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United States Claims to Indian Land

Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Native American,New York | No Comments

At the close of the war of the Revolution, the territory ceded by Great Britain to the United States, included large tracts of country occupied by the Indians. In ceding these lands, she ceded only the right claimed by herself, on the ground of original discovery, which was simply a priority of right to purchase of the original occupants of the soil. The Indians were allowed to dwell upon these lands, and were considered in a certain sense the owners, but were required in case of a sale, to dispose of them to the government[1].

As each State claimed to be sovereign in every interest not ceded to the general government, each State claimed the territory covered by its original charter. These charters, owing to great ignorance of geographical limits, created claims that conflicted with each other. From this source originated difficult questions about land titles and jurisdiction, between the States of Connecticut and Pennsylvania,–Massachusetts and New York. These difficulties which existed before, the greater question of the Revolutionary war suspended for a time, but when peace was concluded, they came up again for a consideration and settlement.

The way was in a measure prepared for this, by the relinquishment to the general government, on the part of New York in 1781, and of Massachusetts in 1785, of all their right to territory west of a meridian line drawn south, from the western end of Lake Ontario.

In the adjustment of these difficulties, Connecticut relinquished her claim to a tract of land on the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, called the Gore, and acquired that part of the State of Ohio called New Connecticut, or Western Reserve. And Pennsylvania obtained a tract of land lying immediately beyond the western boundary of the State of New York, and north-east of her own, embracing the harbor of Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, familiarly known as the Triangle, thus giving her access to the waters of this Lake.

The question in controversy between the States of New York and Massachusetts was more serious, owing to the large amount of territory claimed by the latter in western New York. It was brought to an amicable settlement, by Massachusetts surrendering to New York the right of jurisdiction, over all the land west of the present eastern boundary of the State; and by New York giving to Massachusetts the pre-emptive right, or right of purchasing of the Indians, all of the lands lying west of a meridian line drawn through Seneca Lake, from a certain point on the northern boundary of Pennsylvania, reserving however, a strip of land one mile in width, along the eastern shore of the Niagara river. Thus New York, while she retained the sovereignty, lost the fee of about six millions of acres of land, in one of the finest regions of country in the new world[2].

While these difficulties were being adjusted, a magnificent speculation was in progress, which bid fair to meet the expectations of its earnest projectors. A company was organized, called the New York and Genesee Land Company, with a view to obtain the entire tract of Indian lands within the State. To evade the law forbidding the sale of these lands to any party not authorized by the State, it was proposed to obtain them by a lease, that should extend nine hundred and ninety-nine years. A lease extending so long, was regarded as equivalent to a sale.

With a view to further its designs another company, the Niagara Genesee Company, was also formed in Canada, of those who were most in correspondence with the Indians, and who would be influential in securing from them a decision in favor of their object.

These organizations, especially the New York Land Company, were large, and included men of wealth and prominence, both in New York and Canada. With such appliances as they were enabled to bring to bear upon the Indians, they secured, in November, 1787, a lease for nine hundred and ninety- nine years, of all the lands of the Iroquois in the State of New York, except some small reservations, and the privilege of hunting and fishing, for an annual rent of two thousand dollars, and a promised gift of twenty thousand dollars.

The formidable character of these associations created a just alarm, and measures were immediately undertaken to circumvent their influence. An act was passed by the Legislature of New York, in March, 1788, authorizing the governor to disregard all contracts made with the Indians, and not sanctioned by the State; and to cause those who had entered upon Indian lands under such contracts, to be driven off, and their houses destroyed. The sheriff of the county was directed to dispossess intruders and burn their dwellings, and a military force was called out, that strictly enforced these orders.

Thus by the energetic action of Governor Clinton of New York, the designs of these organizations were overruled.

As early as 1784, the Legislature of New York had passed an act, appointing the governor, and a Board of Commissioners, the Superintendents of Indian affairs, and as there were other Indian lands within the State, not covered by the pre-emptive right of Massachusetts, these commissioners with the governor at their head, entered upon negotiations with a view of purchasing them, and securing a title to them for the State[3].

A council of the Iroquois was appointed for this purpose, at Fort Schuyler, on the first of September, 1788.

The Leasees disappointed and angered by the bold and decisive measures taken against them, exerted their influence to prevent the Indians from assembling. But by measures equally energetic in its favor, a representation of the different tribes was obtained, and a treaty was concluded on the 12th, in which was conveyed to the State the land of the Onondagas; some reservations excepted, in consideration of one thousand dollars, in hand paid and an annuity of five hundred dollars forever.

Then followed negotiations with the Oneidas. Speeches were interchanged, propositions made and rejected, until finally an agreement was made, and a deed of cession executed by the chiefs, conveying all their lands, excepting certain reservations, in consideration of two thousand dollars in money, two thousand dollars in clothing and other goods, one thousand dollars in provisions, five hundred dollars for the erection of a saw and grist mill on their reservation, and an annuity of six hundred dollars forever.

The commissioners next appointed a council to be held at Albany, December 15, 1788. Great difficulty was experienced in getting the Indians together, the Leasees it is said, “kept the Indians so continually intoxicated, it was impossible to do anything with them[4].”

It was not until the eleventh of the February following, that a sufficient number were brought together, to proceed with the negotiations; and on the twenty-fifth, the preliminaries having been settled, the Cayuga ceded to the State all of their lands, excepting a large reservation of one hundred square miles. It was in consideration of five hundred dollars in hand, sixteen hundred and twenty-eight dollars in June following, and an annuity of five hundred dollars forever.

Mr. Turner in alluding to these negotiations very properly observes, “it was only after a hard struggle of much perplexity and embarrassment, that the object was accomplished. For the honor of our country, it could be wished that all Indian negotiations and treaties, had been attended with as little wrong, had been conducted as fairly as were those under the auspices and general direction of George Clinton. No where has the veteran warrior and statesman left a better proof of his sterling integrity and ability, than is furnished by the records of these treaties. In no case did he allow the Indians to be deceived, but stated to them from time to time, with unwearied patience, the true conditions of the bargains they were consummating.”

He says further, “the treaties for lands found the Six Nations in a miserable condition. They had warred on the side of a losing party; for long years the field and the chase had been neglected; they were suffering for food and raiment. Half-famished they flocked to the treaties and were fed and clothed. One item of expense charged in the accounts of the treaty at Albany in 1789, was for horses paid for, that the Indians had killed and eaten on their way down. For several years in addition to the amount of provisions distributed to them at the treaties, boatloads of corn were distributed among them by the State.”

It does not appear that Red Jacket, Cornplanter, Brant, or other of the more noted chiefs among the Iroquois, were present to take a part in these negotiations. Hence exception was taken to these proceedings. When the time drew near for paying the first annuity, the Onondagas sent an agent to Governor Clinton, saying they had received four strings of wampum from the Seneca, forbidding them to go to Fort Stanwix to receive the money, and declaring also “that the governor of Quebec wanted their lands; that Sir John wanted them; Col. Butler wants the Cayuga’ lands; and the commanding officer of Fort Niagara wants the Seneca’ lands.”

They were assured in reply that they might “make their minds easy,” the governor would protect them; that the Leasees were the cause of their trouble.

The Cayuga also sent a message to the governor, saying they were “threatened with destruction, even total extermination. The voice comes from the west; its sound is terrible, our brothers the Cayuga and Onondaga are to share the same fate.”

The complaint was, they had sold their lands without consulting the “western tribes”.

The decided position of the Executive in giving them assurance of protection, was the means of dissipating their alarm.

Historical evidence renders it apparent, that at this early period, the design was entertained by those in Canada, whose control over the Indians was well nigh supreme, to gain through them possession of Western New York, and without compromising the government of Great Britain, sever it from the United States, connect it with the territory of the North-west, and hold it by Indian possession, in a sort of quasi allegiance, to the crown of England.

Their design with respect to Western New York was defeated by the energetic measures of its chief executive, but further on we will see they did not relinquish the idea of holding from the United States, the territory of the North-west.

Next in the race of competition for the broad and fertile lands of the Genesee, appear the names of Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. They were the acknowledged representatives of a considerable body of men, who were ambitious of securing an interest in what was regarded as the most desirable region in this country.

From the advent of Gen. Sullivan’s army into the Indian country in 1779, their route being through the very finest portion of Western New York, and at a season of the year when vegetation was in its highest perfection; the beauty and fertility of these lands became the theme of praise, on the part of every soldier that beheld them. Their fame was thus carried to almost every village and hamlet in Pennsylvania and New England. Hence great eagerness was manifested in regard to the title, and settlement of these lands.

The company of which Messrs. Phelps and Gorham were the leading spirits, having purchased the pre-emptive right of Massachusetts, in the spring of 1788, Mr. Phelps went on to the ground, and was successful in convening a council of the Indians for the sale of their lands, at Buffalo creek, during the month of July of the same year[5].

The Indians at this treaty strenuously resisted the sale of any of their land west of the Genesee river; yet with a view of furnishing “a piece of ground for a mill yard” at the Genesee Falls, were finally persuaded to give their assent to a boundary line, that included a tract twelve miles square, west of that river. The eastern boundary of the lands sold, was the Massachusetts pre-emptive line; the western, was a line “beginning in the northern line of Pennsylvania, due south of the corner or point of land made by the confluence of the Genesee river, and the Canaseraga creek, thence north on said meridian line to the corner or point, at the confluence aforesaid; thence northwardly along the waters of the Genesee river, to a point two miles north of Canawangu village, thence running due west 12 miles; thence running northwardly so as to be twelve miles distant from the western bounds of said river, to the shores of Lake Ontario.” The lands thus ceded, are what has been called “The Phelps and Gorham Purchase.” It contained by estimation two million and six hundred thousand acres, for which they agreed to pay the Indians five thousand dollars, and an annuity of five hundred dollars forever.

Robert Morris, the distinguished financier of the Revolution, afterward became owner of the greater part of this purchase, as well as of the pre-emptive right of Massachusetts to the remaining part of Western New York. Through his agent in London, Wm. Temple Franklin, grandson of Doctor Franklin, these lands were again sold to an association of gentlemen, consisting of Sir William Pultney, John Hornby, and Patrick Colquhoun, and the farther settlement of this region, auspiciously commenced under its original proprietors, was conducted principally under their administration.

An intelligent and enterprising young Scotchman, Charles Williamson, who had previously devoted his time while detained as a prisoner in this country, during the war of the Revolution, to investigations respecting its geographical resources and limits, and who from his disposition and business capacity, was well qualified for the station, was appointed their agent, and emigrating hither with his family, and two other young Scotchmen as his assistants, John Johnstone, and Charles Cameron, he became identified with the early history and progress of the extensive and important part of the Indian territory, that as we have seen, had just been opened, and was inviting a new race, to take possession of its virgin soil.

Footnotes

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  1. Kent’s Commentary.
  2. For a more full account, see “Turner’s History of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.”
  3. The commissioners designated were: Abraham Cuyler, Peter Schuyler and Henry Glen, who associated with them Philip Schuyler, Robert Yates, Abraham Ten Broeck, A. Yates, Jr., P. W. Yates, John J. Beekman, Mathew Vischer, and Gen. Gansevoort.
  4. Turner’s History.
  5. His success in obtaining this council, and securing a sale, was owing in a large degree, to his policy in paying court to the powerful faction of the Leasees residing in Canada, and giving them an interest in the purchase.

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