The Legendary Seneca Chief Cornplanter
A few years ago, I met a young man was a descendant of Cornplanter. His family had moved from the tribal lands to the nearby Seneca reservation probably for economic reasons. He gave me a CD of his people’s music. It was beautiful. It is sad that our culture had almost wiped their culture from this country.
Another memory that I have related to this chief is that I remember back when I was a teenager at the nursing home next door where I sometimes worked, one of the residents had been one of the people who helped move a graveyard off land that would be at the bottom of the lake above what was to be Kinzua Dam in Warren County, Pennsylvania. Later I learned that this had been land that was promised to the descendants of Chief Cornplanter. If they lived on the land, it would always be reserved for them. The last member of the Cornplanter Tribe left the land sometime before the US government whisked in and took possession of the area and flooded the area and built the dam for electricity production.
Cornplanter’s Early Years
Cornplanter was born sometime between 1732 and 1746, in the village of Conewaugus on the Genesee River in New York, the son of a Seneca woman and a Dutch trader named John Abeel (O’Bail). Lewis Henry Morgan erroneously states that it was Cornplanter’s mother who was white rather than his father. This is important because the Seneca, like other Iroquois people, are matrilineal. This means that tribal membership comes to individuals through their mothers. Cornplanter had two half siblings who were born to his mother and a Seneca father: a brother, Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet; and a sister who became the mother of Governor Blacksnake, the Seneca political leader. Little is known about Cornplanter during his early years, although many scholars contend that he was a warrior during the French and Indian War at the defeat of Edward Braddock in 1755 while he was in his early teens. One letter to the governor of Pennsylvania noted that Cornplanter, while playing with the other Indian boys, noticed that his skin color was lighter than that of the other boys, whereupon his mother told him of his white father who lived in Albany. As a prospective bridegroom, he visited his father who treated him kindly, but gave him nothing in the way of either material goods or expected information, particularly regarding the coming rebellion of the colonists against the British. This rebellion played a major role in Cornplanter’s life.
This Role during the Revolutionary War
Cornplanter played a major role in Iroquois Confederacy politics before and during the American Revolution and the subsequent political adaptation of the Seneca to the new government of the United States. The Iroquois Confederacy began as an alliance of five northern Iroquoian-speaking tribes: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. This alliance was formed to harness the strength of these five groups in fighting common enemies as well as to foster economic cooperation among them. The confederacy was governed by the Grand Council of Fifty Chiefs.
This governing body had cardinal rules which stated that any decision made required a unanimous vote of the chiefs especially decisions regarding war. In the Revolution, the Mohawk were firmly behind the British, but the Seneca hoped for neutrality. Cornplanter and his half-brother Handsome Lake were among the leaders of the Seneca. However, Cornplanter was obliged to support his fellow clansman Joseph Brant, a Mohawk captain who supported the British and he was obligated to fight with the British against the Americans. Other members of the federation, like the Oneida and the Tuscarora remained neutral and refused to get in the middle of the fight.
Despite his original misgivings about entering the war on the side of the British, Cornplanter served as a commander for the Seneca throughout the war.
During the Battle of Canajoharie, located in the Mohawk Valley, during August of 1780. Cornplanter recognized his father, John Abeel, among the captive survivors after his men attacked and burned a village. Though Cornplanter felt slighted by his father for not having send a wedding gift, Cornplanter still respected him as a kinsman and apologize for burning his house. He also offered his father the option of returning to Seneca country with him or being released immediately. Abeel chose to be released, and, at Cornplanter’s request, the council of leaders allowed his freedom.
After the Revolution
Even before the end of the war, Americans started planning to remove the Indians from their lands and punish them for their aid to the British by destroying the political importance of the confederacy and looked at the monetary gain they would get for confiscating and selling Indian land. When General George Washington ordered an invasion of the Iroquois homeland to punish them for their role in the revolution, Cornplanter sent an urgent message in July of 1779, saying: “Father. You have said that we are in your hand and that by closing it you could crush us to nothing. Are you determined to crush us? If you are, tell us so that those of our nation who have become your children and have determined to die so, may know what to do. But before you determine on a measure so unjust, look up to God who made us as well as you. We hope He will not permit you to destroy the whole of our nation.”
Cornplanter tried to reconcile the Seneca with the Americans, but failed. He attended the treaty council held at Fort Stanwix (1784) between the Iroquois and the United States. This treaty ceded large tracts of Indian land to the new government. Because he tried to make peace between the Seneca and the Americas and because the tribe lost great tracts of land, Cornplanter became unpopular with the Seneca. Although he was not a signer of the treaty, Cornplanter agreed to the Fort Harmar Treaty (1789), ceded another great tract of land to the United States, and this only worsened his position with the tribe.
During this period of treaty-making, arguments arose over which of the newly formed states would encompass Indian territories. Robert Morris, an early colonial and American financier, purchased a right, called a right of pre-emption” from the state of Massachusetts. He eventually decided to sell this right of pre-emption to the Holland Land Company, agreeing in the bargain to extinguish Indian claim to the land by buying the land from the Indians. Finances ultimately kept him from accomplishing this, but he still attempted to extinguish Indian claim to the land through political channels. He met with Cornplanter in Philadelphia in August of 1797 to begin preliminary discussions of this issue, which led to full-scale negotiations between Morris and the Seneca at Genesee, New York. The Seneca rejected all of Morris’s offers and Red Jacket eventually proclaimed negotiations to be at an end. The Seneca finally agreed to cede the land and signed a treaty in September of 1797.
The Land Grant
In 1795 the Pennsylvania Commonwealth awarded him in fee simple 1,500 acres of land in western Pennsylvania. Cornplanter directed the survey of this land into three strategic and valuable tracts and a patent was issued in 1796. He eventually lost two of the tracts, those at Oil City and Richland. The third tract he kept, encompassing about 750 acres along the Allegany River including the site of the old Seneca town Jenuchshadago and two islands in that river. He was awarded a yearly pension by the U.S. government because of the 1797 treaty, which he collected for some time. An additional tract of land given to Cornplanter is in what is now Marietta, Ohio, and Cornplanter’s heirs continue to claim that the US government defrauded from them.
Cornplanter raised horses and cattle and maintained his own political community. According to O. Turner in Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Cornplanter later quarreled with Handsome Lake over some of the religious teachings which Handsome Lake had introduced to the Seneca.
Cornplanter eventually became a Christian, and invited Quakers to build a school on his land grant. However, he became disillusioned with the white man’s effects on Seneca culture and he publicly destroyed the formal regalia and various awards that he had received from the president of the United States. He died on February 18, 1836, in Jenuchshadago at about one hundred years old.
Cornplanter’s last direct heir and great-great-great-grandson, Jesse Cornplanter, an artist, died in 1957. By the 1960s, Cornplanter’s indirect descendants had already moved to Salamanca, New York.
Construction of Kinzua Dam condemned 10,000 acres of the Allegheny Reservation including the land granted to Cornplanter in the Treaty of Canandaigua. The Seneca lost a considerable number of acres of fertile farmland and forced 600 Seneca from their community within the reservation. Because he claimed the immediate need for flood control, President John F. Kennedy denied the Seneca’s request to halt construction.
In Pennsylvania, the government condemned most of the historic Cornplanter Tract, made by the state legislature to Cornplanter after the Revolutionary War to him and his heirs “forever”. This area included a historic cemetery that contained Cornplanter’s remains as well as three hundred descendants and followers and a state memorial monument erected in 1866.
The state exhumed and reinterred these remains in a new cemetery, located west of the north central Pennsylvania town of Bradford, about 100 yards from the New York state line. “The cemetery contains remains of white residents of Corydon, a town submerged by the reservoir. By 2009 Seneca observers and whites pleaded with the State Corps of Engineers to protect the area when they saw erosion on the bluff where the cemetery was located. Other remains were relocated to a cemetery in Steamburg.
The Locket Saga
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it’s hard to read about Native American history; sadness is the natural result.
Happy Thanksgiving to you, Donna!
Do you know who painted the portrait? Or anything at all about it? I am very interested in this unusual work. Thank you.
I know that a copy of it was sold at auction recently, but I don’t know who painted it.