Category Archives: Haudenosaunee History

We Live on Stolen Lands, Part III: A Story of Faithless Guardians

The Federal Constitution of 1787 clarified and significantly strengthened the powers of the national government to conduct and oversee Indian affairs, at least on paper. That little debate or discussion of Indian policy took place at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 suggests that the vast majority of the delegates believed that the administration of Indian affairs and the conduct of Indian policy should be placed firmly and unambiguously in the hands of the new national government.  Certainly to James Madison one of the most pressing inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation had been the de facto weakness of the national government in the realm of Indian affairs.  Madison had been disturbed by the conduct of the state of New York in its dealings with the Six Nations, but thought that “whatever may be the true boundary between the authority of Congs and that of N.Y., or however indiscreet the latter may have been . . . temperance on the part of the former will be the wisest policy.” He feared the consequences of a clash with defiant state authorities.  During the Philadelphia Convention, Madison pointed out that “in certain cases the authy. of the Confederacy was disregarded, as in violations not only of the Treaty of Peace [with Great Britain], but of Treaties with France & Holland, which were complained of to Congs.  In other cases,” he continued, “the Fedl. Authy. was violated by Treaties and wars with Indians as by [Georgia].”  He listed the behavior of the states in the realm of Indian affairs as one of the principal “vices of the political system of the United States” under the Articles of Confederation.

President George Washington and his Secretary of War Henry Knox, who together designed and implemented the Indian policy of the new nation, believed that they must preserve order along the new nation’s frontiers.  Post-Revolutionary claims that the Indian allies of Great Britain had been conquered during the war went unheeded by powerful Indian confederacies in the North, the Northwest, and the South.  Washington and Knox recognized that the pretense of conquest, coupled with the government’s inability to control its land hungry settlers, could only involve the young republic in a continuous cycle of expensive warfare, something that the new nation simply could not afford. The United States under its first president embarked on a policy consistent in its approach with the earlier goals of the British empire, and consistent with the desires of many men who oversaw Indian policy during the Confederation years.  This was a policy directed, in the words of historian Francis Paul Prucha, toward the “conciliation of the Indians by negotiation, a show of liberality, express guarantees of protection from encroachment beyond certain set boundaries, and a fostered and developed trade.”  To implement such a policy, more was needed than the guarantees contained in Indian treaties. Something had to be done to restrain frontier whites and the governments of the several states.  Hence the Indian and Trade and Intercourse Acts.

            Indeed, Washington wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, expressing his firm belief that peace with Indians was impossible “while land-jobbing and the disorderly conduct of our borderers is suffered with impunity, and whilst the States individually are omitting no occasion to interfere in matters which belong to the general Government.”  Referring specifically to New York, the President continued that “the interferences of the States, and the speculations of individuals, will be the bane of all our public measures.”  Hamilton agreed entirely with the President, lamenting that “our system is such as still to leave the public peace of the Union at the mercy of each State government.” There can be no doubt that Congress enacted the Trade and Intercourse Acts to defend Indians from violent and corrupt frontier settlers and the aggressive actions of the several states.

            Considerable disaffection remained among the Six Nations after the Revolution. The Senecas, the westernmost and most populous member of the Confederacy, felt particularly aggrieved by the terms of the punitive 1784 Fort Stanwix Treaty. The United States had demanded that they surrender their claims to lands in the west.  Others of the Six Nations expressed to President Washington anger regarding the state cessions of the Confederation era. Little could be done about those treaties, the President believed, because “these evils arose before the present Government of the United States was established, when the separate States, and individuals under their authority, undertook to treat with the Indian tribes respecting the sale of their lands.”

And land, of course, lay at the heart of the nation’s conflicts with Indians.  Armed with the new United States Constitution, the Trade and Intercourse Acts, and worried about the prospect of Iroquois warriors supplied by the British joining the powerful Ohio River confederacies, the President was determined now to set things right. The attention of the United States focused most heavily on the western tribes in the Ohio Country, who had badly defeated American forces on a number of occasions. The Six Nations, however, were not ignored.  United States officials first met with the Senecas at Tioga Point in 1790.  Timothy

Pickering, who had been appointed by the President to meet with the Six Nations, was not entirely prepared to meet with as many Indians as arrived at the council, but he learned quickly what was expected of him.  He followed Washington’s instructions and informed the gathered Indians “that all business between them and any part of the United States is hereafter to be transacted by the general government.” Shortly thereafter, the President met at Philadelphia with Cornplanter, the great accommodationist Seneca leader, and informed him that “the General Government only, has the power to treat with the Indian nations, and any treaty formed, and held, without its authority will not be binding.”

In 1791 Pickering again met with the Iroquois, this time at Newtown.  Pickering once again tried to conciliate the Six Nations, and he discouraged them from joining the powerful Ohio Valley communities who recently had done so much damage to the American armies sent to subdue them.  If Pickering overstepped his bounds in approving two leases of Iroquois lands to non-Indian members of the tribe, nobody seemed that concerned about the affair.  Certainly, in 1794, Washington felt comfortable reappointing Pickering to meet with the Six Nations at Canandaigua.

            When Pickering gathered with the Six Nations at Canandaigua in the autumn of 1794, he hoped to resolve the long-standing difficulties with the Senecas.  Seneca land, anthropologists Jack Campisi and William Starna point out, “was the central issue and Seneca neutrality the crucial concern.  The participation of the other tribes was more ceremonial and clearly incidental to the treaty’s primary purpose.”

            Still, the Oneidas attended the Council at Canandaigua and they raised concerns that Article II of the finished treaty ultimately addressed.  Indeed, the Oneidas arrived early at Canandaigua, giving Pickering an opportunity to meet with them before the formal commencement of the treaty.  They told Pickering that they felt troubled. “Our minds,” Captain John told Pickering, “are divided on account of our lands.” These difficulties could not be blamed upon the Oneidas. “’Tis you, Brothers of a white skin,” Captain John said,

who cause our uneasiness. You keep coming to our seats, one after another. You advise us to sell our lands. You way it will be to our advantage.

                        Pickering responded to the Oneidas’ speeches on the 13th of October.  He told the Oneidas that they should, in effect, become civilized by learning to work the land like white men. They should as well learn to read and write, for it would then be less likely that “bad whites” could dispossess them through agreements the Indians did not understand.  Pickering did more than lecture the Oneidas on their shortcomings, however.  He was sympathetic to their plight.  He reminded them that they did not need to part with their lands.  He reminded them of a law of the United States intended to guard

the Indians from the impositions of White People. The most important article of this law respects your lands. This article declares that no sale of Indian land should be valid, unless made at a public treaty held under the authority of the United States.


In Article II of the completed Canandaigua Treaty, the United States acknowledged “the lands reserved to the Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga Nations, in their respective treaties with the state of New York, and called their reservations, to be their property.”  The United States, moreover, would never claim these lands and “the said reservations shall remain theirs, until they choose to sell the same to the people of the United States, who have the right to purchase.”

            Much of this should sound familiar to you. We have discussed some of this in the earlier posts in this series.  But it is important to note that New York officials did not believe that the Trade and Intercourse Acts bound them, and they continued to take any opportunity to acquire Iroquois land that presented itself. In 1793, the state had acquired land from the Onondagas in a duplicitous treaty. The state of New York had been trying to obtain the Oneidas’ lands as well.  In January of 1793 a small number of Oneidas petitioned the New York State Assembly.  They did not have enough land to live upon by hunting, they said, and they hoped that the state would permit “that we might lease it out to your people, and receive the proceeds to ourselves.” They had no interest in selling their lands, and wished the state to appoint “some good men as agents to assist us in leasing our land.”  Landlordism would allow the Oneidas a revenue now that hunting had failed them.

Timothy Pickering

            The state appointed commissioners, but they came to purchase the Oneidas’ lands, not to arrange a lease. When commissioners John Cantine and Simeon DeWitt met with the Oneidas, they immediately sensed that large numbers of Oneidas were opposed to any grant to the state of New York.  The Commissioners moved quickly, recognizing “that the only prospect of success in our mission would depend on the agency of persons who had influence with them.” They hired James Dean and Samuel Kirkland  to serve as interpreters, “whose connection and acquaintance with the Indians are well known, and whose fidelity in cooperating with us left no doubt that everything that could consistently be done was done to obtain the Object of the State.” What those objects were, and what the state commissioners told the Oneidas, were two different things.  The state needed the lands of the Cayugas, Onondagas, and Oneidas if it were to develop the state’s frontiers.  In return for acquisition of these lands, the state said it would pay to the Oneidas an annual rent for their lands.

            The Oneidas’ response must have disappointed the state commissioners.  The community was divided. Jacob Reed told Cantine and DeWitt that the petition was a mistake, the result of a misunderstanding between them and their federal superintendent Israel Chapin. The Onondagas and Cayugas had asked Chapin to petition the state legislature “for the privilege of leasing their lands, as their hunting failed and had become insufficient for their support.” Chapin, apparently, had assumed that the same would be advantageous for the Oneidas and, Reed said, Chapin “made the same request in their behalf.”  Whether or not Reed had his facts straight, none of the Oneidas seemed to want to enter into a relationship on the terms the state commissioners offered.  Reed apologized to the commissioners for troubling them and said “we were misled in our Petitions and we therefore sink it in the Earth and thus annihilate.” Captain Peter, another Oneida sachem, and Good Peter’s son, pointed out that the state had said that it would not ask the Oneidas for land again “for hundreds of Years.” Slyly, he suggested that “perhaps we have misapprehended your meaning—perhaps instead of years you Meant nights.”  The Oneidas, Captain Peter continued,

do not chuse to dispose of any more of our lands. It is common for brothers not to agree when they are about making bargains. We cannot think now of selling any more lands we therefore hope that you will not press us to it.

                        Cantine and DeWitt appear to have been deeply frustrated.  They continued their appeals, but the Commissioners’ arguments did not sway the Oneidas.  As Jacob Read told them,

Brothers–You know it is a common case that people undertake business and do not succeed in it–that often bargains are almost completed and then dropt–Let this be the case now since we cannot agree to part with our lands[,] let us part in peace–We wish you to possess your minds in peace–We informed you yesterday what our determination was and we intend to abide by the same–We think our reservation already small enough; we wish not to contract it any more.

                      Of course the New Yorkers did not possess their minds in peace, and the state’s commissioners continued to try to obtain Iroquois lands.  Timothy Pickering had appointed Israel Chapin, Jr., to succeed his recently deceased father as agent to the Six Nations in the spring of 1795.  Because, Pickering believed, the Canandaigua treaty had secured peace with the Six Nations, he instructed the younger Chapin that

your principal concern will be, to prevent the tribes under your superintendence, from injury and imposition, which too many of our own people are disposed to practice upon them; diligently to employ all means under your direction, to promote their comfort and improvement, and to apply the public money and goods placed in your hands with inviolable integrity and prudent economy.

                       Chapin was happy to have the job and told Pickering that “it will ever be my ambition to support and maintain that mutual friendship and intercourse which has so happily existed between the Six Nations and the people living on this frontier.”  Still, Chapin pointed out that it was going to be a tough assignment.  Canandaigua was far from Oneida, making “it difficult for the Superintendent to pay so strict attention to them as would be necessary.” He suggested that Pickering appoint an additional agent.

            Chapin appears at least to have tried to do his job, though it also appears that he was in well over his head, and not a competent representative of the government of the United States.  He learned that the state intended to hold treaties with the Cayugas and Onondagas, and informed Pickering of this. The new secretary of War instructed his agent to halt the proceedings and he obtained from the Attorney-General of the United States, William Bradford, an opinion declaring that New York’s actions violated the Trade and Intercourse Acts. Bradford stated that the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1793 was constitutional, and that New York could not purchase Indian lands “but by a treaty holden under the authority of the United States, and in the manner prescribed by Congress.” Pickering demanded that Chapin give “no countenance to this unlawful design . . . as it is repugnant to the law of the United States to regulate trade and Intercourse with the Indian tribes.”

Before Pickering’s letter and Bradford’s opinion could arrive at Canandaigua, Chapin departed to accompany the Onondagas and Cayugas to their meetings with the state commissioners, led now by Philip Schuyler. Chapin, in a letter written on the last day of July upon his return to Canandaigua, informed Pickering of what had happened. A young man alone against the state’s determined commissioners, Chapin “inquired of Genl. Schuyler how he construed the laws of Congress in regard to holding treaties with the Indian tribes?” Schuyler “made very little reply by saying it was very well where it would correspond with that of the individual states.”  Chapin clearly did not know what to do. Had he then knowledge of the contents of Pickering’s letter and the attorney-general’s opinion, he wrote, “I could have managed the business more to your mind but as I had supposed the Government of the State of New York had applied to the General Government and had obtained sufficient power to call the Indians to the treaty.” Chapin had been confused. He pledged to Pickering to leave at once for Oneida to try to “engage the treaty will not take place then under the present commissioners.”

            Pickering seems to have recognized that Chapin had little chance of succeeding against the force of a determined state.  “Seeing that the Commissioners” of the state “were acting in defiance of the law of the United States,” he wrote back to Chapin, “it was certainly proper not to give them a countenance; and as the law declares such purchases of the Indians as those Commissioners were attempting to make invalid, it was also right to inform the Indians of the law and of the illegality of the purchase.”  Go to Oneida, Pickering said, but “the negotiation is probably finished ere now.”

            Philip Schuyler rejected the federal government’s interpretation of the Trade and Intercourse Acts, and proceeded with the treaty. He learned from Chapin that the United States viewed the state’s actions as illegal.  In the end, he acquired for the state nearly 100,000 acres of the Oneida homeland.

            There seems now little doubt that New York violated the Trade and Intercourse Act with the 1795 purchase of Oneida lands.  It is important at this juncture to account for the failure of the United States to enforce its own laws in New York state. The first point that needs to be emphasized is that the new national government, despite the fears of the Antifederalists who dominated New York politics in 1787 and 1788, was indeed a tiny entity.  The 1790s, to put it mildly, was no era of big government.  The total number of non-uniformed employees of the national government in 1801, the first year for which we have good figures, was less than three thousand, and the vast majority of these worked in customs or other revenue related functions, or for the postal service.  Only 214 federal employees resided in all of New York state, nearly all of them in the immediate vicinity of New York City, and almost all of them employed in customs.

            Chapin was on his own.  The Trade and Intercourse Acts, the laws Congress charged him with enforcing, were not strictly speaking “Indian laws.” Rather, they were directed towards curbing the long list of abuses Indians had historically suffered from their white neighbors.  In enacting the Trade and Intercourse Acts, Congress assumed that white settlement would advance and Indians retreat, and its intent through the laws was to insure that the process, in Prucha’s words, “should be as free from disorder and injustice as possible.” Agents simply lacked the power to secure order on the frontier and compliance with federal law.  It is, sadly, an old and blood-drenched story.

            Indeed, the government of which Timothy Pickering was a part had learned that it ought not to announce loudly its weakness.  Take, for instance, the case of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, an event which has nothing to do with Indian affairs but is immensely revealing nonetheless about the weakness of the national government. The residents of four counties in western Pennsylvania had grown increasingly disaffected with a federal excise tax on whiskey enacted by Congress in 1791, part of Alexander Hamilton’s “Financial Program.” They resisted paying the tax and, on the 7th of August, 1794, President Washington decided to call out the militia in order to enforce the laws of the United States.  By the time the troops finally arrived in the vicinity of Pittsburgh in October, all signs of rebellion had disappeared.The rebels may have melted away, but still the government could not successfully collect the tax. The Whiskey Rebellion, in this sense, simultaneously strengthened the Democratic Republican opponents of the administration who feared a powerful centralized government and demonstrated that the new national government was, in the end, a paper tiger. The stakes would be considerably higher were the federal government to be faced down by a defiant state. 

            The federal complaints against New York’s behavior in 1795 may, however, have impacted the state’s subsequent behavior.  The Federalist John Jay succeeded George Clinton as state governor in the midst of the 1795 crisis.  Jay, along with Madison and Hamilton, had been one part of “Publius,” the group who wrote The Federalist; Jay served as well as the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Presumably, he knew something of the Constitution. When Pickering informed the new governor that the state’s treaties with the Oneidas were illegal, Jay did nothing.  The negotiations, he said, had been authorized and had commenced prior to his assuming office.  But a short time later, when a group of Mohawks from St. Regis approached the new governor about their lands in the northern part of the state, Jay wrote to Pickering “to request the President of the United States to appoint one or more Commissioners to hold a Treaty with these Indians . . . to the end that the negotiation of this State with them relative to the Justice and extinguishment of their Claim or Claims may be conducted and concluded conformably to the act of Congress of 1 March 1793.”  The new governor of New York clearly recognized the requirements of federal law, and specifically referred to the 1793 Trade and Intercourse Act.

            Early in 1798, a group of Oneidas approached Governor Jay, seeking to sell to the state a portion of their lands. Jay appointed state commissioners to negotiate a preliminary agreement with the Oneidas.  That effected, he told his visitors that he would “immediately apply to the President to have a treaty held, under the authority of the United States, for the purpose of perfecting and effecting the business.” President John Adams complied with Jay’s request, naming Joseph Hopkinson of Pennsylvania to serve as federal commissioner.  The treaty was formally negotiated and approved on the first of June, Hopkinson wrote, in “the manner prescribed by the act of Congress, entitled ‘an Act to regulate the trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes.’”

            When Governor Clinton replaced John Jay in 1799, he continued to follow the rules set by the federal government.  In March of 1802, Henry Dearborn, Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of war, informed the President that Clinton had recently requested “that a commissioner, on the part of the United States, might be appointed to attend a treaty with the Oneida Indians, for the purchase of about ten thousand acres of land, which that nation is desirous of selling, and which has, heretofore, been leased out to white people.”  Jefferson appointed John Tayler of New York to the post.  Nine months later, the President laid before the Senate the Oneida treaty and along with a number of others, “all of them conducted under the superintendence of a commissioner on the part of the United States, who reports that they have been adjusted with the fair and free consent and understanding of the parties.” On New Year’s Eve, the Senate assented to the1802 accord, but President Jefferson never proclaimed the treaty, so its actual ratification remains in doubt.

            The point of the foregoing discussion of the period following the ratification of the Federal Constitution is that New York, during this period, haltingly came to accept an oversight role for the United States government in land transactions with Indian tribes.  The 1798 and 1802 agreements with the Oneidas, which in essence had been agreed upon in advance, the state acknowledged could not take effect until they had been approved by the United States Senate and the President.  The United States government, though it possessed little effective coercive power to back up its decrees, did succeed over the course of the nation’s first fifteen years in persuading New York to follow federal law.

            This compliance, however, proved short-lived, and after 1802 the state purchased Indian lands on its own without federal oversight. The National government did nothing to stop it from doing so, a phenomenon that requires some explanation.  In March of 1805, state officials oversaw the negotiation of an “indenture” between the “Pagan” and “Christian” parties of Oneidas.  The two parties agreed to divide their remaining lands into two parts, one controlled by each faction.  As a result, state negotiators would begin to meet separately with “Christian” and “Pagan” Oneidas.

            This “Christian Party” of Oneidas in March of 1807 negotiated a cession of two parcels of its land in return for a payment of an annuity based on the value of those lands.  Two years later, in February of 1809, Governor George Clinton acquired from the Christian and Pagan parties additional cessions.  The state acquired additional cessions in 1809 and 1810. Clinton’s successor, Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, acquired even more land from the Christian Party at a treaty held in February of 1811. The following July, “the Tribe or Nation of Indians called the Oneidas” ceded lands lying east and south of its reservation to the state. No commissioner or other representative of the national government oversaw these transactions, and none of the agreements received approval by the Senate of the United States or proclamation by the President.

            The United States did maintain Indian agents in the state after 1802. Secretary of War Dearborn, in a proclamation issued on Valentine’s Day in 1803, informed Iroquois leaders that a federal agent and sub-agent “shall attend in your principal towns, a considerable part of each year, for the purpose of giving every aid in their power to such of you as shall discover a desire of making improvements in husbandry and manufactories, and to settle such disputes which may happen, that come within the limits of their power.” In Dearborn’s view, the agents would serve as missionaries in the name of civilization, trying to reclaim the Indians from their “savagery.”  It is important to point out that Dearborn and his successors do not appear to have considered it the job of the agent to oversee land transactions; under the provisions of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, that function would be handled by commissioners specially appointed for the purpose by the President at the request of the states.  Dearborn did see the agents as playing a critical role in preserving peace on the frontier.  “Brothers,” he told the chiefs,

As evil designing people often attempt to fill our ears with stories calculated to excite uneasiness in your minds, you are requested in the future not to fail giving information to the Agent and Sub Agent of any such attempt, without delay, as the most sure means of preserving the friendship which so happily exists at present between your Nations and your Father the President.

                       The next day, Dearborn commissioned Jasper Parrish as his “Sub-Agent of the United States to the Six Nations.” Stationed at Canandaigua, Parrish would work in conjunction with agent Callender Irvine, who served only from 1802 until 1804, and thereafter with agent Erastus Granger of Buffalo Creek. Dearborn ordered Parrish to “endeavor to obtain and confirm the good will and affections of the Indians, to introduce the arts of civilization, domestic manufactures, and agriculture.”  He was to keep the Indians in his superintendence from drinking to excess, and report to the Secretary of War “every circumstance and event which may occur that is important to the government of the United States to be made acquainted with.” If Dearborn meant that land cessions be included within this list of circumstances, his agents failed him. Dearborn, in fact, complained in the summer of 1804 that he had not received regular quarterly reports from several agencies, among them Buffalo Creek.  If the agents knew all that the state was up to with regards to the Oneidas, they do not appear to have communicated that information to the War Department on as regular a basis as Dearborn expected.

            Chapin and Granger, indeed, did nothing to prevent the state of New York from purchasing Indian lands, a fact that has led the defendants’ experts to conclude that the United States approved of the state’s purchases. Yet there are a number of factors that can explain the inattention of the agents to the Oneidas.

            First, the agents did not seem to see themselves as responsible for overseeing treaties and purchases of land from the Indians, nor would anything in their instructions, strictly construed, have naturally led them to that conclusion.  Treaties, as we have seen in the case of the 1798 and 1802 Oneida treaties, generally had been overseen by commissioners specially appointed for that purpose by the President.  Another problem stemmed from the declining importance of the Oneidas in considerations of frontier order. Federal officials involved in managing the frontier and preserving order had bigger problems to worry about.  Parrish lived in Canandaigua, over one hundred miles from Oneida.  Granger, at Buffalo, lived seventy miles farther still to the west.  They focused their attention on the Senecas and those members of the Six Nations who had settled on the Seneca lands that remained after the 1797 Big Tree treaty. 

            Furthermore, Indian agency appears to have been part-time work for both Parrish and Granger.  Like many early Americans, they were opportunistic, and they looked for chances to make money beyond their federal salaries.  One way to do this was to work for the state of New York. As early as 1796, the state had hired Israel Chapin to deliver state payments to the Cayuga chief Fish Carrier. Chapin’s payment included the grant of a parcel of land one mile square.  In 1804, the state forwarded to Parrish at Canandaigua “the annuities in specie due the Indians for the last two years, with directions to pay it over.” Parrish asked for Dearborn’s advice.  Four years later, the two agents apparently saw in the payment of state annuities due to the Indians a healthy source of income.  Granger told Governor Daniel D. Tompkins that he had learned “that the expense of transporting and paying over the annuities from the State of New York to the Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga Indians, has annually cost the state upward of five hundred dollars.” He and Parrish would do the job for $350.  In their capacity as federal agents they already had to visit Albany and the different Indian tribes.  These, Granger pointed out, “are reasons why we can do the business cheaper than any other person.” The United States government, if it was aware of the specifics, seems not to have objected to Parrish and Granger’s entrepreneurial spirit.

            When the agents did return their attention to the duties of their agency, they found it an enormous job.  Erastus Granger, for instance, wrote to Henry Dearborn in December of 1807, revealingly describing the difficulties he faced in protecting the Indians from their white New York neighbors.  The Tuscarora chiefs, Granger reported,

Eventually Granger apprehended the culprits, and he believed that in this instance he had “broken up this gang of Villains.”  Still, he told Dearborn that his efforts did not matter. The criminals, he believed, “will get clear on trial.”

                        made complaint to me that they had lost a number of Cattle, horses, and hogs, which they had reason to believe were stolen by the white people. At that time, I was about starting for the City of Washington, and knowing that their Cattle run in the woods, I concluded there was a possibility of their having strayed off–Accordingly I advertised them in different places. On my return to this place last spring, I learned tha tthe Cattle were not found, but more were not missing, & stronger proof of their having been stolen. I immediately undertook an investigation of the business, but before any discoveries were made sufficient to warrant a prosecution, four of the principal offenders made their escape to Canada.

One year later, in 1808, Granger elaborated for Dearborn on the problems he faced. The culprits had been caught, but none of them has been punished. The challenge, Granger said, was that “there exists in the minds of many white people a strong prejudice against Indians.” The New Yorkers, Granger said, “want to root them out of the Country, as they own the best of the land. Those people,” he continued, “are often on juries.” Exasperated, Granger believed that the desire of local whites for Indian land was too great to be controlled by two federal agents, and that the Six Nations would continue to suffer if they remained where they were. Granger called Dearborn’s attention to the Louisiana Purchase, that vast expanse of land west of the Mississippi River acquired by the United States from France five years before. If the United States, Granger suggested, “would dispose of a sufficient tract of land in that purchase to the Six Nations, so as to make it an object for them to remove, I think I could perswade them to go.”

            Red Jacket, the great Seneca orator, saw the abuses his people suffered at the hands of white New Yorkers as a violation of the Treaty of Canandaigua.  He complained to Dearborn’s successor, acting Secretary of War William Eustis, that

                        for three years past we have received injury from the white people. Our cattle and horses 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.”

                        In Red Jacket’s view, the agents must restrain the citizens of New York from stealing Iroquois livestock, cutting Iroquois timber, and squatting on Iroquois lands.  The agents, a frustrated Red Jacket said, “have told us they had not the means in their hands to make satisfaction. We want to know,” he insisted,

                    whether the fault is in them. if it is not, we wish you now to instruct them that whenever we make satisfactory proof of losses, sustained by the bad conduct of your people, they should immediately satisfy our minds, by a reasonable compensation, thereby forever maintaining that league and friendship so necessary to both nations.   


            Red Jacket’s critique of federal policy, along with Granger’s despondent admission that order would remain elusive as long as Indians remained in the vicinity of the state’s growing numbers of white settlers, reveals the dimensions of the problem that the United States faced in its desire for an orderly frontier.

            Some began to consider seriously the possibility of “removing” the New York Indians to new homes in the west.  Indeed, removal as a solution to the nation’s Indian “problem” had been discussed as early as 1803 by Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson acted on his ideas several years later in negotiations with the Cherokees.  In 1813 his successor, James Madison, suggested to the Senecas that they abandon their remaining reservations and concentrate themselves at Allegheny.

            Still, an important point must be made. Even where it discussed the possibility of removal, the national government believed that the process must follow the guidelines spelled out in the Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts.  Shortly after the conclusion of the War of 1812, for instance, New York governor Daniel D. Tompkins wrote to President Madison suggesting to him the attractiveness of relocating the New York Indians to the far northwestern frontier.  The acting secretary of war, Alexander Dallas, informed Tompkins that the President was interested.  “I am instructed to inform you,” Dallas wrote, that President Madison desired greatly “to accommodate your wishes.” There were, however, “national views of the subject which must be combined with such a movement, on motives of state policy.” All land transactions with Indian tribes, Dallas concluded, are “delicate; and a removal of them from one region of the country to another, is critically so, as relates to the affect on the Indians themselves, and on the white neighbors to their new abode.” Any removal, in other words, must necessarily be overseen by the national government, since national interests were at stake. When William Crawford replaced Dallas a short time later he reiterated his predecessor’s message.  Crawford believed, like Dallas, that settling a friendly tribe of “Civilized” Indians in the vicinity of the Western Great Lakes could do much to bring security to the region.  Indeed,

                 the interest which the state of New York takes in this transaction, and the influence which the cession may have upon its happiness and prosperity, have induced the President to determine that a treaty shall be held, with a view to accomplish the wishes of your excellency, and to gratify the desires of the Indian tribes in question.”      

Crawford undoubtedly believed that removal would benefit everyone, but he believed as well that it could occur only through a treaty called by the government of the United States.

            By this point, Tompkins already had completed yet another state treaty with Christian Party Oneidas and, by the time Dallas’s letter arrived, he was well on his way to purchasing Grand Island and other islands in the Niagara River from the Senecas.

It is time to take stock, once again, and review what we have covered so far.  First, the post-revolutionary interpretation the state advanced of its historic relations with the Six Nations was based on a misreading of the empire’s Indian policy, a program that sought always to centralize authority over the conduct of Indian affairs in the hands of the Crown or his chosen designates.  Even during the era of the Articles of Confederation, the aggressiveness of Georgia, North Carolina, Franklin and New York in their relations with Indians within their claimed boundaries upset many members of Congress.  The new constitution, written in 1787, ratified in 1788, and implemented in 1789, clarified the ambiguities of the Articles of Confederation and placed all power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes” in the new national government.  The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts effectively defined the federal role in Indian affairs under the constitution, and high government officials informed New York in the 1790s that its purchase of Indian lands violated federal law.  Indeed, nothing any responsible United States official said in the 1790s should have led New York to the conclusion that it had the right to purchase Indian lands without the superintendence of the United States government.  These federal warnings had an impact, however short-lived.  Through 1802 the state conformed to the requirements of the Trade and Intercourse Acts.

            Yet in the years after the War of 1812, federal oversight of Indian Affairs in New York was ineffective.  The federal agents in the state, Erastus Granger and Jasper Parrish, were busy men, and the other work they did at times worked against federal interests.  Granger, for instance, held multiple offices during his tenure at Buffalo and, quite accurately, can be viewed as much an employee of the state as an agent of the United States.  Granger retired in 1818 and the Six Nations Agency was reduced to a “sub-agency” with Jasper Parrish remaining in charge.  Parrish continued to handle the state’s Indian business, paying out state annuities in 1815 and 1816, for instance, to the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and to the “posterity of Fish Carrier.”  New York State paid him $20 for his services.  Later, state officials expected Parrish to guide a party of Onondagas to Albany to negotiate with the state for a sale of their lands. The point is that the defendants’ experts base their argument that the United States was complicit in Oneida dispossession in part on an assessment of the actions of two individuals (and only two) who spent perhaps as much of their time working for the state of New York as they did for the United States, and who did not feel it was their job to oversee matters relating to the transfer of Indian land.

            In addition to the conflicts of interest that hampered their ability and, perhaps, limited their willingness to enforce the Trade and Intercourse Acts, was the continued difficulty of the agent and sub-agent’s assignment. Illness, at times, kept Granger from doing his job.  The unwillingness of New Yorkers to listen to federal authority was a bigger problem. As early as 1805, Granger complained to Secretary of War Dearborn of white encroachments on the Cayuga Reservation.  “The Indians,” he said, “complain and are uneasy.” “The settlers refuse to remove.” Furthermore, “two families of White People have lately gone and settled in the Oneida villages and set up taverns” despite the fact that a “great majority of the Nation are opposed to the measure.”  Granger felt himself “at a loss how to proceed with those intruders.” He simply did not have the strength to force New Yorkers to obey the law.

            The agents also had difficulty finding the supplies they needed, either in Albany or in western New York.  In 1816 Granger reported to acting Secretary of War George Graham that the Indians were suffering greatly from a lack of provisions.  He needed their annuity in cash immediately, for any shipment of goods and supplies would arrive too late to save the Indians.  With the money, Granger hoped to purchase flour in Ontario and Cayuga counties. The money, he noted grimly, “I think will keep them alive.”

            In addition to these difficulties, I would argue that the “United States” (assuming that we mean by this something more than its two isolated agents in western New York) knew little specifically about New York’s purchases of land from the Oneidas.  In his annual “Statement” in 1816, Granger mentioned that the Oneida reservation was 180 miles from his place of residence at Buffalo.  Notice, as well, when most of the Oneida transactions took place: early in March of 1807; in February of 1809; in March of 1810; in February of 1811; in March of 1815; and in March of 1817. Small delegations of Oneidas traveled from their reservation (180 miles to Granger’s east) to Albany (nearly 300 miles away) in the heart of New York’s winter, to negotiate with the state.  Their instructions required that the federal agents travel to the different Indian reservations in the state, but only during “the warm season.”  The Erie Canal was not completed until 1825, and prior to that travel would have been difficult even in good weather. There is no evidence that either Granger or Parrish attended the state treaties at Albany and, I would suggest, there is good reason to ask how long it took them to find out about these winter negotiations.

Even the information that the United States government officials eventually received about these transactions is not without its problems. For instance, in November 1818 a group of Oneidas petitioned President James Monroe, informing him that they had

                        sold to the State of New York a great proportion of their reservation, and being thereby constrained to live in the neighborhood of your white children, have imperceptibly acquired many of their manners and customs, arts and sciences, and having been taught by a pious and learned friend have acquired so much knowledge of the Christian religion as to have formed themselves into a congregation, and lately erected at their own expense a very expensive church.

                        The members of this “Second Christian Party”did inform the President that they had sold lands to the state of New York. The information came from neither Granger nor Parrish, and the most recent land transaction to which the Oneida petitioners could possibly have referred was the cession they negotiated at Albany in March of 1817. The United States, then, unquestionably learned by November of 1818 that the state at some point previously had purchased Oneida land. All the evidence suggests that it received this information nearly twenty months after the sale had occurred, and even then the information was imprecise about the nature of the transaction.  Information arriving at the seat of the national government so late posed problems that could not easily be remedied.

We Live on Stolen Lands

            In November of 1794, the six Iroquois Nations entered into a treaty at Canandaigua with the United States that recognized their Nations’ right to the “free use and enjoyment” of their lands. That phrase is used three times in the treaty, thus making it central to the entire diplomatic accord. In exchange for a promise that they would never join with those Indigenous peoples who had warred against the United States, and a specific grant of permission allowing citizens of the United States to pass through their lands “for the purposes of travelling and transportation,” the Six Nations were guaranteed an annuity of $4500, the return of lands along the Niagara River that they had ceded a decade before, and the recognition of their sovereignty and nationhood: the free use and enjoyment of their lands.

The National Archives copy of the Treaty of Canandaigua. Look closely and you will see that both the Senate’s ratification, and the President’s proclamation of the treaty, are physically stitched on to the document.

            There are two principles I would like you to understand before we go any farther, one derived from the American constitutionalism, and the other from the history, culture, and traditions of the Haudenosaunee. For the first, I will have you think for a second about what the United States constitution says about the rights of Indigenous peoples. There is the Supremacy Clause, of course, which states that treaties and acts of congress are the “supreme law of the land.” That passage does not specifically mention Indigenous peoples, but its relevance should be clear enough.  There is also the passage in Article I, Section 8, through which “we the people” granted to the Congress the right to “regulate commerce” with the Indian tribes. We call this the Indian Commerce Clause.

            The language in the Constitution, my students find when they read it for the first time in their lives, is brief, skeletal. It was left up to the first federal congress to enact the legislation necessary and proper to carry these constitutional provisions into effect. In 1790, Congress passed into law the first of several federal Trade and Intercourse Acts. The law was revised periodically between 1790 and 1834, but one principle remained clear: The United States claimed no real authority over what was coming to be referred to as “Indian Country.” The Trade and Intercourse Acts regulated the conduct of white people, not Indians.  You want to trade with an Indian? You need a license from a federal agent. If you want to purchase land, the negotiations must be overseen by the United States and resulting agreement ratified by a two-third vote of the United States senate. Without that approval and oversight, the sale was null and void. The United States worked to regulate the conduct of its own citizens. It claimed no authority over the internal workings of Indigenous nations.

            The second principle goes by the name Guswenta, and it is represented by the Two-Row Wampum. Parallel lines that do not cross, the lines represent a European ship and an Indigenous canoe. They travel the same river, and share the same space, yet the lines never cross. Non-interference, independence, and autonomy: You do not dictate to us, the Iroquois might have said, and we will exercise no authority over you. Guswenta, originally a generic word representing a belt of wampum, came to be applied to this specific belt which justly reflected the cardinal values of Haudenosaunee diplomats.

            So, to come back to the Treaty of Canandaigua, we have an agreement recognizing an Indigenous right to the “free use and enjoyment” of the land that is consistent with both these formulations. Think of it this way: You have a sheet of white paper in front of you. That white sheet represents all the land from the Genesee River west to the Niagara River and Lake Erie, and from Lake Ontario in the north to the boundary of Pennsylvania. In that vast tract, the Senecas can do what they want. Americans had no power there save for whatever the Senecas gave to them, and in this treaty, that grant to the Americans is pretty limited. Free use and enjoyment: keep thinking about what that means.

            Despite Canandaigua, settlers, and more importantly land developers, coveted the rich, dark soil of western New York. The Senecas numbered a bit over 2000 people, but there were many times that number of land-hungry Americans who wanted their land. They were ready to seize the opportunity. They were willing to come and ready to take it. So, in 1797, at Big Tree near today’s Geneseo, New York, the Senecas, the westernmost of the Six Iroquois Nations, entered into a treaty with Robert Morris and his son Thomas, overseen by a federal agent in accord with federal law.

            A little background is in order here. First of all, much of New York was claimed by Massachusetts, the colonial charter of which specified its northern and southern bounds but not its western. So, if you drew those northern and southern lines across the continent westward you can envision the breadth of Massachusetts’ claim. (The state of Connecticut claimed a chunk of northern Pennsylvania for similar reasons). Massachusetts and New York worked out an agreement in Hartford in 1786 which gave New York jurisdiction over the disputed territory, and to Massachusetts the right of preemption. Preemption was essentially the right to first purchase of the land, a type of title that might sit dormant until the Indians’ right of occupancy was extinguished.  Massachusetts emerged from the Hartford agreement positioned to tell the Iroquois that because of our preemption rights, you can only sell your lands to us.

            Claiming a preemption right over Indigenous land was consequential. It certainly had the practical effect of reducing the value of those lands by eliminating any other potential buyers. Preemption was based on notions that Europeans had a claim to indigenous land that needed only the removal of the Indians’ claim to become real. Europeans, the logic went, had title, and Indigenous peoples a right of occupancy. Where did this seemingly dotty notion come from? From the same place men of small imagination always have found justification for their awful beliefs.  It’s called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” While more has been made of the Discovery Doctrine than I think is warranted, it derived from the Old Testament.  Europeans owned title to the land because at the time they found it, Indigenous people were not making use of the land properly. Indigenous peoples did not break turf and twig, clear the land and plow it, and follow the Biblical command to make it fruitful. This is one reason depictions of Indigenous peoples as wanderers and hunters and nomads are not only factually incorrect, because they did plant crops and live in horticultural settlements, but pernicious as well.

            Especially when preemption rights became something that could be bought and sold. Massachusetts sold its preemption rights to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. They acquired a lot of Haudenosaunee land east of the Genesee before their enterprise went belly up. Massachusetts foreclosed and sold the preemption right to the remaining lands to Robert Morris, widely considered the most important financial policy maker of the American Revolution. Morris hoped to sell these rights to the Holland Land Company, but before they would pay, they insisted that Morris eliminate the Indians’ right of occupancy.  Morris was ill, so he sent his son Thomas to Big Tree, today’s Geneseo, to negotiate a treaty with the Senecas.

            The Big Tree Treaty council was an ugly affair. Morris bribed people and dispensed alcohol freely. In the end, he emerged with a document that granted him ownership of all Seneca lands except for twelve reservations scattered throughout the western quarter of New York State. Come back to your piece of paper. Draw twelve circles on the paper. These can represent the twelve reservation defined in the Big Tree treaty. Everything not inside one of these circles, the treaty reads, the Senecas gave up to Robert Morris in exchange for the annual payment of the interest on a $100,000 investment in stock in the Bank of the United States.

Why would the Senecas do this? Some historians have emphasized the bribes and the alcohol.  There can be no denying how important these were to accomplish the treaty. But I would suggest you look at it another way. Tens of thousands of Americans were on the move westward. A handful of Senecas stood in the way. The Senecas could not halt the onslaught.  The Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779, a military invasion of their homelands, taught them the price of resistance. They faced a dilemma. They could receive something for their land or lose these lands outright to the men who were coming to take them. The Senecas met the Americans with limited bargaining power.

            But think about this: In the “Rough Memoranda of the Treaty of Big Tree,” a record of the proceedings housed in the O’Reilly Papers at the New York Historical Society, Thomas Morris told the Senecas that if they agreed to sell their lands, that we the purchasers “do not mean that you should all rise from your seats and abandon your villages but that you should relinquish that part which is totally unproductive to you, reserving to yourselves in and about your different settlements only as much is necessary for your actual occupation.”  The dozen circles that I asked you to draw on that page: each one of them was a settlement site, a Seneca town, of cultural and historical significance to them and that they reserved for their own exclusive use.

            The Senecas made good use of this land. They reoccupied much of what they had fled from during the Revolution. 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. Francois-Alexandere-Frederic La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, a French observer who traveled through “the Country of the Iroquois” in 1795, visited the towns that would be recognized as Seneca ground in the Big Tree Treaty.   Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visited Canawaugus, where an “Indian, who speaks French, is waiting for us.” At “Captain Watsworth’s” in Geneseo, uphill from Little Beard’s Town and Big Tree, he and his companions noticed how “several parts of the forest have been burnt down by the Indians, who possessed this country from time immemorial.”  As he traveled, he said, “we frequently traced or met with Indian camps, as they are called, i.e. places where troops of them, who were either hunting or travelling, had passed the night.” Wadsworth’s house was a vile hole filled with noisome odors. Liancourt encountered Wadsworth “undergoing the operation of hair dressing by his negro woman,” after he “had just sold a barrel of whisky to an Indian.”  Liancourt learned that the Indians were easy prey to unscrupulous traders.  “A little whisky will bribe their chieftains to give their consent to the largest cessions; and these rich lands, this extensive tract of territory, will be bartered away, with the consent of all parties, for a few rings, a few handkerchiefs, some barrels of rum, and perhaps some money, which the unfortunate natives know not how to make use of, and which, by corrupting what little virtue is yet left among them, will, ere long, render them completely wretched.”

            Liancourt traveled twelve miles and visited Squawky Hill and another Seneca village on “Mountmorris.”  “They both contain Indian villages. That situate on the former height consists of about fifteen, and that seated on the latter of about four or five small log-houses, standing close together, roughly built, and overlaid with bark.  In the inside appears a sort of room not floored; on the sides they construct shelves, covered with deer skins, which serve as their cabins or sleeping places.  IN the midst of the room appears the hearth, and over it is an opening in the roof to let out the smoke.” 

So back to the council at Big Tree. Thomas Morris resumed his speech . He said

What then Brothers you may ask will be the advantages of your selling—I will tell you Brother. You will receive a larger sume of money than has ever yet been paid to you for your lands.. This money can be so disposed of that not only you but your children and your Children’s children can derive from it a lasting benefit. It can be placed in the Bank of the United States forever whence a sufficient income can annual be delivered by the President your Father to make you and your posterity forever, then the wants of your old and poor can be supplied and in times of scarcity, your nation can be fed and you will no longer experience the miseries resulting from nakedness and want. Brothers, the white people do not want your lands for the purpose of hunting but for that of cultivation—the Great Spirit has implanted in you a desire to pursue the beasts of the forest and in us to cultivate the soil.  This cultivation, Brothers, does neither diminish nor destroy the Game, your hunting grounds will be of as much advantage to you in the hands of the white People as in your own, for you can reserve to yourselves the full and ample right of hunting over them forever. . . . .By selling your Lands therefore Brothers and reserving to yourselves the perpetual right of hunting on it then you retain every solid advantage for the comforts of life that which at present produces you nothing.”

In the actual text of the Big Tree treaty, 15 September 1797, we are told that the Senecas reserved for their exclusive use some lands, gave up others, “Excepting and reserving to them, the said parties of the first part and their heirs, the privilege of fishing and hunting on the said tract of land hereby intended to be conveyed.

The US believed that by entering into this agreement, Morris had paid funds that extinguished the Indians’ right of possession.  Morris had obtained the right of preemption from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and, with the Indians’ occupancy right paid for, the US believed that he was free to transfer that land to the Holland Land Company, which was better equipped than he to begin the complicated work of settling townships and overseeing its sale. Morris, the United States, Massachusetts and New York officials were remarkably consistent on this point and no significant disagreements existed.

Within a year of the treaty, Seneca women had complained that some of the reservations were too small.  Speaking for the women in a 1798 council at Big Tree, Red Jacket said they were the owners of the land, “& now we are sorry our seats are so small, as we Women since the bargain it has given our minds much uneasiness to think our seats so small.” I think it is important to look into this, because clearly some Senecas wanted to renegotiate.  In response to these demands, adjustments were made to the Tuscarora and Cattaraugus reservations. In 1801, Red Jacket made it abundantly clear that many of his followers had followed the advice of the United States.  They expected, as a result of Canandaigua and the Big Tree annuity, “that we should be furnished with farming utensils for cultivating the ground & raise wheat & other grain—that we must have spinning wheels & learn our children to spin & knit—we were told we must make use of Cattle instead of moose, Elk etc & swine instead of beans, sheep, in place of dear, etc. etc.”

            Red Jacket noted that “We finde ourselves in a situation which we believe our fore Fathers never thought of—instead of finding our game at our doors we are obliged to go to a great distance for it, & then finde it but scarce compared to what it us’d to be.”  White people, Red Jacket continued, “are seated so thick over the Country that the dear have almost fled form us, and we finde ourselves obliged to pursue some other mode of getting our living, and are determined in all our Villages to take to husbandry, and for this purpose we want to be helped.”  This is such an important insight: Red Jacket expected for his people to be able to draw subsistence from the lands they ceded, but now they found so many non-native people settling there that it had altered the game potential of the land. He complained of American violations of Big Tree.

            So let’s take stock. You have your paper with 12 circles drawn on it. Imagine that you have shaded every inch of your page that is not one of those circles gray.  Each of those circles is a Seneca reservation, in which there is no legitimate American right or claim to power to limit in any way the Senecas’ “free use and enjoyment of these lands.” Settlers, under the direction of the Holland Land Company, have access to everything not in a circle with one important exception.  The Senecas retained the right to hunt and fish over the entire extent of the ceded lands. Everything you have shaded gray is territory these treaties guarantee to Seneca hunters.

Now, it is time for another Haudenosaunee concept, and that is the division of physical space into woods and clearings. These divisions, I suppose, can be drawn too starkly, but in general I believe they retain a great deal of value. Haudenosaunee people conceived of the world as divided into woods and clearings. Women exercised enormous influence in the clearings. This is where they gave birth, reared children, and planted and tended crops. It is here where the clan mothers would appoint the men who would lead their communities as sachems. Men’s realm was the woods. It was here where they hunted and, at times, fished. They passed through the woods to engage in warfare and take captives. If woman’s place in the cosmos was defined by the power to create life, men were life-sustaining killers as hunters and warriors. Indigenous communities claimed specific parts of the woods. These claims could be contested and fought over.

            Here is the point: In the woods, men hunted, fished, and fought. Ownership was defined by use and use was defined by gender. To say that the men of an Indigenous community have the right to hunt and fish on certain lands, I hope you see, is analogous to saying that the community to which they belonged owns the land. It is possible to argue, then, that at Big Tree the Senecas obtained recognition of their right to the exclusive use of the clearings, where white people could not intrude and where Americans exercise no power and authority, and that they willingly would allow white settlers to share with them the woods. This helps us make sense of Red Jacket’s complaints a year after Big Tree about the Americans’ alteration of the gaming potential in the Woods and, a year later, Handsome Lake’s denunciation of land sales in the Gaiwiio, the new religion that the prophet Handsome Lake brought to the fore.

Handsome Lake preaching at the Tonawanda Longhouse. Painting by Ernest Smith, housed at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

            Twelve circles. Twelve towns. Twelve places that meant as much to the Senecas as any place has ever mattered to you. Buffalo Creek, Allegany, Tonawanda, Cattaraugus, Big Tree, Squawky Hill, Canawaugus, Gardeau.  I could go on. I hope you drew those circles in pencil, because now we enter a period where we begin to erase the circles and shade that space they occupied gray: a strip along the Niagara River and Little Beard’s Town along the Genesee in 1802. Familiar themes appear in these cessions. The actual language of the 1802 mile strip treaty notes that the Senecas sold the land, but reserved “to themselves…the right and privilege of encamping their fishing parties on the beach of 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, bit 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.

Map of the Squawky Hill Reservation

            You can erase two circles. Shade where they were gray.

            Then we have the large sale of 1826. Again, a little background is in order. In the early 1800s, the Holland Land Company sold the preemption rights to the remaining Seneca reservations to an entity called the Ogden Land Company.  To be clear, that means that the Holland Company sold to the Ogden Company the right to obtain all the land in the remaining circles you have drawn on the page. 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. But 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? According to historian Larry Hauptman, 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 revaling 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 of this occurred before the 1826 treaty. 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 something of 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. 

            Some Senecas and their supporters immediately challenged and contested the legality and the morality of the treaty. They complained, while others sent petitions and memorials to Washington supporting the treaty. 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. So why vote? Makes no sense.

            Protests from Red Jacket, from the Quakers, and from others continued, however, and they finally had an effect. President John Quincy Adams 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.

If the Ogdens achieved their goals in the Genesee valley, they struggled in their efforts to acquire the four largest Seneca reservations. In an 1819 memorial that Thomas L. Ogden sent to President James Monroe, he 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.

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 seem 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.  Livingston, President John Quincy Adams’ appointee 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.  The final article of the Canandaigua treaty 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 believed 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.

What, then, did the Senecas think that they were giving up in 1826? The Senecas understood that by relenting to the Ogden Company’s demands they would reduce the size of their reservations and allow additional white settlement in western New York. Again, think of your piece of paper. You have some circles remaining on that piece of paper, each representing one of the Seneca reservations, with much of the rest shaded gray.  I have tried to persuade you that in the Senecas’ view the reservations were for their exclusive use, lands that white people could not enter without their permission.  The rest, we have established, was land to which they granted white people access, but on which they retained the right to hunt and fish.   I have argued that this is something very close to ownership in the Senecas’ understanding of the land.  You have circles on that piece of paper and areas shaded gray. As a result of the 1826 treaty, you can erase all but four of those circles, increasing the gray area. Those represent the Genesee Valley reservations sold in the unratified 1826 treaty.  Of the four that remain, you can make each about a third smaller, reflecting the amount of land with which the Senecas ostensibly parted.  The four reservations remain land for their exclusive use.  The treaty said nothing about Seneca hunting and fishing rights, so they retained to the right to hunt and fish on the lands they supposedly had ceded.

Perhaps we are missing the larger point, the larger significance of what happened in 1826. The United States, after all, never ratified the treaty. There is no disputing this. The Secretary of War and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs both explained why they felt ratification was unnecessary, but their reasoning has frustrated historians ever since.  Even the Committee appointed in the 1880s to investigate “the Indian Problem” in New York State concluded that the 1826 treaty “was never ratified by the Senate of the United States, or proclaimed by the President, and the Indians have for a long time past claimed that the treaty was invalid for this reason.”

The Senecas who did sign the agreement made clear that they were either deceived or coerced into signing.  Those who agreed to the cession did so under duress. R. M. Livingston, who indicated that the combined population of Canawaugus, Squawky Hill, Big Tree and Gardeau was 448 in August 1826, collected depositions that make abundantly clear that the Senecas opposed sale of their lands until the company promised that it would ask them to sell no more of their lands if they assented to this sale.  An exception was apparently made, according to white people affiliated with the Ogdens, for the President, who could initiate discussions of a sale.  Jasper Parrish, in his deposition, stated that “among other things inducing them to sign the Treaty was an agreement by the Proprietors never to urge them to sell any more land.” 

In Livingston’s 1828 report, for instance, there are the following statements from Senecas:

*           William Jones, a “half blood (& interpreter to the missionary establishment), testified that “among other things inducing them to sign the Treaty was an agreement by the Proprietors never to urge them to sell any more land. Deponent thinks that the Donations aided in producing their assent to sell.” Jones was given $50 a year for life if he helped effect a sale. Jasper Parrish, who worked with the state, the federal government, and the Ogdens, said “that until the stipulation was signed by which the Indians believed themselves relieved from or secured against future importunities to sell, none of them signed the treaty.”

*           Captain Strong, a Cattaraugus chief, said “We understood that we were either to sell or remove.”

*           Chief Warrior, another Cattaraugus chief, said that Dr. Jimison “came and said he was sent up by Judge Forward, to inform the Chiefs that if they concluded not to sell, he would write on to the Sec’y of War, and there would be a road prepared for them to the Cherokee Nation. From that time they began to feel disposed to sell.”

*           Black Snake said the same thing in his deposition. “Forward told them that they had either to sell, or that a path would be opened for them to the Cherokee Country.  Greig told them that if they sold what was then wanted, the Company would never ask them to sell any more.” Black Snake assented to the sale “because they dreaded the thought of being removed.”

In the treaty itself, when it says that the Senecas retained the part of the reservations they did not cede “in as full or ample a manner as if these Presents had not been executed. Together with all and singular the rights, privileges, and appurtenances to the said, hereby granted premises, belonging or in any way appertaining and all the estate rights, title or interest, claim and demand whatever of them the said parties of the first part and of their Nation of in and to the said several tracts, pieces and parcels of land above describe except as above accepted.” The Senecas understood from the treaty that possession of their remaining lands would be undisturbed and unaffected by the sale. Livingston himself, in a letter to Secretary of War Peter Porter, indicated that the Senecas determination at the treaty not to sell their lands was viewed by the Ogden Company men as “an insuperable act of nonconformity to the will of government and the just claims of the Proprietors. The terrors of a removal enchained their minds in duress, and becoming petitioners in turn they submitted to the terms dictated—to sell a part to preserve the residue.”  The Senecas, Livingston continued, “esteemed” this guarantee to pressure them no more to sell lands as “a Guarantee for the quiet enjoyments of the residue of their lands.”

Let’s jump ahead. We will move more than a century forward. We will move past the State of New York’s concerted efforts to allot Seneca lands and dismantle Seneca families by placing their children in boarding schools, like the Thomas School, which remained open into the latter half of the 1950s. We will move past many of the state’s efforts to skim the cream from whatever fragile prosperity that came to Seneca lands. Frustrated by the determination of the Senecas and other Haudenosaunee peoples to hang on to their lands, their culture, and their systems of governance, the state’s leaders successfully lobbied Congress to enact legislation to limit the power of New York’s Indigenous nations. The resulting legislation, known as the “Spite Bills” of 1948 and 1950, extended state criminal and civil jurisdiction over Indigenous lands in New York State. This occurred at the beginning of a period in American Indian policy known as the Termination Era.  But even these laws, which did what Haudenosaunee people had feared for so long, recognized an important point: while extending its criminal jurisdiction over Indigenous nations, the law provided “that nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to deprive any Indian tribe, band, or community, or members thereof, hunting and fishing rights as guaranteed them by agreement, treaty or custom, nor require them to obtain state fish and game licenses for the exercise of such rights.”

            A final point. A couple of years ago, Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first appointment to the United States Supreme Court, ruled in a case called McGirt v Oklahoma that treaty rights can never lapse, expire, or disappear because of the mere passage of time. Over many years, the Supreme Court held that Congress possessed plenary authority over Indian affairs.  Treaty rights exist, in other words, until Congress decides to exercise its plenary power to do something specific and unambiguous to make those treaty rights go away. I have in this essay tried to show you that these rights existed, that they extended beyond reservations, and that Congress has done nothing to abolish or repeal these rights. They still exist.

            New York became the Empire State through a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession. In places, this process violated federal law. Dispossession was not a product of conquest. It was not inevitable. Nor was it the American Nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” In places it was quite simply a crime against the laws of the United States. Even when the United States acquired lands in a manner that was “legal,” the practices deployed by the land companies and their allies will repel people of conscience. They used deceit and coercion.  Nobody who has looked at the historical record will deny this.  We who own land in this state, as a result, are the beneficiaries of an unjust process of dispossession. We have run up an enormous debt. The question, for me, really is not a matter of whether or not this debt exists, but what am I, and what are you, going to do about it.  You can pass laws proscribing the teaching of certain subjects. You can dismiss this as “woke” history, as some have done.  But that’s chicken shit.

It’s not an answer. It’s not an argument. It’s an abdication, and an admission, in my mind, of complicity in a crime that too many people are too unwilling to talk about.



New York could not have become the Empire State without a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession that at times violated the laws of the United States. Dispossession was not inevitable. Nothing ever is. It was neither natural nor manifest. It was, at times, carried out in ways that should offend the sensibilities of anyone who believes that the American Nation ought to follow its own rules and keep its word. Dispossession was not the Indians’ fault. At times, and places, it was a clear violation of the law. Dispossession was a crime.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in the Sherrill case, said that these crimes took places too long ago to be remedied, that in the case in front of her, Oneidas made up less than 1% of the population in Oneida and Madison County. Notorious, indeed. But she chose to ignore entirely the very real and well-documented historical process through which the Oneida homeland went from 100% Oneida to less than 1%. It’s history, my friends. It is not natural. It was neither foreordained or an example of God’s manifest design. It was a disaster, and Haudenosaunee people retain rights in New York State to this date that the courts have yet to recognize. Those rights continue to endure. We might do a territorial acknowledgment at the beginning of campus functions at the college where I teach, but in the context of a long history of dispossession and continued inaction, it seems a hollow and empty gesture.

Angus Laborgne’s Walleye: How Two Dozen Speared Fish Can Offer Lesson in History to New York State

On April 2, Angus Laborgne, a resident of the Haudenosaunee reservation at Akwesasne, was cited by New York Department of Environmental Conservation officers for spearing walleyes in Scriba Creek, near a state fish hatchery.  The officers cited Laborgne for taking fish out of season, by “means other than angling,” and from what the state considered “closed waters.” Laborgne had speared twenty-three walleyes, all of which the DEC officers confiscated.

71 acres Scriba Creek Waterfront Constantia NY | NY Outdoor Realty

            Steve Featherstone’s great reporting on, and a friend who regularly keeps abreast of the news in Central New York, brought this story to my attention.

            Laborgne’s action, according to John Harmon, the President of the Oneida Lake Association, was a “deliberate provocation.”

            Three days later, Laborgne returned, accompanied by fourteen other Haudenosaunee fishermen, “from every single reservation.” They speared even more fish from the same waters.  The DEC this time decided to stand down, hoping to deescalate what Featherstone described as “a conflict over a complicated legal gray area involving Native American fishing rights under state law—a long simmering fight that made it as far as the governor’s desk last year.”

Native anglers spear walleye near Oneida Lake spawn site, launching fight  over indigenous fishing rights -

            Featherstone is referring to a bill vetoed by Governor Kathy Hochul that would have recognized Native Americans’ treaty-guaranteed right to be free from state and local fishing laws except for those cases in which the survival of the species was in question.  The DEC implied that Laborgne’s fishing did just that. In a statement the DEC noted that “walleyes are concentrating in certain streams,” and are “vulnerable to over harvest” during spawning season.  The DEC claim that it “recognized the importance of walleye as a subsistence and cultural resource for Indigenous nations, and is actively consulting with the leadership of the nine State-Recognized Indigenous Nations to advance our shared conservation objectives.”

            Fair enough, but it is worth looking at Laborgne’s argument about his rights to fish, and whether the issue really is as complicated as Featherstone’s reporting suggests.

Walleye | EEK Wisconsin

            Mr. Laborgne told Featherstone that “according to what I understand, we have the right to all creeks, and all lakes, and all rivers.”  The Haudenosaunee, he continued, are born with this right.  He said that he planned to return to Scriba Creek, and he would continue to do so until the State of New York recognized “that this is our inherited right…and we have the right.  They didn’t give it to us.”

            Laborgne is right.

            In order for me to show you how, I will have to persuade you to accept some principles that have long been fundamental to the entire field of American Indian law. First, Native American tribes can do whatever they want unless that activity is specifically prohibited by a treaty or an act of Congress. Second, in 1978, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist started messing around with this, adding to the principle of “explicit divestiture,” described above, the idea of “implicit divestiture”:  Tribes could not exercise those powers that were somehow inconsistent with their status as “domestic dependent nations,” a concept coined by Chief Justice John Marshal 147 years earlier in the case of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. Tribes, the logic goes, do not give up their sovereign rights as nations that predated the United States unless they do so explicitly.  If they did not give away the right or power in question, and if it is not inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations, then that power they still possess.

            There are a couple of more assumptions I need you to agree to before we move on.  Before Europeans arrived in North America, Native American communities had the absolute right to hunt and fish wherever they chose.  Thus, unless they specifically gave up that right, through some treaty or some act of Congress, they are still permitted to fish wherever they want. 

So let’s talk about the treaties the state and the federal government entered into with the Oneida Indians in New York. The 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix protected Oneida land from encroachment, an acknowledgment by the United States of the Oneidas’ assistance in the Patriots’ cause during the American Revolution. In 1785 the state of New York coerced the Oneidas into giving up some of their reserved lands, and in 1788 the state came back for more.  The 1788 Treaty is the most important one for our purposes, and we need to talk about it.

            First, it is worth exploring how the state went about planning for and negotiating this treaty. I am going to spend some time on this because it is so important.  I hope you will bear with me.

            It seems reasonably fair to conclude that by 1788, the year in which he met with the Onondagas and Oneidas in New York’s Indian territory, Governor Clinton must have recognized that he presided over a state only nominally under his control.  British troops continued to garrison forts at Oswego and Niagara, despite the provisions of the Treaty of Paris that had formally ended the Revolutionary War in 1783.  These soldiers would not leave New York until 1795, after Jay’s Treaty had been approved.  During the war, two of the eastern counties of the state and part of a third seceded, becoming in the process the independent republic of Vermont.  Talk of other parts of the state breaking away occurred commonly enough for James Duane to fear that west of the Hudson “a second Vermont may spring up.” Though the punitive Treaty of Fort Stanwix extinguished Iroquois claims to lands largely to the west of New York, much of the territory in the Empire State remained firmly in Indian hands.  Clinton needed those lands for his state. As historian Barbara Graymont pointed, Clinton and his colleagues pursued a three-fold program: They hoped to eliminate “any claim of the United States Congress to sovereignty over Indian affairs in the State of New York”; they wanted to extinguish “the title of the Indians to the soil”; and they were determined to eradicate the sovereign status of the Six Nations.

            Doing so would not be an easy task, for New York State was not alone in trying to acquire the lands of the Six Nations.  Massachusetts claimed much of the land in what is now New York owing to its colonial charter, which specified no western boundary to its territorial limits.  The two states had worked out a compromise at Hartford late in 1786, with the result that New York exercised legal jurisdiction over the lands in question, but the Bay State retained the right of preemption, or first purchase, to Indian lands in upstate New York.  Massachusetts promptly sold these preemption rights to two speculators, Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham who, in July of 1788, concluded a treaty with the refugee Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas at Buffalo Creek.  Phelps and Gorham acquired nearly 2.6 million acres of Iroquois land in western New York for five thousand dollars and the payment of an annuity to the Indians of five hundred dollars.

            In addition to the problems posed by the Phelps-Gorham purchase, Clinton and his associates worried about the activities of the New York Genesee Company of Adventurers, a wealthy and influential group of land barons led by John Livingston.  On the 13th of November, 1787, the Livingston Company negotiated a lease with “the Chiefs and Sachems of the Six Nations of Indians.”  The sachems “leased” to the Livingston Company, for a term of 999 years, “all that certain Tract or Parcel of Land, commonly called and known by the Name of the Lands of the six Nations of Indians, situate, lying and being in the State of New York, and now in the actual possession of the said Chiefs and Sachems of the Six Nations.” Livingston and his associates agreed to pay to the sachems “the yearly Rent or Sum of Two Thousand Spanish Milled Dollars, in and upon the fourth Day of July.” Two months later, the Company negotiated an additional lease with the Oneidas, “for the said term of nine hundred and ninety-nine years, on a rent reserved for the first year of twelve hundred dollars per annum, until it shall amount to fifteen hundred dollars, of all those lands in the said writing described, as the Tract of Land commonly called and known by the Territory of the Oneida Indians.”

            Early in 1788, Governor Clinton and his associates in the State Assembly and Senate undertook a concerted campaign to consolidate their control over the conduct of Indian policy in New York and the disposition of those lands the Iroquois could be persuaded to part with.  Clinton and other New Yorkers wanted to acquire Iroquois lands for the settlement of the state’s obligations to its revolutionary war veterans.  Without question paying off the state’s obligations to its soldiers was important to Clinton, but as historian Laurence Hauptman has shown, other factors were important as well.  The consolidation of state control over its western lands, the development of the state’s economy, and the construction of a state wide transportation system all relied upon New Yorkers first acquiring title to Iroquois lands.  The Six Nations were in the way.

            Early in 1788 the New York State Assembly invalidated the Genesee Company of Adventurers’ “leases” of Six Nations land.  According to a joint resolution approved by the State Senate and Assembly, the leases, by their terms, were for all intents and purposes “purchases of lands, and . . . by the constitution of this State, the said leases are not binding on the said Indians, and are not valid.”  They determined that “the force of the State, shall from time to time, as occasion may require, be exerted to prevent intrusions on and for preserving to the people of this state, their rights to the lands and territories comprehended within the boundaries specified in the said leases.”

To prevent problems like that presented by the Genesee Company of Adventurers for the future, the Assembly and Senate on the 26th of February enacted a law “for directing the manner of proving deeds and conveyances to be recorded.”  For a purchase of lands to be valid under New York state law, that purchase must be witnessed and recorded and proved “by one or more of the subscribing witnesses to the same, before one of the justices of the supreme court, or a master in chancery, or one of the judges of the court of common pleas in and for the county where such lands and real estate are situated.”  Through this enactment, the state tightened its control over the procedures through which land changed hands. Furthermore, the Legislature on the 18th of March approved a law “to punish infractions of that article of the Constitution of this State, prohibiting purchases of lands from the Indians, without the authority and consent of the legislature; and more effectually to provide against intrusions on the unappropriated lands of this State.”  No purchases of land from Indians, “within the limits of this State, shall be binding on the said Indians, or deemed valid, unless made under the authority, and with the consent of the Legislature of this State.”  Any person who acted without the permission of the Legislature would pay a fine of 100 pounds to the people of New York, “and shall be further punished by fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court.”

            After taking these steps to ensure that no unauthorized parties acquired Indian lands within the state, and after depriving the New York Genesee Company of its ill-gotten gains, Clinton and his allies in the Legislature appointed commissioners to negotiate treaties with the Six Nations.  There is, contrary to the claims of the defendants’ experts, no evidence they present that demonstrates that the Iroquois knew that the New York State Legislature had invalidated the Livingston Leases and nothing Clinton or the state commissioners told the Onondagas and Oneidas in the summer of 1788 could have led them to that conclusion.
Map showing the Oneida cession of 1788. Under Article II of the agreement, the Oneidas retained the right to hunt and fish in the entire shaded area. No subsequent treaty every deprived them of that right.

At Fort Schuyler, the governor and the state’s Indian commissioners continuously warned the Indians that their lands remained in jeopardy unless they negotiated with the state.  The governor accompanied the state commissioners to Fort Schuyler, formerly Fort Stanwix, where they would meet with as many Indians as could be gathered.  The Six Nations, the governor hoped, would “open their ears to the voice of the Great Council of the State of New York,” and meet them to “brighten the Chain and renew the Covenant which had so long bound us together.” Clinton and the commissioners informed the Iroquois that they intended to protect the Indians from the many outside forces that clamored for their land.  Deceptively, the governor and the commissioners hoped to exploit the confusion then reigning in Iroquoia, and obtain from the Six Nations an enormous cession of Indian lands.

            Governor Clinton appears to have wanted to move quickly. He attempted to rush the proceedings.  He informed the Onondaga sachems, for instance, that “the other public business of the State will not permit me to remain long from home and it will therefore be necessary for such of your people as propose to bee at the Treaty to come on with all possible haste or they may be too late.”  Though there is no evidence that the Iroquois sachems clearly recognized, understood, or cared about the nature of that “public business,” Clinton indeed had plenty to worry about.  New Yorkers overwhelmingly had opposed the new Federal Constitution drawn up at the convention held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, and the governor (albeit quietly) led the “Antifederalist” forces within his state.  Advocates of a stronger national government felt the need to replace the Articles of Confederation for a number of reasons, but the “father of the Constitution,” James Madison, listed high on his list of  “Vices of the Political System of the United States” the aggressive Indian policies pursued by several of the states, including New York.  Article I, Section 8, of the new Constitution replaced the vague and ambiguous language of Article IX of the Articles of Confederation, with an assertive statement of federal authority over the conduct of Indian affairs: once the Constitution became the “supreme law of the land,” Congress would possess the exclusive authority “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

            New Yorkers had ratified the new constitution, reluctantly, in July, only a few short months before the gathering at Fort Schuyler.  When word of the Constitution’s ratification in New Hampshire and Virginia arrived earlier that month, the Antifederalists of New York realized that they no longer could safely oppose the Constitution: the United States would exist under a new and more powerful frame of government.  The question posed to the delegates at Poughkeepsie was now no longer whether or not New Yorkers would approve the Constitution, but whether or not they would become a member of the Union now that the requisite number of states had ratified.  Complete independence was never considered by New York’s Antifederalists, who recognized that they would soon have to work within the new federal system.  Governor Clinton must have felt the need to acquire for New York as much of the Iroquois estate as he could before the new government went into effect, and the rules of Indian diplomacy changed.

            New York’s urgent appeal to the Six Nations was received by a people still recovering from the ravages of the Revolutionary War. Although the Oneidas suffered comparatively less than their brothers in the Confederacy, they may have been confused or concerned about Governor Clinton’s intentions.  Certainly representatives of the Genesee Company of Adventurers tried to disrupt the proceedings at Fort Schuyler.  A Seneca named Onyegat told New York’s Indian commissioners that men from the Genesee Company had told him that “the Governor’s Business at this proposed Treaty is to purchase your Lands, but you have leased them to us.  He means to pay you all at once for them, and then in a few Years to drive you off and tell you that you have no Property here.”  A Frenchman named Dominique Debarges, a fur trader from Montreal and a Genesee Company agent, along with an Indian named “the Infant,” told sachems on their way to Fort Schuyler that “it will be your Destruction if you go down to the Treaty called by the Governor of New York.  I know his intentions,” Debarges continued, and “when you return you’ll have no Place to set your Foot on.  You will be like wild beasts which are hunted.” Debarges also told the Indians that “the Governor had his troops collected at German Flatts, ready to fall upon them as soon as they returned.” The Oneidas, as well as the Onondagas, likely heard these rumors; the evidence suggests that the constituent members of the Confederacy regularly shared information and intelligence. That the missionary Samuel Kirkland served as an interpreter at Fort Schuyler could only have further confused the Indians attending the council. The minister and missionary had served as an interpreter at the federal Fort Stanwix Treaty in 1784, and his presence at Fort Schuyler may have done much to grant a veneer of legitimacy to Clinton’s efforts and supported the Governor’s contested claim to represent the only jurisdiction with a legitimate right to negotiate with the Six Nations.

            The state commissioners chose to treat with the Onondagas first. The Oneidas returned home, and would not return to Fort Schuyler until the meeting with the Onondagas had been completed.  By the middle of September, that business was finished, and the Oneidas returned to the fort. 

            Speaking through Kirkland, the Oneida spokesman Good Peter responded to the Commissioners’ invitation. He expressed to the Governor and the state’s men his understanding of the purpose of the gathering. Good Peter wanted to protect the Oneidas’ lands.  He made clear to Governor Clinton that “in whatever Land we should cede to you, our Warriors should have the Privilege of Hunting and Fishing, and that a Line should be drawn round the Part we should reserve to ourselves to secure it to us and our Posterity.” In essence, Good Peter, like the Onondaga sachem Black Cap, offered to share the bulk of the Oneidas’ lands with the citizens of the state of New York in return for an annual payment. The remainder of their lands the tribe would keep for their own exclusive use.

            Governor Clinton told the Oneidas that he desired to protect their lands from the Livingston Adventurers, who “had without any Authority from us, obtained from you a Lease of your Lands.”  He had, he said, no interest in buying lands from the Oneidas, for “we have already more lands than we have People to settle on them.”  His hope was to set things right, “to meet you at this Council Fire, and by a new agreement place Matters on such a footing as to prevent these Things for the future.” This pleased Good Peter, who responded to the Governor’s speech on the 20th of September.  He was happy to hear that the state did not want the Oneidas’ land, and that New York would protect his people from the Livingston Company.  “The Wind,” he told Clinton, “seems always to blow and shake this beloved Tree, this Tree of Peace.” Good Peter recalled that in 1784 “the United States” had “Planted the Tree of Peace with four Roots, spreading branches, and beautiful leaves, whose top reached the Heavens.” He feared “that by and by some Twig of this beautiful Tree will be broken off. I Love this Tree of Peace as my Life, and my Protection. I know you love it.” To preserve this peace, Good Peter concluded, the Governor must “punish these disorderly People.”

            The point is simple. Throughout his speeches at Fort Schuyler that September, and consistently in his recollections of the treaty four years later, Good Peter believed whole-heartedly that the Oneidas had met with the governor and the state’s Indian commissioners to protect his people from dispossession by the Livingston Company.  Indeed, at the close of the council, Good Peter proudly announced to Governor Clinton that “My Nation are now restored to a possession of their Property which they were in danger of having lost.” The 1788 Oneida treaty, Good Peter continued, secured to the Oneidas “so much of our Property which would otherwise have been lost.” Clearly Good Peter would have had no reason to make this statement if he knew, prior to the meeting at Fort Schuyler, that the Livingston leases had been invalidated by the State Legislature. 

Here’s something else that treaty did.  Even though the deceptive treaty read that the “Oneidas do cede and grant all their lands to the people of the State of New York forever,” with the exception of a small reservation, they reserved for themselves “and their posterity forever…the free right of hunting in every part of the said ceded lands, and of fishing in all the waters within the same.”  The Oneidas reserved the right to hunt and fish in all the lands they ostensibly had ceded to the state of New York.

            The 1794 Federal treaty of Canandaigua guaranteed the Oneidas and their longhouse kin the right to the “free use and enjoyment” of all their lands.  Nothing in that federal treaty deprived them of the reserved fishing rights laid out at the 1788 Fort Schuyler treaty.  Nor did any of the numerous land cessions signed by Oneidas in the decades that followed 1788. Not one of these agreements deprived the Oneidas of the right to fish in streams and lakes they ceded to the state in 1788.  Those rights remain active still. 

            Of course the DEC has an interest in preserving walleye, and it is good that the Department recognizes that Haudenosaunee people do.  There is reason to hope that this issue might be compromised.  But until that compromise takes place—and Governor Hochul’s hostility to the state’s Indigenous peoples leaves me feeling uncertain that it ever will take place—Native Americans are free to exercise the rights guaranteed in their treaties.  They are not asking for special privileges. Rather, they are asking that the State of New York honor its word.  When it comes to Native Americans, perhaps the time for the state to finally start doing that is now.

Your Territorial Acknowledgment Is Not Enough

My college does a territorial acknowledgment before many public events on campus. We are not alone in doing this. We acknowledge that SUNY-Geneseo stands in the historic homeland of the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. It is an important first step, but one for which my feelings are ambivalent. We do this acknowledgment in rooms where no Native American students are present. We do it for ourselves.

            During our commencement ceremony, a Haudenosaunee flag stands on stage and another flies in our student union, beside the flags of all our foreign students’ nations. Only a tiny number of Native American students have walked the stage at commencement, or ambled through the Union. We consulted with no Indigenous peoples when we began acknowledging our location at the Western Door of the Iroquois Longhouse.

            A just-announced diversity initiative will lead to a more public celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, something we so quietly recognized several years back that it is as if we do not want anyone to know. And we will not raise the Haudenosaunee flag on the college flagpole, unlike some of our sister institutions in SUNY.

            So let’s get serious for a second.  During a troubling year when the college has dedicated itself to exploring the difficult question of how we might become an anti-racist campus, what we have done with and for Indigenous peoples is simply not enough.  We are quiet crusaders on the cheap.  Our gestures, and that is all they are—have been tiny and few and they cost us nothing.  We talk a good game, but that’s it. To say that we acknowledge that our college stands on what was once Indigenous land at a college that makes little effort to recruit, support, and retain Indigenous students is about as hollow a thing as I can imagine. And believe me, there are many schools—in SUNY and beyond– that do even less than us

            GENESEO, more than many colleges across North America, stands directly on Native American land.  “Chenussio” appears in New York’s colonial records and in the writings of French Jesuit missionaries in the middle of the seventeenth century.  The Genesee Valley, the beauty of which we sing in our college’s song, was a hub of indigenous activity for many centuries.  Geneseo stands directly at the Western Door of the Haudenosaunee longhouse and critical events in Seneca history took place near and on the very ground the campus occupies. The Big Tree Treaty of 1797, for instance, was negotiated in one of our parking lots.  The Senecas there signed away all their lands in western New York, from that gorgeous Genesee river valley to Lake Erie, eleven small reservations excepted. The town’s white founding fathers all were involved in dispossessing the Senecas. We occupy what was a major Seneca town site in a state that could not have taken the shape it now holds without a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. It can be argued that no SUNY school stands on ground so closely linked to that history of dispossession.

            I am completely familiar with the arguments that will be thrown back at me. I have heard them many times.  Indigenous peoples comprise approximately 1% of New York’s population.  It is not worth the trouble to devote our scarce resources to trying to attract these students to campus and make them feel welcome once they arrive. Our dedication to diversity is highly qualified, indeed.  We cannot fly the Haudenosaunee flag on the campus flag pole and we certainly cannot invite our Haudenosaunee neighbors to campus, because that will anger anti-Indian politicians in Albany and thus jeopardize the funding needed to fix a college that has significant construction and maintenance needs. We will not look down at the ground upon which we stand. We can’t. Because. We can’t. Because. We just can’t. We won’t.

            Several years ago I organized a meeting on campus. I invited a number of Haudenosaunee scholars from other SUNY campuses in the western part of the state.  They came to Geneseo to talk about bringing Indigenous students to SUNY.  The four of us agreed that it was simply a choice.  If our colleges wanted to do it, they could.  If SUNY as a system wants to do it, it can.   And despite invitations sent to the entire administration and admissions staff, we spoke to an empty room. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that our leaders at that time had voted with their feet.

            Don’t get me wrong. I love my colleagues and I love my students. I have good friends across the campus. But I’ve been at Geneseo for a while now, and I think I see many things clearly. We do not do enough.  We choose not to do enough. We are not interested in doing enough.  It pains me to write these words.

            What would I have the college do? I have been asked that. I am a professor. I am a very good teacher. I have been successful as a scholar and I continue to try to produce. I write more than most historians in SUNY.  And I do a lot of service, both on and off the campus. This service work is time consuming and tiring, as it forces me to be on the road at least every other week. At one level, then, my response to questions like this—to those in admissions, student services, in recruitment and retention who pose it— is to tell them to figure it out for yourselves. You get paid more than I do. You are the experts.  Do the work. I am already too busy.  Hire someone with some expertise in recruiting Native American students. 

            But that isn’t how it works, is it.

            If you are a BIPOC professor, of course you know this. Even if you are a white guy like me who stumbled into this work long ago and was lucky enough to be welcomed into the communities about which I teach and write, you are asked to do nothing less than come up with solutions to the problems you clearly see, and to do so without any additional compensation.  It is demoralizing. So we are asked for solutions. We propose solutions. And those solutions are shot down. We can’t. Because. We can’t. Because. We just can’t.

We won’t.

            It is a choice.  It is really that simple. But the least we can do is try. We can redirect funds. It is the moral and ethical thing to do.  Hire Haudenosaunee faculty and staff. Create a safe and welcoming environment on campus with student services staff experienced in the needs and concerns of Indigenous students.  Grant free tuition, room, and board to Haudenosaunee students. That might be a start. We could do this easily for the cost of SUNY’s football programs. We send no one to meet with Native Nations. We have no one in student services to help support those students should they arrive. We could divert resources towards this goal if we wanted to. We could acknowledge our college’s historic location with something more than a few lines tossed out at the beginning of college functions. We are well-intentioned but ineffective.

           OUR ENROLLMENT is down significantly this year, which has made an already desperate financial situation even worse. The pandemic and widespread economic dislocation is responsible, but some of our administrators fear that those students are not coming back.  Meanwhile, we continue to promote the image, with some small justification, that we are the poor person’s Swarthmore, an elite liberal arts college at a public school price. Sadly, I do not see us casting our net in new waters to try to bring students to Geneseo who we have not brought before. I see no evidence that we are interested in recruiting kids from the inner-city and I see no effort to reach out systematically to the state’s indigenous population. Indeed, we had a recent alum from the Tuscarora Reservation who wanted nothing more than to recruit and mentor Haudenosaunee students for Geneseo, and he would have been good at it.  Nobody in Admissions at that time was interested. (Most of those people have since moved on to other colleges). Geneseo is well known as a demanding school that offers difficult courses. Yet our retention rate—the number of students who come to Geneseo and return—is low. Clearly many of us need to change the way that we teach.  But we also need to think about who our students are, and where we are going to look for new ones.  This is difficult work that will not yield results immediately. It will take resources that are in short supply.  But how we expend our resources is a choice and we really ought to choose differently, as a college and as a massive University system. As employees of the State of New York, we ought to recognize how complicated the State’s relations have been with Native Nations, and how complicit our employer has been in the historic dispossession and marginalization of the state’s Indigenous population.  With regard to our native neighbors, the state’s hands are dirty, and that dirt will not be washed away by a few lines thrown out at the beginning of campus functions.

Good Injun Now: The Killing of Mitchell Patterson

He’s a “Good Injun Now.” That’s how a headline in the Buffalo Morning News announced the death of Mitchell Patterson, a Tuscarora Indian whose life of violent crime came to a close on Lock Street in Buffalo in January of 1895.

That headline writer was riffing on the famous line attributed to the American military leader Philip Sheridan, perhaps the most famous thing Sheridan ever said: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It was a joke that headline writers liked.

I have put a lot of time recently into my current research project, a history of the Onondaga Nation. I am at that stage of the research when I am collecting and reading newspaper articles. Variations on this theme appear quite often. Two decades after Patterson’s death, the Brooklyn Citizen published a story under the headline, “A Good Indian–And Alive,” chronicling the surprising career of Charles Doxon, an Onondaga who attended the Hampton Institute, and became a regular lecturer for the Six Nations Temperance League and on matters religious.

Newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contain a wealth of information about the lives of native people. They provide a window into the events that impacted these communities, and through a glass darkly, into the lives of native peoples as they made their way through a world that at best wanted them to disappear. Newspapers have allowed me, for instance, to reconstruct the lives of Onondagas who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and other Native American boarding schools: those who succeeded as farmers, or as housewives, or as leaders of a native nation. We meet football players and musicians in the newspapers, but also Onondaga bootleggers and outlaws, including a man who took his own life after shooting a Madison County sheriff’s deputy.

They are rich sources, and indispensable. I could not do the work I need to do without them. I subscribe to, use a couple of the newspaper databases to which my college library provides access, and I make frequent use of the quirky Fulton History website, which contains a trove of information.

They are flawed sources, too. They include an enormous amount of racist and stereotyped information about native peoples. They report on examples of what their editors still considered savagery, and they told stories of crime and dysfunction in native communities. Besides stories chronicling the resistance of native peoples to the forces of settler colonialism, they carry stories of Onondagas shooting their guns at the moon during an eclipse, and resting satisfied that their actions returned the world to light, of “Pagan” ceremonies, and of superstitious dancing and despair. Much that took place in these communities, I am certain, struck editors as entirely uninteresting and unworthy of even a single column inch. Much, I am certain, has been missed or left out.

Still, I had to check. And reading newspapers can lead one down a rabbit hole, as you follow a lead you did not expect through its challenging twists and turns. It was on one of these journeys that I encountered Mitchell Patterson.

In June of 1880, Patterson attacked “a young white woman” in Lewiston, Niagara County, not far from the Tuscarora Reservation in western New York. He “cut her eyes out, split her ears, and otherwise disfigured her.” Other accounts disagreed about the identity of the victim, indicating that Patterson’s wrath fell upon his aunt Nancy, who told him that he could not come home drunk any more. Patterson got angry, one Tuscarora neighbor recalled, and, in the Indian-speak newspapers loved to utilize, “he go sharpen stick and stab her eyes out.” Patterson fled across the Niagara River into Canada. Officials found him in a Brantford jail, not far from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, due to be released in October on some unrelated charge. He was somehow arrested in New York, and sentenced to ten years in prison for the violent attack.

He must have been released early. Patterson shows up in the papers again in April 1889. The Niagara County grand jury indicted Patterson for “shooting at an officer on the Tuscarora Reservation” the previous February. Four years later the district attorney in Lewiston charged him with shooting “Zacharia Green on the reservation.” And just seven months after that, a Niagara County court found Patterson guilty of selling alcohol to Indians on the reservation. He was imprisoned in the county jail for two months and fined twenty-five dollars.

He did his time. The Buffalo Commercial reported on March 28, 1894, that “the sentence of Mitchell Patterson, the bad man from the Tuscarora reservation, expired to-day, and a warrant was waiting for him the moment he was released.” The Commercial pointed out that Patterson “is a bad man and Indian that has made the marshal no end of trouble, and when he gets in this time it is to be hoped he will stay.” The charge, this time, was the beating of Lafayette Printup, in Sanborn, the previous November, 1893.

Patterson disappeared from the papers for a few months. He appeared again in November of 1894. Perhaps he had been in jail, but it is not possible to tell from the newspapers. Wherever he had been, that fall day Patterson went to the home of his neighbor, a “good Indian” named Isaac Clause. Patterson called for Clause to come out, and as soon as his neighbor appeared, “Patterson knocked him down and kicked him in the head.” Then he forced Clause to come with him, and “marched him to the village store and made him treat to tobacco, afterward robbing him of all his money.” Patterson “pounded and robbed” Clause, said one paper, “leaving him in a semi-conscious state in the road.” Clause’s relatives feared that he “is so badly injured he may die.”

Just two months later, Buffalo police officer Daniel Reagan began to hear about an Indian walking along Commercial Street in the city who had made a number of “indecent remarks” to a couple who was out for the evening. Officer Reagan found the suspect–it was Patterson–and he began to follow. Patterson turned on to Evans Street and picked up his pace. Reagan caught up, grabbed the much larger Patterson by the collar with one hand, and pulled his night stick out with the other. Patterson yelled, “Let go me, you son of a gun!” He then pulled out a pistol, pointed it at Reagan’s head, and then turned and ran without firing a shot.

Officer Reagan pursued. Patterson ran in the middle of the street, Reagan on the sidewalk. An “iron framework” ran between them, that “separated the drive way on the bridge from the footway for pedestrians.” At one point, Patterson turned and fired a round. He missed. Reagan drew his own weapon and continued to pursue.

A couple of seconds later, Patterson turned onto Lock Street, “a narrow, unlighted thoroughfare.” Reagan “could see the tall form of the Indian running along the west sidewalk of Lock Street,” about fifty feet ahead. Patterson fired again, and this time Reagan returned fire. “There came a fusilade of shots, which were heard from blocks around.”

Reagan hit Patterson three times. He and some witnesses carried the wounded man into the light of a saloon. They called for an ambulance, which rushed Patterson to the hospital. The surgeons, the newspaper reported, “have little hope of the man’s recovery, as a great hemorrhage resulted from the perforation of the liver, and the shock to the system was intense.”

And, then, the only description of Patterson. Six feet, two inches tall, weighing close to 250 pounds. He was “about 40 years old,” and “has the face of the typical reservation Indian,” with “a sparse mustache and goatee.” Patterson was “profusely tattooed.”

On his right arm is a figure of Mitchell, the pugilist, and on his left the word ‘Wisdom,’ in large letters. On the left leg is another potrait of Mitchell, for whom his namesake seems to have a great admiration.

In the hospital, Patterson gave an “ante-mortem statement” to the coroner.

My name is Mitchell Patterson. I live on the Tonawanda Reservation. I was walking on Canal Street and a policeman shot me. Another Indian was with me by the name of Frank Wooley, who had a gun and shot at the policeman. I had no gun. The other Indian had a gun. I sail on the lakes and come to Buffalo quite often. He had two guns and he gave one to me I shot once but did not hit anybody.

This was certainly a confused, and confusing account, that does not square at all with what Officer Reagan reported. Evidently the coroner did not find it satisfactory, either, because he visited the hospital again the next morning to take an additional statement from Patterson, who must have been in miserable shape. I include it here in its entirety:

My name is Mitchell Patterson. I live on the Tuscarora Reservation, near Lewistown. I am thirty-five years of age and am a single man. I came to Buffalo from Keating Summit, where I was working in the lumber regions, about a week ago. I have been boarding with a man named Walters, on Main Street. I was walking on Canal Street about 8 o’clcok last night when a policeman came up to me and said: ‘You big Injun; want you.’ He put his hand on my collar. I jerked away and ran over the Evans Street bridge, and there, I think, I shot at the policeman once. I ran into Lock Street and shot at him again, and he shot at me and hit me.

I carried a revolver one week, which I bought on Canal Street. I had two extra cartridges in my pocket. I do not remember if the policeman told me not to shoot or not. I was drunk and do not remember everything. I might have shot four or five times. I do not remember. I served three years in Auburn [a state penitentiary] for fighting another Indian. I was sentenced at Lockport. I kicked the life out of him. I have been out of prison for two or three years.

A more detailed account, indeed, but one that contradicts much that appeared in the first statement, taken the night of the shooting. The coroner thought the second statement was more accurate and thorough, but still not complete. Patterson was dying of his wounds, answering questions after surgery. I can hear in his narrative, I think, the coroner’s questions, Patterson’s short answers, and the coroner’s efforts to fashion this into a narrative.

Patterson died at 3:00pm, roughly eighteen hours after Officer Reagan shot him. In the days that followed his death, Buffalo newspapers continued to flesh out Patterson’s story, reporting on the bits of information they recovered from Tuscaroras who visited Buffalo. They told the story of a “heap bad Injun,” to be sure, who seemed to have terrified his native neighbors in several native communities, as well as the police who always approached him armed because they knew Patterson was ready for a fight. Violence defined Patterson, according to the newspaper reports.

Patterson was a life-long criminal with a violent temper, and he spent more than half his adult life behind bars. But these stories, perhaps in ways the editors did not intend, paint a more complex picture of a Native American man who traveled through Haudenosaunee communities across a broader Iroquoia. He spent time at Onondaga, at Tonawanda, and at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. He worked on Great Lakes Steamers, cut timber in Ontario, Michigan, and New York, and squeezed a few bucks here and there by selling alcohol to his neighbors at home on the Tuscarora Reservation.

He had family connections. He beat Noah Patterson, his grandfather, to defend his grandmother from a wife beater. After the latest attack from her husband, she “got mad and look for a man big ’nuff to lick Noah.” Mitchell Patterson fit the bill. Three Tuscaroras visited Mitchell Patterson in the hospital, according to one story more to satisfy their curiosity than express their sympathy. They said little, according to a white witness, but that does not mean they did not care. Mitchell Patterson’s mother–she is unnamed in the newspapers, and identified only as “Old Mrs. Patterson”–arrived at the coroner’s office two days after her son’s death. The newspaper said “there was not a trace of grief upon her face.” She wanted to see her son’s body, and carry it home for burial. The coroner guided her in. “She viewed the body for a few moments,” the newspaper said, and “uttered a few words in the dialect of her tribe.” Her wagon was not large enough to carry the remains, so “it was accordingly arranged to place the body in a rough box and ship it to Sanborn for burial in the Indian cemetery there on the Tuscarora Reservation.”

Perhaps “Old Mrs. Patterson” showed no grief. But I am not sure that is true. One of the many stereotypes about native peoples was their supposed “stolid” nature. Maybe the coroner saw what he wanted to see. Perhaps the grief she felt was real, significant, and deep, expressed in a few quiet words in the Tuscarora language, by a mother who wanted to take her wayward son home for burial.

Newspapers provide a remarkable and important source for reconstructing Native American life. But we must remember that white newspaper editors and non-Indian journalists made decisions about their paper’s content, and they did not often ask native peoples what they thought. Indians appear in the newspapers when the white people in charge wanted them to appear, when they did something that they felt might interest their white readers. This might include instances of the continuing “savagery” and “paganism” of Haudenosaunee peoples. Native peoples appear frequently in the newspapers as athletes and criminals, too. Boarding school students who did good, and boarding school students who met tragic ends, appear in the papers. There are also stories of Native American organization and institution building, protest, and activism: instances when native peoples worked together to protect their communities in ways that non-natives might perceive as threats to their own lives, liberty, and property.

In between, in the gaps, silences, and the behaviors and actions described by newspapermen but not understood, there are fleeting images of a world that historians of Native Americans struggle to recover. Mitchell Patterson may have been a criminal, a sadist, a “Bad Injun,” and a source of terror to those who knew him. But he also moved through indigenous communities throughout western New York and Ontario, communities with stories that have not always been told with the richness they deserve and a careful and critical analysis of the sources will allow.