Tag Archives: Geneseo

Local History Matters. Now, More Than Ever

Under state law, New York requires every municipality to have an official historian. When you do the math, that comes out to one historian for each of the five boroughs of New York City, 12 Community Historians in Manhattan, 62 city historians, 932 town historians, and 544 village historians.  Add to that the 62 county historians, the scores of small historical societies, and the dozens of small archives, collections, and history museums, and you have the foundation for a vibrant local history community.

            Some of these local historians are more active than others. Some have more resources at their disposal. A huge percentage of them serve as volunteers. Many of them are retirees, doing work they love with great enthusiasm in the name of preserving their community’s past.  To varying degrees, they coordinate their efforts, and meet together to discuss common interests and concerns, like the meeting of the Government Appointed Historians of Western New York (GAHWNY) I attended last fall. It is a hodge-podge, with a thousand moving parts, but the work they do is exciting and important.

            And largely separate from the work we do as academic historians.  That reality has become increasingly clear to me over the course of this past year, as I began to survey the public history landscape in New York State. It is a shame.  The academic history community has largely ignored local historians.  And as I began to meet local historians, and talk with them, it struck me that we in the academy could be doing so much more, and that we had overlooked an extraordinarily valuable community of historians doing extraordinarily valuable work.

Why not, then, form a partnership between local historians and my college that could benefit us all—students at our college interested in history or museum studies, the public history community, and those in the general public with an interest in history?  Why not form a center to encourage interest in state history at the local level?  That’s what we are trying to do at Geneseo—a Center for Local and Municipal History– and our first steps will take place on February 16th.

            Encouraging a partnership between our college and the local history community will certainly benefit our students.  Teaching is not an attractive career path for all of our students, and the withered state of the academic job market makes it difficult for us to encourage even the most talented to pursue graduate training in history.  Our students find work in a host of fields, and I believe firmly that history students emerge from our college with the skills to prosper in a variety of fields. 

Still, history itself, as a discipline, is changing.  Museum studies is a dynamic and creative field.  The broad expanse of the “digital humanities” is bringing innovation to historical research, publishing, archival work, and public education.  Thanks to the creative teaching of my colleague Yvonne Seale (@YvonneSeale) and other members of the Geneseo community, our students have the opportunity to learn these versatile digital skills.  Our students, I believe, can provide important assistance to resource-starved local and municipal historians.  Our students will benefit from the opportunity to deploy their skills in a real-world setting and local historians will benefit from the assistance our students can offer.

But there is more to it than that.

The New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework places no emphasis on local history. As a result, too many New Yorkers know too little about the history of the communities in which they live.  I suspect that this problem is not unique to New York State. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, which in part has funded our local history initiative, argues that “in this turbulent and dynamic century, our nation’s diverse democracy and interdependent global community require a more informed, engaged, and socially responsible citizenry.” This sort of civic engagement and civic learning, I would argue, can occur in a more meaningful manner when our friends and neighbors know who and what and where they are in terms of connection to a certain location in place and time.  How did we get here? Why is our community the way it is? What is the source of the challenges we face as members of communities?  How can we confront those challenges effectively, and what have we tried before.  These questions are fundamentally historical.

If you read the news, and follow developments across the political spectrum, you will note that many Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, or whether they live in the inner city, the suburbs or in rural New York, feel disconnected, like outcasts. Rootlessness. When we teach people about their own history, their own place, we teach them, at least in part, that their stories matter. It may not be enough for us any longer merely to remember the past.  We can and should do more. We can connect people who feel disconnected when we present them with the evidence that they have a role in their community’s story, that they are themselves forces in history.

Local historians are already doing much of this important work.  They will do it with or without the support of the academic history community. Just before Christmas, I met with Larry Naukam, formerly with the Rochester Public Library, and a gentleman with a mastery of the work being done by local historians and archivists in upstate New York.  We met at the Starbucks in Brighton, at Twelve Corners, not far from my house.  There, Larry showed me all sorts of fantastic work.  He showed me, for instance, the digitized church and cemetery records on the Rochester Genealogical Society webpage. Then the Rochester Churches Indexing Project (RCIP), started some time ago by individual researchers affiliated with the RGS. The Cayuga Heights History Project contains a wealth of information on Ithaca, New York, as does the History Forge.  Amie Alden, the County Historian in Livingston County, where SUNY-Geneseo is located, has valuable information on her department’s website, including records relating to Civil War deserters and wills and other archival sources. Historians in Wayne have assembled a useful collection of materials on historic sites in that county. Small museums, like that belonging to the Walworth Historical Society, posts records and resources. Somehow, I had missed the Digital Public Library of America, which houses many millions of images from across the country, many with a local focus. The New York Heritage Digital Collections page is also worth your time. The Fulton NY Post Cards website is a crazy scene and clunky to use, but it includes millions of pages of digitized New York newspapers. 

All this from one conversation, in one hour, in one coffee shop.  There is so much material available to reconstruct local histories.  These records allow those of us who study the past to tell the stories of the ordinary people who spent their lives in the communities we now call home.  Geneseo students, I hope, will join in our efforts to recover, preserve, and present the documents containing these stories to the public, and to convince our friends and neighbors that this effort is worthwhile. In these collections we find people who appear nowhere else in the historical record.  They appear fleetingly and incompletely in these documents.  But tracking them down, as Arlette Farge put it, is part of the “allure of the archives,” those “encounters with the silhouettes of the past,” which possess “an obscure beauty in so many existences, barely illuminated by words.” So many people appear in these archives, and the stories of so many places.  “What,” Farge asks, “can be done with these countless individuals, their tenuous plans, their many disjointed movemnts?”  Farge likened what she found to the shifting images one sees when gazing into a kaleidoscope, dynamic always, appearing and disappearing, passing quickly out of your field of view sometimes before you get a clear sense of what you are looking at.

We at Geneseo want to talk about these stories, and enlist our students in the effort. Our first step is going to be a gathering on campus on February 16th, to discuss what can be done to forge a strong and viable partnership between different stakeholders and students.  I expect nearly 60 people to attend our meeting, including New York State Historian Devin Lander and Professor Taylor Stoermer, who teaches in the Museum Studies program at Johns Hopkins.  Prior to joining the Museum Studies faculty, Dr. Stoermer was Instructor of Public History at Harvard University, Director of Historic Huguenot Street (a National Historic Landmark District in New York), Chief Historian of Colonial Williamsburg, Invited Research Scholar at Brown University. He has held Fellowships at Yale University, the Huntington Library, the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and the Virginia Historical Society. He is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins, the Tulane University School of Law, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, where he earned his Ph.D. in History, specializing in colonial Virginia and the American Revolution. Dr. Stoermer is also the author of Colonial Williamsburg: The Official Guide (2014) and Public History: A Field Guide (Forthcoming, 2019).

 I am looking forward to a lively discussion from which I hope to learn a great deal. Then, during the first summer session in May, I will teach a course at Geneseo called “Local History Workshop.”  Students who enroll in the course will work in tandem with a local historian or historical society on projects that engage the public.  If the course is popular, I will add it to my regular rotation.  If these steps succeed, we will begin to raise money for the establishment of a center on campus.  1500 Local Historians, and none of the SUNY campuses devotes much attention to them.  We at Geneseo hope to lead the way. The local historians with whom I have spoken are enthusiastic.  They need the help.  I expect we will find students willing and ready to join in the effort.  If you are interested in joining us, please feel free to drop me a line.  Local history matters, now more than ever.

The Liberal Arts in Trying Times

Those of us who teach the liberal arts at times feel under siege. Too often we reply to those who challenge our enterprise with arguments that students who major in the liberal arts do well after they graduate, that they have skills that are indeed employable, and that they will make as much money as students in other academic fields.  I agree with all these points, but I believe that in a way, they concede too much to those who criticize what we do, who view historical knowledge in much the same way climate change deniers view climate science.

For we live in strange times.  The President delivered up a word salad in Great Falls, Montana, last week that made him sound positively incoherent. One of his most visibly corrupt cabinet members has resigned, finally, though much of the swamp remains undrained.  In recent weeks, the administration has defended a policy intended to deter immigrants by separating asylum-seeking parents from their small children, some of them still in diapers.  And the President has recently announced his new nominee for the Supreme Court, creating an unbreakable majority capable of rolling back the social advances of the last fifty years.  There is little that is truly conservative in any of this: we are, it seems, facing an unprecedented assault on long-established norms and values, and the republic as we know it is in peril.

I think about all of this as I prepare my syllabus, once again, for the course in Western Humanities I regularly teach here at Geneseo, a course that seems more important now than ever before.

Western Humanities at Geneseo is a “great books” course, divided into two halves.  We used to require that students take both halves, but changing fashions and declining resources have resulted in the difficult decision to pare that requirement down to one course.  My students will read, in this order, the following:

Sophocles, Antigone

Thucydides, The Peloponessian War

Plato, The Republic

Cicero, The Republic

Virgil, The Aeneid

The Holy Bible, (Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Isaiah, Matthew, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans)

Augustine, Confessions

Aquinas, Treatise on Law

More, Utopia

and Shakespeare, Hamlet.


“Classic” books, all of them.  They are weighty and important.  They speak to our current crisis. I cannot help but teach the course with that crisis in mind.  You see, I don’t teach HUMN I as a history course, even though I am a historian.  Rather, I hope to encourage the students to take what they read from these classics and engage with the present.  These writers asked difficult questions about law, society, justice, and how we are to live with one another.  We struggle with these questions still.

When Antigone, speaking truth to power, tells her uncle Creon, the tyrant, that there is a law higher than that of kings, I encourage students to consider their own experiences in the face of injustice.  What must one do?  What can one do? Aquinas, of course, wrestled with the question of whether an unjust law is law, and how and when one might oppose it.  The Attorney-General of the United States, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, has, like his slave-holding and segregationist forebears, trotted out Paul’s letter to the Romans to urge obedience to authority, a passage in the Bible that has been used by the apostles of injustice to quiet discontent for centuries.  Students will read these passages, but also the rest of Paul’s letter, the words Mr. Sessions chooses to ignore.  Justice, Power, and Human Nature: that is the subtitle to the edition of Thucydides I use in class.  Those three concepts run through all of the readings, weaving them together.  But also compassion and love for all–that’s there too, an ideal expressed most clearly when the students get to the readings from the Christian tradition.

It is hard to see much justice in the country today.  The men and women who lead the government too often fail to use their power to do good.  We have seen in the President’s conduct some of the worst of human nature, a man out of balance, and dominated, in Plato’s conception, by the appetitive part of his soul.  He unapologetically uses the highest office in the land to enrich himself and his children.  And with the president’s violent fantasies, his disturbing admiration for vicious dictators, not to mention more open and virulent expressions of racism than we have seen in years, and the caging of immigrant children and their separation from the adults in their lives, compassion seems in short supply.  The Republicans dismiss their critics as “snowflakes,” but all that really means is that they have no understanding or appreciation of empathy.

I can imagine what some of you reading this might say. Stick to the texts.  No reason to politicize these works.  It is not your job to indoctrinate students, especially with leftist propaganda. I suggest that you read these books, honestly and with an open mind, before you say that.  The students understand quite quickly that these books raise fundamental questions about justice, about how we are to live meaningful lives in community with others, which we still struggle to answer.  These texts are inherently political.  Read  in Thucydides his descriptions of the viciousness of civil war:  students see clearly the danger of propaganda, or what can follow from words losing their meaning.  The Greek authors the students read each spoke out in their own way against tyrants and demagogues, but also against the ordinary people who enabled tyrants to seize power or who allowed themselves to be seduced by the demagogue’s empty but angry rhetoric. When the President tells us how much he admires the North Korean dictator, and how he would love to receive the same respect from his people, the relevance of these texts is clear.

My students, like students before them, struggle with Plato. They find The Republic a difficult read.  I get that. Many of them find Plato’s ideas repellent, and for good reason.  Sometimes students can’t get past their revulsion.  At a minimum, then, I tell them to look at Socrates, through whom Plato speaks. Look at his style of thought and dialogue, I tell them.  He speaks. He asks questions. He listens and he responds.  He engages in a dialogue.  And out of that process of questioning emerges understanding and wisdom.  It is a beautiful thing that students do not see modeled enough.  It can be tough to ask questions, to challenge authority. But these texts, as well, ask us to overcome our fears, and state quite clearly at times that our only hope is to engage, to ask questions, to be relentless.  We need to hold the powerful to account.  We must always remember that tyrants give up nothing voluntarily, that we must confront injustice in every instance, and that our rulers are fallible human beings.  When they show cowardice, or an unwillingness to do what is needed, we have not only the right but the obligation to hold them to account.  It is our job as scholars and students.  It is our job as informed citizens.

We are told not to politicize our teaching.  Present the facts, but do not present left wing propaganda.  If you are in my line of work, you will hear it again and again. We need to push back against this. The classics force us to look at the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be.  The solutions they offer might seem worse than the cure (I’m looking at you, Plato) or impractical, as in the Utopian model of eliminating money, but the authors of these texts knew that their ideas were provocative.  They wrote to challenge their audiences, to challenge us.  What do you owe your fellow citizens?  What do you believe is important, they asked us, and why? What are your ideals? If you see a gap between your ideals and your reality, what do you propose to do about it?  How will you, in Isaiah’s words, “Learn to practice what is good; seek justice, alleviate oppression, defend orphans in court, and plead the widow’s case”?  What will you do for the poor, the anguished, the caged child? What, to you, is worth fighting for?

Western Humanities teaches students that citizenship is active, not passive, and it places demands upon them to act in an informed manner, in their own interest to be sure, but also for the good of the whole.  We who teach in this field need to make that point clear.  We need to stop apologizing for the liberal arts, or play our opponents’ game by asserting that students with liberal arts degrees are indeed employable.  The liberal arts, becoming wise and becoming informed–all of this is essential for meaningful and effective citizenship, and it is the strength and quality of citizens upon which the republic most relies.



Obligations: More Thoughts on Teaching and Learning on Native Ground

A while back I published a piece in the local newspaper arguing that the State University of New York ought to provide free tuition to Haudenosaunee peoples on whose lands many SUNY campuses stand. (Actually, SUNY should provide free tuition to ALL New Yorkers, but that is another argument).  My essay read as follows:

New York State is to be applauded for implementing the Excelsior Program to make attendance at a SUNY school affordable for working-class families. But because Excelsior does not cover room, board, and books, and because students must maintain a full course load, the plan is hardly perfect for the state’s most disadvantaged populations. Given the state’s history and its historical relations with its Native American populations, New York should provide funding to cover all the costs associated with attending a SUNY school for Native American Students.

          Colleges and campuses around the country have begun to explore more critically their complicity in the injustices of the American past. Georgetown, for instance, is wrestling with its legacy of slaveholding. Brown University has examined critically its early involvement in the slave trade. Both schools have devoted significant sums of money for increasing opportunities for students who were, in a manner, the descendants of those who suffered from these historic injustices.

          But university systems have done little to explore their historic connections to native peoples and obligations that come with teaching and learning on native ground.

My campus in Geneseo, for instance, is located in the historic homeland of the Senecas. Before Geneseo was the county seat of Livingston County, Senecas from town of Chenussio  played important roles in the history of this region and the three successive empires that vied for control of what became western New York: France, England, and the United States. New Yorkers coveted that land, and speculators swooped in after the Revolution.

New York became the Empire State through a systematic program of Indian dispossession. Indian losses were New Yorkers’ gains. New Yorkers advocated the removal of the Iroquois decades before Andrew Jackson became President.  New York’s Indian boarding school, the Thomas Asylum, lasted for a century into the 1950s, commencing before, and lasting long after these institutions had fallen out of favor.   Disease, warfare, dispossession, coercive assimilation: New York’s native peoples have faced them all.

The records of the state’s treaties and transactions are chock full of instances of deception and deceit, fraud and coercion. If you own a home in this state, you have benefited from the state’s concerted effort to dispossess its native peoples.  And nearly every SUNY campus stands on what was once native ground, on land acquired by foul means.

Providing the funding necessary for this will not be easy. Money always is in short supply. But it is simply a matter of choice, of deciding what matters.  Syracuse University for more than a decade has covered all costs associated with attendance through its “Haudenosaunee Promise” program.  Standing on ground that once was the geographic and cultural center of the Iroquois League, Syracuse decided to recognize that past.

SUNY could follow Syracuse’s lead. Excelsior, and the paltry funding provided for Native American students through scholarships overseen by the New York Department of Education, are not adequate. We should do more.

If any number of state officials had their way during New York’s long history, the Iroquois and other New York Indians would have disappeared. They would have been driven out of the state to new homes in Canada, Wisconsin, Arkansas, or Oklahoma—anywhere but here.  The people and their culture would have been eradicated, the language erased.  Yet Native Americans in New York State, from Long Island to Niagara, and from the North Country to the Allegheny, have survived all that this state has thrown at them.  They are still here, and the State’s debt is huge. It is time to pay it back.

Geneseo has made some small, superficial changes.  Last fall the College Senate approved a resolution recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  The school is traditionally closed that day as part of what we call “Fall Break.”  The college approved a new diversity statement recognizing that the college stands on lands in the historic homeland of the Seneca Nation and Tonawanda Seneca Indian Nation, though that statement has not yet been placed on the college’s website. I am still waiting for staff to install the Haudenosaunee flag in the Student Union’s gallery of flags representing all our foreign students’ countries, despite receiving assurances that it will happen.

These actions, limited as they are, do matter.  They are more than mere symbolic gestures.  Flying the flag will announce to Haudenosaunee students that they are welcome at our college, that we value them as individuals and that we recognize their membership in native nations.  At commencement each year, the flags of our foreign students’ countries are part of the ceremony; we certainly should fly the Haudenosaunee flag as well. Publicly acknowledging the college’s location on what was once Haudenosaunee land shows that we know our history, and that we understand that native peoples’ losses were too often in New York State history white people’s gains.  One of my few Haudenosaunee students gave me a gift and a card on graduation day, in which he wrote that “nothing makes me more proud to see Geneseo recognize that the land that this great university rests on was once Indian country.”

The Haudenosaunee Flag flies on campus ……only in my office.

But all of this is easy.  It costs my college absolutely nothing but the labor of a large number of committed faculty to write a new diversity statement, or to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  A Haudenosaunee flag can be purchased for a few bucks, so I am not sure what the delay is in putting it up, but still, chump change.  Easy work.

At the end of the week in which my editorial appeared, the college announced an opening in admissions for an international recruiter to lure foreign students to Geneseo.  In the past days, I have seen announcements for two additional openings in admissions.  None of the positions mention anything about outreach to the state’s small but significant Native American population. I have been quietly urging the college to hire a person to work on recruiting and retaining Native American students. So far nothing.

Anyone who follows the news in higher education knows that money is tight.  Wisconsin-Stevens Point is going crazy eliminating academic majors in the liberal arts. Catholic University of America is preparing a plan to lay-off tenure-track faculty. The University of Montana has appointed a clown with no experience in academia to begin deep cuts in programs and spending.   SUNY has been chronically underfunded for years and my school’s leaders have done an enormous amount with very little for a long time. I understand that there is not enough money to do everything that every faculty member wants.

But let’s not pretend that we do not have choices.  For the money that the SUNY sytsem fritters away on Division I sports every Native American student who wanted to attend SUNY could do so.  From my perspective, we are talking here about obligations, about acknowledging the history of the state, the town where my college is located, the native ground upon which it stands. At my college, as I have pointed out before, we wine and dine visiting dignitaries at the Big Tree Inn. Its named after the treaty negotiated in town in 1797 in which the Senecas lost all of their lands west of the Genesee River save for a number of reservations, only four of which remain.  We have dining halls named after Red Jacket and Mary Jemison, important figures in Seneca history, and historical markers on and around campus point to the region’s history–as the Western Door of the Longhouse, as a zone invaded by Sullivan’s Continental soldiers waging a scorched earth campaign in 1779, and as lands coveted by speculators and settlers afterwards.  We trade in this history at Geneseo.  The town I teach in could not exist without a systematic program of Indian dispossession.  It is easy to acknowledge that history.  It is more difficult to do something to make an often uninterested community aware of historical obligations, that what they have is possible because of the losses suffered by native peoples. But it can be done.  And it should.

Teaching on Native Ground

Last Friday, the 9th of March, 2018, was Teachers’ Day at Geneseo, an event my colleagues in the History Department have held for the past several years.  We invite teachers from public schools to come to campus.  They attend a workshop in American history and another in World History.  In the past, we have had a keynote address held at lunchtime, but this year, my colleagues decided to do something different: a roundtable discussion on ways to involve high school students in local history projects that will broaden their understanding of the themes and topics they are expected to learn in school. I spoke briefly about Native American history.  This is a polished-up version of my remarks.


I do not have a specific project to speak about. I would rather suggest a general change in focus, and in our way of thinking, about the teaching of Native American history in New York schools.

In some ways, I believe, the manner in which Native American history is taught in public schools in New York continues a colonial project that began in 1492.  That may sound dramatic, but that is what I believe.  I base that on reading the Common Core guidelines for New York State, and as I have watched five children wend their way through New York public schools.

You—well, all of us really—we teach at public schools that stand on what had been native ground, on lands acquired in behalf of the people of the great state of New York by elite land barons and state government officials who viewed Indians as obstacles and barriers to progress and brakes on their considerable economic ambitions.  Those Indians one way or another would have been completely eradicated and erased if New York’s Founding Fathers had their way. They would be gone.  They would have been either removed, or assimilated, or driven to extinction, and certainly dispossessed.

The students you send to me do not know this history at all.  They know nothing of these stories.  They may know something about Cherokee Removal but absolutely nothing about the removal of, say, the Senecas from the valley as a result of military invasion, epidemic disease, or an 1826 real estate transaction that did not conform at all to the requirements of United States law.

They might know that the Iroquois once lived here, that they lived in longhouses, and that they relied upon the “Three Sisters” for their sustenance, but not that they are still here, fiercely protective of their status as autonomous native peoples, as members of native nations.  They might have been told something about how the Iroquois shaped the Constitution or American democratic thought but not that the Iroquois influence thesis has been thoroughly discredited and never really persuaded any historians in the first place, while they know nothing about how Haudenosaunee peoples actually played a role of incredible significance in shaping the history of this state and region.

They might know that Andrew Jackson is a SOB, but they will not have reflected upon how nearly ALL Americans were complicit in and benefited from the historical processes with which he is associated but which began long before he was born and continued after he died.  Indeed, they will not have thought about how they continue to benefit from “Indian Removal,” a terrible euphemism that should be retired.  Because New York, it is important to point out, became the “Empire State” in large part because of a systematic and determined program of Indian dispossession.

Look, we are historians.  We tell stories about the past.  At the end of the day, these stories are fundamental to what we call history.  It seems to me that we could be choosing better stories.  We all can do better.

So here’s something to think about. This semester for the first time I had my students keep journals.  I urged them to read beyond what I had assigned, to share with me their thoughts about the current events they were expected to keep up on in the United States and Canada, and even to say those things that they were too reluctant or did not get an opportunity to say in class. Of the nearly 40 students in my Indian Law and Public Policy course, a large majority of them expressed their amazement that they had not been taught any sort of meaningful Native American history at earlier points in their careers as learners, especially about the Native American history of the region in which they live.  The sense I got from reading these journals was that they felt cheated.

And this is unfortunate, because this region has an extraordinarily rich Native American history that is easily accessible, and that can be critically engaged with relative ease. It is inscribed on the land in terms of the place names, the streams and lakes and rivers that flow through this region where people lived, the easily-recovered lines of European invasion that cut through Wayne, Monroe, and Livingston Counties.  Chenussio, Geneseo; Canawaugus, Avon.  These were important towns, centers of Seneca power whose history is largely invisible to our students. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Image result for new york state historical markers indians         Wherever your school is located, you likely are near a badly biased state historical marker, full of loaded language, displaying common, stereotyped views of native peoples.  Your students can research these sites, or the events that took place there, and revise them.

When my students ask, “Why weren’t we taught this in school,” I see a powerful teachable moment.  Why indeed? Why do students in New York State learn about Cherokee Removal and not about Haudenosaunee dispossession and the diaspora that made the “settlement” of this unsettled, post-revolutionary state possible?  Do those people who assemble the standards against which your performance is measured actually not know these stories themselves, and so bequeath to students a limited view of this region’s history?

There is an opportunity here to talk about the power to make history, to determine what is and what is not considered part of the American past, and I think local stories are one way to engage students in that past.  If you ask your students to reflect upon why they are not taught these stories, what will happen?  Maybe, just maybe, we have some discomfort in talking about our past, and the considerable benefits non-native New Yorkers have received from this state’s very long and continuing history of colonialism.

The Treaty of Big Tree–Let’s Follow the Money

The anniversary of the “Treaty of Big Tree,” signed on the 15th of September in 1797, is approaching. According to a New York State historical marker, the agreement was negotiated on land that now provides parking for students who attend the college where I teach.  It is a big deal in Geneseo. It is the one, big, historical event that occurred within the town’s bounds.

One thing that I think a lot of non-historians do not realize is the amount of research we do that never sees the light of day. Although we require our students quite often to come up with some meaningful sort of research project during the short fifteen weeks of a semester, we spend plenty of time following interesting questions that lead to dead ends.  It happens all the time. We are curious. We ask questions and, sometimes, despite our best efforts, we cannot find an answer.

A couple of years back I was asked to do some research for the Seneca Nation of Indians about the history of the annuities that often were attached to the agreements they entered into with New York State and the United States.  In exchange for their lands, Senecas would receive an annual payment.

I often see this bumper sticker in and around Indian Country.  The Indian Country Today Media Network, now apparently on hiatus, spoke frequently of broken treaties.  But some treaties, it must be remembered, were little more than real estate transactions in which white people obtained a title to Indian lands in return for very little at all.

I have always done research on Big Tree, but I had never bothered to look at whether the United States had fulfilled its part of the bargain. Certainly it acquired a lot of land. But did it pay to the Senecas what they were owed?  I travel with footnotes.

I tell the story of the treaty at Big Tree in Native America.  It is an important moment in the history of the Senecas.  Robert Morris had acquired from earlier land speculators a right of preemption, or first purchase, to all the Seneca lands in New York state. He sold this right to the Holland Land Company in December of 1792.[1]  A well-financed syndicate of Dutch merchants and bankers, the Holland Land Company was much better equipped than Morris to oversee the actual opening up of the Seneca homeland to white invasion and settlement—a massive undertaking that involved administering an enormous territory, and absorbing the costs associated with surveying, building roads, and laying out towns.[2]  Before they would pay, however, the Holland investors insisted that Morris extinguish the Senecas’ title to the lands in question.

What did that mean? It meant holding a treaty, and negotiating with the Senecas.  In 1797 Morris began laying plans for a council.  Because Morris was ill and because he feared prosecution for debt should he leave his home in Philadelphia, his son Thomas traveled to Big Tree on the Genesee River to conduct the treaty. (The treaty was held, according to a New York State historical marker, near one of the parking lots on my campus).  The story of this sordid council, involving the use of alcohol at the treaty ground and the bribing of important Seneca leaders, has been told many times before. My treatment in Native America is inspired by the great books written by Anthony F. C. Wallace and Laurence Hauptman, which are required reading for those who wish to understand the Iroquois.[3]

Morris obeyed the letter, if not the spirit, of the federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Law, the statute which governed relations between natives and non-natives.  The law required that for a purchase of Indian lands to be legally valid, the purchase must be overseen by the United States, and the resulting agreement must be approved by the United States Senate.  Morris requested and obtained the appointment of a federal agent, and the Senate did ratify the agreement. And at Big Tree, on the campus where I offer my courses in Iroquois history, the Senecas parted with all of their land, that huge region from the Genesee River westward to the Great Lakes and the Niagara River, save for 200,000 acres distributed across eleven reservations.  In exchange for this massive cession, Morris agreed to pay “the sum of one hundred thousand dollars, to be by the said Robert Morris vested in the stock of the bank of the United States, and held in the name of the President of the United States, for the use and behoof of the said nation of Indians.”  The Senecas would receive as a payment, each year, the interest earned on this investment.[4] 

So let’s follow that money, as far as the sources allow.  That was easier said than done.  I am no accountant.

In March of 1798 the United States used the $100,000 it had received from Robert Morris to purchase 205 shares in stock of the Bank of the United States “to be held in trust” for the Senecas “by the President of the United States.”  The dividends on this investment averaged slightly more than seven thousand dollars a year, though some of the revenues that would otherwise have been delivered to the Senecas were withheld to purchase additional stock: 9 shares in 1804 at a cost of $5328.00, an additional share in 1806 for $522.00, and five more shares in 1807 for a sum of $2580.00.  With the exception of this combined amount of 8430 dollars, the increase produced by the Big Tree investment was delivered to the Senecas by federal agents.  The dividend, paid twice a year, amounted to a minimum of sixteen dollars per share between 1798 and 1802, or $3280 every six months.[5]

The Bank of the United States, part of Alexander Hamilton’s (Stop singing, please) ambitious but controversial program for developing the new nation’s economy, had received a twenty-year charter from Congress in 1791.  When the Bank ceased its operations in 1811, the stock was liquidated, producing a sum of $95,040. (This sum was less than the $100,000 initially invested owing to shifts in the value of the stock).  The War Department credited $1980.00 of this sum to fund its Indian appropriations account, while investing the remaining $93,060.00 in 6% stocks in the name of the President of the United States, to be held in trust for the Seneca Indians.

The Senecas watched closely these funds, and saw the annual dividend as essential to their survival.  They said this, in writing, time and again.  A large group of “Seneca chiefs” told Secretary of War William Eustis in 1811, after the expiration of the Bank’s charter, that “we are told the field where our Money was planted is become barren.”  What they hell, they seemed to be saying. This concerned the Senecas, the chiefs said, because “our money has heretofore been of great service to us.  It has helpt us to support our old People, and our Women and Children.”  The Senecas sought assurance that the Big Tree fund—the result of their leaders’ difficult decision to transform their lands in western New York into an annual payment—would continue to be paid.  “Brother,” the chiefs wrote to Eustis, “we do not understand your ways of doing business,” and “this think is heavy on our minds.”  The Senecas wanted to continue “to hold our White Brethren of the United States by the hand, but this weight is heavy. We hope,” they concluded, that “you will remove it.”[6]

I am fairly certain that these Seneca chiefs understood more than they let on.  Signed by a large number of prominent Seneca leaders, the “Talk of the Seneca Chiefs” must have occasioned some alarm in the War Department.  With war with Great Britain looming, the chiefs suggested that if the United States did not uphold its part of the bargain and see to the continued payment of the dividends, they might then cease “to hold our White Brethren of the United States by the hand,” and instead embrace those other white brethren, who stood poised on the opposite side of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, with whom they had aligned during American Revolution. Don’t mess with us. You need us to help secure the Niagara frontier.

The interest earned on the investment after 1811 produced only $5618 per year, but owing to the importance of the Senecas as allies while the United States muddled through its conflict with England, the sum of $6000 was paid to them from the general funds of the Indian department.  This fund, in turn, was credited with the dividend produced by the stock.  This arrangement continued until 1826 when the 6% stock was liquidated, producing $93,602.67, which the War Department invested in 3% stock.  The dividends, falling well short of the $6000 to which the Senecas had grown accustomed, posed a problem for the administration of John Quincy Adams.  To pay the usual $6000 would draw down the fund and perhaps force the sale of the stock from which the dividends derived.  In any case, the government would be expending more than the interest on the investment.  President Adams determined nonetheless “that the government would continue to pay” the Senecas six thousand dollars annually, “taking upon itself the protection of the fund.”  The United States, Adams believed, “was bound in good faith to do so.”[7]

Adams was willing to spend federal funds to uphold the honor of the United States.  His successor, Andrew Jackson, clearly did not share this view.  Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas McKenney disliked the idea of paying the $6000.00 when “the sum remitted” was “greater than the interest received on the Stock.”  Anticipating the new president’s views, McKenney decided to offer to the Senecas in 1829 nothing more than the divided, a sum of less than three thousand dollars by 1829.[8]

This unilateral decision angered the Senecas.  An elderly Cornplanter, writing from Kinzua, appealed to President Jackson.  The Senecas, Cornplanter wrote, had been well satisfied with the annual dividend of $6000, but now the news from Washington “fills our minds with concern that we cannot get our Money nor be informed why we should not receive [it] as in former years.”[9]  Writing less than three weeks after Congress enacted the Indian Removal Bill, surely Cornplanter recognized that he had directed his appeal to an ardent expansionist who coveted Indian land and wanted all eastern Indians relocated to new lands in the west. The Big Tree payment, Cornplanter continued, “was but a little but it enabled us to purchase Salt & some Blanketts and that would be a great help to those who are active & till their land.”  The Senecas could not accept anything less than the 6% to which they were accustomed.[10]

The President did not believe that any law existed which authorized him to pay to the Senecas a sum greater than the value produced by the stock.  Sticking to his rigid and self-serving code of constitutional interpretation, Jackson punted the question to Congress, which in the 1830s did things.  The resulting bill, introduced in the House of Representatives, would provide the Senecas with a permanent annuity of $6000, while whatever proceeds emerged from the stock would be credited to the United States.

Senator John Forsyth of Georgia, a determined advocate of the ethnic cleansing his state carried out against the Cherokees and the Creeks, opposed any measure that went beyond the strict language of the Big Tree treaty.  Nothing in that agreement, he believed, obligated the United States to pay to the Senecas 6% forever.  Paying the $6000 he said,


had already cost the Government a very considerable amount  over and above the product of the stock, and now the question arises, are we bound to do more, after doing all we have already gratuitously performed?  But it is said the Indians have been given to understand that the full amount of six thousand dollars should be paid to them. Who gave them to understand this? Who had a right to do so? And yet it was on such loose declarations that the whole merits of this claim seemed to rest.  It is contended that the Government is bound to realize to these Indians any expectations they may have been induced to entertain.  It is true, it is said that the late President of the United States [Adams], when the subject was before him, had given them these assurances. This, however, did not establish the justice of the demand.  He could see no sort of obligation on the part of the Government to pay them more than the amount produced by their stock.[11]

Forsyth’s argument failed to persuade a critical number of his colleagues, which is surprising given how they felt about Indians, and the bill became law in February of 1831.  Thereafter, the law read,

the proceeds of the sum of one hundred thousand dollars, being the amount placed in the hands of the President of the United States, in trust, for the Seneca tribe of Indians, situated in the State of New York, be hereafter passed to the credit of the Indian appropriation fund; and that the Secretary of War be authorized to receive, and pay over to the Seneca tribe of Indians, the sum of six thousand dollars annually, in the way and manner as heretofore practiced.

A subsequent act, signed into law in December of 1831, paid to the Senecas $2914.40, “that being the balance due on the annuity payable to said Indians for the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty-nine.”[12]

Congress did on a number of subsequent occasions revisit the Big Tree annuity.  An act passed in June of 1846 provided that “certain stocks, etc. held in trust for the Senecas should be cancelled and the funds deposited in the Treasury at 5 percent interest and the interest paid to the Senecas annually.”[13]  Fifty-three years later, in March of 1909, Congress directed the Secretary of the Treasury to place on the books of the Treasury Department “to the credit of the Seneca Indians of New York, the sum of $118,050, such sum to bear interest at 5 percent until withdrawn for the Indians, being the value of stocks held in trust for the Indians and taken by the United States and cancelled under the authority of the act of June 27, 1846.”  Congress authorized the Treasury Secretary in 1909 to place on the books of the treasury department $118,050, “such sum to bear interest at 5 percent until withdrawn for the Indians, being the value of stocks held in trust for the Indians and taken by the United States and cancelled under the authority” of the 1846 act.  This sum, Congress decided, the Treasury secretary would pay  “per capita to the members of the tribe entitled thereto.”[14]

I am not sure what happened as we carry the story through the rest of the nineteenth century and into and through the twentieth. The records of congressional appropriations show that the Congress continued to appropriate the $6000 dollars each year to pay its obligations under the Big Tree treaty.  Seneca Nation records, however, suggest that these payments were not received until relatively recently. I still have work to do to be able to sort this out.

But here is the thing. Honor Indian Treaties.  But a lot of them were not honorable at all, and the terms of many of them were never written with Indians’ interests in mind. Students in my Native American Survey course has just finished reading Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, which says so much in such a breezy manner.  “Treaties,” King wrote, “were not vehicles for protecting land or even sharing land.” Rather, “they were vehicles for acquiring land.  Almost without fail, throughout the history of North America, every time Indians signed at reaty with Whites, Indians lost land.”

So let’s think about what we mean when we call upon the United States to honor its treaties. Certainly the government should keep its word. Certainly in the realm of Indian affairs it has behaved despicably and irresponsibly. Certainly treaties have been broken many times, with often devastating consequences. But, in many instances, native communities would have been better off if these treaties had never been negotiated, never signed, never ratified, and never proclaimed by the president.  So many of them were coerced, or fraudulent, or exploitative.  The colonization of this continent, and the dispossession of native peoples, to a great extent was achieved through the instrument of treaties.


[1] Charles E. Brooks, Frontier Settlement and the Market Revolution: The Holland Land Purchase, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 13-14.

[2] Wallace, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, 179-180.  The Holland Land Company Papers are located at the State University of New York, College at Fredonia.

[3] Wallace, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, 179-183; Taylor, Divided Ground, 313-316; Laurence M. Hauptman, Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 91-92; Norman B. Wilkinson, “Robert Morris and the Treaty of Big Tree,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 40 (September 1953), 257-278.

[4] Kappler, comp., Treaties, 1028.

[5] LR OSW IA, 1: 0188.

[6] Talk of the Seneca Chiefs, 9 October 1811, LR OSW IA, 1: 714.

[7] Nourse Report, 18 March 1829, LR OIA-Seneca, Roll 808.

[8] McKenney to Secretary of War John H. Eaton, 17 March 1829, Ibid.

[9] John O’Bail (Cornplanter) to Andrew Jackson, 2 August 1830, Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gales and Seaton’s Register of Debates in Congress, 3 February 1831, p. 79.

[12] Available at the Library of Congress “Century of Lawmaking” website.

[13] “Compilation of Material Relating to the Indians of the United States, etc., by Subcommittee on Indian Affairs of the Committee of Public Lands, House of Representatives, Pursuant to H. Res. 66, 81st Congress, 2d. Sess., 13 June 1950, Serial No. 30,” in Paul G. Reilly Collection, Buffalo State College, Box 37, p. 12.

[14] Ibid., 13.

Creative Destruction: Or, Let’s Bash Some Monuments

It’s what we do, at least metaphorically. For historians, the destruction of monuments can be a good thing, a visceral and often-times important act of revision. It is an opportunity to replace dated and damaging interpretations of the past with more complicated, nuanced, and correct stories. We do not necessarily need to destroy Confederate statues to do this, but certainly we can reinterpret them, knock them down a few pegs, and re-write the stories that these racist monuments to white supremacy attempt to tell. Stick them in a museum, if you want, but let’s not pretend these are sacred sites.

There was a news story I caught at the end of last week.  Among the many vicious clowns and tiki-torch bearing, racist weenies in Charlottesville, was Mr. Jerrod Kuhn, a graduate of Honeoye Falls-Lima High School. It’s about ten miles from where I live. Kuhn was photographed marching with the white supremacists while they chanted “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” “Blood and Soil,” and “White Lives Matter.”  Kuhn said, however, that he was neither a Nazi nor a white-supremacist.  Rather, he was a “moderate Republican”(!) marching to protest efforts to eliminate statues and monuments commemorating the Confederacy and the cause for which it stood–White Supremacy.  When some of Kuhn’s anti-fascist neighbors saw his picture with the marchers, they publicized this bit of news, arguing that local residents should know that there is a Nazi in town.  And Kuhn cried foul. He was afraid. Some of his neighbors were being mean to him.  Boo-Freakin-Hoo. If you dance with the devil, people are going to think you are a sinner, and the monuments Kuhn marched to protect and which commemorated the Confederacy were erected not immediately after the Civil War, but several decades later, at the beginning of the Jim Crow era.  It is an interpretation of the Civil War that has endured, in the face of all the evidence, for far too long. If taking down statues which lionize slave-owners who were willing to kill US Soldiers in order to hang on to their human property and the system of white supremacy that lay at the bedrock of southern society is what’s at stake, then let them fall.

I have thought a lot about Charlottesville.  I have thought about the President’s support for the so-called “Alt-Right” movement.  As I mentioned in a post last week, I really do not care what the President says: systems of white supremacy are deeply ingrained. Trump has emboldened the Nazis and the Troglodytes, but those people have been living under rocks quite contentedly for generations, surfacing periodically. Even though Steve Bannon has lumbered away from the White House, and Donald Trump is saying whatever the hell it is that he occasionally says, white supremacy will endure. It is institutional, and it is part of what we are as a nation.

I have thought, however, about what all of this might mean to those of us who teach and study Native American history, a field in which we might not discuss white supremacy enough.

After I moved to Montana in 1994, one of my first trips was to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield site, about an hour or so away from Billings.  In the small visitor’s center stood a iron plaque, about a yard square, that had been placed at the battlefield by Native American activists in the summer of 1988.  It read,

In honor of our Indian Patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. calvary. In order to save our women and children from mass-murder. In doing so, preserving rights to our Homelands, Treaties and Sovereignty. 6/25/1988 G. Magpie, Cheyenne.

You can read about the history of this plaque here.  It was a protest.  An attempt to replace one monument with another, a somber remembrance of the men Custer led to their deaths in June of 1876 with a monument commemorating the efforts of the Lakota warriors who fought to protect their homelands, even if the battle took place in Crow Country. Some viewed the plaque as an act of vandalism.  But it forced a conversation. Custer was no hero.  His men fought to eliminate Lakota people, to take their homelands, and the mineral wealth that lie beneath it.  The native peoples who fought them were not obstacles to progress.  But that is how they were depicted.

The protest mattered. It gained attention.  It forced a conversation, a reconsideration.  The National Park Service responded.  When a permanent monument was erected at the battlefield site in 2003, the native peoples who participated in that protest, who defied the rangers and cemented their iron plaque over the list of Custer’s dead cavalrymen, came as invited guests.

History is not merely a collection of facts.  You can see, for instance, how Custer has been depicted over the years.  Walt Whitman described him as a Christ-like figure, one who sacrificed himself in the name of western civilization and the conquest of the American West.

From far Dakota’s canyons,
  Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lonesome stretch, the
  Haply to-day a mournful wall, haply a trumpet-note for heroes.

  The battle-bulletin,
  The Indian ambuscade, the craft, the fatal environment,
  The cavalry companies fighting to the last in sternest heroism,
  In the midst of their little circle, with their slaughter’d horses
      for breastworks,
  The fall of Custer and all his officers and men.

  Continues yet the old, old legend of our race,
  The loftiest of life upheld by death,
  The ancient banner perfectly maintain’d,
  O lesson opportune, O how I welcome thee!

  As sitting in dark days,
  Lone, sulky, through the time’s thick murk looking in vain for
      light, for hope,
  From unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof,
  (The sun there at the centre though conceal’d,
  Electric life forever at the centre,)
  Breaks forth a lightning flash.

  Thou of the tawny flowing hair in battle,
  I erewhile saw, with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a
      bright sword in thy hand,
  Now ending well in death the splendid fever of thy deeds,
  (I bring no dirge for it or thee, I bring a glad triumphal sonnet,)
  Desperate and glorious, aye in defeat most desperate, most glorious,
  After thy many battles in which never yielding up a gun or a color,
  Leaving behind thee a memory sweet to soldiers,
  Thou yieldest up thyself.

A century later, Richard Mulligan portrayed Custer in “Little Big Man” as an unhinged madman, a preening martinet, in love with his own reflection, and lusting for Indian blood.  He spouted lines that would have sounded familiar to a movie audience exhausted and angry about the Vietnam War. He represented all the foolishness, the arrogance, and the stupidity that led the United States into an imperial war it could not win.  Custer, Westmoreland, light at the end of the tunnel, we must always advance.  It was a stunning revision of Custer’s carefully cultivated image.

Interpretations change.  Monuments are not history. They are interpretations of history.  And as such, they are not sacred.  They are open to challenge, to question.  And if the claims they make are wrong or over-simplified or pernicious–Custer was heroic, or the South fought for “States’ Rights,” for example– than they ought to be replaced, revised, rewritten.  My point is that we historians, when we do our jobs well, destroy monuments ALL. THE. TIME.  We ask tough questions.  We challenge long-cherished assumptions.  We are not precious, and we should hold nothing sacred but a determination to work the sources thoroughly and honestly in order to get the story right.

And then there is the story of Juan de Oñate’s foot.  A statue of the Spanish Conquistador, considered a “Founding Father” of New Mexico, stood in the town of Alcalde.  In January of 1998, as the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Mexico approached, protestors armed with a chainsaw cut the right foot off the statue.  For them, this conquistador was no hero. They were, in effect, writing an alternative version of the Oñate story, commemorating the violent Spaniard’s brutal order to cut the right foot off of two dozen Acoma Pueblo prisoners who had resisted his advance.  I wrote about this event in Native America. The sculptor repaired the statue, but the missing foot never was returned.

We can call this act vandalism, or the destruction of public property, the sort of stuff that Vice-President Mike Pence has said he deplores.  It was those things, but it also was an act of reinterpretation, of historical revision. Douglas Seefeldt made this point in a paper entitled “Oñate’s Foot: Histories, Landscapes, and Contested Memories in the Southwest,” published in Across the Continent: Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the Making of America, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2005. Seefeldt edited this volume, along with Jeffrey L. Hantman and Peter Onuf. While some might excuse Oñate’s violence, and celebrate his founding of the Spanish province that became the state of New Mexico, and his bringing the cattle industry to what became the American Southwest, the people who removed the foot from the statue reminded New Mexicans of another side to the story, and demonstrated that history consists of many narratives and many voices.  Not all these voices are heard.  Not all of them are listened to.  And sometimes, to register, to move the debate, dramatic acts are necessary.

I like this poem that tells the story of the removal of Oñate’s foot, and the subsequent celebration of another, larger, statue of the conquistador erected near El Paso:

The Right Foot of Juan De Oñate”By Martín Espada

On the road to Taos, in the town of Alcalde, the bronze statue
of Juan de Oñate, the conquistador, kept vigil from his horse.
Late one night a chainsaw sliced off his right foot, stuttering
through the ball of his ankle, as Oñate’s spirit scratched
and howled like a dog trapped within the bronze body.
Four centuries ago, after his cannon fire burst to burn hundreds
of bodies and blacken the adobe walls of the Acoma Pueblo,
Oñate wheeled on his startled horse and spoke the decree:
all Acoma males above the age of twenty-five would be punished
by amputation of the right foot. Spanish knives sawed through ankles;
Spanish hands tossed feet into piles like fish at the marketplace.
There was prayer and wailing in a language Oñate did not speak.
Now, at the airport in El Paso, across from Juárez,
another bronze statue of Oñate rises on a horse frozen in fury.
The city fathers smash champagne bottles across the horse’s legs
to christen the statue, and Oñate’s spirit remembers the chainsaw
carving through the ball of his ankle. The Acoma Pueblo still stands.
Thousands of brown feet walk across the border, the desert
of Chihuaha, the shallow places of the Río Grande, the bridges
from Juárez to El Paso. Oñate keeps watch, high on horseback
above the Río Grande, the law of the conquistador rolled
in his hand, helpless as a man with an amputated foot,
spirit scratching and howling like a dog within the bronze body.

Interpretations of Native American history are everywhere, and I often encourage students to seek them out, to engage them in a debate, to interrogate their biases and assumptions.  Good comes from this.  Every day from first through sixth grade I saw this mural on the wall of Our Lady of Assumption Church in Ventura, where I grew up and went to elementary school.  It presents a rosy picture of the arrival of the Spanish priests at Mission San Buenaventura, one not at all consistent with how scholars see that encounter today.  Nobody has suggested removing this mural to my knowledge, but it stands testament to an interpretation highly favorable to the Catholic Church.

We write history; we do not create monuments. Our purpose is not civic education or instilling patriotism. As I have said before, history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space in peoples, institutions, and cultures.  That requires asking tough questions, researching relentlessly, and presenting answers that are sometimes painful to hear.  And too much of the history that has been included on these Confederate monuments and monuments to conquistadors and conquerors is, quite simply, bad history.

In two weeks the town of Geneseo, where my college is located, will be commemorating the 1797 “Treaty of Big Tree.” It is a big deal in town. As a guest of the college, you might stay in the Big Tree Inn.  Dining halls on campus are named after Mary Jemison, who knew much about the treaty, and Red Jacket, who got screaming drunk before he signed it.  For those who do not want to drink where students drink, the tavern at the Big Tree is one of a small handful of choices along Geneseo’s short main street.  If you want to take in the sights, you can go to the Livingston County Historical Society, spitting distance from the campus, and see what its curators claim is an actual piece of the “Big Tree,” under which the treaty was negotiated.  And according to a historical marker located in a campus parking lot, this treaty was significant.  The sign reads, “Treaty Of Big Tree:  Site Of Memorable Treaty Releasing Seneca Title To 3,600,000 Acres Of Land September 15, 1797.”

Releasing title.  3. 6 million acres.  Wow.  This treaty was an alcohol-soaked affair in which Thomas Morris, the non-bankrupt son of the bankrupt financier of the American Revolution and not-too-successful land speculator Robert Morris, employed bribery and alcohol to obtain signatures to a grotesquely corrupt real estate transaction. The Senecas, who had little choice, signed over the right to nearly all of the land in New York State west of the Genesee River save for eleven reservations. Over time, those reservations were whittled down to four, and then two, and now three.  In return for this massive cession, and the bribes he agreed to pay several Seneca leaders, Thomas Morris invested $100,000 dollars in stock of the Bank of the United States, the interest of which was paid to the Senecas most years thereafter.  Some years the amount came to nearly six thousand dollars; other years it was half that.  Why did this happen?  Stuart Banner answers tough questions like this in his excellent How the Indians Lost Their Land, a book I use in my Indian Law course.  The territory was massive; the Senecas’ population small.  The speculators and the settlers were coming.  Better to sell now, get something, and preserve a few key locations than walk away empty-handed. Dispossession.  Land loss. The removal from homes and homelands.  That story is given short-shrift in the celebratory histories of Geneseo and Livingston County. Signs like this one, as the Haudenosaunee scholar Rick Hill has argued, should be re-written.   Rick put together a pamphlet some years ago in which he wrote brief retorts to these ethnocentric markers that seemingly justify the dispossession of Haudenosaunee people and the resulting Iroquois diaspora.

So to those of you who marched in Charlottesville, or sympathize with them, let me make this clear: when we historians suggest that your markers and monuments ought to come down, we are not trying to steal your history and heritage.  History belongs to no one and your heritage, well, good luck with that.  You are on your own. We are suggesting that the interpretation of the past that you cling to, rather, is not only incorrect and oversimplified, but in some cases pernicious and a justification for past evils and continuing historical crimes. We hope we can reason with you, and persuade you with evidence to see things our way.   We are educators, after all, who have spent our adult lives studying history.  We know some stuff. (Some of the other people complaining about you? Yeah, they think you’re racist assholes, and some of them want to beat you up, but I don’t speak for them).  Facts, evidence, explanation: That is the world of the historian.  Myth, fantasy, and ideological comfort food–that is where the monument boosters stand.  Our goals are different. Yours are about justifying your views of the past.  Ours?  We like to think that we are speaking and writing about the truth.

And here’s a challenge for those of you who do not like what we say.  I tell my students this every semester. Ask us for the evidence.  I promise you, we will do the same.  We will support our claims with evidence, and ask that you do, too. If you hear something that you do not believe, ask us for the proof.   That is fair. I tell my students, it is entirely fair for them to ask their history professors not only, “What is the evidence for this claim?” but, also, “So What? Why does this story matter?” No historian worth his or her salt will be threatened by that question.  We can take it.  Can you?