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Cornplanter (Corn Plant) Chief of the Seneca
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Corn Plant, KI ON-TWOG-KY (usually, but improperly spelled Cornplanter) was one of the most unique characters in American history, and it appears somewhat strange that after a lapse of a century or more the true history of his parentage should now for the first time be brought to light, proving beyond a doubt that he was a grandson of one of Albany’s most distinguished mayors. There may have been an effort on the part of those interested to cover up the facts at the time by permitting a misspelling the name which has passed into history as O’Bail (easily mistaken for Abeel), but Corn Plant’s own statement to the Governor of Pennsylvania in 1836, in which he gives an account of his early life (omitting the name of his father), confirms the newly discovered evidence of his parentage. He says:
“I feel it my duty to send a speech to the Governor of Pennsylvania at this time and inform him of the place where I was born, which was at Connewaugus, on the Genesee River.
“When I was a child, I played with the butterfly, the grasshopper and the frogs, and as I grew up I began to pay some attention and play with the Indian boys in the neighborhood, and they took notice of my skin being a different color from theirs and spoke about it.
I inquired of my mother the cause, and she told me that my father was a resident of Albany.
I still eat my victuals out of a bark dish.
I grew up to be a young man and married me a wife, and I had no kettle or gun.
I then knew where my father lived, and went to see him, and found he was a white man and spoke the English language.
He gave me victuals while at his house, but when I started home he gave me no provision to eat on the way.
He gave me neither kettle nor gun, neither did he tell me that the United States were about to rebel against the Government of England.
“I will now tell you, brothers who are in session of the Legislature of Pennsylvania, that the Great Spirit has made known to me that I have been wicked and the cause thereof has been the Revolutionary war in America. The cause of Indians being led into sin at that time, was that many of them were in the practice of drinking and getting intoxicated.
Great Britain requested us to join with them in the conflict against the Americans, and promised the Indians land and liquor. I myself was opposed to joining in the conflict, as I had nothing to do with the difficulty that existed between the two parties.
The cause of Indians being led into sin at that time, was that many of them were in the practice of drinking and getting intoxicated. Great Britain requested us to join with them in the conflict against the Americans, and promised the Indians land and liquor. I myself was opposed to joining in the conflict, as I had nothing to do with the difficulty that existed between the two parties. I have now informed you how it happened that the Indians took part in the revolution, and will relate to you some circumstances that occurred after the war.
General Putnam, who was then at Philadelphia, told me there was to be a council at Fort Stanwix, and the Indians requested me to attend on behalf of the Six Nations, which I did, and there met with these commissioners who had been appointed to hold the council. They told me that they would inform me of the cause of the revolution, which I requested them to do minutely. They then said that it originated on account of the heavy taxes that had been imposed upon them by the British Government, which had been for fifty years increasing upon them; that the Americans had grown weary thereof and refused to pay, which affronted the King. There had likewise a difficulty taken place about some tea which they wished me not to use, as it had been one of the causes that many people had lost their lives, and the British Government now being affronted, the war commenced and the cannons began to roar in our country.
“General Putnam then told me at the Council at Fort Stanwix that by the late war the Americans had gained two objects : they had established themselves an independent nation and had obtained some land to live upon, the division line of which from Great Britain runs through the Lakes. I then spoke and said I wanted some land for the Indians to live on, and General Putnam said it should be granted, and I should have land in the State of New York for the Indians. He then encouraged me to use my endeavors to pacify the Indians generally, and as he considered it an arduous task, wished to know what pay I would require. I replied that I would use my endeavors to do as he requested with the Indians, and for pay therefor I would take land upon which I now live, which was pre-sented to me by Gov. Mifflin. I told General Putnam that I wished the Indians to have the privilege of hunting in the woods and making fires, which he likewise assented to.
“The treaty that was made at the aforementioned council has been broken by some of the white people, which I now intend acquainting the Governor with. Some white people are not willing that the Indians should hunt any more, whilst others are satisfied therewith; and those white people who reside near our res-ervation, tell us that the woods are theirs, and that they have obtained them from the Government. The treaty has also been broken by the white people using their endeavors to destroy all the wolves, which was not spoken about in the council at Fort Stanwix by General Putnam, but has originated lately.”
Corn Plant further complains that “white people could get credit from the Indians and do not pay them honestly according to agreement;” also that “there is a great quantity of whiskey brought near our reservation, and the Indians obtain it and become drunken.” He complains further that he has been called upon to pay taxes, and says: “It is my desire that the Governor will exempt me from paying taxes for my land to white people, and also to cause the money I am now obliged to pay be refunded to me, as I am very poor.”
“The Government has told us that when difficulties arose between the Indians and the white people they would attend to having them removed. We are now in a trying situation, and I wish the Governor to send a person authorized to attend thereto the fore part of next summer, about the time that the grass has grown big enough for pasture.
“The Government requested me to pay attention to the Indians and take care of them. We are now arrived at a situation in which I believe the Indians can-not exist unless the Governor shall comply with my request, and send a person authorized to treat between us and the white people the approaching summer. I have now no more to speak.”
This singular production of Corn Plant was of course dictated to an interpreter, who acted as amenuensis, but the sentiments are undoubtedly his own. It was dated in 1822, when the lands reserved for the Indians in the northwestern part of Pennsylvania became surrounded by the farms of the whites and some attempt was made to tax the property of the Seneca Chief, in consequence of which he wrote this epistle to the Governor.
The letter is distinguished by its simplicity and good sense, and was no doubt dictated in the concise, nervous and elevated style of the Indian orator, which has lost much of its beauty and poetical character in the interpretation. His account of his parentage is simple and touching— his unprotected, yet happy home, where he played with the butterfly, the grasshopper and the frog is sketched with a scriptural felicity of style. There is something very pathetic in his description of his poverty when he grew up to be a young man, and married a wife, and had no kettle nor gun, while the brief account of his visit to his father is marked by a pathos of genuine feeling. It is to be hoped indeed that as the account states the father was non compos mentes.
Referring to his personality, an eminent writer says: “He was the rival of Red Jacket. Without the commanding genius of Red jacket, he possessed a large share of the common sense, which is more efficient in all the ordinary affairs of life. They were both able men; both acquired the confidence of their people, but the patriotism of Red jacket was exhibited in an unyielding hatred of the whites, while Corn Plant adopted the opposite policy of conciliation towards his more powerful neighbors. The one was an orator of unblemished reputation, the other an orator of unrivalled eloquence. Both were shrewd, artful and expert negotiators, and they prevailed alternately over each other, as opportunities were offered to either for the exertion of his peculiar abilities. The one rose into power when the Senecas were embittered against the whites, and the other acquired consequence when it became desirable to cultivate friendly relations upon the frontier.”
On one occasion Red Jacket was boasting of what he had said at certain treaties, when Corn Plant quickly added, “Yes, but we told you what to say.” Horatio Jones said of Corn Plant: “He was one of the best men to have on your side, and there you would be sure to find him if he thought yours the right side, but it was decidedly unlucky if he thought you were wrong.”
Corn Plant was the first as well as one of the most eloquent temperance lecturers in the United States, and labored hard to save his people from this growing evil, for which his white neighbors were largely responsible.
In his latter days he became superstitious, and his conscience reproached him for his friendship towards the whites, and in a moment of alarm, fancying that the Great Spirit had commanded him to destroy all evidence of his connection with the enemies of his race, he destroyed an elegant sword and other articles which he had received as presents.
There can no longer be any doubt of his relationship to the Abeel family. His mother told him that his father’s name was Abeel, or O’Bial. The latter name does not appear in the Albany records, and it is doubtful if such a person ever lived in that city. The name of Abeel is still preserved with the tribe on the reservation.
The History of Montgomery County, page 233, says:
“Cornplanter visited Fort Plain in his native dress about the year 1810, bringing with hint several Indians of dignified rank. They were cordially welcomed by the chief’s relatives, going first to the house of Joseph Wagner, father of Peter J. Wagner, who was grandson on the mother’s side of John Abeel. The party also visited the house of Nicholas Dygert, whose wife was a sister of Mrs. Wagner, and was richly entertained, and then at the home of Jacob Abeel, living with his widowed mother on their old homestead. The Indians were treated with hospitality. The visit lasted several days, and the guests were the central attraction of village society, for Cornplanter was a man of noble bearing, and was decorated with all the native display of costume appropriate to his rank. His father at that time had been dead more than a dozen years.”
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