Tag Archives: New York State

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 NewYorkUpstate.com, 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 - newyorkupstate.com

            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.

An Old and Steady Enemy

Governor Kathy Hochul evidently believes that New York is able to lecture the state’s Indigenous peoples about the sanctity of contracts. She recently used the massive coercive power of the state to enforce an agreement that New York had first violated under her disgraced predecessor.  It was a reprehensible display of raw power by the leader of a state government that has, from its inception, viewed the slightest trace of prosperity in Indian Country as a resource ripe for seizure and exploitation.

            Governor Hochul recently froze the assets of the Seneca Nation of Indians, extorted from them a sum of several hundred million dollars, and proudly announced that those funds would cover the bulk of the state’s contribution to build a new football stadium for the Buffalo Bills. The Hochul family, because of her husband’s employment, stands to benefit enormously from the new stadium. She froze the Seneca Nation’s accounts because, in her view, they had not paid what they owed to the state and to several counties surrounding Seneca gaming enterprises in western New York.  What neither she nor her supporters told you was that the Seneca Nation started withholding its payments when New York State violated its federally required compact with the Nation by allowing a competing gaming operation within the Senecas’ “exclusivity” zone.

            I love the Buffalo Bills, but this stinks to high hell.

            Let’s be clear. Neither the state nor the federal governments “gave” the Senecas the right to engage in casino gaming.  According to the Supreme Court, gaming is a right encompassed within the inherent sovereignty of Native American Nations.  What does that mean? Basically, under American law, Native American tribes can exercise any power they choose to exercise, so long as that power is not explicitly prohibited by a treaty or an act of congress, or implicitly prohibited by being somehow inconsistent with their status as “domestic dependent nations.” (Implicit divestiture is a murky concept, that has allowed a lot of state intrusion into the internal affairs of Native American Nations). Late in the 1980s, Congress passed a piece of legislation known as the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, to set the ground rules for Indian gaming.  For the most lucrative sorts of games—slots and the table games that most of us associate with casinos—Congress required that Indigenous nations enter a “compact” with the state in which they plan to do business.  Many states extract a share of the casino revenue as one part of the agreement. In the Seneca Nation’s case, the state also guaranteed that the Senecas would have an exclusive right to operate gaming facilities in the western part of the state.  When the state allowed competing enterprises to open, part of the Cuomo Administration’s ill-conceived plan to effectively tax people who are bad at math, the Senecas justly pointed out that the state violated the compact.  Negotiations had been on-going up until the point when Governor Hochul realized she needed a ton of cash to support the Pegulas’ bid to build a new stadium for the Bills. As journalist David Kay Johnston pointed out, that agreement is a loser for taxpayers because the Pegulas easily could afford to construct the stadium themselves.

            There is a long history here.

            New York became the Empire State through a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. That’s a fact. Though the Supreme Court declined to do anything about the process, arguing disingenuously that the injuries occurred too long ago to offer a workable remedy, most of the so-called treaties the state negotiated clearly violated federal law.

            Not only were many of these transactions unambiguously illegal, but they were, as the kids say, as shady as hell. The Onondagas and Oneidas, for instance, entered into agreements in 1788 in which they were led to believe they would lease their lands to the State of New York.  Turns out that when the treaty was written by New York officials, those leases had magically been transformed into sales. Dispossession through literacy in English.  Other transactions took place with small

Federal Copy of the Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794

number of Indians present, few of whom were the proper people to sign treaties.  And the United States, especially with regard to the Senecas, hardly kept its hands clean.  The 1838 treaty of Buffalo Creek, a transaction designed to expel the Six Nations from New York State, is the most crooked treaty in the history of this country.  That is saying something. Signatories were coerced or threatened, signatures were forged, and alcohol flowed freely.  Meanwhile, both federal and state authorities in New York have ignored those provisions in treaties that protect Indigenous rights.  For example, clauses guaranteeing the Senecas and their Iroquois neighbors the right to the “free use and enjoyment of their lands” in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua have been consistently ignored.  They have ignored provisions in treaties guaranteeing Indigenous peoples the right to hunt and fish on the land they ceded to the state. The state has even tried to tax the “per capita” payments the Seneca Nation made to its members from the Nation’s gaming proceeds. It is just one assault after another.  It is worth keeping in mind that the Seneca Nation has never asked for special privileges.  It asked merely that the state of New York follow the rules to which it had agreed. Contracts are sacred, Governor Hochul suggested, unless they somehow limit her ability to funnel many millions of public dollars to private hands.

There is a principle that is very important to Iroquois people.  The People who made up the Iroquois League conducted their lives in accordance

Two Row Wampum – Gä•sweñta' – Onondaga Nation
The Two-Row Wampum.

with this principle over the centuries. It is called “Guswenta,” and today it is represented by a very specific wampum belt known as the Two-Row, which depicted two parallel lines on a field of white.  The lines represented the Iroquois and their non-native neighbors. They shared the same land, they occupied the same country, but they remained independent and autonomous.  The lines did not cross, and neither natives nor newcomers should interfere in the affairs of the other. Indigenous peoples in this state have kept their part of the bargain.  They have had little choice.  The state, and its colonial predecessors, have not.  The Indigenous people of this state have faced epidemic diseases, military invasions, the carrying away of their children to boarding schools, and systematic and deliberate attempts to wipe out their culture and take their land. Yet here they remain, developing their communities, looking forward, in a state that has been a steady and relentless adversary.  They hoped the state would play by its own rules.  Governor Hochul said no.

It is worth reading the statement from Seneca Nation president Matthew Pagels:

“New York’s hostile and shameless greed was laid bare for the world to see yesterday. After intentionally and unnecessarily holding the Seneca people and thousands of Western New Yorkers and families hostage for several days by strangling various bank accounts held by the Seneca Nation and our businesses, Governor Hochul couldn’t contain her excitement to boast about using her Seneca ransom money for a new stadium.

I’m sure that was welcome news to the Governor’s husband, whose company not only operates Video Lottery Terminals within the Seneca Nation’s supposed gaming exclusivity zone with the State’s blessing, but the company will also make millions of dollars in concession business inside the State-owned stadium. And it’s being paid for on the backs of the Seneca Nation. Quite a sweetheart deal.

We see, and we hope the world sees, the Governor’s announcement for what it is — the latest chapter in New York’s long history of mistreatment and taking advantage of Native people. Governor Hochul happily tried to strangle Western New York in order to squeeze every drop of blood she could get from the Seneca Nation.

It is not surprising to the Seneca Nation that the Governor thinks her actions should be applauded as progress. That’s the Albany way. The claims that a new day had dawned in Albany have turned into Groundhog Day — more of the same, just as it’s always been.

The Governor’s new stadium won’t be a product of progress. It will be a monument to Albany’s vindictive desire to punish the Seneca people. Ultimately, it’s something we’re all too familiar with.”

He’s right.

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.