Deep in the forests of northwestern Pennsylvania lies a little-known, but incredibly important part of our Country’s early history and our Native American past. Although now mostly covered by the waters of the Allegheny Reservoir (a body of water created when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Allegheny River with the Kinzua Dam in 1965), this land, the Cornplanter Grant, has a very important story to tell.
To understand this story, however, we have to go back to when the United States was a young nation, just after the Revolutionary War. We also need to go west to what was, at the time, “The Ohio Country,” the land west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River, roughly corresponding to the modern state of Ohio, and parts of the modern states of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. With the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War, this land was ceded to the new United States of America by the British Empire, and settlers from the new nation rushed in to claim the land. As we know, of course, the land wasn’t really theirs to claim; it was inhabited by Native Americans who had lived there for many generations. Of course, these Native Americans did not take this invasion lightly and fought back leading to the “Ohio Indian Wars” of the 1780s and 1790s.
Back east, in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York, the Seneca Nation, led by Cornplanter, allied with the young United States and Cornplanter worked to bring the Native Americans of the Ohio Country to the negotiating table. For a young nation with a small army this help was crucial; a wider war with even more Native American nations could have easily led to disaster for the young nation. To reward Cornplanter for his support, the Pennsylvania and federal governments “gifted”—the term gift is somewhat misleading since the land being “given” to the Seneca was occupied by them—Cornplanter and his heirs—not the entire Seneca Nation—three tracts of land: 600 acres in Forest County, 300 acres in Venango County (near Oil City), and over 700 acres in Warren County.
The first two tracts passed out of Cornplanter’s hands fairly quickly, but he retained and lived on the third tract in Warren County, a piece of land that became known as the Cornplanter Grant. The heirs of Cornplanter would continue to own the land until 1965 when it was taken by the US Army Corps of Engineers to create the Allegheny Reservoir.
Interestingly, the heirs of Cornplanter only surrendered the portion of the Grant under the normal pool elevation of the reservoir; although the county hoped to develop the portion of the Grant above the normal pool elevation of the reservoir for recreation, the heirs of Cornplanter were able to retain ownership of that portion and continue to do so to this day.
Before it was inundated, the Grant played a significant role in Seneca culture and identity. It was the place where Cornplanter lived. Cornplanter was a key player in navigating the Seneca Nation through the tumult of the Revolutionary War and the creation of the new United States of America. It was also the home of Handsome Lake, Cornplanter’s half-brother and a key Seneca prophet.
While residing on the Grant, Handsome Lake had several visions that led him to create the Code of Handsome Lake, the basis for the Longhouse religion, a religion that sought to address the issues wrought by contact with Euro-Americans and to reinvigorate Seneca spirituality. Because of its isolated location, the Grant was also the location where many traditional Seneca lifeways persisted well into the 20th century.
On the Grant the heirs of Cornplanter would collect wild plants for use as medicine ; undertake traditional crafts, such as making baskets and longbows; hunt, trap, and fish; participate in the Snow-Snake competition; and so forth. Snow Snake was a game where participants would launch their Snow Snake (a long straight spear that was waxed to reduce friction) down a packed snow track. The winner was the participant whose Snow Snake traveled the farthest.
In addition to these activities, the proposal to inundate the Grant (and the eventual inundation of the Grant) was a pivotal moment in modern Seneca history, with the Seneca (and those sympathetic to their cause) exercising their political power to resist the building of the dam. The result was unsuccessful, but the heirs of Cornplanter did retain ownership of a portion of the Grant, as noted above.
Recently, the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, with funding from the Cultural Resource Fund, and the assistance of the Seneca Nation of Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Allegheny National Forest, and Skelly and Loy prepared a National Register nomination for the Cornplanter Grant as a Traditional Cultural Property .
The last generation that spent time on the Grant before inundation is now in their 60s and 70s, so this project has documented the property and its significance for future generations, for the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the last generation to know the Grant as it was before inundation.
If you would like to learn more about the Cornplanter Grant, check out the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, New York.
This week’s post is by guest contributor Keith Heinrich. Keith currently works for Skelly and Loy as an architectural historian with their Cultural Resources Services Group. For the past 12 years, he has reviewed nominations for the National Register of Historic Places as a member of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (PA SHPO). Mr. Heinrich holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Western History and Archaeology from Lycoming College, and a Master of Arts in Anthropology/Archaeology from East Carolina University. He is a member of the Register of Professional Archaeologists and Society for Historical Archaeology.