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.

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