The Canandaigua Treaty
Events Leading up to the Treaty
On August twentieth, 1794, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, nicknamed for his highly aggressive, risk-taking military style, defeated a coalition of Indians at Fallen Timbers in what is now Ohio. The engagement was part of the settling out of American, English, and American Indian claims in the aftermath of the colonists' victory in the American Revolution.
The English still held Canada and had a string of forts along the shores of the Great Lakes, including at Fort Niagara and Oswego. The land west of the Appalachians was thinly settled by those who saw themselves as part of the new nation, whatever its claims to some of the territory in which they had begun to settle. Midwestern and Eastern Indian tribes were caught between the emerging power and its former ruler. The peace was uneasy enough that many anticipated renewal of fighting, especially from the Canada and the Great Lakes forts.
The war had fractured the vaunted unity of the Iroquois Longhouse. English diplomacy and earlier victory over the French in North America had made the Iroquois uneasy neighbors to westward-tending colonial settlements in upstste New York. At the beginning of the colonial move towards independence, concerted efforts were made to ensure Iroquois neutrality during the American Revolution. As pressures for alliance with one of the warring parties increased, only the Oneidas and Tuscaroras remained neutral, while the Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas became sometimes reluctant allies of the English. Therefore, at war's end they were among the defeated.
The peace treaty however was hardly definitive about important terrtorial considerations in New York and westward, for example, in Ohio. Complicating the matter further were rival land claims among the newly united colonies. Old royal grants and charters were cited as authority for overlapping claims. Another consideration that affected how the Indians would be dealt with was the sometimes unclear and still untested powers of the national government.
Despite these ambiguities and conditions, both the American states and nation, and the Indian nations occupying central and western New York, Ohio, and elsewhere, were forced to decisions because of building pressure for trans-Appalachian settlement, including by veterans of the war who had been promised land as payment for service.
The Iroquois were keenly aware of these considerations and, smarting in defeat, were seriously considering joining the Indian alliance that was resisting American advances in Ohio. In 1784, at Fort Stanwix, negotiators for the newly confederated government of thirteen states, pressed their aims with vigor, as they might in the wake of the recent military victory. At the same time they wanted peace with the Indians and at least a neutral buffer against revived English attack from Canada. But they also dealt from a weak hand when it came to central versus state powers. The states were enjoying their powers, often reluctantly surrendering only those that they deemed necessary for their mutual protection.
The right of states to deal directly with the Indians was at issue, and New York was especially aggressive in establising that power to acquire land from the Iroquois. A further complication however, was that Iroquois claims, for example, extended beyond the area of New York State into Ohio. Over the next decades various attempts were made to resolve these issues. President Washington was determined to establish the new federal government's powers in dealing with the Indians.
In the spring of 1794 the Federal Indian agent in Western New York, General Israel Chapin of Canandaigua, a Revolutionary War veteran trusted by both Washington and the Senecas, warned Washington about growing Seneca hostility. They sometimes appeared in war paint and seemed increasingly arrogant and angry. Chapin suggested a council to calm them.
The President tapped Timothy Pickering as his envoy. All summer the tensions mounted as the late August meeting approached. Both sides were waiting for the outcome of fighting in Ohio. Seneca sachems conferred at Buffalo Creek, weighing their chances in peace or renewed war. In sparsely populated Western New York, new settlers considered sending their women and children to the relative safety of Utica, but that lay more than a hundred miles through dense forest.
Then came an Iroquois runner to report that the Senecas were leaning toward peace, but the outcome of the crucial fighting in Ohio was still not known. When it finally arrived, news of Wayne's crushing victory at Fallen Timber was described by the poetic William Hosmer of Livingston County as "a skylark's call after a raven's croak."
The parley at Canandaigua met for two months of strenuous debate and negotiating, but the Ohio result had so weakened the Seneca hand that the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua was the beginning of the end of their hold on ancestral lands, although they seemed to win concessions on their New York State holdings in return for release of their claim to Ohio territory.
After Canandaigua, Iroquois power was no longer a threat to the new nation or to the growing state. Before long the sprawling hunting grounds of the Senecas, anchored in their scattered towns, were acquired by land companies and sold off piece by surveyed piece to settlers who rushed into the newly created vacuum.
© 1994, Robert G. Koch