Seneca Chief

1732/35 -1836


Cornplanter (Kaiiontwa'kon, Garganwahgah, "By What One Plants"), with Red Jacket, a leader of the Seneca Nation, was born at Canawagus on the Genesee River in present-day New York State around 1740.

His father was an Albany trader named John Abeel or O'Bail, and Cornplanter was known to the English as John O'Bail or Captain O'Bail.

His half brother Handsome Lake was an Iroquois Confederacy chief, as was a nephew who was known as Blacksnake or Governor Blacksnake.

During the American Revolution, Cornplanter was chosen at a gathering of warriors (along with the respected Seneca war chief Old Smoke) to lead the Iroquois warriors (including the Mohawk under Joseph Brant), in support of the British.

Cornplanter had at first vigorously opposed Iroquois participation in the war on either side and had admonished his warriors against fighting, stating, according to Governor Blacksnake, "war is war Death is the Death a fight is a hard business."

Governor Blacksnake also stated that at the end of this speech Joseph Brant, the war chief of the Mohawk Valley Mohawks, who had earlier traveled to England to cement his ties to the Crown, accused Cornplanter of cowardice.

Cornplanter eventually led fighters against the Americans throughout the course of the war.

Cornplanter was second in command of the Indian fighters at the Battle of Wyoming in June 1778.

More than 300 Americans were killed in this action (and fewer than ten Indians and Rangers) while eight forts and a thousand dwellings were destroyed.

On August 2, 1780, Cornplanter, Brant, Old Smoke, and the Cayuga war chief Fish Carrier led about four hundred Indians and Tories on a scorched-earth campaign against the Canajoharie District in the Mohawk Valley.

Approximately fifty to sixty prisoners were taken, while two forts and fifty-three houses were destroyed.

Among the houses burned was that of John Abeel, who was captured and then recognized as Cornplanter's father.

Cornplanter apologized intensely for burning his father's home and offered to take his father home to the Seneca country or, if he preferred, to send him back to his white family. Abeel chose the latter.

In October 1780, Cornplanter was among the leaders in a series of attacks on forts and settlements in the Schoharie Valley in what is now eastern New York State.

This action was in response to the Clinton-Sullivan campaign of the previous year that had resulted in the destruction of two hundred Iroquois houses and an estimated 150,000 bushels of grain in addition to some forty Iroquois dead and more than sixty captured.

The counterattack prompted New York Governor George Clinton to comment that New York's western frontier was now at Schenectady.

At the end of the Revolutionary War Cornplanter organized and led a delegation to Fort Stanwix, where in 1783 a treaty was negotiated between the United States and the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy.

While embraced by the United States, the treaty made such sweeping concessions of Iroquois land that, when presented to the government of the Confederacy, it was deemed unacceptable.

The Six Nations Grand Council never ratified it.

In a speech delivered to President Washington at Philadelphia, Cornplanter stated: "When our chiefs returned from the treaty at Fort Stanwix, and laid before our council what had been done there, our nation was surprised to hear how great a country you had compelled them to give up to you, without your paying to us any thing for it.... We asked each other, what have we done to deserve such severe chastisement?"

Cornplanter participated in a series of treaties in 1784, 1789, 1794, 1797, and 1802, all of which ceded large areas of Seneca territory to non-Indians.

After the Revolution and unlike Brant, Cornplanter came to support the Americans and played a part in bringing the Seneca to the American side in the War of 1812.

In later years, he regretted his support of White causes and became a strong temperance advocate.

Because of these cessions he became extremely unpopular among his own people and at one point stated "the great God, and not man, has preserved the Cornplanter from the hands of his own nation."

In 1790 Cornplanter and several other Seneca chiefs met with George Washington to protest the terms of the Fort Stanwix Treaty, stating "you demand from us a great country, as the price of that peace which you had offered us; as if our want of strength had destroyed our rights.... Were the terms dictated to us by your commissioners reasonable and just?"

The Senecas went on to say that there was no reason why further land cessions should be expected.

Cornplanter subsequently became a faithful ally of the new United States and was probably influential in persuading George Washington to adopt treaty making as the preferred method of dealing with Indian tribes while urging fair and honest treatment of the Indians generally.

Congress passed the 1790 Non-Intercourse Act with the intention of upholding President Washington's promises that the federal government would protect Indian lands against fraud and theft.

On November 4, 1791, the United States suffered what was probably its worst military defeat at the hands of Indians; 630 soldiers under General Arthur St. Clair were killed in a complete rout by the Shawnees and their allies on the Ohio-Indiana border.

Subsequent attempts to arrange peace negotiations with these Indians were not successful, and George Washington now turned to the Six Nations to act as intermediaries.

The following year Cornplanter, at considerable risk to his own life, led a Six Nations delegation to a meeting on the Glaize (now Auglaize) River in an effort to reach an accommodation with the victorious Shawnees on behalf of the United States.

Cornplanter's delegation met with the Indian forces that had defeated General St. Clair and found them in a less than conciliatory mood.

They treated Cornplanter and his delegation with contempt for what they saw as their subservience to the Americans and issued a demand that white settlers evacuate the lands they were occupying northwest of the Ohio River.

Although he was not completely successful in this peace initiative, Cornplanter received a grant of one square mile of land from the State of Pennsylvania for his efforts and for his assistance in dissuading the Iroquois Confederacy from joining the Shawnees in the fighting in Ohio.

He was living on this "Cornplanter Grant" in June of 1799 when his half brother Handsome Lake, who was living in the same house, arose from a coma and announced he had experienced a vision.

The two men continued to live there until 1803 when a dispute with Handsome Lake sent the latter to Coldspring on the Allegheny Reservation, where he embarked on his lifelong mission to revive the ancient ways and values while adapting to the new world of the reservation.

Cornplanter continued to live on his Pennsylvania grant for the rest of his life.

The trade silver Cornplanter wears and the pipe-tomahawk are spectacular in this elegant portrait, painted in New York in 1796.