indians must yield to the land-hungry and vengeance-seeking citizens of this new empire for liberty. Most policy makers in Congress agreed, but many of them also recognized the need for a peaceful and orderly frontier. The United States could spend its meager resources more wisely than on the costs of fighting Indian wars, and it did not take a keen observer to recognize that despite the language of the Peace of Paris, Britain still hung onto its posts at Detroit, Oswego, and Niagara. Some British officials contemplated the creation of a neutral Indian barrier state, independent of the United States and supported by the empire, with its southern border running along the Ohio River. Men like George Washington feared that disaffected Indians might acquire weapons and ammunition from America’s imperial rivals and use them to protect their lands. Indeed, Washington believed that “to suffer a wide extended Country to be over run with Land Jobbers, Speculators, and Monopolisers or even with scattered settlers is . . . inconsistent with that wisdom and policy which our true interest dictates, or that an enlightened people ought to adopt and, besides, is pregnant of disputes with the Savages, and among ourselves, the evils of which are easier, to be conceived than described.”
To prevent these horrors was the problem. Washington believed that “no purchase” of Indian lands should be made unless by the authority of the United States “or the Legislature of the State in which such lands may happen to be.” The first constitution of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, created a decentralized national government with significant powers retained by the individual states. Article IX of the Confederation gave the United States “the sole and exclusive right and power” to oversee the trade and manage “all affairs with the Indians not members of any of the states; provided that the legislative right of any State within its own limits be not infringed or violated.” What did it mean to say that Indians were or were not members of a state? How was that determination to be made? And how far did the legislative rights of a state extend? A chaotic system where states pursued their own Indian policies resulted, often with little regard for the larger interests of the union.
The provisions of the Peace of Paris that ended the war between Britain and the United States shocked the Six Nations. Britain had left its allies at the mercy of the Americans, and did nothing to protect them. Reacting to the propaganda of victorious patriots who depicted Indians as blood-stained psychopaths, the Seneca leader Sayenqueraghta noted after the war that “if we had means of publishing to the world the many acts of treachery and cruelty committed by them on our women and children, it would appear that the title of savages would with much greater justice be applied to them than to us.”
Commissioners appointed by Congress would attempt to dictate a peace to the Six Nations beginning in 1783. New York state officials questioned the right of the federal commissioners to meet with Indians in the state. To the congressional commissioners, Governor George Clinton demanded “that no agreement be entered into with the Indians, residing within the Jurisdiction of this State.” Not all shared Clinton’s limited view of national authority, but the new United States government simply lacked the power to force aggressive states like New York to accept an alternative interpretation. Still, at Fort Stanwix in 1784, the representatives of the Six Nations, led by the Mohawk Aaron Hill, chose to negotiate with the commissioners sent by the Congress rather than the rival state commissioners appointed by Clinton. The resulting treaty must have disappointed Hill, for the United States Commissioners dismissed with the long-established and familiar practice of Iroquois treaty protocol, acted the part of haughty conquerors, and demanded of them a cession of their lands west of a line drawn four miles east of the Niagara River. As Philip Schuyler told the gathered Iroquois, “we are now masters, and can dispose of the lands as we think proper or most convenient to ourselves.” And, “as we are conquerors, we claim the lands and property of all the white people as well as the Indians who have left and fought against us.” The United States made no offer to pay for the cession it dictated, and agreed to “give peace to the Senecas, Mohawks, Onondagas, and Cayugas, and receive them into their protection” only in return for a huge cession of land.
The border defined at Fort Stanwix, which did nothing to disturb directly Seneca possession of the Genesee Valley, nonetheless became an international boundary, one that prevented the Iroquois from playing the British off against the Americans. Their lands, no longer located on the frontier or as part of a permeable borderland, lay now entirely within the boundaries of the United States, a new nation committed to the dispossession of the Six Nations and the transformation of Indian land into agricultural settlements. By separating the Iroquois from the British, Americans hoped that the Senecas and their longhouse kin would no longer be able to threaten frontier settlements and British posts in the Niagara River valley would become more vulnerable without an Indian buffer.
Other assaults on Seneca lands commenced shortly after Fort Stanwix. While their neighbors had to contend with state interests who acquired Iroquois lands through fraudulent treaties, the Senecas contended with forces from outside the state. Massachusetts, the colonial charter of which had specified no western limit, claimed much of the land in New York State, including Seneca lands in and around Chenussio.. In December of 1786, representatives from New York and Massachusetts met in Hartford to hammer out their differences. The “Articles” to which the two states agreed gave New York “all the claim, right and title which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts hath to the Government, Sovereignty, and Jurisdiction of the Lands and Territories so claimed by the State of New York.” Massachusetts received, for its part, “the right of pre-emption of the soil from the native Indians,” which it promptly sold to a group of speculators headed by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham.
What did “pre-emption” mean? The answer is essential for understanding the process of Iroquois dispossession in western New York.
The speculators met with the Senecas and others of the Six Nations at Buffalo Creek, in the summer of 1788. The Senecas were struggling: there is no doubt that the population of the Six Nations dropped during the war years, and the Senecas shared wholly in those losses. Invasion, disease, hunger, cold and alcohol killed many. Though some small pockets of Senecas remained in the Genesee Valley, most of them had gathered with other Iroquois refugees at three locations. The largest of these, Buffalo Creek, housed over two thousand Iroquois. A quarter of that number lived farther south along the shores of Lake Erie at Cattaraugus, while nine hundred more lived at a site called the Loyal Village, less than ten miles from Fort Niagara. The trade goods they received from the British helped them survive, and at least one observer believed that “the immediate intercourse they have with the British” allowed them to be “far better clothed than those Indians were in towns at a greater distance.” Other Senecas lived with members of the Six Nations at Grand River, across the Niagara in Ontario. Though the Senecas faced fewer problems than did their eastern neighbors, they had to contend with all the problems that white settlement could bring: the encroachment on their lands by white farmers who viewed their lands as open range, and who let loose their livestock on Indian corn fields and who deforested woods reducing the supply of game; the violence of frontier thugs who destroyed Indian property, cut timber on their lands, and threatened Iroquois peoples with vengeance for their acts during the war. New York became a frightening new world for the Senecas and their neighbors.
Phelps and Gorham persuaded the sachems present to sell them a huge tract of land in return for the equivalent of roughly five thousand dollars. That is what “pre-emption” meant in the context of American Indian Law: certain parties of Anglo-Americans or their successors on a given tract of land could exercise their right to extinguish the Indians’ possessory rights to the soil, pre-empting other potential buyers. To obtain those lands, aOliver Phelps signed a bond in which he promised to pay to the “Sachems, chiefs, and warriors of the Five Nations” an annuity amounting to “two hundred pounds lawful money of the state of New York” with the payment to be made on the fourth of July “annually forever.”
Many Senecas objected to this sale and Cornplanter, the great Seneca leader originally from Canawaugus, who signed the deed to Phelps and Gorham, received death threats. Some Senecas spoke of fighting to preserve these lands, others of ending their own lives rather than living with the pain of a lost homeland.Cornplanter complained that he had been deceived by Phelps, who he said had promised the Senecas twice the amount stated in the deed, and that he had signed the treaty on the advice of the missionary turned real estate agent Samuel Kirkland. Red Jacket later complained that it cost the Senecas more than the annuity was worth to travel each July to collect it. It was a small sum of money, and within a couple of decades, the annuity no longer was paid to the Senecas. Phelps and Gorham’s project, by that time, had long since gone out of business.
Campisi, Jack and William A. Starna, “On the Road to Canandaigua: The Treaty of 1794,” American Indian Quarterly, 19 (Autumn 1995), 467-490.
Countryman, Edward M. “Indians, the Colonial Order, and the Social Significance of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 53 (April 1996), 342-362.
Manley, Henry S. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 1784. (Rome, NY: Rome Sentinel Company, 1932).
Recht, Michael. “The Role of Fishing in the Iroquois Economy, 1600-1792,” New York History, 76 (January 1995), 4-30.
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.
Tiro, Karim M. The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, (New York,1970).