Cornplanter (1732-1836) was a leading warrior and village leader among the Seneca, one of six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. He earned his role as leader largely through military command and personal influence, which attracted friends and relatives to live on his reserved lands.
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). It should be noted that Lewis Henry Morgan erroneously states that it was Cornplanter's mother who was white rather than his father. This is important in that the Seneca, like other Iroquois people, are matrilineal, reckoning membership in the tribe 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. It was also noted in a letter to the governor of Pennsylvania 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, however, was to play a major role in Cornplanter's life.
Cornplanter's importance in American Indian history derives from his 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. Although the date of its beginnings is the subject of ongoing discussion, the Iroquois Confederacy was begun as an alliance of five northern Iroquoian-speaking tribes: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. This alliance was formed in order 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, made up of the following: eight Seneca chiefs, ten Cayuga chiefs, fourteen Onondaga chiefs, eight Oneida chiefs, nine Mohawk chiefs, and the person who held the title of Tadadaho, an Onondaga chief who presided over confederacy meetings. The Tuscarora, a southern Iroquoian-speaking group in coastal North Carolina, came north after their defeat in the Tuscarora War in 1711, joined the confederacy at the invitation of the Oneida, and therefore had no direct voice in the Grand Council, speaking only through the Oneida.
Among the Grand Council, one of the cardinal governing rules was that any decision made required a unanimous vote of the chiefs. Among the major diplomatic and political decisions made in this manner were decisions of war. While it is not known if ideal rule of unanimity was always reached in such decisions, it is well known that a major disagreement arose within the confederacy over the impending colonial rebellion against the British.
The Grand Council of the Chiefs usually met before the central fire at Onondaga due to the fact that it was the home of the Tadadaho, or head chief, of the confederacy. In the months prior to the outbreak of the revolution, both the loyalists and the rebelling colonists had been busy soliciting the partisanship of the Indian nations, including the mighty Iroquois. Discussions ranged back and forth on the issue of which side to support if any. The Mohawk were firmly on the side of the British, but the Seneca, long willing to war against the British, in this case spoke for neutrality. Among those Senecas speaking strongly for neutrality were both Cornplanter and his half brother Handsome Lake, who held one of the major chiefly Seneca titles in the confederacy. In opposing this stand, Cornplanter was reminded of his clan brotherhood with Joseph Brant, a Mohawk captain for the British. This clan relationship obliged Cornplanter to support his fellow clansman, and thus he was reminded that duty lay in fighting with the British against the colonists.
In the end, the arguments of the pro-British Seneca prevailed, and the Seneca agreed to side with the British in the conflict. While the Seneca made this decision, however, several of the other members of the confederacy were not willing to accept this decision, notably the Oneidas and Tuscarora, with the latter remaining neutral for the most part and the Oneida taking the side of the colonists. Since there was no confederacy unanimity on this question, the Grand Council agreed to "cover the fire," meaning that they agreed to disagree and each member was left to decide for himself how he would affiliate in the coming war.
Despite his original misgivings about entering the war on the side of the British, Cornplanter, with Old Smoke, served as commanders for the Seneca throughout the war. It should be noted that Old Smoke was of advanced age by this time, being in his seventies or eighties. Nevertheless, these two were the primary field commanders of the tribe.
Perhaps most indicative of Cornplanter's character is a perhaps apocryphal encounter described by Governor Blacksnake during the Battle of Canajoharie, located in the Mohawk Valley, during August of 1780. Cornplanter supposedly recognized his father, John Abeel, among the captive survivors of the attack and burning of the village. Even after the earlier disappointment he felt at not receiving a wedding gift from his father at their first meeting, Cornplanter still accorded him the respect and kindness due a kinsman by offering his apology for the burning of his house and the option of his father returning to Seneca country to be supported by his son, or being released immediately. According to Thomas S. Abler in Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake, Abeel chose the latter and was allowed his freedom by the council of leaders out of respect for Cornplanter.
Around this time, the American revolutionaries began to discuss ideas for removing the Indians from their land. They not only wanted to punish them for their aid to the British by destroying the political importance of the confederacy, they also looked at the monetary gain to be had by first confiscating, then selling, Indian land to help pay for the expenses of the war. 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."
While this plea was not successful, it was indicative of Cornplanter's attempts to reconcile the Seneca with the colonists. He attended the treaty council held at Fort Stanwix (1784) between the Iroquois and the newly successful republic, in which large amounts of Indian land was ceded to the new government. Because of his conciliatory stance and the great loss of land with this treaty, Cornplanter became very unpopular with his tribe and his rivals, including the influential Red Jacket, who began to work against him politically. Although he was not a signatory, Cornplanter's apparent agreement to the Fort Harmar Treaty (1789), in which another great tract of land was ceded to the United States, only worsened his position with the tribe.
Cornplanter was involved in another major dispute over land which has implications lasting to the present day. During this period of treaty-making, arguments arose over which of the newly formed states would encompass Indian territories. Recognition was made of the Indians' first right to ownership of their land, but the question was raised concerning who would have first rights to purchase the land should the Indians decide to sell it. Robert Morris, an early colonial and American financier, purchased this 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. However, other warriors and women eventually agreed to cede the land and signed a treaty in September of 1797. Since Cornplanter was one of the signers of this treaty, it signaled a major break between him and his political opponents led by Red Jacket, and for a while Cornplanter's life was in danger.
Fortunately for him, 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 the river. He was also awarded a yearly pension by the U.S. government as a result of the 1797 treaty, which he collected for some time. An additional tract of land given to Cornplanter in what is now Marietta, Ohio, continues to be claimed by the contemporary heirs of Cornplanter who feel that he was defrauded out of the ownership of this land.
Cornplanter retired to his land grant where he raised horses and cattle and maintained his own political community. It was not, however, the end of his political strife. According to O. Turner in Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Cornplanter later quarreled with his messianic half brother Handsome Lake over some of the religious teachings which Handsome Lake had introduced to the Seneca.
In 1807, at the primary instigation of Handsome Lake, a woman at Allegany was executed for witchcraft. Cornplanter was not present at the time, but on his return, he expressed his regret over this action. Cornplanter eventually became a Christian, against the teachings of Handsome Lake, and allowed the invited Quakers to build a school on his land grant. It is reported, however, that he became very disillusioned with white men and the effects of their culture on the Seneca and 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 his village on the Cornplanter Grant at about the age of 100 years. Portraits of Cornplanter were painted by F. Bartoli in 1796 (now in the collection of the New York Historical Society).
The passage of time allowed Cornplanter to regain some of the recognition that he lost through his involvement in political and religious controversies. His efforts to bring peace between the Seneca and the U.S. government were not forgotten. His delicate and successful role as mediator between the new government and the Iroquois in creating a new political balance for his people in a drastically changed Indian world is generally recognized in the history of the Iroquois and the Seneca. A monument was erected on his grave by the grateful Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, reputedly the first monument in the United States erected in memory of an American Indian.
The majority of the Cornplanter Grant acreage was flooded during the Kinzua Dam Project which created the Allegany Reservoir, spelling the end to residence on the grant by Cornplanter's heirs. As a consequence of the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the 1960s, the remaining homes and outbuildings on the Cornplanter Grant, including the church and school, were bulldozed and burned. The trees were leveled and burned, and the Spring of Handsome Lake, reputedly the source of water used to initially revive the Prophet at the end of his first vision, was destroyed in the process of construction of the dam. Today, many of the nearly six-hundred descendants of Chief Cornplanter still meet at an annually family picnic on the Allegany Reservation in August and formally recognize their proud ties to both Cornplanter, a major figure in Iroquois history, and to the land granted to him.
Abler, Thomas S., Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Abler, Thomas S., and Elisabeth Tooker, "Seneca," Handbook of North American Indians, 15, edited by W. Sturtevant, Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institution, 1978; 505-517.
Hodge, Frederick Webb, Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 1965; 349-350.
Morgan, Lewis Henry, League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois, Rochester, NY, Sage Books, 1851, reprinted as League of the Iroquois, Corinth Books, 1962.
Schaaf, Gregory, Wampum Belts and Peace Trees: George Morgan, Native Americans, and Revolutionary Diplomacy, Golden, CO, Fulcrum Publishing, 1990.
Turner, O., Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Buffalo, NY, George H. Durby, 1850.
Wallace, Anthony F. C., "Origins of the Longhouse Religion," Handbook of North American Indians, 15, edited by W. C. Sturtevant, Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institution, 1978; 442-448.
Abrams, George H. J., "Cornplanter Cemetery," Pennsylvania Archaeologist, 1965, 25 (2); 59-73.