The Lay of the Land
by Andrew Wickenden '09
The Seneca Nation, the Pulteney Estate and the Pre-history of Hobart and William Smith
With the Hobart bicentennial just two years away, the Colleges are reflecting on the history and foundations from which the institution has emerged.
The story of Hobart and William Smith begins on the traditional territory of the Seneca Nation. The 320 acres that the Colleges call home, as well as the surrounding territory stretching west to the Genesee River and beyond, was for generations the domain of the Senecas, who established communities and farms across what was originally the westernmost territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the union of six nations (also known as the Iroquois League) that also includes the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora Nations.
"There are various opinions of how long ago we began to occupy these areas," says G. Peter Jemison, an artist, activist, member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca Nation and historic site manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site at Victor, N.Y. Archaeologists tend to base their estimates on the presence of bark longhouses, which indicate established communities and, accompanying them, an agricultural way of life. Those estimates date as far back as the 12th century C.E., but, as Jemison says, Senecas had been hunting, fishing and trapping in the area for probably 1,000 years before that, or longer. According to Haudenosaunee creation stories, Native peoples lived in the area since time immemorial.
During the formation of the Confederacy -- estimates range between 600 and 1,000 years ago -- the Senecas were resistant to join, says Jemison, but an idea was put forth by the Peacemaker, one of the founders of the Confederacy, to unite the Nations. Because the Senecas had powerful warriors unwilling to give up fighting, Jemison explains, the Peacemaker proposed giving them the responsibility of protecting the nations to their east, which is why the Senecas are known as the Keepers of the Western Door.
By the time of the Beaver Wars of the 17th century, Senecas had expanded Haudenosaunee land farther west by defeating and assimilating tribes like the Huron, Erie and Neutrals, their rivals in the fur trade. As demand for pelts rose and beavers became scarce in Haudenosaunee territory, Jemison says, "we then had to act as middlemen, either conducting trading parties to the western Great Lakes or deciding who could travel through our territory to the Lakes. This is the role that we the Keepers of the Western Door were in and the main reason Denonville sent his army."
The July 1687 raiding party sent by the Marquis de Denonville, the governor of New France, destroyed Seneca communities including one of the largest at Ganondagan, the Seneca Nation's eastern capital. Forced to relocate, Senecas reestablished communities on the northern end of Seneca Lake, including a town of approximately 5,000 at White Springs, just three-fourths of a mile from the center of what is now the Hobart Quadrangle. From about 1688 to 1715, Senecas farmed at White Springs, and by the mid-18th century, they had built their capital, Kanadesaga, near what is now the intersection of North Street and Preemption Road in Geneva, where William Smith later made his fortune as a nurseryman.
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At Seneca communities like White Springs and Kanadesaga, "there was a sense of ownership of land but it was communal," explains Professor of Anthropology Jeffrey Anderson, who teaches courses focused on Indigenous Peoples and has for more than 30 years researched the language, culture and history of the Northern Arapaho Nation of Wyoming. Anderson notes that clans, rather than individuals, decided where and when to move to the next farming site, decisions influenced predominantly by women.
Haudenosaunee women represented the land in council meetings, both "because men were often away at war and trade for long periods of time,"as Anderson says, and also because of the central role women played in growing food and selecting farming sites. Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Whitney Mauer, an Indigenous Studies scholar whose work focuses on Indigenous development, self-determination and sovereignty, says that women were the driving force behind the evolution and success of Haudenosaunee agricultural practices, which relied on irrigation and planting without the use of plows or draft animals. Mauer, who is of Piscataway Nation descent and has worked with Indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest, says that by the time of colonial contact, the Haudenosaunee had developed a "very sophisticated" and "extremely productive" agricultural system, and "women were the primary knowledge keepers of this system."
In fact, throughout precontact history, Haudenosaunee women held positions of power and "were held with great esteem within traditional Haudenosaunee societies," says Agnes F. Williams, M.S.W., coordinator of the Indigenous Women's Initiative and a member of the Wolf Clan from the Cattaraugus Territory of the Seneca Nation. "Some date the founding of the Confederacy to 912 A.D. when women secured the Peace with their appointments of Chiefs and Faith Keepers. Haudenosaunee women provided a continuity of culture for 1,000 years, until the Europeans arrived with their white supremacy, superior weapons and dominance in the Americas."
During precontact history and through the arrival of early Europeans, the Senecas' political, social and agricultural stability also derived from the geography and topography of Western New York, says Rylee Wernoch '21. Her interdisciplinary portrait of Seneca Lake, created as part of a 2019 summer research project, explores the cultural, social, economic and biological importance of the lake through history, as well as initiatives currently underway to help protect the health of the lake and the watershed. Wernoch learned that in building their communities on hills, near springs and the heads of streams, the Senecas enjoyed a steady supply of fresh water, access to fertile land and rich fisheries, and vantage points from which to spot threats. "They also used the lake as a highway," she adds, noting that the speed of water travel was a strategic political and military advantage for the nation, which at the time was the largest and most powerful of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
"Seneca land was contested by the French, British and later the Americans through trade and settlement," Anderson says. "It was part of global struggle. By the 18th century, the Senecas were not a simple isolated Native people but connected to a global system of trade and political forces. They were a true nation and a powerful one for many years, and Kanadesaga was the capital of that nation."
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At Kanadesaga, there were about 50 longhouses, with more on the town's periphery, each housing a number of nuclear families of a given clan. The longhouses were set on a hill, and stretching out around them were fields of beans, corn and squash (the Three Sisters), and orchards of peaches and apples. There was also a palisade and blockhouse, a typical frontier fort, built by the British as a defense against rival trappers and fur traders. The Seneca Nation had for many years been trading beaver pelts with other Europeans, but because the British had better trade goods than others, and "better by far than the Americans," Anderson says, the Senecas at Kanadesaga formed an alliance with the British, which lasted into the American Revolution.
On Sept. 7, 1779, Major General John Sullivan’s American troops destroyed Kanadesaga. The “scorch and burn” campaign under the orders of George Washington was retaliation for the Senecas’ association with the British during the war, though some Senecas had in fact fought with the colonists. In his orders to Sullivan, Washington described the campaign’s “immediate object” — “the total destruction and devastation of [Haudenosaunee] settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible” — and wrote that it would “be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”
As Anderson explains, “the newly formed United States desperately wanted this land to bring in revenues because, simply put, both the government and most financiers were broke due to ending economic ties with Great Britain. The motto at the time was ‘Empire for Liberty’ (thus New York as the ‘Empire State’ even today). Most Revolutionary War troops had not been paid by the 1790s and the plan was to pay them with free land acquired from Indians. That rarely happened, however, with most land ending up in the hands of big land speculators.”
In 1788, New England speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham bought pre-emption rights (right of first refusal) to six million acres in what is now New York from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Phelps and Gorham Purchase, comprising predominately Seneca land, spanned from the Pennsylvania border north to Lake Ontario and from just outside Kanadesaga (where Preemption Road now sits) west to the Genesee River. But, unable to make their debt payments despite selling off parcels, Phelps and Gorham lost their claim to Massachusetts, which in turn sold about 1.25 million acres to Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and future U.S. senator. Morris’ British agent, who happened to be Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, quickly sold that land and more — 12 million acres — to a group of British investors called the Pulteney Associates, despite the Nonintercourse Act of 1790, which established that only the U.S. Government could cede and acquire land from Native Americans. The Pulteney Associates then tapped Captain Charles Williamson to administer the subdivision and sale of the 12 million acres, and Williamson, who had fought for the British during the American Revolution and later married an American, began a robust campaign to attract white settlers to the area, building roads, inns and land offices.
The 19th-century Geneva historian Charles Milliken writes that before long, the area “was invaded, so to speak, by ladies and gentlemen, many of whom came with their servants and slaves.” Over the course of the following decades, parcels were sold off to white Americans and European immigrants, including acreage at Kanadesaga and White Springs. The early nursery industry, which was the main economic driver in Geneva for many years, “began with the Kanadesaga fruit trees that survived Sullivan’s scorch and burn campaign,” Anderson notes. “The key is that colonizers saw the success of Seneca farms and orchards as a lure to acquire the land and farm it themselves. The idea of pioneers clearing the land and bringing farming to the frontier is misplaced here, since they just took over Iroquois farms that already existed.”
In 1877, having found success raising trees near the Kanadesaga site, William Smith and his brother Thomas purchased an unknown amount of land at White Springs. Other portions of the Pulteney Estate, as it came to be known, were sold to families whose names appear on the HWS campus, including Rees and De Lancey, as well as to those who founded the Geneva Academy and Geneva College. Arthur P. Rose — a graduate of the Hobart Class of 1862, a Trustee of the College and later mayor of Geneva — was the last administrator of the Pulteney Estate.
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In 1790, Seneca chief and diplomat Cornplanter delivered a speech on behalf of the Seneca Nation, beseeching newly elected President George Washington and the U.S. government to meet the obligations agreed to by Phelps, Gorham and others. Acknowledging complaints of fraud, and that the Haudenosaunee “have been led into some difficulties” around land sales, Washington later told Cornplanter and other Seneca delegates “that it is my desire, and the desire of the United States that … in future the United States and the six Nations [sic] should be truly brothers, promoting each other’s prosperity by acts of mutual friendship and justice.”
Nevertheless, conflict flared between the U.S. and Native American nations. In a 2011 essay for the Syracuse Peace Council, G. Peter Jemison recounts a “stinging victory” that “a confederacy of nations in the Ohio region won … [against] the U.S. Army [in 1791]. Tension grew between [the Haudenosaunee] and white settlers immigrating into the Finger Lakes. Washington concluded that if the Six Nations joined the Northwest Confederacy, their combined strength could prove insurmountable for the now 15 states.”
To ease tensions and stave off such a formidable alliance, the U.S. and the Six Nations convened delegations in Canandaigua in 1794 to discuss a treaty, as Seneca chief Red Jacket said at the time, “to brighten the Chain of Friendship between us and the 15 fires.” The Haudenosaunee sent 1,600 representatives, including 800 Senecas, to meet with U.S. Colonel Timothy Pickering and General Israel Chapin, and Quaker mediators in an attempt to recognize the sovereignty of the Six Nations, establish land rights and make peace. Ultimately, the Treaty of Canandaigua codified U.S. recognition of “lands reserved to the Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga Nations” and set out the boundaries of Seneca land — essentially the entire state of New York west of Geneva. The treaty includes a U.S. promise to never claim Seneca land, “nor disturb the Seneca Nation, nor any of the Six Nations, or of their Indian friends residing thereon, and united with them, in the free use and enjoyment thereof; but it shall remain theirs, until they choose to sell the same, to the people of the United States, who have the right to purchase.”
In the 225 years since the Treaty of Canandaigua was signed, the friendship between the Haudenosaunee and the U.S. has been strained, lands appropriated and the treaty violated, but it remains intact and recognized today by the governments of all signatories. As Jemison writes in his 2011 essay, “The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua,” Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga lands “were later taken by New York State in illegal treaties. The St. Lawrence Seaway destroyed Mohawk land and fishing grounds (1954); Kinzua Dam flooded 9,000 acres, removing Seneca people from traditional farming and medicine-gathering land, graves, even the Longhouse (1964); the Niagara River project took Tuscarora land (1967); Reynolds and General Motors built plants that polluted the entire St. Lawrence River (1950s on).”
The U.S. continues to make annual payments for the distribution of cloth to the Haudenosaunee, an important symbolic acknowledgement, Jemison notes, of the U.S. obligations to the treaty. “Enrolled members are each entitled to one yard of cloth, which has no real purpose in a utilitarian way,” he says, “but shows the U.S. understands the terms of the treaty are still in place and allows us to turn to the U.S. and say, this was established and ratified, is the law of the land, entered into nation to nation, and we can say we’re still here, expecting you to respect what you entered into 200-plus years ago.”
Each November, the signing of the treaty is commemorated in Canandaigua by members of the Six Nations, the U.S. government, Quakers, local governments and community members, including local colleges and universities. While students and faculty have represented HWS informally in the past, this fall marked the Colleges’ first official appearance at the celebration.
“The Treaty of Canandaigua was signed just 25 years before Geneva College was granted its charter from the State of New York. Without it, the Colleges very well may not be here,” says President Joyce P. Jacobsen. “Our presence at the treaty commemoration is a modest but important sign of our determination to reckon honestly with the institution’s past and promote respectful connections with our Haudenosaunee neighbors that will endure and deepen moving forward.”
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Against the backdrop of the Colleges’ history and that of the Finger Lakes region, “what’s really important is to acknowledge that this landscape is still meaningful to Seneca people,” says Professor Whitney Mauer. “It’s a living part of their culture.”
Mauer was one of the faculty who co-taught a Sustainable Living and Learning Community last spring in which students planted crops at the Colleges’ Fribolin Farm, including heirloom varieties of corn, beans and squash that the Senecas living at White Springs would have planted themselves. While the course offered a chance to explore the historical context of White Springs and the Haudenosaunee of the 17th century, Mauer says that too often Native issues are “treated as history that has happened, when they are not — they are contemporary, impacting people who are here and present.”
It is critical then for the HWS community to reflect on both the history that led to the founding of HWS and its legacy today, says Jason Corwin, Ph.D., executive director of the Seneca Media and Communications Center and a member of the Seneca Nation. “Was the manner in which rights to the land were gained by European-Americans just and fair? And if not, what should present day Americans do about it? What responsibility do people, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, have toward the environment of the region? How can universities cultivate respectful and reciprocal relationships with Native peoples?”
Corwin says that those living and working in the region must “ask themselves these questions and use their own moral compass and interests to decide what to act upon to create a better world and think seven generations forward. This is particularly important at a time when environmental issues and social injustices seem very dire, leaving many young people to feel pessimistic about the future.”
It was that sentiment that prompted the Hobart Dean’s Council to convene a public panel discussion in the spring 2019 semester, examining the context of the Colleges’ historical connections to the Senecas and Haudenosaunee and their contemporary expressions. The panel featured Professor Jeffrey Anderson and G. Peter Jemison alongside Patrick J. Solomon ’92, P’20, P’23, founding partner of Thomas & Solomon LLP and an Associate and Appellate Justice of the St. Regis Mohawk tribal court, who played on championship-winning Hobart and Iroquois National lacrosse teams; the Rt. Rev. Dr. Prince G. Singh, eighth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester and HWS Trustee; and Nicole Scott, director for the Native American Future Stewards Program at Rochester Institute of Technology and a Diné (Navajo) of The Red Running Into Water Clan born for Big Water Clan.
Khuram Hussain, Hobart Dean and Associate Professor of Education, had asked the Dean’s Council — an advisory group of students — to research campus history and traditions, particularly the Hobart oar that supposedly belonged to the (almost certainly fictional) Seneca warrior, Agayentah. As the story goes, in the aftermath of a canoe accident on Seneca Lake, the echo of Agayentah’s dying cry reached the shore. The legend inspired the original name of the Hobart College yearbook, the Echo of the Seneca; the call letters of the Colleges’ radio station, WEOS; and the iconic Hobart oar. According to the legend, Agayentah’s “spirit was preserved in the form of an unusual tree … from which the original Hobart oar was supposedly carved,” as Grace Ruble ’21 recounted in The Herald last spring. Ever since a member of the Class of 1859 found the original oar, Ruble writes, it has been “guarded by the Druids and passed from one senior Hobart class to the next” — a tradition that inspired the Hobart Alumni Association’s gift to seniors, a small replica oar, which “is supposed to remind [graduates] of their time at Hobart and the fact that they are the determiners of their own lives.”
While the Council’s research turned up various iterations of the legend of the oar generated by Hobart students throughout the early 20th century, they also found no real historical evidence of an actual tie to the Seneca people. When the Council made that discovery, Hussain says, it “made us consider what might still be of value to those traditions and whether they could be part of an evolving of traditions. Specifically, if this is an effort to connect Hobart College to the people and the land, then let’s explore the oar tradition within that wider context.”
For one thing, says Agnes Williams, “it is important to recognize the impact of 500 years of colonial oppression and repression, including the federal government’s policies designed to gain land and natural resources in our territories.” With the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Indigenous Women’s Initiative and other groups across the country, Williams and her colleagues have been working for decades to support and preserve Native communities, their lands and their languages and cultures. In honestly addressing the historical record, she says the role of higher education “cannot be underestimated. Most non-Native institutions offer general education courses in media and stereotypes to begin the process of dispelling the misinformation about the Haudenosaunee. History courses in colonial regional history taught from the Native perspective are very important to correct the misrepresentations of Native peoples perpetuated by mainstream education.”
Environmental stewardship is another critical area where the Colleges can work to sustain and advance relationships with Native communities, says Jason Corwin. “Senecas, like most Indigenous people, have viewed their relationship with the environment as being one of responsibility rather than rights or dominion,” he says. “Agriculture, hunting, fishing and foraging for wild edibles as the sustenance for villages long term over countless generations requires concepts of sustainability that were woven into the culture. These values and philosophies still persist to this day as many Native communities, the Seneca included, have placed a high importance on protecting the environment from pollution and revitalizing traditional lifeways, particularly agriculture.”
Assessing and mitigating the Colleges’ environmental footprint is essential, Corwin says, but so too is “supporting the work of environmental sciences and recognizing the vital role [of] Indigenous sustainable technologies, traditional ecological knowledge, and philosophical traditions … in informing a comprehensive approach to dealing with the environmental crises of today … For too long Indigenous ways of knowing have been dismissed by mainstream society and academia as being primitive and superstitious.” HWS, he says, must “take a strong stand for social and environmental justice, for in a truly comprehensive approach to the concept of sustainability, the two must be seen as intertwined.”
As an institution that values interdisciplinary academics, community engagement and sustainability, HWS has the opportunity and responsibility to pursue these and other “meaningful and intentionally long-term acts designed to build lasting relationships,” says Professor Mauer.
In 2019, Mauer, Hussain and Director of Admissions Bill Warder ’96 attended a gathering at the University of Rochester focused on ways to recruit and retain Indigenous students, a valuable opportunity, Hussain says, to “collaborate with members of the consortium from other institutions to cultivate the kind of environment that will invite and support Native students on our campus.”
Meanwhile, the HWS Deans Offices have worked with Seneca and other Indigenous scholars and educators to develop the land recognition statement now recited before major HWS campus events and ceremonies: “We begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Onondowaga or ‘the people of the Great Hill.’ In English, they are known as Seneca people, ‘the Keeper of the Western Door.’ They are one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the world’s oldest continual participatory democracy.”
The oar’s role in the Hobart matriculation ceremony has been replaced with a new tradition in which alumni present each incoming first-year with a shield pin, signifying the beginning of their journey as a Hobart student. The Druids, who have traditionally used the oar as part of the induction of new members, began their 2019 ceremony by “first addressing the problematic history of the oar,” says Hussain, who is meeting with the honors society in the spring 2020 semester to decide “how they would like to move forward with (or without) the oar.” Similar discussions are taking place about the Hobart Alumni Association’s senior gift.
In the “longer walk toward reconciliation between the Seneca Nation and Hobart and William Smith,” as Hussain says, these first steps have been driven by HWS faculty, students and staff, who have also ensured that the Haudenosaunee flag flies at HWS events and that the Colleges will celebrate Seneca history as part of Hobart’s bicentennial festivities in 2022. Other proposals — such as collaborating with Native Studies programs at neighboring colleges and universities and recruiting more Indigenous faculty, staff, students and speakers — will take time and collaboration between HWS and Seneca partners to plan and implement. But as Professor Anderson says, “the difference between what the history of the area was imagined to be and what really happened” is where the conversation begins — not where it ends.