July 1991

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The Canandaigua Treaty

of 1794

Events Leading up to the Treaty


Robert G. Koch

Part 1, Part 2, Text of Treaty

Part 1

The summer of 1794 was tense in thinly-settled western New York, as the fledgling United States of America and the Seneca Indians prepared to meet at Canandaigua to discuss the disposition of Indian lands. The British still controlled forts at Oswego and Niagara. Backed by them, tribes in the Ohio area rejected the post-Revolutionary War settlement and the Senecas were considering joining them. An American force under "Mad" Anthony Wayne was approaching the belligerent western tribes. Meanwhile, the new federal government needed to remind Indian negotiators-and its own states—that it was now a council of "one fire," instead of "thirteen fires," as it had been under the Articles of Confederation.

The Federal Indian agent in Western New York was Revolutionary War veteran, General Israel Chapin of Canandaigua. He favored the Senecas with goods and services to sway them from the British embrace. The previous winter he had sent them a male nurse to help with much-feared small pox.

Timothy Pickering, President Washington's envoy, arrived at Canandaigua in late August. The village buzzed with speculation about the Ohio hostilities.

Thomas Morris, a citizen of Canandaigua, later recalled: "For months…, the Indians would come among us painted for war; their deportment was fierce and arrogant; such as to create the belief that they would not be unwilling to take up the hatchet against us." One woman reported that an Indian approached and "ran his finger in a circle upon the top of her head,…thus expressing his dispositon to take her scalp." Some settlers began to pull up stakes and return east. Thomas Morris continues; "[A]t Canandaigua, they found I was painting my house, and making improvements about it; believing that I possessed better information on the subject than they did, their fears became quieted, and they retraced their steps…"

Up at Sodus Bay, with "a brace of loaded pistols" on his table, Charles Williamson, now an American citizen, but an agent of British-financed American land developers, rebuffed a challenge to withdraw, from an emissary of Lieutenant Governor Simcoe of Upper Canada, as Ontario was then known.

Within the shadow of British power, but facing an advancing American frontier, the Seneca sachems were meeting at Buffalo Creek to decide whether or not to cut off the Genesee settlements.

General Chapin rejected building a block house at Canandaigua, but passed the word that if bad news came, he would have it quickly from Cornplanter, a chief he considered his friend. That would provide time to start women and children towards Utica, through 112 miles of unbroken forest.

The morning after the Indian council, Cornplanter's messenger started. As the History of Ontario County reports: "Just as the sun was sinking…, the lithe runner was seen coming with long strides down Main Street. He was met by [Chapin]. The Indian stopped, gave vent to expressive grunts, and announced safety to Canandaigua. The runner had made ninety miles…between the rising and setting sun of that day."

Still, the Ohio outcome was unknown and much seemed to ride on it.

Meanwhile, the little village of Canandaigua was pretty much overrun by Indian men, women, and children, at least in part anticipating the food and gifts that accompanied such parleys. Chapin tried to cut off liquor and had to close down one dealer who was selling it secretly.

The county history emphasized the reason for Chapin's concern. One evening as some local residents discussed the treaty, a young Indian, described as "liquor crazed," leaped into the room, knife in hand. Young Augustus Porter managed to pin him to a wall with a kitchen chair and ease him along the wall to the door, which the warrior exited with a terrific whoop. "Answering calls were heard, and the whites apprehended an attack, but the chiefs, learning the cause of the tumult, put the warrior in confinement, and ended the trouble."

Eventually, news came of a convincing American victory near present day Toledo. Colonel William Hosmer, the pioneer poet laureate of Livingston County, remembered the reaction: "Tidings of Wayne's victory came like a reprieve after sentence of death, a skylark's call after a raven's croak."

That autumn the Senecas had to choose between the proverbial rock and hard place and showed themselves inclined, as William Ewing wrote Chapin from Geneseo, "to take hold of the olive branch…, [instead of] the bloody tomahawk." After two months of negotiations, the Treaty of Canandaigua was completed.

The following spring 54-year-old Israel Chapin died. Addressing "Brothers of the [by now] Fifteen Fires," Chief Red Jacket said of him, "One who was to us a father, who stood between the Nations and the United States, has been lost to us…Brothers, we follow the former customs of our forefathers, and gathering leaves and weeds, strew them over the grave, while we attempt as much as we can to banish grief from our minds." As his successor, the Senecas requested Chapin's son, his frequent deputy. President Washington acceded to their wish.

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
Part 1, Part 2, Text of Treaty
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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