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18th century docs show Onondaga Nation treaties, borders ignored by early New York settlers

The size of the Onondaga Reservation is many times smaller than its historic borders. Documents at Syracuse University show how early New York officials transferred lands to settlers.

Documents held at Syracuse University Libraries show that some of New York’s earliest leaders helped to illegally slash the size of the Onondaga Indian Reservation. Archives experts and native Americans here in Syracuse reviewed letters held by SU Library’s Special Collections Research Center. Dr. Sebastian Modrow is assistant professor at the School of Information Studies, formerly the curator of rare books and manuscripts at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center. He says in one draft correspondence Moses Dewitt, a land surveyor, sought to inform the New York State Legislature about how Onondaga-occupied lands interfered with settlers.

(Listen: The Land You're On: the letter podcast on documents, lands and treaty rights)

Modrow reads from one of the letters from 1794 referring to obstacles to expansion of communities on what was at the time Onondaga territory.

“…very great inconveniences are felt from the situation in which that tract is likely to remain on account of it (the land) not permitted to be disposed of and improved … which are of vast importance to the new settlers, whose prosperity greatly depends on the mutual services neighborhoods can render to each other.”

Modrow reads this to indicate that officials were ready to ignore any property rights the Onondaga might have in favor of settlers in small communities who were experiencing difficulties interacting with each other.

Syracuse University Ombuds Neal Powless, an Onondaga, adds there’s even more direct evidence.

“There’s a document that refers to us as the Indian problem … not just for that reason. Once again, we’re in the way of expansion,” says Powless.

And Modrow, also reading from an 18th century correspondence, confirms the desire to take over the lands.

“Your petitioner therefor, knowing it be the ardent wish of the neighbors, and confident that it would contribute to the increasing wealth, prosperity and importance of the state, that the Onondaga reservation, perhaps in preference to any other uncultivated tract of the state, should be so disposed of as that it may be speedily settled,” shares Modrow from the archived letter.

Modrow adds that this is the language of ‘Manifest Destiny’, a policy idea that supported colonial expansion. defines it as "the idea that the United States is destined—by God, its advocates believed—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.” The documents held by SU and what they elucidate about the time when the Onondaga Reservation was as much as 20 times larger than it is now, are the subject of the latest episode of The Land You’re On podcast.

Haudenosaunee Recall A History of Slights

The tone of the old letters and correspondences don’t surprise Michelle Schenandoah, an Oneida Nation member, part of the Haudenosaunee.

“The interesting part is that they’re writing to the state to decide how to divide the land. … There’s no consultation or conversation with the Onondagas at all. It’s literally like … state as the ultimate power in deciding (and) the state never actually even had authority, even under US law to make those types of determinations,” says Schenandoah.

The result of state policy and treaty negotiations between 1788 and 1822 was the Onondaga Nation territory was reduced by 95%. Those treaties have been deemed illegal because all treaties had to be approved by the US government, not the State of New York.

Neal Powless and Petrina Jackson, former Director of the Special Collections Research Center, see real value in having a place to congregate all such documents, letters, treaties, and other information about the dealings between New York State officials and the Nations of the Haudenosaunee, including the Onondagas, on whose ancestral lands many of Central New York’s cities, towns and villages sit.

“(An) institution like Syracuse University creates an opportunity for it to be a research hub for Native studies. That would be monumental,” suggests Powless.

And Jackson would welcome some sort of grant to conduct a survey of the schools that have similar documents, digitize them and link data. She likens a research center and the understanding it could bring as a kind-of reparations.

There is also a larger issue here. Michelle Schenandoah argues a better understanding of treaties and their rights would have benefitted all parties through history.

“Imagine how different our world would be if every single Haudenosaunee person knew their treaty rights and you were taught as a kid. … If we were all in the space of working together based on our treaty relationships, which we still say and tell Americans, it’s about treaty relationships,” Schenandoah says. “Because treaty obligations are things that the American forefathers created with our nations that we still uphold to this day.”

Even if governments and entities on all levels do not honor or uphold. Something, Schenandoah suggests, could also be taught as part of all US history.

Episode 11 of The Land You’re On sheds light on historic documents.

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.