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

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 agreement states:

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 Seneca Nation.

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.

Handsome Lake

grantWhile 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.

spacer spacer spacer spacer