The Senecas in Settler Myth and Memory

The Indigenous population of Livingston County moved away after the disastrous sales of 1826. Some families and clans moved to Tonawanda. Others headed farther west, to Buffalo Creek and, after the corrupt treaty of 1838, on to Allegany and Cattaraugus. The coerced departure of the Senecas from the county, one of many hundreds of “Indian Removals” that took place across the first half of the nineteenth century, however, did not sever their ties completely.

Some Senecas, for instance, wanted to join the Union cause in the Civil War. Very clearly they objected to the actions of the southern states—the secession movement, the attack on Fort Sumter, and the virulent white supremacy that fueled the southern rebellion. The Senecas respected warriors, and saw participation in the war as consistent with that tradition. From the outset, they sought to enlist. Early in the war Tonawanda Senecas traveled to the town of Geneseo to join the unit assembling there under General Samuel Wadsworth, but he turned them away. This encounter took place on the eastern end of North Street in the village.

They did not give up. Led by Ely Parker, the Tonawandas by May of 1862 had at last persuaded the Bureau of Indian Affairs to permit Seneca soldiers to enlist in the Union cause. Seneca soldiers fought in integrated units, side by side with white soldiers from New York. They received the same pay as white soldiers. The objections of New York’s leaders to their enlistment reinforced the Senecas’ long-standing distrust of state officials while interaction with their white comrades provided Seneca soldiers with an unparalleled opportunity for interacting with white society. They fought in integrated units beside white soldiers. The Senecas emerged from the Civil War determined to protect their culture and the autonomy of their communities, but also with new skills and tactics for doing so.

Residents of Livingston County ignored real Indians–the actual Indigenous people whose land they now occupied, and nourished racist stereotypes and fantasies about their past. They looked past the fact that the “Western Door” of the Longhouse could only become part of New York State, and part of Livingston County, through a systematic program of Seneca dispossession that at times violated the laws of the United States. Comforting nostalgia prevailed over bitter truths. Local high schools named their sports teams after Indigenous peoples, using at times demeaning and derogatory images of Indigenous peoples as they did so. Caledonia Mumford schools changed their logo and team name recently. Avon, a town that rose as the Seneca town of Canawaugus fell, still calls their teams “the Braves.” Businesses took their names from the County’s Indigenous history. The Big Tree Inn, for instance, sits on Main Street in Geneseo, serving overpriced and disappointing meals to generations of students and faculty.

Buildings on the campus emphasize their ties to the county’s Indigenous past. Students at SUNY-Geneseo might dine in the Red Jacket or the Mary Jemison dining halls. They may stay in dormitories named after Haudenosaunee peoples, including the Senecas. And one of the oldest buildings on campus, Wadsworth Auditorium, is named after one of the town’s founding families, whose wealth was inherently connected to Indigenous dispossession. Streets are named after the Wadsworth family in Avon, and after Boyd and Parker, the two foolish scouts who accompanied the Sullivan Campaign. There is “Iroquois Road” in Caledonia, Big Tree Street in Livonia, and Sullivan Road in the town of West Sparta. One can venture along Red Jacket Street in Dansville, Mohawk, Seneca and, inexplicably, Seminole Avenue in Geneseo, and never meet a Native American..

The white residents of Livingston County taught citizens their history in the schools, of course, but also in public displays. The Centennial of Sullivan’s Campaign against the Iroquois, a military campaign that slashed its way through Livingston County, offered an opportunity for reflection on this critical and foundational event. Early that year, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle lamented that only in Livingston and Chemung counties, the latter the site of the Battle of Newtown, had any plans for commemoration been made. “Celebrations of the great march in various places where halts were made, battles fought or towns destroyed, would revive the story and be of great advantage.” Local historians tried to do their part. A. Tiffany Norton published in Lima his History of Sullivan’s Campaign against the Iroquois, Being a Full Account of that Epoch of the Revolution. Lockwood Doty’s copy is in the collections of the Livingston County Historical Society in Geneseo. But it was through pageants and community-wide celebrations that residents of Livingston County learned about, interpreted, and invented stories about the community’s past, and its native peoples.

The gathering to celebrate the centennial of the Sullivan Campaign took place in Geneseo, on September 16, 1879. It was, according to the Dansville Advertiser, “a glorious success,” that “brought together the largest concourse of people ever assembled in Livingston County.” Between ten and twelve thousand people crowded into town. Main Street was filled with “fluttering flags,” and “the archway to the court house was decorated with evergreens and bore the significant motto, ‘Civilization overcomes Barbarism.’” That was the theme of the day’s proceedings. A parade made up of firemen, veterans of the Civil war, and “bands, pioneers, citizens, etc.” Students from the State Normal School, founded just eight years earlier, sang the national anthem as the procession marched by.

The opening address was delivered by Norman Seymour, President of the Livingston County Agricultural Society. He told the gathered audience that Sullivan’s soldiers came to “chastise” the Indians, “who hung like the scythe of death upon the defenceless whites, on the border settlements.” Sullivan’s men became pioneers, and they succeeded “in laying broad, deep, and enduring, the foundations of our illustrious commonwealth; on our hill sides, and at almost every hamlet, they erected rude temples, consecrated to the worship of the God of their fathers.” Chistianity and Civility worked in tandem to clear the land of savagery.

A prayer followed. And then a poem by A. L. Childs. He played a variation on what was becoming a familiar theme. Sullivan came to bring peace to a savage land. The Senecas, along with the other Five Nations, were

Allied with Freedom’s bitterest foe,

With poisoned arrow and scalping knife,

with flaming torch, they marching go,

To murder the young Republic’s life!


Though the Senecas never used poisoned arrows in battle, Sullivan’s men eliminated this threat.

Where the savage yell and war-whoop rung,

And smoke from Indian wigwam curling,

Now anthems of praise to God are sung,

And our starry banner is unfurling!”

The Indians were gone now, and their disappearance from the Valley was good, natural and just.

After Childs’ poem came the reading of letters from “distinguished persons who could not be present.” And more speeches about the horrors of the savage frontier. David Craft gave the historical address, asserting that ever since the arrival of Columbus, “there has been going on a conflict between civilization and barbarism.” Sullivan allowed the former to triumph over the latter. The violence was good and necessary.

Let those who speak harshly of Sullivan, and of Washington, and of congress, if they feel no sentiment of vindictive justice for the hundreds of massacred women and children, no commiseration for the tortures of their kindred blood, no regrets for the burning of white men’s towns and villages, if all their pity must be lavished on homeless squaws, and all their indignation must be expended over burning wigwams, and wasted cornfields, and prostrated orchards, yet it might be worth a thought to consider what would this great state be, nay what would this country be without the Iroquois country.”

New York could only become the Empire state through violence and dispossession.

Eighteen years later, residents of Livingston County gathered once again, this time to commemorate the centennial of the Big Tree Treaty. The pageantry took place on the anniversary of the treaty’s signing, September 15. Several months before the gathering was set to take place, Cattaraugus Seneca leader A. Sims Logan wrote to Lockwood Doty. He had one hundred Senecas who wanted to participate in the ceremonies. “The people are so willing to go, I could take the whole Reservation,” but he was bringing only a few. There was considerable Seneca interest in participating.

The Senecas traveled to Geneseo, but they were there to be seen and not heard. The festivities were centered around a historical address delivered by John S. Minard. It waas a long and excruciating speech. It must have been torture to listen to. The Indians, he said, left the treaty grounds having lost much. They were “poorer by thousands, for not only had they made a poor bargain, but they had relinquished title to a country, rich in game and fertile beyond comparison.” That was perfectly fine for Minard. The Senecas may have lost,

But civilization was enriched, for now the Genesee Country was opened to settlement and the progress was commenced which has made it the garden of the world. Such was the event which Geneseo will commemorate and in the brilliancy of the celebration she will show her appreciation of the immeasurable good which has come with the years that have passed.

Indians lose. They suffer. But in these commemorations their way of life was doomed, their grasp on the land fragile and insignificant. They were so backwards that white Americans could hardly be blamed for taking what the Indians used improperly. And whatever they lost, the cost did not compare to the benefits the white appropriators and their descendants enjoyed.

Commemorations were part of the fabric of Livingston County life. So it was not surprising that on August 30, 1929, The Dansville Express urged its readers to encourage family members and friends from near and far to return home for a pageant celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. Those in attendance could enjoy a free meal, a band concert, and an outdoor historical pageant. Written by George V.C. Lord, a veteran of racist minstrel shows, the pageant celebrated westward expansion. Local newspapers recruited residents whose ancestors fought with Sullivan and veterans of the Civil War, to serve as cast members. The props and the well-designed scenery drew favorable reviews, especially the fields of corn that grew near the venue. The crew built and the cast burnt a longhouse. Finally, “relics of the Revolutionary period” that the State Department of Education collected from residents were placed on display for the curious to examine.

Although the script of the pageant has not survived, newspaper articles from the time, programs from the event, and paperwork from the committee that planned the pageant shed light on the way that residents of Livingston County saw Indian people and their history in 1929. Like their forefathers who fought, erased, dispossessed the Seneca, the members of the Sesquicentennial committee promoted a narrow perspective of history that failed to acknowledge the Seneca culture and its contributions to the Genesee Country. One example of this is a copy of the roster of the committee members. As the event planning process included a vast array of members from counties in the Western New York area, representatives from every town in Livingston County, dignitaries such as Senator James Wadsworth, A.C. Flick (the State historian), and the author and historian Lockwood Doty, but not one representative from any of the Six Nations. Indians were part of the past, the promoters suggested. No need to hear from them now.

On September 14, the pageant opened in Leicester, New York, near the location where Little Beard’s Town was located. Furthermore, two additional pageants were also staged in Elmira and Geneva on the two following weekends. On the third and final week of the pageant in Elmira, a staggering 75,000 people viewed the 17-act play, with its cast of 2000. According to one witness,the pageant used live ammunition, with one spectator at the Elmira joking that “more ammunition was used in the play than in the actual events.”

The pageant depicted Washington as a tactical genius determined to bring about white domination of the American frontier. Philip Schuyler offered a toast, similar to one actually offered by Sullivan’s officers, to “exterminate the Red men.” The pageant depicted the death of Boyd and Parker, the destruction of Little Beard’s town, and the achievement of Washington’s dream. This was a celebration of conquest and violence.

In September of 1947, Livingston County celebrated the Sesquicentennial of the Treaty of Big Tree. This sesquicentennial event lacked the scale of the Sullivan-Clinton Sesquicentennial in 1929. According to The Lamron, the student-run newspaper at what is now SUNY Geneseo, the Genesee Country Historical Federation invited all residents to a “celebration” that remembered the legacy of the Big Tree Council, which took place on lands occupied by the campus.

The main event was a presentation given in the “Old Main Auditorium’.” Congressman James Wadsworth – a descendant of the land speculators William and Jerimiah Wadsworth – greeted the audience and welcomed four individuals to speak about the history and legacy of the Treaty. First, Dr A.C. Parker, the Seneca anthropologist, author, and advocate, gave an address on the background of the Treaty of Big Tree. Second, Mrs. Ethel Brant-Montour, a descendant of the famous Mohawk Joseph Brant, spoke at the ceremony on “How the Indians were made to yield their consent and recognize the sale of land.” Third, “Little Bailey,” (also known as Nick Bailey) from the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, and a descendant of the Sachem Little Billy, prepared a short speech in his native Seneca tongue that served as a means to share Seneca culture and language with the audience. Fourth, Arleigh Hill, a Seneca with ancestral ties to the Geneseo area spoke about “how the Seneca Indians really looked at the time of [the treaty]” while wearing the silver medal and an outfit similar to what Red Jacket would have worn at the time of the treaty. Finally, State Historian Albert Corey discussed “how the Holland Land Company and New York State profited as a result of the Treaty.”

It is notable that the Big Tree Sesquicentennial included Indigenous voices. That the Genesee Country Historical Federation invited three Native guests (only four people spoke at this event) to share their ancestors’ side of the story is laudable and demonstrates that between 1929 and 1947, the white people of the Genesee Valley began to recognize the fact that their Seneca predecessors had made meaningful contributions to the history of the region.

On September 15, 1979, the people of Livingston County continued their tradition of gathering together to remember their collective past. This time, they remembered once again the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign and its legacy, now two centuries old. For the 200th Anniversary in 1979, the people of the Genesee Country remembered their past in a smaller manner than they had for the 150th anniversary of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. They held two small events on one September day.

As early as 1977, the State History office began to urge individual counties and their county historians to promote a commemoration of the bicentennial of the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition. Unlike the 1929 “Pageant of Decision,” which presented a Eurocentric, heroic and racist interpretation of American history, the State Historian’s office urged caution. The ceremonies should “be dignified and avoid offending modern sensibilities and attitudes.” Indigenous views should be welcomed. This was a significant change. Like many of the past local history events that came before this bicentennial ceremony in 1979, a lengthy planning process preceded the gathering. As was the case before, and the 1979 bicentennial would be no different, a committee with local dignitaries brainstormed, planned, and executed the events. This time, a committee assembled, and its roster included former military officers, local people, academics, but no members of any of the Six Nations.

At 10:45 in the morning, a flag-raising ceremony, followed by taps, and the pledge to the flag remembered the American casualties of the campaign. Not long thereafter, John Rodgers, then a professor at SUNY Geneseo, spoke on the history of the campaign and how it impacted the county. Finally, the people in attendance witnessed the unveiling of a new engraving on a monument dedicated to the casualties of the campaign. This engraving read “We Remembered and Honored Them.” Later that day, another small ceremony was held at the nearby Boyd-Parker Memorial Park. A flag-raising ceremony and invocation led to a local judge speaking about the legacy of the campaign, and a few of the local schools performed patriotic tunes.

Ultimately, like the 1929 sesquicentennial, the 1979 ceremonies failed to present to the public the fact that the ultimate legacy of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign was violence, destruction, and dispossession. The failure of the Genesee Valley residents to act on recommendations to represent “American, Tory, and Iroquois viewpoints’ shows that many in the community were ignorant of or uncomfortable with their county’s violent past.

Finally, there was the Bicentennial of the Big Tree Treaty held in 1997. “Planning something that happens only every 100 years takes time and patience.” In April of 1997, The Livingston County News reported that this was how Geneseo town historian David Parrish felt about his task: Planning the Bicentennial of the Treaty of Big Tree. Unlike the 150th Anniversary events, which were held in 1947 and advertised in The Lamron as a “celebration,” Parrish knew he had to proceed with caution. Indeed, in an interview with The Livingston County News, Parrish asserted that the team involved in the planning of the events avoided branding this event as a “celebration,” as the overall legacy of the Treaty of Big Tree was the rise of Western New York at the cost of Seneca dispossession.

Two years earlier, in June of 1995, the committee responsible for the commemoration began to meet regularly to plan for the ceremonial events. Parrish led the group, but he was joined by Genesee County Historian Susan Concklin, Rotary Club President Don Chase, Local historian and Geneseo professor Wayne Mahood, Livingston County Historian Patricia Schapp, and Frank Marotta, Alfred McKeown, Anne McCarthy, and many others. At their first meeting, the members of the committee agreed that their mission was to promote public history, education, and community involvement. One crucial step that the committee took to meet this goal was reaching out to the Seneca Nation and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. Afraid of a negative backlash if they ignored Indigenous peoples as in the past, the committee met with the Senecas to discuss how the ill effects of European settlement and land-grabbing impacted the Seneca people. Two months later, in August of 1995, the committee discussed their finalized plans in another meeting and received the blessing of the nearby SUNY Geneseo (which was also celebrating its 125th Anniversary in 1997).

Ultimately, the 200th Anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Big Tree was organized as a series of events scheduled to take place throughout the year… The events planned included a play by Geneseo Elementary School students, a lecture series, speeches by individuals who had ancestors present at the Treaty Council, a Lacrosse game, a tree-planting ceremony, and the dedication of a new road. First, in the winter and spring of 1997, a series of free lectures on local history was held at The Big Tree Inn on Main Street in Geneseo. Ultimately, five lectures were held and people from all over the region attended. Additionally, three “Summer Events” were held that ranged from a Reenactment in mid-July at the Village Park, a storytelling session about the Council Fire, and the grand unveiling ceremony on September 14, 1997.

At one of these summertime events, on August 28, 1997, nearly 200 people gathered on a hill overlooking the old Holcomb School (now a parking lot on the grounds of SUNY Geneseo) to hear a public lecture on the Treaty of Big Tree. At this event, five descendants of individuals present at the negotiations spoke of their ancestor’s life experiences and legacies. Peter Jemison, a descendant of Mary Jemison, spoke about Mary’s life and reminded the community that he was not speaking to celebrate the results of the Treaty of Big Tree, but rather to remind the public how it was made. Similarly, Ernest Morris, a descendant of the sly and cunning Thomas and Robert Morris, asserted that Albany was still mistreating the Senecas and disregarding their sovereignty. The Livingston County News reported that Morris took issue with the New York State sales taxes collected on reservations and land claims litigation. The Senecas held a dance, and a new road, the Rte 63 bypass, was opened. This road, which currently separates the Southside of SUNY Geneseo from the heart of the campus, earned the name “Mary Jemison Drive.”