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A 230-year-old map gives insight into the former reach of the Onondaga Nation

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, Syracuse Peace Council
The land of Upstate New York before 1788 was inhabited by various native tribes shown here. The small highlighted regions and graph at bottom indicate how little remains on each reservation.

Many people in Central New York know the location of the Onondaga Nation. They may not know how much area was once part of the reservation or the extent of lands inhabited by other members of the Iroquois Confederacy. A map from 1792 in the Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections shows that the nation once encompassed lands that are now Manlius, Marcellus, Cicero, and other towns, as well as the City of Syracuse.

Onondaga Nation Map 1792.jpg
Gerrit Smith Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
Onondaga Nation territory in a map from 1792 before treaties, many ruled illegal, divided up the land which later became Syracuse and surrounding towns.

One of the ways the footprint of Native American territory shrunk was when George Washington ordered the troops to chase the inhabitants, early ancestors of the Oneida Indians, off, according to Joanne Shenandoah.

“A lot of them lived in beautiful hand-hewn log houses with fine China. The best way they could figure to get rid of them was to burn them out.” Joanne Shenandoah.

Shenandoah was interviewed as part of The Land You’re On podcast series before her death. Native American Scholar Sally Roesch Wagner called the move a ‘genocide of the land’.

“When Washington issued the order to destroy every living thing in the area, the motivation may have been there was not money to pay the revolutionary war soldiers. And then they would fight to be given that land.” Sally Wagner

Syracuse University Ombuds Neil Powless, who is Onondaga, says a series of treaties with New York State bargained off the vast majority of the lands from the various Indian nations. The Fort Stanwix treaty of 1788, reducing the spread of Onondaga Nation lands by more than 90%. Powless suggests at least some of the original indigenous people didn’t have to set defined borders.

“We’d decided to make the decisions to (live) together, ‘Let’s share the land, let’s share the space … the shared space of the city of Syracuse’, that then became Syracuse and pushes us to a small square, two-by-four miles.”

The Onondaga Nation was reduced to about 200 square miles, but subsequent treaties and lands ceded to homesteaders eventually shrunk it to the current reservation of a small fraction.

Powless notes at the heart of legal battles over decades is the fact that all the treaties that reduced the Onondaga and other Indian nation’s territories were illegal. They were made with New York State officials; treaties are only valid with the Federal Government of the United States.

The historic maps – along with the history that places them in context – calls into question, who really owns the land?

Latest Podcast Episode: What historic Maps can Teach Us

The historic documents allow for a snapshot of a time when the lands of what is now Upstate New York had very different inhabitants and borders. When historical events and figures are added, such maps come to life and tell much more personal stories. The Land You’re On: The Map is the first of three episodes that examine documents held by the SU Libraries Special Collections Research Center that shed light on conversations surrounding land claims, generational trauma and the cultural and historical importance of wampum, among other topics.

The Land You’re On is presented by Access Audio, and the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries. The podcast is a limited edition, twelve-part series that will air on WAER’s website and all major streaming platforms. The series continues to reflect on the complicated history of our land, while also celebrating Haudenosaunee culture and traditions.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.