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
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 yearsand 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.