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Chief Cornplanter portrait by F. Bertoli, 1796

Gaiänt'wakê (c. 1750 – 1836) or Kaintwakon, generally known as Cornplanter, was the son of a Seneca (Indian) mother and a Dutch-American father. He was born at Canawagus (now the town of Caledonia) on the Genesee River in present-day New York state. He was raised with his mother's people.

Cornplanter urged neutrality during the American Revolutionary War, but finally accepted the majority decision of the Iroquois League, to which the Seneca and six other tribes were aligned, and joined the side of the British Empire. He then led attacks on American settlements in New York and Pennsylvania. He emerged from that war regarded by the Seneca as a principal war-chief.

The era following the American Revolutionary War of Independence was one of enormous conflict, especially for Native Americans on the East Coast of the United States. During this time, Chief Cornplanter advocated peace between the races. He participated in the negotiation of three principal treaties (1784, 1789, and 1794) that ceded large tracts of Native land to the fledgling United States government. His stated belief was that it was the ultimate path of benefit for his people. His stance of nonresistance to white expansion eventually earned him the enmity of his people and he was displaced as leader of the Seneca by the more militant Red Jacket in 1791.

Chief Cornplanter died and was buried in 1836 on land that had been granted to him in 1796 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in gratitude for his efforts of reconciliation. The Cornplanter Tract was turned into a reservoir in 1960 upon the construction of the Kinzua Dam and his grave was re-located to a small cemetery in the forest overlooking the land that is renowned for his legacy.

While many of the Iroquois renounced him in the last years of his life, Cornplanter has since been recognized for his far-sightedness and his love for his people and his efforts for their welfare and future.

Early years

Cornplanter was born about 1750 at Canawagus (now the New York town of Caledonia). His mother was of the Seneca's Wolf Clan, a high ranking family. Members of the clan included Kiasutha, Handsome Lake, Red Jacket, and Governor Blacksnake, all who played principal roles in the relationship between the Seneca and the emerging U.S. nation.

Iroquois Six Nations c. 1720

Cornplanter's father, John Abeel, was a member of a prominent Dutch family from Albany, New York. Abeel spent his adult life as a trader in western New York. His mother and father had a temporary union, and Cornplanter remained with his mother, to be raised in the Native American culture.

The Seneca

The Seneca were a part of the League of the Iroquois, which also included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and the Cayuga tribes. The League eventually welcomed the Tuscarora, and became commonly known as the "Six Nations."

The Seneca, the westernmost tribe, were the largest and most powerful of the League's tribes. They were divided into two areas, the Seneca Lake region and the Allegheny River region. Cornplanter was of the southern group along the Allegheny, who had become associated with both the British and Americans at Pittsburgh.

American Revolutionary War

Initially, both British and American officials discouraged the Iroquois from getting involved in the War of Independence, stating that the issues between the two were of no consequence to the Indians.[1] Eventually, though, the British openly appealed to the Iroquois to declare war against the Americans.

Lodi, New York commemorative plaque of the 1779 Sullivan Expedition in which over 40 Iroquois villages were destroyed.

Cornplanter, along with Kiasutha (his uncle and chief of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers Seneca), were the last to hold out for neutrality. They acquiesced only in July 1777 when a majority decision was made at an Iroquois League council in Oswego to side with the British. Because of the status of Seneca as War Chiefs among the Haudenosaunee, most of the Iroquois Confederacy followed suit. The Iroquois named Sayenqueraghta and Cornplanter as war-chiefs of the Iroquois.

Cornplanter joined forces with Loyalist Lt. Colonel John Butler and his rangers at the Battle of Wyoming Valley Pennsylvania in 1778, which came to be known as the Wyoming Valley Massacre.

The Seneca were angered by the burning of Tioga by forces under Colonel Thomas Hartley, his false accusations of atrocities by the Iroquois at Wyoming Valley,[2] and the recent destruction of their settlement of Onoquaga. Led by Cornplanter and Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, they participated in the reprisal led by Captain Walter Butler and Butler's Rangers in Cherry Valley, later called the Cherry Valley Massacre.

After the victories of the Loyalists/Iroquois forces, commander-in-chief General George Washington commissioned Major General John Sullivan to invade Six Nation territory and destroy their villages. There was one brief battle on this campaign at which the Iroquois and British troops were decisively defeated at Newtown. Sullivan and his army of 5,000 men conducted a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying Iroquois villages, farms, and animals between May and September of 1779 throughout Iroquois homeland in upstate New York.[3] Cornplanter, along with Joseph Brant, Old Smoke, and Lt. Colonel John Butler fought a desperate delaying action in order to allow the escape of as many refugees as possible. The Patriot revenge was successful, and those who survived suffered terribly during the following months in what they called “the winter of the deep snow.” Many froze or starved to death. Cornplanter's people continued to fight with the British against the Americans.

Post-Revolutionary War years

The American Revolution had firmly established Cornplanter as a principal war chief of the Seneca. Realizing that the many promises made by the British were not to be fulfilled, Cornplanter determined that the wisest course of action was to cooperate with the new government. Helping the whites, he decided, was the best way to help his people. He negotiated with Americans on behalf of the Seneca and their land in 1784. He also met with Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson concerning the rights of the Seneca people.

Recognizing the advantage of a positive diplomatic relationship with the fledgling government of what the Haudenosaunee called the "Thirteen Fires," he became a negotiator in disputes between the new "Americans" and various indigenous tribes. He was one of the signers of the eventually disputed Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784) in which the Iroquois Confederacy ceded all claims to the Ohio territory, a strip of land along the Niagara River, and all land west of mouth of Buffalo creek. While some Natives rejected the treaty for the large loss of land, it earned Cornplanter the respect and trust of Americans, which proved to be crucial in future dealings.

In 1790, Cornplanter and his brother Half-Town (also a chief) traveled to Philadelphia to meet with President George Washington and Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin and protest the current treatment of their people. In his frustration, he characterized President Washington as a "town destroyer," recalling the disastrous effects of the Sullivan expedition upon his people during the Revolution. He pleaded for his people: "Where is the land which our children, and their children after them, are to lie down upon?" they asked.[1] The result was an agreement from Washington and Mifflin to protect Iroquois land (the "Fair Treatment Policy").[4]

The following year Washington requested that Cornplanter cultivate peace and friendship with the Indians of Ohio and Michigan. While the conferences with them ended in failure, he was able to secure the neutrality of the Iroquois during the Northwest Indian War, which had involved the Wyandot, Shawnee, Council of the Three Fires, Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Lenape, Miami, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Chickamauga-Cherokee, and members of the Wabash Confederacy. The 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio, finally convinced the western tribes of the correctness of Cornplanter's way of thinking.

Cornplanter made numerous trips to New York City, Albany, and Philadelphia to strengthen relationships and dialog with those interested in his people. He sought to gain an understanding of the ways of the white men, something he deemed necessary for future relations between the Haudenosaunee and Americans. He was particularly impressed by the beliefs and practice of the Quakers, and in 1789 they accepted his invitation to join the Seneca community. Rather than conversion, the Quakers sought to serve. They built schools and taught agricultural techniques—necessary skills for a people who could no longer rely on hunting or the fur trade as a way of life. Cornplanter also encouraged men to join the women working in the fields to help increase their farming economy. Handsome Lake, Cornplanter's brother, became a religious reformer in 1799 and a prophet to the Iroquois people. The healthy community, with its roads, fences, and good houses, was soon considered a model.

In the War of 1812, Cornplanter offered to bring two hundred warriors to assist the U.S., but his offer was declined. During the war Cornplanter supported the American cause, convincing his people to do so as well.

Soon after this, he became disillusioned with the Americans for what he viewed as disrespectful actions toward the Native peoples, including the debilitating affects of alcohol. Handsome Lake had previously warned against assimilation and for the return to traditional ways. Cornplanter began to believe that his brother had been correct. He closed the schools and dismissed the missionaries, though he is said to have retained his affection for the Quakers. He also burned his military uniform, broke his sword, destroyed his medals and promoted Handsome Lake's message.

The Cornplanter Tract

Construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in 1960 forced the relocation of Cornplanter's band, who had been "gifted the land for perpetuity".

In gratitude for his assistance to the state in the early years of American independence, Cornplanter was given a grant of 1,500 acres (6.1 km²) by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1796. The land along the western bank of the Allegheny River about three miles south of the New York state boundary was gifted to him and his heirs "forever".[1] By 1798, 400 Seneca lived on the land, which was called the Cornplanter Tract or Cornplanter Grant. In 1821 Warren County, Pennsylvania attempted to require Cornplanter pay taxes for his land, which he protested on the basis that the land had been "granted" to him by the U.S. government. Ultimately, the state agreed that the Cornplanter Tract was exempt.

The Flood Control Acts of 1936, 1938, and 1941 authorized construction of a dam on the land, for the purpose of flood control on the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. Construction began in 1960, forcing the departure of Pennsylvania's last Native Americans, Cornplanter's people. A lawsuit against breaking the U.S. treaty which guaranteed perpetual Seneca ownership of the land had been argued by the Quakers but lost in Federal court. Those who had been promised the land for perpetuity were moved near Salamanca, New York, on the northern shores of land flooded by the Kinzua Dam.

Death and Legacy

Chief Cornplanter died and was interred in Warren County, Pennsylvania, in 1836. When the Kinzua Dam turned the Cornplanter Tract into a reservoir in 1960, his grave was re-located to Riverside Cemetery, a small fenced cemetary in the woods overlooking Willow Bay.

In 1966 the State of Pennsylvania erected an obelisk, on which is etched:

"Chief of the Seneca Tribe, and a principal Chief of the Six Nations, from the period of the Revolutionary War to the time of his death. Distinguished for talents, courage, eloquence and sobriety, and love of his tribe and race, to whose welfare he devoted his time, his energies and his means, during a long and eventful life."[5]

The history of Native relations during the years from 1784 to the turn of the century is filled with the record of the influence of Chief Cornplanter, who understood early on that it was fruitless to resist the white man. Believing that doing so could only result in annihilation, he pursued a path of peaceful negotiation. This was an unusual path of subservience for a war chief, with the side effects of loss of pride, self-respect, and popularity among his people. In the end, it proved to preserve for the Iroquois at least a remnant of their land and culture, protecting them from both extinction and complete assimilation.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Chief Cornplanter.
  2. Graymont, p. 181.
  3. Stanley J. Adamiak (1998), The 1779 Sullivan Campaign: A Little-Known Offensive Strategic To The War Breaks The Indian Nations' Power Retrieved January 30, 2009.
  4. American State Papers, 2nd Congress, 1st Session. Indian Affairs: Volume 1, Page 140. The speech of the Cornplanter, Half-Town, and the Great-Tree, Chiefs and Councillors of the Seneca nation, to the Great Councillor of the Thirteen Fires Library of Congress. Retrieved January 23, 2009.
  5. Warren County, Kinzua Country in the Pennsylvania Wilds, Chief Cornplanter Retrieved January 30, 2009.

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