North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
Sovereign People: Ancestry in the Land
During the American Revolution, the Iroquois warrior Cornplanter
rose to prominence, becoming a principal Seneca leader. He was
also known as John O'Bail after his Dutch trader father.
After the Revolution, Cornplanter quickly decided that keeping
the peace with the new Americans was the best way to help his
own people. Although his mission as a peacekeeper was often
unpopular and difficult, he negotiated the best possible terms
for his people on numerous occasions when he traveled as a
statesman to Philadelphia.
In gratitude for his assistance in keeping the Seneca neutral
during the Indian wars in Ohio, Cornplanter was given a grant
of land. In 1791, the grateful Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
established Cornplanter's Grant along the western bank of the Allegheny River.
Cornplanter's Grant was not a reservation, since the land was a
gift to Cornplanter himself. Yet the land offered the Iroquois
people a measure of asylum from the pressures of a new expanding
nation. Nestled between the river and the mountains, the land
offered the Seneca people an opportunity continue to plant, hunt,
and live in their traditional ways.
Cornplanter believed it would be advantageous for the Senecas to receive
education in English and other Euro-American skills, so he
invited the Quakers to come and teach at Cornplanter's Grant.
In 1798, 400 Seneca (one-fourth of the total Seneca population)
lived on Cornplanter's Grant at the town of Burnt House, or
Jenuchshadego. Many were major figures in the Iroquois Confederacy.
Noted residents included Cornplanter's half brother, the prophet
Handsome Lake; his uncle Guyasuta;
his nephew "Governor" Blacksnake; and Blacksnake's sister, the leading
woman of the community and clan mother of the Wolf clan.
Though given to Cornplanter in perpetuity, Cornplanter's Grant was
confiscated by the U.S. government in 1964 in order to to construct
the Kinzua Dam.
Kinzua Dam: A Broken Promise
In 1965 the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed Kinzua
Dam. Its rising water inundated all of the habitable land of
Cornplanter's Grant along with 10,000 acres of the Seneca's Allegany
Reservation in New York.
Cornplanter's descendants and the Allegany Seneca fought to halt the
construction of the dam. They cited the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794,
the oldest active treaty in the United States. This agreement, signed
by both George Washington's representative and Cornplanter, guaranteed
that the United States would never take the Seneca's land. This
Now the United States acknowledges all the land within the
aforementioned boundaries, to be the property of the Seneca Nation,
and the United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the
The United States confiscated the Seneca's land by the right of
eminent domain. Two hundred and thirty descendants of Chief
Cornplanter lost their homeland in 1964 when the reservoir at Kinzua
Dam filled. They lost their 175-year-old ancestral home—their houses,
their hunting and fishing grounds, their church, and their school.
While Cornplanter's half brother Handsome Lake lived at Cornplanter's
Grant, he founded a new religion. It emphasized a revitalization of
the traditional seasonal ceremonies, a strengthening of the family,
and a prohibition against liquor. Handsome Lake's teachings were
based on a series of visions. Dreams were an important instrument
for revelation, and visions were received as divine prophecies.
In 1799, Handsome Lake had the first in a series of visions while
lying in his bed deathly ill. A messenger from the Creator appeared
to him, giving him instructions for the Iroquois. Handsome Lake
recovered and preached these messages to the Seneca in what became
known as the Code of Handsome Lake. Iroquois people traveled many
miles to hear his message, and every year the prophet traveled to
other Iroquois settlements teaching his code.
fter Handsome Lake's death in 1815, his teachings continued to
spread and became the foundation for the Longhouse religion. Still
a vital force, this religion plays an important role in preserving
the Iroquois' sacred and cultural heritage.
Image 1: Cornplanter (ca. 1740-1836)
E.C. Biddle, northeastern United States, 1837
Cornplanter’s portrait was painted in 1796 by F. Bartoli in New York City. Later this lithograph, based on the oil painting, was published in The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, a multivolume work by McKenney and Hall.
Lithograph: Paper, ink, paint L 50.5 x 36.5 W cm; 36026-1.
Image 2: Pine log fragment from cabin at Cornplanter’s Grant
Seneca, collected by Cornplanter's grandson in 1908
Cabin fragment: Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), paper, ink, adhesive,
L 23.5 x W 11.7 x H 2.5 cm; 3641-8, gift of G.M. Lehman.