Pre-European Settlement History: The Onondaga and the Cayuga of the Haudenosaunee
26 Aug 2020

Pre-European Settlement History: The Onondaga and the Cayuga of the Haudenosaunee

26 Aug 2020

Pre-European Settlement History: The Onondaga and the Cayuga of the Haudenosaunee

By: Anna Tiburzi

In my first post, I promised to start getting into the landscapes and their history, exploring how they evolved over time from the historic land of the Cayuga of the Haudenosaunee to the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and to finally the property of the National Park Service. 

However, it’s so difficult to cover it all with any semblance of brevity and, as I’ve recently presented on the project in a way that I feel sufficiently covers the broader scope of the history of the landscape, I’ll attach a link to that presentation here. For those who haven’t yet seen it but would like to know more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the early Women’s Rights Movement, and the landscapes at the Stanton and Chamberlain Houses, I encourage you to view it at the following: 

The landscape is rife with history and, as such, there are so many stories that could be told from it, whether it’s of the early women’s rights movement, the lives of the working women who made Stanton’s work possible, the industrial history of the area, or the development of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. Today, I’d like to just focus on one aspect of the landscape’s evolution and take the time to tell the story of the pre-European settlement of the area as the land of the Cayuga Nation, of the Haudenosaunee. 

For those that have already heard my presentation, or who have been along for the ride during the time I spend researching and investigating the early history of the land, some of this may be familiar, and so I appreciate you taking the time to read through this and hope you enjoy the additional detail and events that I’ve included here today.  

The land that the Stanton and Chamberlain Houses sit on is historically Cayuga Nation land, of the Haudenosaunee. Image source:

The American Revolution brought disaster upon the Haudenosaunee. In 1779, Washington ordered his generals to destroy Native American villages, orchards, and fields in western New York and the Cayuga and Seneca people were forced to flee, attempting to escape the rape and indiscriminate slaughter of women and children by the American army and therefore seeking protection at the British post at Fort Niagara, where they suffered from extreme cold, hunger, and sickness. 

After the war, some of the Haudenosaunee stay at Buffalo Creek, where they form a new leadership council, and others return to the homeland, the traditional seat of the Haudenosaunee. 

At this time, the states of New York and Massachusetts are both attempting to obtain the lands of the Six Nations – the land which today makes up western New York. Massachusetts’ colonial charter stated no western boundary and, as such, the state sought to claim the land, while the governor of New York was trying to acquire as much of this same land as possible before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which would change the rules of Native American diplomacy forever.

1771 Map showing what is today the northeastern United States. Source

A compromise between the two states was found in 1786 at the Treaty of Hartford, which gave New York legal jurisdiction over the lands, but declared preemptive purchasing power to the State of Massachusetts, should the Haudenosaunee ever decide to sell. 

In the Phelps-Gorham Purchase, these preemption rights were sold by the commonwealth of Massachusetts to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham who, in July 1788, established a treaty with the refugee nations at Buffalo Creek. In 1991, the land west of the Pre-emption Line is sold to Pulteney Associates, a British land brokerage firm.

And so began a series of appeals and treaties between the State of New York and the Haudenosaunee, who were still recovering from the ravages of the Revolutionary War, but who agree to a shared-use arrangement of the land. 

At the 1784 Treaty at Fort Schuyler – the former Fort Stanwix – New York is represented by Governor Clinton and the Onondagas of the Haundenosaunee by Chief Black Cap. Representatives of the Genesee Company of Adventurers, and others, attempted to disrupt the proceedings by telling the Native Americans that the governor intended to purchase the lands, which the Native People had leased to the company, and would drive the Native Tribes off of them. In turn, the governor assures the Onondagas that they could not rely on the Genesee Company of Adventurers for payment, as the leases were drawn up without the consent of the state, and thus the state would not be able to interfere on the behalf of the Haudenosaunee should the Company decided to stop adhering to their agreement and cease payment for rent and use of the land.

Records showing the 1784 Treaty between the State of New York and the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) from an 1899 Land Cessions schedule of Treaties and Acts of Congress. Source: Library of Congress American Memory: Remaining Collections

Black Cap rejected the legitimacy of the lease with the Genesee Company of Adventurers. Though some Onondagas had been witness to the transaction, they’d had no agency in the treaty and therefore disapproved of the agreement. Thus, the Onondaga treat with the State of New York, agreeing to cede a majority of their lands – a vast expanse from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania – to the state with an agreement of joint-use of the territory, with the exception of a few reservations set aside for exclusive use by the Onondaga and the Cayuga in an effort to retain control of the land with which they relied upon for their culture and their survival. 

The Onondaga’s signing of the treaty could be attributed in part to their weakness after the Revolutionary War, with their numbers diminished and nation divided between the Buffalo Creek Council Fire, Ontario, and other in central New York. 

At this time, the Haudenosaunee of the homeland and of Buffalo Creek disagree on what to do with the remainder of their territory, with the Buffalo Creek faction pushing to sell, and the homeland determined to keep their land. 

These divisions have led some historians to argue that Black Cap, the Onondaga Chief who acted as representative at the Fort Schuyler treaty, lacked the authority to cede the lands on behalf of the Onondaga or the Haudenosaunee. A new Council Fire had been rekindled at Buffalo Creek, but not at Onondaga, which was the traditional heart of the Haudenosaunee. Those at Buffalo Creek wrote to Governor Clinton objecting not the sale of the land but that they did not feel that the representatives at the treaty had the right to sell and negotiate the lands on behalf of the Nation without the consent or knowledge of the Chiefs, and thus looked upon the Fort Schuyler treaty as fraudulent. 

The Onondaga continue to hunt and fish on the ceded lands, while the New Yorkers’ population grew, evident in their logging, clearing of land, construction of salt works, and other erected development. 

The 1789 Treaty. On February 25, 1789, the Cayuga of the Haudenosaunee sell by treaty all their land to the State of New York, with the exception of 64,000 acres (100 square miles) and two smaller tracts of land. This 64,000 acres is to become what is known at the Cayuga Reservation. 

The boundaries of the Cayuga Reservation, as outlined in a treaty held in the City of Albany, February 1789. Source:

(As as note, today’s Route 414, which runs south from the village of Seneca Falls, was formerly called Reservation Road and formed the western boundary of the Cayuga Reservation. This boundary would have run northward to Seneca River and along the waters to the outlet of Cayuga Lake, situating both the Stanton and Chamberlain properties firmly on the former land of the Cayuga Reservation.)

The 1793 Treaty. In November of 1793, John Cantine and Simeon DeWitt, who was responsible for the platting of the Military Tract of Central New York of the same year, visit the Onondaga on behalf of Governor Clinton with the goal of discovering whether the Onondaga were interested in leasing – or, as word of the Onondagas in the west suggested, perhaps selling – their remaining land or if they intended to continue to live on it. The sachem at Buffalo Creek had indicated a desire to sell the entirety of the territory, however, those in the homeland had no wish to part with it. The Onondaga expressed this to Cantine and DeWitt, but said they would be happy to renew the 1788 treaty with which they were still satisfied with the terms.

Selection from the 1st sheet of DeWitt’s State Map of New York, illustrating the platting of the Military Tract of Central New York. Note the locations of the Onondaga and Cayuga Reservations. Source: Onondaga Historical Assocation

Cantine and DeWitt told them that the 1788 treaty would remain unaltered. However, they could make the reservation more productive to the Onondaga, if they leased the land to the state. Funds from renting the land would provide the Onondaga with more money than if they continued to farm it. The Onondaga were hesitant to lease, but cognizant of the possibility that those in Buffalo Creek would sell the entire reservation out from underneath the Onondaga at the homeland, they agreed to a limited lease of their lands. Though these negotiations discussed the terms of a lease for the land, the actual treaty language read that the Onondagas relinquished all claim to the land of the Onondaga Reservation to the State of New York, demonstrating how Cantine, DeWitt, and the State of New York had defrauded the Onondagas. 

The 1794 Treaty. In February of 1794, New York officials meet with the Onondaga sachems at Albany. Kakitikon, an Onondaga sachem who had signed the 1788 accord, now commonly spoke for the Onondaga following the death of Black Cap in 1791. Kakitikon presented Governor Clinton with gifts and said that the Onondaga were satisfied with the terms of the 1788 agreement, if the state would honor its obligations.

The Onondaga rejected the fraudulent accord of 1793 and thought that New York had violated the spirit of the original shared-use agreement negotiated at Fort Schuyler; they felt that the state had taken too much, settled too many people, built too many salt works, and deforested too much land. 

The 1795 Treaty.  In 1795, Governor Clinton eliminated the Onondagas’ access to the Salt Lake, securing control for New York over the resource though another fraudulent and illegal treaty and, bypassing the Onondaga leadership of the homeland with whom he had been treating, meets with the Buffalo Creek sachem at Cayuga Ferry. 

At this treaty and those that follow, the Buffalo Creek Onondaga and Cayuga cede the rights to their reservations and the remainder of their land. No federal commissioner was present at Cayuga Ferry, violating the federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts which required federal approval and oversight for any cession of native land and thus the 1795 agreement was never ratified by the US Senate. 

The agreement was negotiated with the Onondaga and Cayuga of Buffalo Creek, bypassing the Onondagas’ recognized leaders who they had treated with in 1788 and in 1794 (and in 1793, fraudulently, with Cantine and DeWitt as messengers), in favor of the Buffalo Creek faction, giving New York State the rights to the remainder of the Onondaga territory. 

By May 18th, 1803, the Cayuga have sold all their remaining land to the State of New York, which includes the entirety of their reservation, part of which would become the future site of the Stanton and Chamberlain Houses. 

Thus, the West Cayuga Reservation Tract is platted, including the 250-acres of Lot No. 6, which becomes part of the Town of Junius, County of Seneca. 

1836 Map of Seneca Falls. Note the platting of Lot No. 6 (to the south and east of the Seneca River), which was formerly the site of the Cayuga Reservation. Source: Seneca Falls Historical Society

And so we’ve set the stage for the landscape, this Lot No. 6, which is the setting for both the Stanton and Chamberlain Houses. 

While this history predates the period of significance for the Stanton and Chamberlain properties by over half a century, the story of the Haudenosaunee and how the property came to be owned by the State of New York – and later under private ownership – is an important one, especially since it is still fraught with debate as to whether the Cayuga of Buffalo Creek had a right to sell the land, whether the State of New York defrauded the Haudenosaunee, and whether the Cayuga of the homeland still have a right to the land, having never relinquished their claim.

Thank you all for reading, I appreciate you taking the time, see you soon!


Document Sources: 

National Park Service, US DOI (2015). Women’s Rights National Historical Park (WORI) National Register Nomination.

National Park Service, US DOI. (1998). WORI Stanton House Cultural Landscapes Inventory.

Oberg, Michael Leroy (2007). Good Neighbors: The Onondagas and the Fort Schuyler Treaty of September 1788. New York History 88 (Fall 2007), 391-418.

Royce, Charles C. (1899). Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1896-97: Indian Land Cessions in the United States. Library of Congress, American Memory: Remaining Collection. 

Weber, Sandra S. (1985). Women’s Rights NHP Special History Study. National Park Service, US DOI. 

Wellman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention. University of Illinois Press, 2004.

National Park Service, US DOI (1991). Seneca Falls Historic District Nomination Form.


Additional Web Sources:

Leave a comment
More Posts