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.