Friday, December 2, 2011

Why is Red Jacket So Fascinating?



Based on results alone, Red Jacket might initially be considered as one of those historical figures who may have garnered a bit more attention than his achievements actually warranted. It appears as though Euro-American chroniclers who in most cases were either directly involved in or witness to negotiations over peace treaties, military alliances, trade agreements, or land sales involving the Seneca have paid particular attention to Red Jacket as a result of his sometimes eloquent, sometimes cynical, and always biting oratory in the face of the white man’s reason. Red Jacket was a known pacifist, but in many instances, the insurmountable logic of his words proved a far more formidable obstacle to the westward expansion of the white man’s culture, religion, and settlements than the combined threat of more than a thousand Seneca warriors.

Further emphasizing Red Jacket’s obstructive nature towards the white man’s inroads and trickery, the historian Arthur Parker states that “To the cunning land-grabber he was a tormenting obstruction and to the clergy he was a hopeless pagan.” At age ten, Red Jacket vehemently declared that “The white man shall not destroy the Indian in me, nor shall I let him spoil our way of living.” He spent the remainder of his long life doing everything within his power to prove that he meant it. Red Jacket used his uncanny wit and sense of reality to block the white man’s bombast regarding the benefits of civil society at every turn and on one occasion he warned his people that “If we [Native Americans] were raised among white people, and learned to work, and to read, as they [whites] do, it would only make our situation worse.” “We would,” argued Red Jacket, “be treated no better than Negroes.”

When confronted by the well-meaning advances of Christian missionaries in 1825, Red Jacket challenged the missionaries by arguing that “Your words are fair and good. But I propose this. Go try your hand in the town of Buffalo, for one year. They need missionaries, if you can do what you say. If in that time you shall have done them any good, and made them any better, then we will let you come among our people.” He continually monitored the activities and behavior of white Christians near Buffalo and upon the missionaries return, Red Jacket explained “We are told that you have been preaching to white people in this place; these people are our neighbors; we are acquainted with them, we will wait a little while and see what affect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest, and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have said.” In as much as he saw the Christian missionaries as a threat to the Seneca’s traditional spiritualism, Red Jacket mainly distrusted Christian missionaries as the agents of the land-grabbers. He made this point evident when he stated to his people that “If we had no money, no land, and no country to be cheated out of, these black coats would not trouble themselves about our good hereafter.”

As a result of his unrivaled oratorical skills, Red Jacket attained for himself the same levels of both notoriety and respect among whites that only the greatest of Native American warriors such as Geronimo, Tecumseh, or Sitting Bull have otherwise achieved. Thomas Morris, the son of the wealthy land speculator and “Financier of the American Revolution,” Robert Morris, once remarked of Red Jacket that “He was well-made. His eyes were fine and expressive of the intellect of which he possessed an uncommon portion. His address, particularly when he spoke, was very fine and almost majestic.” He was, Morris concluded, “The most talented speaker that I have ever heard address an audience of any description.” This is high praise coming from a man who had been around during the Revolution and who had grown up in an around Philadelphia as the Constitutional Convention was hard at work. Following Red Jacket’s speech given in his own defense during a Seneca trial that was established to decide whether or not Red Jacket was a sorcerer, the then Governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton, remarked that “Perhaps the annals of history cannot furnish a more conspicuous triumph of the powers of oratory in a barbarous nation devoted to superstition,” which is ironic because the sorcery accusation against Red Jacket came as a result of his unworldly ability to outwit everyone – white or Indian – whom he came into contact with.

As a boy, Red Jacket was given the name, Otetiani, meaning “Always Ready” since it seemed that he was always ready with an answer or a rebuttal. He spent his childhood lost in imaginary situations where he might be called on to make a statement or to counter an opponent’s argument just as other young Seneca boys got lost in imaginary battles and continually honed their skills with the weapons of war. As a youth, Red Jacket would also practice speaking in imaginary councils while standing amidst the falls near Catherine’s Town at the southern tip of Seneca Lake. He not only liked the acoustical echoes of the high cliffs around the falls, but felt that competing with the noise of the falls helped him to enhance the inflection in his voice.

Later in life, Red Jacket was given a second name, Sagoyewatha, meaning “He Keeps Them Awake.” Red Jacket was given this second name by the Seneca because of his numerous warnings to his people against becoming involved in the white man’s wars; warnings that his people refused to pay heed with devastating results. The name, Red Jacket, was given to Sagoyewatha by the British during the American Revolution because he was seldom seen without the red military jacket that was given to him as a gift by the British for his service as a messenger. Red Jacket took great pride in the gifts and the attention that the British gave him. It was Red Jacket’s outward pride that combined with his sometimes tiresome advice and obstinacy in the face of consensus that led many of his fellow Seneca to see him as smug, ambitious, venal, egotistical, and contemptible. Despite being praised by the white man for his oratorical skills and intellect, many among the Seneca snidely commented that “Otetiani is too smart for his buckskins.” Along with the above mentioned uncomplimentary Seneca characterizations of their ‘great orator,’ came the injurious charges of cowardice and greed.

Following Red Jacket’s refusal to face General John Sullivan’s advancing American army in the late summer of 1789 at Canandaigua, New York the Mohawk War Chief Joseph Brant screamed in a rage to Red Jacket’s wife “Leave this man; Leave him, lest your children have a coward for a father.” It was well-known that Red Jacket did not believe in warfare, especially when it was bound to result, as he saw it, in the destruction of his people. Red Jacket was a firm believer in the “Great Peace” as laid out by Hiawatha and the Great Peace Maker and when chided by his fellow Seneca as to why he did not fight, Red Jacket answered with confidence “I fight for the Great Peace. Is it wrong to fight for what is right?” to which few had an answer. But as Red Jacket well knew, his quick wit and canny ability to argue his way out of most situations was not enough to win himself a position among the most revered Seneca sachems. He knew that at some point he must prove himself in battle if he was ever to win the confidence of his people.

Red Jacket would one day serve with distinction alongside the Americans during the War of 1812, but during the American Revolution he earned for himself his most debasing Seneca name, “Cow Killer,” after Red Jacket was found to have killed a cow and smeared its blood about his body and then later claimed to have killed American soldiers. Thus was his initial aversion to actual combat and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to avoid involvement in the Revolutionary conflict. His hesitancy to fight the Americans may have come from his belief in the Great Peacemaker’s message, but it also came from the strong conviction that the Americans would win the war. He saw the Americans as a determined people and this summation of the American resolve would eventually convince Red Jacket that the loss of his people’s lands was all but inevitable.

As a result of his disquieting convictions concerning the Americans, Red Jacket did the best that he felt he could for the Seneca people when negotiating the sales of their lands following the American Revolution. However, as a result of his backroom deals with white agents, Red Jacket earned the dissatisfaction of his people who believed he had sold them out in exchange for personal gifts. Following the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree that saw the Seneca people placed onto reservations representing a mere fraction of their former lands, Red Jacket was charged by the prophet Handsome Lake of negligence and greed. Handsome Lake told the Seneca people that during one of his visions involving the Four Spirits, a figure pushing a wheelbarrow filled with earth was pointed out to him by the spirits and as he looked closer, Handsome Lake saw that it was Red Jacket who was serving out his eternal punishment for agreeing to the sale of Seneca lands by moving an endless mound of dirt.

In truth, Red Jacket did apparently, “Serve the Seneca as he served himself,” as Alan Taylor writes, but he did so out of a strong conviction that the loss of their lands was inevitable. Iroquois sachems had traditionally received personal gifts from whites and other Native Americans during councils, but Red Jacket had powerful enemies among the Seneca. The Seneca War Chief Cornplanter and his brother Handsome Lake both despised Red Jacket and so detested the amount of influence such a “coward” held among their people that the two time-and-again made it appear as though Red Jacket was involved in activities that were self-seeking. Red Jacket’s hesitancy and sadness associated with the sale of Seneca lands might be seen in his drinking to excess during negotiations as well as in his point blank discouragement of Seneca attempts to put a positive spin on the deal that they had concluded with Thomas Morris while at Big Tree. Red Jacket challenged his fellow sachem’s half-hearted optimism when he argued that…

“What has been promised by the trickery of words cannot be fulfilled. Do you believe we shall have all that was promised by the agents? We shall never get it. Our kettles will be worn out, our cloth will be rags, the women’s cows will have turned skinny and have died, and our jewelry will have turned green before many days. When the last slab of bacon is gone, we shall have found out that we have eaten up our land. But we may hunt as before, you say? That, too, is a promise that will not be honored, for the settlers will have hewn down the forests and frightened away all game.”

It is true that Red Jacket was a signatory to the Treaty of Big Tree, but only reluctantly. Red Jacket signed the treaty only after all of the other Seneca sachems had done so since it was expected that when a majority decision was reached, all must show support for the decision. As a sign of his pride, Red Jacket also signed the Treaty of Big Treaty out of a fear that upon reading the parchment without his name affixed, President Washington might believe that Red Jacket had lost influence among the Seneca and this loss of prestige from so great a man was something that Red Jacket could not live with. Red Jacket had held President Washington in high regard ever since the early 1790s when Washington had given Red Jacket the peace medal that he would wear with great pride up until his death decades later. Nevertheless, the Peace Medal, as with his red military jacket, may have caused a bit more exasperation from his people since they did not believe that Red Jacket’s rank among the Seneca warranted such a prestigious gift.
As his life neared its end, Red Jacket remained as always among his people. He was obstinate until the end and during his final speech given at council at Buffalo Creek, Red Jacket lamented that…

“When I am gone, my warning shall no longer be heard, and the craft and avarice of the white man will prevail. Many winters have I breasted the storm. I am an aged tree and I can stand no longer. My leaves have fallen, my branches have withered, and I am shaken with every breeze. Soon my aged trunk will be prostrate, and the foot of the exulting foe may be placed upon it in safety. I will have none who will be able to avenge such an indignity. Think not, my people, that I mourn myself. I go to join the spirits of my fathers, where age cannot wither; but my heart fails when I think of my people, who are soon to be scattered and forgotten.”

Whether or not he was in fact proud, cowardly, greedy, ambitious, venal, smug, or contemptible as some of his chroniclers and contemporaries argued he was, Red Jacket – it must be said – loved his people and his only wish was to return his people to a better time when they might roam freely over the vast expanses of their lands unmolested by white traders, missionaries, or land-grabbers or hemmed in by farmers fences or invisible boundaries drawn on maps.

As for the white man’s apparent obsession with Red Jacket, it can only be assumed that Western Society has always held great orators in high esteem. Arthur Parker places Red Jacket within a class of fellow unheeded classical orators such as Socrates when he states that “Like all leaders in thought, he [Red Jacket] found himself looked upon with awe, but as a thing apart. The callousness of his-own generation is typical of the disregard of all prophets.” The nineteenth-century artist George Catlin also speaks of Red Jacket and his oratorical skills in the classical sense when he writes that “Poor old chief - not all the eloquence of Cicero or Demosthenes would be able to avert the calamity that awaits his declining nation.” As Catlin’s comment might also suggest, our Christian background might also cause us to empathize with an individual who remains resolute in the face of overwhelming odds. How many times do we find ourselves celebrating the martyr or the individual who stays the course despite the constant enticement to do what is not only easiest, but may also benefit the individual over the community? Not only was Red Jacket’s ability to speak commendable, but apparently his steadfast resolve to never completely sell-out to the white man has made him a martyr; if not in his own people’s eyes, certainly in the eyes of at least a few of his white chroniclers who lamented Red Jacket’s and the Seneca people’s inevitable fate, which was to become the rival of any Greek tragedy.

So what do you think? Why is Red Jacket so fascinating?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Settling the Land



When Major General John Sullivan’s soldiers returned to their New England homes in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut following the American Revolution, they carried with them memories of the fertile lands that lay west of Seneca Lake. In fact, the historian Royal Lovell Garff states that most of Sullivan’s veterans spent their days recollecting the lush gardens and orchards of the Seneca Indians and the height of the wild grasses that in places grew taller than the heads of their officers’ horses. Talk of the Genesee Country that they had left behind, therefore, filled more conversations than the actual exploits of their 1779 campaign against the Seneca did.

Following Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham’s successful purchase of Seneca lands lying between Seneca Lake to the east and roughly the Genesee River to the west in 1788, a slow trickle of settlers began to make their way to Western New York. The pace of settlement was surprisingly slower than Phelps and his fellow investors had anticipated as a result of Indian unrest in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky that made settlers to this region fear Iroquois involvement in what was becoming a general Indian uprising in the Old Northwest. Some prospective settlers also feared isolation or the scourge of the Finger Lakes region, the dreaded “Genesee Fever,” which was actually a form of malaria carried by mosquitos from either local swamps that were quite numerous at the time or from the Montezuma area to the east where unknowing victims were first bitten by the clouds of buzzing, blood-thirsty pests as they travelled west.

With the Indian issue in the Old Northwest resolved following Major General Anthony Wayne’s victory over the Western Indian Confederacy at Fallen Timbers in August of 1794 followed by the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty by the Iroquois Indians that November, New Englanders began to feel more confident in making the plunge into the Genesee wilderness. As many early settlers soon found out, however, fear of local Indians was to be the least of their problems. For most, years of hardship and heavy labor lay ahead. To the strain of back and livestock was also added the many unanticipated challenges that a devilish Mother Nature would near mockingly throw at the settler.

The initial hardships of clearing fields and building cabins was met by countless attacks on livestock, crops, and settlers by predators, rodents, and birds of flight. Chief among the threats to life and livestock were roving wolfpacks. Consequently, among the first laws to be established by Town Councils or County Boards were bounties offered on wolves and other predators such as Mountain Lions, which were not as numerous, but feared more than the wolf as a result of their clandestine behavior and ambush tactics. Bear were also prevalent in the area, but they mainly posed a threat to crops (bear were known to devour an acre of corn in a single night) and the settler’s fattened pigs that were allowed to run loose in the woodlands to forage. Rattlesnakes also presented issues for settlers since they were known to slither into warm cabins at night or struck out at unsuspecting passers-by. Rodents and birds, however, were arguably the greatest pests to the settler-farmer since it was the squirrel, the chipmunk, the raccoon, and the carrier pigeon that would swoop down on freshly seeded fields and in a matter of minutes could devour nearly every seed in the farmer’s field.

Settlers came in three variations characterized by when they arrived and the amount of resources that they brought with them. First phase settlers were many times made up of short-term transients that were often “squatters” on lands that they did not own. Travelling to the region either alone or with family, the squatter would clear a few acres of land and build a cabin providing the family with the basic necessities for a subsistence lifestyle that was only periodically supplemented by trade with the local Seneca Indians. Squatters represented the main portion of discontents that attempted to escape either the religious or societal constraints on life and individual action that were prevalent in Puritan New England, but they usually packed up and moved further west as civilization began to encroach upon their meager homesteads in the forest.

Second phase settlers were essentially made up of the transplanted small-time farmers of New England who had either purchased or more likely mortgaged their squared-off lots from the great land speculators such as Phelps and Gorham’s company. With the help of proprietors such as Oliver Phelps or Charles Williamson of the Pulteney Land Syndicate who saw to the construction of vital grist & saw mills, roads, general stores, taverns, and the primary villages, second phase settlers began life in Western New York by eking out a subsistence living until more fields could be cleared (usually by cutting down the largest trees and burning the rest) for planting. The potash that they gathered from the charred earth actually provided the settler with a bit of income since it could be sold in bulk to soap manufacturers. This income might help the settlers to purchase essential provisions from the local general store that might have helped to make that first year without a harvest more bearable. A few fortunate settlers might have purchased land that had already been cleared by its former Seneca or squatter residents, but most had to hack and burn their their clearings out of the wilderness.

With the settler’s first harvest, any produce that was not needed for feeding the settlers and their livestock or as seed could be sold at the general store or distilled for sale at the local taverns. As the size of crops grew, true profits might be made by transporting goods to eastern markets. Not a few second phase settlers were known to sell their improved lots to third phase (more permanent) settlers. The second phase settler would then take the profits of his sale west where he would by a larger plot and begin the process of clearing and planting all over again. Or, he might also decide to use his profit to construct and manage a mill, tavern, or general store somewhere near another promising infant community. In the very least, it was the sons of the second phase settlers of Western New York that packed up and moved further west to seek their own farms and fortunes. Thus was continued a process that would stretch to the Pacific Ocean and would take nearly a hundred years to complete.

As this process unfolded here in the Finger Lakes region, the proprietors and the second phase settlers quickly found themselves co-dependent on each other’s industriousness since the settler needed the proprietor-subsidized roads, villages, taverns, mills, bridges, and general stores to market their produce and livestock and the proprietors needed the settlers to produce as much as possible for sale in eastern markets since without profit from their farms, the settlers would be unable to make their mortgage payments. Any imoprovements made by settlers would also raise the value of adjacent lands that were still up for sale thus improving the proprietor's potential profits. It was also the proprietors who enticed the essential tradesmen such as blacksmiths and carpenters to the region with subsidies or land grants. Company subsidized improvements were more than charitable investments by the resident land agent, however, since with each subsidized improvement to the region, the land adjacent to the improvement such as a road or mill increased significantly in value.

As for the settler-farmers and how they met the challenges of frontier life, community support proved to be the key to any successful farm. Without the support of neighbors in labor intensive elements of getting a farm started and keeping it functioning, the number of initial failures (as shown by the number of “Sheriff’s Auctions” listed in the Ontario County Observer) in the Genesee Region might have drastically increased since livestock was in short supply, as was money for paid laborers, and machinery was near non-existent.

What most second, and later third phase, settlers had come west in search of was not an escape from eastern society or civilization itself. In fact, it has been shown that what most settlers desired was the reproduction of the communities and patriarchal lifestyle that they had left back in New England - or in the case of Charles Williamson’s vision for an aristocratic planter-dominated Southern Tier - replicas of their plantations along the Chesapeake. Fundamentally, what most settlers to the region desired was a reproduction of their former homes, communities, and lifestyles, but unlike back east or down south in the Chesapeake region, a place where they might establish themselves as financially independent from creditors by working the abundant lands now available within the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.

This helps to explain why the layout for Canandaigua with its village square, designated lots for schools and churches, and a central business district was chosen by Oliver Phelps in hopes of enticing the right ‘sort’ of people to come west. Settlers to the region were many times reluctant (especially women settlers) to leave their homes, but the “planned communities” founded by Oliver Phelps and Charles Williamson helped them to make what otherwise might have been a traumatic leap of faith into the forbidding wilderness of Western New York.

The settlement of Western New York was therefore orderly and primarily managed by the resident land agents, Oliver Phelps, Charles Williamson, and later, Joseph Ellicott. This was not the haphazard and conflict-ridden settlement of the frontier that might be better associated with the south and mid-west. Settlement occurred where the Land Agent preferred since it reduced the need for infrastructure and improvements made by settlers could increase the value of outlying lands.

We are interested to know what things you might like to know about or see on display within our upcoming exhibit that relates to early settlement so please feel free leave us a comment.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Is Wampum Money?


Far too often, people mistakenly associate wampum with money. Despite being the most sought after trade good that Europeans brought with them into Iroquois territory during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wampum’s value among the Iroquois did not derive from its purchasing power. Instead, wampum’s value came from the many diplomatic alliances and agreements that the Iroquois forged and maintained by exchanging either strings or belts of wampum. Traditionally, the Iroquois had traded with the northeastern Algonquians for the purple and white beads made from the quahog and various whelk species clam shells long before the arrival of Europeans. Yet, as soon as the Europeans realized that the Iroquois valued them so highly, they began manufacturing and trading wampum beads at a rate that far outstripped Algonquian capabilities. Initially, it was the Dutch among the European powers who traded manufactured tools, utensils, or cloth with the Algonquian tribes located along the Atlantic coast for the wampum beads. They then sailed up the Hudson River where they traded the Algonquian’s beads for the Iroquois’ processed beaver furs. The Algonquians were soon bypassed in the intercultural-international trade network as the Dutch learned to manufacture wampum beads with superior tools.

When arranged in various patterns, whether in strings or belts, the Iroquois used the beads of wampum as mnemonic devices linked to specific agreements made between tribes, clans, families, or individuals. During Native councils, strings of wampum would be handed one-by-one from one party to the other as the individual or group’s specific terms for the proposed agreement were voiced. Once all of the first party’s terms had been expressed and the strings of wampum associated with the individual terms were handed over to the second party, it was the second party’s turn to speak and present their terms. The second party would then hold up one received string of wampum at a time and would repeat what the first party had said when they had held the particular string. If the second party agreed to the terms associated with the received strings of wampum, they would keep them as reminders. Following the covering of the council fire, representatives would take the received strings of wampum back to their villages or homes where they would then repeat the terms to their fellow villagers or families while holding them aloft for all to see. It was thereby expected that each individual should memorize and live by these terms. Many times this was not necessary since entire villages would attend the councils in person where they could witness and memorize the individual terms as they were spoken. During the winter months when there was less work to be done, belts and strings of wampum could be taken out and younger generations would be taught the individual string’s or belt’s significance from their elders. In cases where the second party did not agree to a particular term presented by the first party, the second party would return the received string of wampum associated with the term to the first party. This process of exchanging strings of wampum would continue until the council was concluded with the ceremonial covering of the council fire. This process of exchange and voicing of terms would also be followed when negotiations involved Iroquois treaties with the European powers or the United States. Each article of a given treaty was represented by a string of wampum and the treaty was usually represented by a belt of wampum. Signed paper copies of the treaties and their terms were also created and kept by the Euro-American powers.

For major councils, wampum was strung together into belts commemorating either a newly established or reaffirmed bond between the two parties. According to traditional Iroquois arguments, strings and belts of wampum will last forever, just as the articles and treaties associated with them are supposed to. According to the same argument, belts and strings of wampum force Iroquois leaders to commit to memory the agreements that they or those that came before them have made. Conversely, paper documents get filed away where the words that are written upon them are eventually forgotten by future generations or as the paper they are written upon decomposes over time. What made remembering the symbolic meaning of a particular string or belt of wampum easier for the generations of Iroquois was the fact that each of the colors and arrangements of colors on strings or belts carried with them specific meaning. It became essential for Europeans to learn those meanings when attempting to negotiate favorable relations with the Iroquois. It was expected that translators for the European powers would not only understand the Iroquois language, but would also know how to order strings of wampum beads intended to represent the individual European power’s desired terms. Any mistakes might cause confusion or worse yet, insult. The use of wampum by the Iroquois during diplomacy highlights the importance of the “Cultural Broker” since any mistakes in translation or cultural understandings associated with wampum on their part during negotiations might press the Iroquois into the other’s camp (British, French, or American).

Wampum became essential to expanding and maintaining Iroquois influence across the Great Lakes region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Since it was always being given away by the Iroquois during diplomatic negotiations, as gifts, during weddings, as offerings to their many gods, or being buried with their dead, the Iroquois need for wampum likely took on the appearance of currency to Euro-Americans who could little associate such want with anything other than gold, silver, or anything else that might be associated with riches. The big difference here is that if one is to consider wampum as money, the Iroquois are nothing like their white contemporaries - either then or now - since they gave far more of it away than they ever amassed. So, leaving aside the fact that contemporary Euro-Americans may have falsely associated the Iroquois’ apparently insatiable desire for wampum with their own insatiable desire for riches, it becomes apparent that wampum was far more essential to the Iroquois for the relationships that its dissemination solidified. If wampum possessed purchasing power in the seventeenth and eighteenth century when Euro-Americans were first making their way into the Iroquois homeland, that power lay in its ability to attain good relations between the Iroquois, their Native American neighbors, the European powers who hope to create trade and military alliances with them, as well as the many spirits who influenced the individual Iroquois’ everyday life. As with the Euro-American’s use of currency, when the Iroquois gave away wampum it usually meant that they expected something in return. However, wampum’s relationship to those expectations of something in return are not accurately explained as its ability to purchase those expected returns, but rather in wampum’s ability to symbolically represent what was expected by the Iroquois.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Black Robes



Louis Thomas de Joncaire was not, however, the first Frenchman to make his way into Seneca territory. In the decades leading up to the Marquis de Denonville’s raid into Seneca territory in the summer of 1687, Jesuit priests were hard at work attempting to convert the Iroquois. The Jesuit presence was initially tolerated by the Seneca sachems of present-day western New York as a result of diplomatic agreements made between Onondaga and New France in 1653, but by the time of Denonville’s raid, the Jesuits were being forcefully expelled. When Jesuit priests came to the Iroquois Five Nations during the latter half of the seventeenth century they were usually met by two factions who held either a positive or negative understanding of what the “Black Robes” represented. Daniel K. Richter has characterized the first group as being mainly comprised of Huron war captives who had been previously converted to Christianity (2).

The Huron people had been devastated by epidemics throughout the 1630s and 1640s as well as by successive raids by the Iroquois Five Nations after 1649. What remained of the fragmented Huron tribes were many times taken as captives in Iroquois raids designed to capture furs and replacements for their own dead. Upon the Jesuits arrival into Iroquois territory, the Huron captives and refugees then living among the Seneca tribe welcomed the priests as a means to reconnect with their newfound religion. Additionally, among those Huron who had not previously converted prior to their being taken to live among the Five Nations, Christianity also provided a means to rebuke assimilation as they forged an independent Christian identity from their Iroquois captors (9). A perceived Huron affinity for the Black Robes helps to explain why Seneca sachems might actually have invited Jesuit priests to their villages in hopes of convincing the remaining refugee Huron of Canada to come and live among the Seneca people here in western New York(3). After suffering the devastating effects of a smallpox epidemic that ravaged the Iroquois during the 1640s, peacefully convincing the Huron to come and live with them would reduce the chances of losing still further numbers as a result of the Iroquois Mourning Wars that were more fully explained in the previous entry to this blog.

Nevertheless, not all Huron war captives were converted to Christianity. Many of the former Huron adoptees warned their new families and tribesmen that the Jesuits brought nothing with them but bad fortune. For many Huron, the Jesuits were to blame for their people’s ultimate demise. Such claims were not without merit. Jesuit influence had certainly caused political rifts among the Huron converts and traditionalists. With good reason, traditionalist adoptees now warned their Iroquois hosts that the Jesuit presence would have the same effect among the Five Nations should they be tolerated. The Huron adoptees also warned that the Jesuits and their pacifist influence left the Huron peoples weakened militarily in the face of outside invaders. Jesuit pacifism had prevented the trading of arms to the Huron by the Catholic French after the priests warned all French traders, administrators, and soldiers that they would be denied the Sacraments if caught trading arms with savages. Most devastating to the Jesuit reputation were Huron claims that the Black Robe was actually some type of witch or sorcerer (2).

In a native society where people had nothing to hide from one another and where almost all activities were conducted in the open, the Jesuit insistence of periodic privacy and refusal to accept visitors unless at specified times, surrounded the priest with an aura of questionability. The Black Robe’s clandestine activities behind closed, and sometimes locked, doors certainly made him suspect. This would have especially been the case should misfortunes in war befall his hosts or should epidemics or famine accompany him as he passed from tribe to tribe or village to village. Again, these Huron accusations against the Black Robe are not without merit since, many times, it was in fact the Jesuit priests who brought European diseases into Native villages. Even when he did not bring disease with him, the Jesuit priest played an active role in its spreading among villagers and neighboring villages. In the traditional sense, the Jesuit priest was seen as similar to the Native shamen who through the use of rituals involving talismans and incantations would ward off the evil spirits that made the body sick (8). Upon arrival to Huron villages where disease was already running its devastating course, the Jesuits were immediately conducted to the sick and dying. After initial contact with a disease such as smallpox, the Jesuit priest might then unknowingly spread it as he travelled from village to village or tribe to tribe. Daniel Richter emphasizes that the Jesuits compounded the negative perceptions associated with their activities since they seldom baptized anyone but the dying for fear of apostasy (2). The Jesuit priest thus became the cause of death, instead of the disease. With these negative perceptions of the Black Robe in mind, it is not difficult to imagine how traditionalist Huron adoptees may have made compelling arguments against allowing the Jesuits presence within their new homes among the Seneca.

Nonetheless, many Iroquois sachems did at least temporarily tolerate the Jesuit presence as part of Onondaga’s diplomatic agreements with New France. Daniel Richter points out that as part of traditional diplomacy, Native Americans would “exchange visitors who would live in each other’s villages as face-to-face reminders of friendship and insurance against renewed hostilities (4).” Under diplomatic circumstances, therefore, the Jesuits were merely seen as serving these ends. A peaceful relationship with New France was not the only motivation for their decision, however, since many times the sachems saw other benefits to the Black Robes presence – i.e. convincing Huron refugees to come and live among his people. An Iroquois sachem’s influence among his people was at least partially based upon the things that he could provide his people. Any gifts or benefits from the French that might accompany the Jesuit would help to secure the sachems influence as would any type of perceived good luck that might accompany the priest. Any good harvests, hunts, victories in battle, or spoils from increased trade that followed the Jesuit priests to the Seneca villages would therefore not only reflect greatly upon the Jesuit priest, but by proxy, would also increase the influence of the sachem responsible for bringing the Black Robe to their village (6). Consequently, Daniel Richter has argued that the initial successes experienced by the Jesuit priest in Seneca territory – where they did in fact see success - was largely a result of the Jesuit’s perceived “shamanistic power,” rather than “the message he preached (6).”

Initially, the Black Robe did not pose any real threat to the sachem’s authority since, as shamen tasked with the spiritual well-being of the people, the Black Robe’s activities should not have come into conflict with the decisions made by tribal leaders (5). Iroquois society was fairly open to anything and anyone that might bring good fortune to their villages or that might help keep their physical and spiritual worlds in balance. For instance, just as the Jesuit was initially accepted as nothing more than a traditional shamen, Christ was considered by many non-converts to represent nothing more than one of the many spirits active in the Iroquois world. This at least partial acceptance of Christ shows that many of the Iroquois did not wholly dismiss the validity of Christ’s powers according to the Jesuits, only that He ranked among the other influential spirits rather than replacing them completely.

The amiable situation changed, however, once the Black Robe’s influence began to outstrip that of the sachem and as relations with New France diminished. For better or worse, the Jesuits did in fact begin to convert significant enough numbers to create rifts within the Five Nations between the newly converted and traditionalists. For many of the converts, their relationship with their Jesuit priests translated into closer ties with their French fathers who were sworn to protect them. Though the Jesuit influence among the Iroquois Five Nations cannot completely explain the breakdown in Iroquois cohesion, their corrosive presence, along with that of European diseases and agents such as Louis Thomas de Joncaire and Peter Schuyler, was certainly volatile to the Seneca’s traditional way of life as well as their hold over their lands. Our purpose here is to point out that the Jesuit presence, though religiously motivated, caused a political rift among the Iroquois people, clans, villages, and tribes that left them open to future exploitation that might otherwise have been staved off by a united front (12). Check back in the future when we introduce at least one of the Jesuit priests who were at work among the Seneca here in western New York and go further to explain their impact.

Richter, Daniel K. “Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1686.” Ethnohistory. Vol. 32. No. 1 (Winter, 1985): pp. 1-16

Friday, July 22, 2011

Louis Thomas de Joncaire



By the summer of 1687, the Iroquois had been actively raiding their Indian neighbors to the north and west of the Genesee Region for almost four decades. These raids were characterized by quick strikes aimed at capturing the Western Indian’s processed furs as well as numerous captives that would either be ceremonially executed as part of a ritualized mourning process or, for the somewhat lucky ones, to be assimilated into the Iroquois war party’s village as a replacement for recently lost friends and loved ones. These characteristically brutal Iroquois raids spanning nearly two-thirds of the seventeenth century have been cumulatively referred to as the Beaver Wars. The Beaver Wars were a North American Indian conflict that has largely been explained by early twentieth-century historians as an Iroquois attempt to monopolize the lucrative fur trade with the Dutch, and later the English, at Albany, New York. Though partially correct in assuming that trade interests motivated the Iroquois, motivations that have often been overlooked by historians are the cultural explanations for Iroquois aggression. Despite Iroquois motivations for involving themselves in a running conflict becoming muddied by successive historians who have until recent-decades interpreted late seventeenth-century events through the lens of their own cultural perspectives, the reason for French involvement in the Indian conflict was not so indistinct.

When the French governor and military commander, Jacques-Rene de Brisay de Denonville, the Marquis de Denonville, raided deep into Seneca territory in the summer 1687 the Marquis had one thing on his mind - to punish the Iroquois. After landing at Irondequoit Bay, Denonville marched south bent on destroying the main Seneca villages at Ganondagan and Rochester Landing as retribution for the lost flow of beaver pelts that the Iroquois raiding parties had redirected from Montreal to Albany. Denonville’s invasion of Seneca territory represented the western arm of the French offensive aimed at removing the Iroquois nuisance. Of the Iroquois Five Nations, only the Cayuga were left untouched by French aggression from 1680-1700. For the Seneca, however, Denonville’s invasion was devastating. The main Seneca villages were abandoned and burned before Denonville’s army arrived and their former inhabitants made their way to Cayuga territory as refugees. The Seneca would spend the next year living with their Iroquois brethren before moving back to their own territory in the spring of 1688.

Traveling with the Seneca during their short trek to Cayuga territory was a French soldier who had been captured during one of the violent skirmishes along Denonville’s route. Louis Thomas de Joncaire was a mere seventeen when he was captured by Seneca warriors. He and his fellow captives were taken east where all but Joncaire were tortured to the point of death by their Native captors. Joncaire was spared further torture and imminent death when he fiercely fought of a Seneca war chief who was attempting to bind his hands before pulling Joncaire’s finger nails out. The other Seneca witnesses respected Joncaire’s warrior spirit, which refused to give in to its fate by crying or screaming as many of the other French captives had. As a result of his proven courage, the Seneca adopted Joncaire and in the tradition of the Mourning War, he was given the name Sononchiez and placed within his new Seneca family.

Joncaire was eventually released in 1694 along with fourteen other captives. Amazingly, Joncaire had already achieved the rank of sachem in the short span of seven years among the Seneca. His first official duty after returning to New France (Canada) came four years after his release when on July 18, 1700, Joncaire was asked to attend a conference between the Iroquois and New France’s governor, the Chevalier de Callieres. 1700 marked the final year of the conflict between the French and Iroquois that had begun near twenty years earlier. As part of his services to Callieres, Joncaire spent that summer with the Seneca seeing to the return of additional French and Western Indian war captives.

Joncaire later attended the Great Council of 1701 at Montreal where he worked with both the French and the Seneca Indians to establish a lasting peace that included the western tribes allied to New France. Joncaire attended and presided over several councils, celebrations, and ceremonies on behalf of both Callieres of New France and the Seneca Indians who were still recovering from the decades of devastating retaliatory raids of the Western Indian nations. As an adopted and well-respected member of the Seneca Indians, Joncaire was able to spend much of his remaining lifetime intermittently living among the Seneca who were then settled in villages lying between Seneca and Canandaigua Lakes. Joncaire’s knowledge of Seneca culture proved instrumental in keeping the Seneca from allying with the British during Queen Anne’s War fought in North America between the French and British from 1702-1715. Joncaire would ultimately serve as an intermediary, advisor, and interpreter between the French and Iroquois until his death in 1739 when his son, Chabert, officially stepped in to his father’s role.

Joncaire’s first-hand knowledge of their culture ensured that the Seneca would not be insulted by improper gifts, impositions, or pressuring by other French agents who were accustomed to European ways of creating alliances and trade networks. English agents in Seneca territory were initially outdone by the French because men like Joncaire respected all of the ceremonial, time-consuming, and gift giving elements of Seneca councils while the English proved impatient and impulsively dictated terms to the Seneca while using trade with Albany as either the reward or punishment for meeting English terms. Joncaire provided French colonial administrators with an inside man capable of swaying Seneca opinions that went unmatched by the fumbling British in Albany. Joncaire’s extraordinary value came from the fact that he fully understood and appreciated the important role that persuasion played in a culture where no person had the power to compel obedience. Joncaire’s influence was ultimately so strong among the Seneca that despite vehement British protests and risking the loss of the lucrative trade network with Albany, the Seneca gave the French permission to construct a fortified trading house on the site of the future Fort Niagara in the early 1720s. The trading house at Niagara was among the last real efforts by the French to retain some semblance of activity within the Western Indian fur trade that was increasingly dominated by the British in Albany. Though their efforts ultimately proved fruitless, the military and trade situations in New France would have been markedly worse if not for the efforts of Joncaire.

The story of Louis Thomas de Joncaire is just one of the many stories that our upcoming exhibit will use as an interpretive vehicle for understanding how the pursuit of empire and the resultant networks of diverse peoples opened the door for individual personal desires to transform the Genesee Region from a heavily forested Haudenosaunee homeland into the agrarian-based western New York landscape that we still recognize today. What we ultimately hope that you come away from both this blog and our future exhibit with is the understanding that the transformation of western New York’s landscape from 1650-1810 came in stages that were marked by wider events and involves a narrative that is far more complex than one monolithic entity replacing another. Our selections of historical personalities such as Joncaire are therefore meant to tell that complex story through the lens of individual experiences and personal motivations. Their stories will therefore serve as the synapses between local networks of diverse peoples and the events of the wider world. Not only should visitors leave our future exhibit with a better understanding of how the landscape and people of western New York were impacted by those wider events occurring between 1650 and 1810, but also how the decisions of a few selected individuals at work within the Genesee Region might have changed the course of world history. We encourage you to keep checking into our exhibit blog if you would like to get more sneak peeks at our selected personalities as well as a continued look into the process of constructing an exhibit that will effectively tell their stories.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cultural Brokers at Work


If you are new to this blog or if it has been a while since you last checked in, it might do you well to read the previous three entries before you read this one. This posting continues a discussion on Cultural Brokers that started three postings ago and if you are not familiar with the term “Cultural Broker” – start there.

In 1700, the Five Nations of Iroquois established the original “Covenant Chain” with Great Britain as a means to guarantee Anglo-Iroquois peace as well as to secure British protection over Iroquois hunting lands that were then being threatened by Western Indian tribes and their French allies in Canada. By 1700 the early victories achieved by Iroquois warriors at the outset of the Beaver Wars had been eclipsed by the more recent and devastating French invasions into Seneca territory led by the Marquis de Denonville as well as successive setbacks in the Ohio Valley at the hands of the Western Indians. A year later, the Five Nations finally cemented peace with New France and its Western Indian allies at Montreal in 1701. The “Great Peace of 1701” as it was called, ended a Euro-Indian conflict that had begun more than half a century earlier when the Iroquois had first raided their western neighbors as means to procure beaver pelts. For the next fifty plus years until the outbreak of the French & Indian War in 1754, the Five (Six after 1722) Nations did their best to remain neutral in European affairs as they attempted to take full advantage of their central location within the fur trade that was centered at Albany, New York. As the events of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) and later King George’s War (1744-1748) would soon highlight, however, maintaining a neutral position was to be no easy task for successive Iroquois sachems in the first half of the 18th century.

What made maintaining Iroquois neutrality during European conflicts all the more difficult were the many agents of New France and New York who were busy explaining the benefits of alliances with them over the other or deviously spreading rumors that the other was building forts and armies in preparation for a raid on Iroquoia. These European agents at work between 1701 and 1754 are among the most significant of our Cultural Brokers since it was they whom never missed an opportunity to take advantage of their keen understanding of Iroquois culture in order to either promote their own personal interests or those of their parent monarchies. By 1754, the work of these individual agents – as well as the other Cultural Brokers of different walks - had been made clear when the Six Nations split over which side they should support in the European conflict that was then taking shape. The split within Iroquoia caused by the French & Indian War was not limited to the breakup of the Confederacy itself, but also caused internal rifts within the individual tribes themselves.

Since our exhibit will focus on western New York, our main concern among the Iroquios is the Seneca tribe and as with the Confederacy itself, the Seneca were not immune to the greater forces then pulling the Haudenosaunee people apart. In past centuries, the Seneca traditionally lived within two larger nucleated villages that were occasionally surrounded by smaller hamlets close by. The two major Seneca villages were seldom more than ten to fifteen miles apart. This changed in 1754 when the westernmost village previously located a few miles east of Canandaigua Lake moved to the banks of the Genesee River where it would be closer to the French at Fort Niagara while the easternmost village previously located a few miles west of Seneca Lake moved to a site called Kanadesaga located just northwest of Geneva, New York where Preemption Road meets County Road #4. Some members of the western village also decided to settle a smaller village that was located atop an easily defendable position, later called Arsenal Hill, located in present-day Canandaigua, New York. The eastern Kanadesaga village site was chosen since a sloping ridge provided a more defendable position than the previous village, which was spread out across a flat and open plain. Kanadesaga also sat close to where the governor of New York had recently ordered the construction of a British fort (that was never garrisoned). As the separation of the Seneca villages highlights, the outbreak of the French & Indian War and the Iroquois decision to abandon the neutral stance that they had previously held fast to for over fifty years marked the starting point for the relative demise of the Iroquois empire in western New York.

So why had the Seneca apparently split over the question of which of their European fathers they should support? As mentioned before, both British and French agents were actively swaying the Seneca to one side or the other for decades leading up to 1754. At stake for the Seneca was their central position within the lucrative fur trade with Albany, but also their general security since it had been proven time-and-again that British pledges of support usually amounted to little more than lip-service. The Seneca’s location at the “western door” also placed them in closer proximity to the French and their Western Indian allies than to the British in Albany.

More significantly, despite risking the more advantageous benefits of trade with the British at Albany by siding with the French, many of the Seneca and their sachems had been won over by French agents such as the influential Louis Thomas de Joncaire; French diplomat, soldier, and adopted Seneca sachem who spent more than fifty years of his life in and out of Seneca territory. Though Joncaire died in June of 1739, his influence among the Seneca remained as a result of his son, known as “Chabert” or Joncaire Jr., who took up his father’s mantle as representative to - and for - the Seneca Indians in their dealings with New France. My next posting will go into greater detail in describing Joncaire’s efforts among the Seneca and the picture of what a Cultural Broker is - or what they do - should become even clearer.

Friday, July 8, 2011

So What Exactly is a "Cultural Broker" and Why Are They So Important?



In an earlier submission to this blog, we introduced the term “Cultural Broker.” We thought it might be good to take this opportunity to expand on our definition of what a Cultural Broker is and why we feel they present us with the best interpretive strategy for studying the regional events and changes in western New York to be covered in our upcoming exhibit. Within his article “Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics (1988),” Daniel K. Richter explains that in the past, an all-encompassing historical narrative that includes the three key elements of the local community, wider developments and differing perspectives has proved elusive (40). Richter suggests that the study of “Cultural Brokers” has provided a much desired “synapse” between the three elements that had, until then, been so desired (41). Based on Richter’s advice, we have also chosen Cultural Brokers as the focus of our upcoming exhibit since their stories will help us to tell not only the story of the individual, but also of diverse communities and wider events.

We will therefore be using Cultural Brokers as an interpretive strategy for studying and presenting the events and changes occurring in the Genesee Region of western New York from 1650 to 1810. Their individual stories will enable us to tell not only the much broader story of the struggle for empire between the Dutch, English, French and later the Americans, but will also help to explain how this Euro-American imperial struggle ultimately affected the Seneca Indians of western New York and the short-lived Iroquois empire. As Daniel Richter argues, “neither the focus on monolithic European empires and Indian tribes nor on isolated locations can fully convey the texture of colonial history, nor can the empires and the localities be understood apart from one another (66).”

If we are to get a clear picture of what is happening in western New York from 1650 to 1810, our best mode of doing so is by studying the individuals who served as the go-betweens among the vying empires and who faithfully documented the cultural differences and similarities as well as how each side of the racial or national divide reacted to changes occurring in western New York. For as Richter argues, “A faithful reconstruction of the larger whole that the Native and European peoples of early America shared requires simultaneous attention to the broad North American context (i.e. the pursuit of empire), to the internal dynamics of local communities (how one maintains influence domestically, regionally, or internationally), and to links between the two levels of experience (66-67).” Cultural Brokers will therefore give us the opportunity to not only focus on the individual historical actor and their personal motivations, but will also enable us to highlight how their actions and personal desires impacted the much grander stage of western New York or North America.

So what exactly is a Cultural Broker? We already know that they were intermediaries between the vying empires and racial divide here in western New York, but more specifically they held many titles and served many roles. Most Cultural Brokers were either Jesuit priests, European Agents of some type, Fur Traders, Seneca Chiefs, translators, men and women who had married into the other’s culture, war captives, land developers, or children of mixed race parents. As Nancy Hagedorn points out in her article “A Friend to Go Between Them (1988),” “From their intermediate position between European and Indian cultures, these individuals interpreted more than languages, they also required strong knowledge of the culture and customs of both groups (60).”

For anyone interested in seeing how seventeenth and eighteenth century Euro-American and Seneca cultures diverged and sometimes converged, we would suggest visiting the “At the Western Door” exhibit of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. As for our exhibit, we will show how Euro-American understanding of the Seneca culture proved pivotal when it came time to negotiate trade and military alliances with the Seneca as well as when negotiations later revolved around the purchase of Native lands. Richter states that “on all sides the survival of relationships depended on the continued ability of brokers to convince each community that its interests were being served (54).” Nancy Hagedorn apparently agrees with Richter’s statement concerning the importance of conveying good intentions and adds that “the delicate and important nature of the business of the Six Nations and the [Europeans] required a friend to go between them – a person of ability and integrity in whom both sides could place a confidence (61).” The ability to convince the other of their good intentions meant that the Cultural Broker must be able to speak and act in a manner that conveyed respect for the other and their ways, especially since conferences with the Seneca and the other Iroquois nations were as much about ceremony as they were about communication. By not following proper decorum, the Cultural Brokers caught up in the larger quest for empire risked pushing the Seneca of western New York into the enemy’s camp.

Primary source documents left behind by Euro-American or Native translators will therefore give us a good deal of insight into not only how the struggle for empire was being played out here in western New York, but will also give us excellent insight into changing Iroquois material, spiritual, and subsistence culture. Cultural Brokers will also give us excellent insight into how the landscape of western New York was transformed from an Iroquois wilderness characterized by temporary Seneca settlements and criss-crossed by narrow footpaths into the recognizable agrarian market republic dotted by New England style villages that were connected to southern and eastern markets by roads that we still travel on today. Ultimately, however, Cultural Brokers will help us to connect the local political structures and competing cultures with regional and international sources of power since, as Richter argues, “in the local hands frequently lay the fate of both the imperial powers of the modern world-system and the Native peoples that system sought to absorb (40-14).” Keep checking back as we begin to introduce a few of our selected Cultural Brokers to this blog. As we do so, the picture of what exactly a Cultural Broker is should become much clearer.

Richter, Daniel K. "Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics: New York-Iroquois Relations, 1664-1701." The Journal of American History. Vol. 75, No. 1 (June, 1988):pp. 40-67

Hagedorn, Nancy L. "A Friend to go Between Them: The Interpreter as Cultural Broker During Anglo-Iroquois Councils, 1740-70." Ethnohistory. Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter, 1988):pp. 60-80

Friday, June 24, 2011

Where to Start and Where to End?


In designing this exhibit, the staff at OCHS has come to a general consensus that we should begin with the Iroquois Beaver Wars beginning in 1649. However, as you have likely seen if you’ve been following this blog, deciding on where to end has not been so easily resolved. The motive behind starting in around 1649 and ending somewhere in the early 19th century was primarily based on the idea that it was during this transitional period that we see the most dramatic changes in western New York’s history occurring. It was during this period that we see western New York transformed from an Iroquois wilderness criss-crossed by footpaths and dotted by impermanent Seneca settlements into the more substantial roads, villages, townships, and rolling farmlands that we still recognize today.

The Iroquois Beaver Wars present us with a seminal moment in western New York’s history when the Iroquois have become so fully immersed in the international-intercultural fur trading network that they were forced to invade their neighbors in hopes of maintaining their most favored nation status when trading with the Dutch, and later the English, at Albany. By 1649, the beaver population in western New York was all but depleted and this deficiency set the Iroquois on a collision course with the western and northern Indians who were then allied to the French in Canada. An ensuing conflict with France from 1680 to 1700 devastated the Seneca of western New York and forced the then Five Nations into a more conciliatory stance with both the French and their western Indian allies. The twenty-year struggle with France also opened the door to Jesuit priests and other French agents that combined with an adopted population of war captives and epidemics in Iroquoia to begin a process of internal decomposition.

Additionally, French influence in western New York worked as a polarizing agent among the Iroquois as the westernmost Iroquois nations grew closer to the French while the easternmost tribes remained loyal to the English. It is during this fifty year period from about 1650 to 1700 that we see the beginnings of a devastating process of internal friction among the Six Nations that would continue into the French & Indian War (1756-1763) and the American Revolution (1774-1783) that was only temporarily interrupted in the early half of the 18th century. Internal friction and the weaknesses that it created would ultimately end the Iroquois section of our narrative with land dispossession and the transformation of the landscape by transplanted New England farmers and their corporate patriarchs; Phelps, Williamson, and Ellicott.

As of now, we appear a bit divided over whether to end our exhibit in 1817 just before the construction of the Erie Canal or in 1825 at its completion. If our aim is to present the visitor with a narrative of western New York’s most transformative period, I believe that the transformation is near completed by the 1817 and that the Erie Canal, while significant to the region’s history, does not change the course of events that have already been set in motion. What we are considering with this exhibit is a sort of Rip van Winkle story, where –if it were possible – a visitor to western New York in 1650 would see a night and day difference in the region’s landscape should they have returned in 1817. What we would also like the exhibit’s viewer to consider is: whether the period beginning in 1797 - when land dispossession was completed with the Treaty of Big Tree - and ending in 1817 - when white settlement now dominated the region - should be considered as the “day” or the “night” in our narrative. Whose side will you take? Better yet, hold that thought until after you’ve seen our exhibit!

In the meantime, we still want to know what you think. Should or exhibit include the Erie Canal? Remember, our aim is to highlight western New York in transition. Does the Canal or its Canal Towns change the narrative significantly, or has the change-over from wilderness to agrarian market settlements sufficiently occurred in the years before 1817 to tell the story without including the Canal? Secondly, was the period that we are discussing (ca. 1649-1817) the most identifiably significant period in western New York’s history? Is there a period when western New York saw more significant change than it did between 1649 and 1817 (or 1825)? Let us know what you’re thinking.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Role of "Cultural Brokers" in the Shaping of Western New York


Over the past year, I have been researching the transitional period in western New York’s history running roughly from 1649 - when the Iroquois Beaver Wars began – and 1817 when the region had already become fully enmeshed within the international agrarian market economy in the years before the construction of the Erie Canal. As the previous sentence points out, the focus of my research has largely been centered on changing market trends in the region and how they shaped the political relationships between the native Iroquois and the Euro-American interlopers as well as how those same economic trends expedited settlement in the Genesee region. With the loss of their lands (excepting scattered reservations) completed at Big Tree in 1797 and their sometimes staunch refusal to assimilate into the American farming culture, the Iroquois are effectively removed from our narrative. In their place, the focus of our exhibit research shifts to the region’s initial white settlers and the hardships faced while attempting to carve a life out of the Genesee soil. As my research has made evident, however, those hardships were not as onerous as they might have been without the improvements funded by the principle land agents; Phelps, Williamson, and Ellicott.

Why focus on shifting markets? Our objective for the upcoming exhibit is to illustrate how individual desires, and actions associated with those personal desires, played determinative parts within the narrative of the transitional period between 1649 and 1817. By focusing on selected historical personalities, we hope to highlight how involvement in the beaver trade exposed some pre-existing and some newly introduced corrosive agents (personalities and conglomerates) at work against Iroquois solidarity. The facilitated transition from subsistence to consumer culture within Iroquoia not only integrated the Iroquois Six Nations into European consumerism that characterized shifting lifestyles across the Atlantic, but also paved the way for political inroads by British and French representatives who hoped to secure Iroquois alliances in trade, land dispossession, and war. Market involvement thus opened the door to political and religious agents that combined with market agents to expedite the fragmentation of Iroquois cohesion.

Key to maintaining the myriad relationships were the intermediaries or what the historian Daniel K. Richter calls, “cultural brokers,” – both Native and White agents - who continually worked to inspire Iroquois/ Euro-American action on behalf of parent monarchies, God, corporations, tribes or in some cases, personal interests. These cultural brokers will therefore represent a significant portion of our selected historical personalities.

In the decades after 1650, the individual actions of our selected Native American and Euro-American cultural brokers left the Iroquois Six Nations vulnerable to the competing speculative interests of the United States government, state governors and assemblies, land conglomerates, and individual “land jobbers” to accelerate the process of land dispossession. It is during the period of land dispossession that we will introduce a new set of cultural brokers whose individual personalities pressed changes in western New York that are most identifiable in our own time. From the Iroquois sachem to the land speculator, the Indian Agent, and the individual Resident-Agent, as well as the farmers, professionals, and tradesmen who made the journey here, each of our selected historical personalities had an integral part to play. More importantly, each of them was personally inspired by individual desires that we hope to identify. Part of what we want to know is: Were those “personal desires” so much different from our own?

What actually motivated our selected cultural brokers? How were they perceived by their contemporaries (White and Native)? Have perceptions changed over time? These are the questions that the four segments of our exhibit will hopefully leave open for you – the viewer – to decide. Our goal at OCHS is to present you the viewer with the pertinent information needed to formulate informed answers.

Were our slected cultural brokers acting for God and Country? Were they acting for the good of their trading house? Were they acting with the best interests of their tribe in mind? Were they acting out of a genuine concern for Iroquois salvation? Or were they acting out of personal greed? The answers to all of these questions will be left for you to decide.

As for now, my research has left me amazed at the number of individual motivations at work here in western New York during the pre-and post-Revolutionary period. In the weeks to come, we will be introducing a few of our historic personalities to this blog in an attempt to illustrate just how complex the narrative of western New York’s history is during the transitional period from 1649 to 1817. We truly believe that some of you may be amazed at just how easily personal ambitions can be cloaked by promulgations of a “greater cause.” Your understanding of history just might be changed forever.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Webinars on our project.






A visit to the Hiastorical Society's web site http://www.ochs.org/ and a click on What's New will offer a look at recordings of our first two webinars in the early history of Western New York.






  • Our Great Land Speculators - Oliver Phelps, Charles Williamson and Joseph Ellicott



  • A Broader Look at the Canandaigua Treaty

Friday, April 29, 2011

Native American Input for Exhibit

Canandaigua Treaty
by Robt Griffing

Used with permission


It's Friday and it's late but I did want to acknowledge and thank Peter Jemison at Ganondagan State Historic Site for scheduling a meeting with the museum staff and our consultant, Linda Norris from RiverHill Asso. The association between the museum and Ganondagan will be a great addition to our exhibit research and help us better understanding the Seneca and Iroquois perspective of our time period.



Also, we have posted a link at http://www.ochs.org/ to sign up for our next webinar The Canandaigua Treaty. It will be at 7 PM on May 18th. Hope to see you there.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why Do People Label Others as "Greedy"


Our Distance Learning Developer, Ray suggests that people pursue a basic human desire of "respect" in a community through personal success. Success can be measured by money, assets or position among other things. Accumulation of the stuff of success can lead for others to classify the accumulator as "greedy". The accuser through whose lens a person is "greedy" may have many motivations to make the claim. Ray suggests further that one motivation may be the lack of self respect or the lack of respect afforded the accuser by the accumulator of wealth (greedy one) may very well be the motivator of the name calling. Maybe jealousy comes into play.

Give it some thought..... have you ever thought of someone as being greedy? What was your motivation in making that claim?


To learn more about three of our great land speculators we have recorded a webinar that is available for public viewing. The link to this 1 hr, 20 min session is: http://ellum2.nyit.edu/play_recording.html?recordingId=1247620703983_1302731760227

Friday, March 11, 2011

Greedy, Who Will Decide

What’s all this about Greed?

Recently the local newspaper, the Canandaigua Daily Messenger (www.npnnow.com) published a short story on the exhibition with the headline : “Historical Society Exhibit Takes on Greed”. It was about the focus groups we were currently interviewing.

At a local Chamber of Commerce Dinner the evening that the article was published, I shared a laugh about the publicity over an adult beverage with several bankers who were familiar with the project. The word “greed” caught their eye and were interested in how the research was progressing. They inquired how our focus groups were reacting to the concept.

Later in the evening, I ran into a long-time friend and benefactor of our museum. She warned that the article and its focus on Greed was not good and that if we weren’t careful the concept could backfire and create negative feelings about the museum and its feature exhibit. Her words were not spoken in jest and I started reflecting on the comment.

Admittedly, the staff and exhibit committee has struggled with the concept. The exhibit is intended to offer a perspective of the people who fought and settled the area that is currently western New York. We want to look into the personal desires of our local forefathers and how their actions created the western New York we know today. There are dozens of books and original manuscripts we are reading in our effort to get to the root of our research.

Then I received a memo from our staff researcher and Distance Learning Developer, Ray. He contested the wording of questions we were asking the members of the focus groups that sought input on the differences between survival, ambition and greed.

“Greed is not a desire”, he wrote. “ Freedom and equality, are.” He went on to posit that these basic human desires manifested themselves in WNY historic movements such as the Underground Railroad and the Woman’s Rights movement. Our first settlers were not greedy. They sought economic freedom, above all and to replicate the communities that they left in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Ray made a great point. Greed, ambition and survival are not a desires but rather a societal perception by others. Also these labels are a moving target. What was considered greedy or ambitious in 1650 was likely not the same as the greed label in 1812. That begs the question, what would visitors to the museum in the 21st Century think about the actions and methods of our county’s founders?

From this discussion, we are beginning to see a path in our research and exhibit development. If we present the stories of movers and shakers in our early years; people such as Oliver Phelps, Joseph Ellicott, Red Jacket, Corn Planter and Jemima Wilkinson. Then, offer the exhibit visitor a glimpse into 17th and 18th century western New York, we can let the visitor decide whether the individual actions made them survivors, ambitious or even greedy.

IDEA !!! Maybe it will be best to let visitors to the exhibit decide. If we keep track of their responses we can all learn from each other’s judgment of how to perceive the early settlers that caused our region to grow and become the home we know today.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Upcoming Webinars to Introduce Key Historical Figures and Events


As many of you may well know from this blog site, the Museum will be opening a major exhibit in 2012 that will be focusing on the role of human desires in the transformation of western New York from a vast wilderness dominated by the indigenous Iroquois peoples of the Six Nations to a bastion for white settlement formed around planned communities and framed by participation in the larger agrarian market economy. As part of our efforts, we are focusing much of our research on debunking the myths and erasing the stereotypes associated with western New York’s transitional period from 1650 to 1817 (Cut-off year currently undetermined). All too often, we may associate frontier settlement with savage Indians, corrupt federal officials, greedy aristocratic speculators, and the ideal rugged frontier settler who hacked out his existence through hardship after hardship fighting off weather, savages, disease, and wild animals while being isolated from civilized society and standing in stark contrast to the wealthy and indifferent speculators who time-and-again took the miniscule profits that the frontier settler was able to muster.

What we hope to create through our upcoming exhibit is the opportunity for the individual viewer to make their own well-informed judgments based on the information that we are able to provide.
  • Were the Iroquois peoples actually naïve, savage, or stubborn in the face of the inevitable as one might expect? 
  • Were the Iroquois in fact faced by a united front in the form of state and federal officials, speculators, and white settlers or were they the victims of an array of competing interests that drove western expansion further and faster than the natural rate of population growth among whites would have necessitated? 
  • Were white emigrants to western New York predominantly poor New England discontents looking to free themselves from the demands of eastern society and religion? 
  • Was their desire to establish a new egalitarian way of life in western New York where all men were equal? 
  • And finally, are the speculator-developers who purchased the original rights to the near four million acres of formerly Indian inhabited lands west of Seneca Lake best characterized as greedy money grubbers hoping to turn a quick buck at the expense of the heroic settler and naïve Iroquois chiefs as we might imagine them to have been? 
 These are just a few of the questions that we hope will inspire you to not only come and visit our upcoming exhibit, but also motivate you to take an active interest in who the people were that influenced western New York in the formative years from 1650 to 1817. This exhibit will not only focus on informing the viewer, but more importantly, inviting the informed viewer to see a different perspective of events. In so doing, we hope to highlight that next to the elusive elements of truth and fact, subjectivity may be the most important aspect to our historical understandings. The judgments and conclusions will be left to you, the viewer, but our desire is that the exhibit presents these individuals and events in formats that allow for all sides of the story to be told without any skewed biases. It is not the Museum’s intent to point out the legitimacy of individual desires, but rather, to present our selected historical actors in a format that leaves their individual desires open to your interpretations.

 As part of our efforts to create an informed visitor to our upcoming exhibit, we would like to invite our membership and the general public to attend two live, web-based, lectures that will introduce many of the key individuals and events that shaped western New York in those formative years. We will begin on April 13th by presenting a lecture on Oliver Phelps, Charles Williamson, and Joseph Ellicott who comprised the three major speculator-developers that collectively played the greatest role in shaping the villages, towns, and counties of western New York that are still recognizable today. We will also highlight their combined role in establishing the security and economic opportunities that would ensure the success of the many eager and entrepreneurial individuals that initially made their way to western New York.

Then on May 18th, we will present another web-based lecture on the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 highlighting the precarious position of the federal government in 1794, the importance of the treaty to settlement in both western New York and the Ohio Valley, and the motivations behind the Six Nations’ decision to negotiate the treaty in 1794. We will also point out the importance of the individual articles that establish the independent sovereignty of the Six Nations and outline the enduring relationship between the Six Nations and the federal government that the articles of the Canandaigua Treaty were intended to establish.

You will be able to attend these webinars from the comfort of your home or office after receiving an email link to a separate web-page. You will not need to be technically savvy or computer literate beyond opening an email and clicking on the enclosed web-link to attend the live webinar lectures and there will be plenty of opportunity for individual questions at the end of the presentation. Details on how to register and pay for these web-based lectures will be advertised in the coming weeks. Those involved in the Ontario County Historical Society and Museum’s upcoming exhibit hope that you will take this exciting opportunity to become an informed visitor in the months before our exhibit opens and we are excited to be hosting these presentations on behalf of Canandaigua National Bank and Constellation Brands. Hope to see you online!

Friday, February 11, 2011

What's Your Perspective?

Perspective and point of view are certianly part of our conversations as staff continue to talk about the 2012 exhibit on the history of Western New York, 1650-1825. An earlier blog related that staff members had each chosen a reading assignment to inform and broaden our thinking as early phases of work preparing for the exhibit are underway.
My reading assignment is Daniel K. Richter's Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. The prologue of Richter's book opens with the author looking East out his hotel room window through the St. Louis Gateway Arch. It occurrs to Richter that the eastward perspective was the point of view of native populations as Europeans landed on the Atlantic shores. Rumors about the Europeans and perhaps some physical evidence of their culture probably traveled from seaboard tribes to those in the interior over time. Eventually some trade goods may have traveled to the interior as well, perhaps long before native groups actually encountered any of the newcomers.
Although perspectives and native encounter experiences with Europeans differed, how were Europeans viewed?
Were they to be welcomed? Were they to be feared? Should they be driven away or redirected at neighboring tribes? Were they competitiors? Were they suppliers of sought after goods? Did a relationship with them bring status within a tribal group?
Did a relationship with Europeans provide status and control that neighboring groups may envy? How would the encounters reshape traditional cultures? How would encounters with Europeans change one's family's life, both day-to-day and long term?
Interesting points of view to think about for sure.

I'm still reading and will share more at a later time. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Focusing in on Focus Groups


The IMLS Grant we received for this project required a Formative Evaluation. The effort will provide us with public input on the exhibit.

Rob Lillis from Evalumetrics Research helped us develop the questions and will serve as the facilitator for each focus group session.


  • We will be asking the group to differentiate between surival, ambition and greed

  • We will then ask how these characteristcs influenced those who shaped the history of our area. We will offer examples of people who were involved in the time period in question.

  • Then we will ask what they would want or need to know about these characters to help better understand what motivated them. How would one know if they were ambitious, greedy or just trying to survive?

  • Finally, What method or media would help the respondant better learn about the characters that shaped the development of WNY.

Simple? Maybe. We'll see


The focus groups will begin in Canandaigua. We have appointments with the schools. The other group of adults were solicited from the general public, the local Rotary Club and a history book club that meets periodically at the museum.


Then we will move into western New York to seek input. A post on the Museumwise (A regional musuem group) list serve seeking locations for focus groups was fruitless. Then we drafted a letter and sent it personally to all our museum contacts in the region. Two days after we mailed it we received an e-mail response from the Niagara Co. Historical Soceity, who were agreeable. They asked for a bit more information which we responded to immediately. We will likely hear from more next week.....


Speaking of next week, we will hold our information focus groups on Wednesday and Thursday; two each day. Then we will return to a local school for a Noon session on Friday.


Little by little the exhibit will come into focus.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What stories should we tell?



As we dig deeper into the history of Western New York we find that the geographic area we want to explore becomes harder and harder to define.


Western New York, in truth, did not exist under that name until sometime after the Revolutionary War. Until that time it was just a wild, unsettled territory that was the location of many competing interests.


Early - Is the story of the Jesuits and their encounters with the native Americans appropriate? Was their motivation religious or political? How about the fur traders, was the pursuit of beaver pelts an adventure or an economic effort. Then, of course there were the French including DeNonville who frequented this area skirmishing. Was their effort for Country?Louie XIV? or personal gain? Who was right?, The Indians who believed that the land was there to pass aolng to future generations or the Europeans who saw the forest as something they could sell?


Mid - In the mid 1700s the story of The Sullivan Campaign must be told. But, from what persoective, George Washington's; Oliver Phelps's, the Seneca nation or those that wanted to escape the issues of land and freedom in Connecticut, Maryland, or other established New England colonies, now states in the Union? How did Robert Morris the Financier of the Revolutionary War influence our area? Why did he have to send his son, Thomas to negotiate with the indians?


1800s - Treaties led to poineer settlement which led to conflict. Did money rule? Why did the Dutch want to invest in Western New York? Why did the Holland Land Company select Charles Ellicott to be their representative and land agent. Why did Oliver Phelps go bankrupt and die in debtor's prison? Who owned the property over which the Erie Canal was dug? Why did Ellicott fight so intensely to divide Ontario County into many new counties. Why did Canandaigua oppose the new political subdivisions of the state.


Was Greed the sourse of all this conflict? Maybe. But Greed is funny. It seems that few individuals claim to be greedy. It always seems to be the other person who is the greedy one....

We will be asking the public what they think in a series of focus groups starting in February. We are anxious to hear their take on motivations.
We promise great stories .

Thursday, January 13, 2011


As we make our way through the many complexities of researching the history of Western New York from 1650 to 1850 we come to the issue of how we tell this story beyond words. What objects, maps, documents are available to be used for the exhibition? What stories will these artifacts tell? What do they mean to the different cultural and social groups involved in Western New York’s early history?

One of our challenges is to locate artifacts relevant to our story, particularly for the first half of the time period we are covering. While the Ontario County Historical Society holds some early items such as 18th century maps and documents, and some Native American archaeological artifacts, we need to look for other sources. We will be contacting other Western New York historical agencies to find out what artifacts they may hold that we can use in this exhibit. In particular we will be working with Ganondagan State Historic Site and the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum to learn more about what artifacts would best convey the culture of the Iroquois during this time period. As some artifacts no longer exist, are too fragile for exhibition or are not available, we also will be examining the use of appropriate reproductions.

As you can imagine, a given artifact can convey different meaning to different peoples. For example, what did a land deed mean to a New England settler and to a Seneca? This draws us into the discussion of the cultural concept of ownership of property. Another example would be the clothing worn by the Iroquois in the early 18th century which incorporated traditional and Western trade materials. This encourages us to ask questions about the complexities of western and Iroquois trade systems as well as the social and economic values placed on these items.

We’re just at the beginning of this process. More to come on what types of artifacts we will be considering and what stories and meanings they convey.