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This story was originally published in the 1997 Autumn/Holiday edition

Treaty of Big Tree


Major treaty opened Genesee region to peaceful settlement

by Barber Conable

The Big Tree
The Big Tree, watercolor by Agnes Jeffrey, 1806-96. Courtesy of SUNY Geneseo. The Big Tree was believed to be over 300 years old when it was finally undercut by the Genesee River and fell on Nov. 8., 1857.

The Geneseo area was originally called Big Tree by the Seneca after a large oak that grew nearby on the banks of the Genesee River. Two hundred years ago, this frontier community was the site of the signing of a major treaty with the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy that cleared title to most of the remaining Indian lands in western New York.

In 1797, three and a half million acres of land west of the Genesee River, most of it virgin forest, were suddenly opened for European settlement. Within 30 years—and without the usual difficult period of frontier transition— the region became New York state's breadbasket. What changed the climate and made settlement possible, was the signing of the Treaty of Big Tree on Sept. 16, 1797. A long time coming, the treaty was carefully planned; its negotiations were reasonably open, quite tortuous, and legally binding under United States law.

Preliminaries to this treaty were complicated. Ambiguous royal grants from the king of England to the colonial leaders of New York and Massachusetts had left the ownership of western New York in doubt. Following the Revolution, in 1786 a commission from both states decided that Massachusetts owned the title, but New York had sovereignty.

The development company of Phelps and Gorham, sited in Canandaigua, bought all the land west of Seneca Lake from Massachusetts, promising to pay the price in the face value of Massachusetts bonds worth about 20 cents on the dollar.

After Phelps and Gorham made the first of three installment payments in bonds, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton pushed through a plan to assume the states' debts under the new U. S. Constitution. Consequently, Phelps and Gorham could not afford to pay 100 cents on the dollar for the bonds and defaulted.

On foreclosure, Massachusetts took back most of the land unencumbered by sales by Phelps and Gorham west of the Genesee River and immediately sold it to Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution, who had been bitten by the land speculation bug.

Reserving some of this land adjoining the Genesee River in the southern tier for himself and a few favored others, he resold 3.5 million acres quickly to his friends, the Dutch bankers who had helped him finance the American Revolution. They withheld about $100,000 in escrow, to be paid when he had extinguished any Indian claim to the land. These transactions were all set up in 1791 and '92.

After the 1783 treaty ending the American Revolution, the British, afraid of possibly hostile former colonists along the Canadian border, had refused to give up their frontier posts, including Ft. Niagara and Ft. Detroit. They had also left the Indians out of the treaty, hoping they would create a buffer between the British and the American colonists until the best possible Canadian boundary could be negotiated.

Hostile Indians, the British hoped, could hold back the waves of settlers ready to move from the eastern seaboard. They also supplied the Indian confederacy fighting the Americans in Ohio and encouraged their successes until Revolutionary War general Mad Anthony Wayne decisively defeated the Iroquois Confederacy in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. (Gen. Wayne had been called back to the colors by President George Washington after two other generals had failed.)

The Genesee region's new “owner,” Robert Morris, was no ingenue. He bided his time while fighting continued in Ohio, realizing that if he pushed the Seneca too hard to give up claims to their homeland, they might cast their lot more overtly with the Ohio confederacy than they originally had.

Once Gen. Wayne triumphed, Morris started pushing for a land treaty. It was 1797 before the Seneca agreed to meet with him. Morris sought appointment of a federal treaty commissioner from his friend, President Washington, and made elaborate preparations for the meeting, set finally for Aug. 20, 1797.

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