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Treaty of Big Tree was a formal treaty signed in 1797 between the Seneca Nation and the United States in which the Seneca relinquished their rights to nearly all of their traditional homeland in New York State— nearly 3.5 million acres.[1] In the 1788 Phelps and Gorham Purchase the Iroquois had previously sold rights to their land between Seneca Lake and the Genesee River. The Treaty of Big Tree signed away their rights to all their territory west of the Genesee River except twelve small tracts of land for $100,000 and other consideration (roughly equivalent to $1,687,000 in 2022).[2]

The delegates for both parties met from August 20, 1797 until September 16, 1797 at the residence of William Wadsworth, an early pioneer of the area and captain of the local militia, in what is now Geneseo, New York. A meadow between Wadsworth's cabin at Big Tree and the gigantic oak by the river, which gave the place its name, was the site of the conference.

In attendance were nearly three thousand Seneca and other prominent members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Representing them were their hoyaneh chiefs: Cornplanter, Red Jacket, Young King, Little Billy, Farmer's Brother, Handsome Lake, Tall Chief, Little Beard and others; the clan mothers of the nation; and Mary Jemison. Those in attendance representing the United States were: Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, Commissioner, assigned by President George Washington to represent the United States government; Captain Charles Williamson and Thomas Morris, representing his father; Robert Morris; General William Shepard, representing Massachusetts; William Bayard, representing New York; Theophilus Cazenove and Paolo Busti, representatives for the Holland Land Company; Captain Israel Chapin, representing the Department of Indian Affairs; Joseph Ellicott, land surveyor; and James Rees as acting secretary. The official interpreters were Horatio Jones and Jasper Parish.

All of the treaty delegates for the United States were housed in William's log cabin and new cobblestone house. A council house was erected by the Seneca and the proceedings were held there. The treaty was signed on September 15, 1797, after nearly a month of, at times heated, back-and-forth negotiations. This treaty is substantial as it opened up the rest of the territory west of the Genesee River for settlement and established ten reservations, perpetual annuities and hunting and fishing rights for the Seneca in Western New York.

Seneca Nation reservations

The following reservations were guaranteed by the treaty:

  • Along the Genesee River, the former Seneca heartland

one piece or parcel of the aforesaid tract, at Canawaugas [fetid waters,[3] now Avon, New York], of two square miles, to be laid out in such manner as to include the village extending in breadth one mile along the river

one other piece or parcel at Big Tree [Gen-nis’-he-yo, Beautiful Valley[3]], of two square miles, to be laid out in such manner as to include the village, extending in breadth along the river one mile

one other piece or parcel of two square miles at Little Beard's Town [Do-oh-nun-da-gah-a, Where the Hill is Near[3]], extending one mile along the river, to be laid off in such manner as to include the village

one other tract of two square miles at Squawky Hill [De-yu-it-ga-oh Valley Begins To Widen,[3] Leicester, New York], to be laid off as follows, to wit: one square mile to be laid off along the river, in such manner as to include the village, the other directly west thereof and contiguo's thereto

one other piece or parcel at Gardeau [Ga-da’-o, Bank in Front[3] Mount Morris, New York], beginning at the mouth of Steep Hill creek, thence due east until it strikes the old path, thence south until a due west line will intersect with certain steep rocks on the west side of Genesee river, then extending due west, due north and due east, until it strikes the first mentioned bound, enclosing as much land on the west side as on the east side of the river. [28 sq mi]

One other piece or parcel at Kaounadeau [Can-e-a-de’-a, Where the Heavens Rest on the Earth[3]] extending in length eight miles along the river and two miles in breadth.

  • Western New York

One other piece or parcel at Cataraugos [Cattaraugus Reservation, Fetid Banks[3]], beginning at the mouth of the Eighteen mile or Koghquaugu creek, thence a line or line to be drawn parallel to lake Erie, at the distance of one mile from there, to the mouth of Cataraugos creek, thence a line or lines extending 12 miles up the north side of said creek at the distance of one mile thereform, thence a direct line to the said creek, thence down the said creek to lake Erie, thence along the lake to the first mentioned creek, and thence to the place of beginning.

Also one other piece at Cataraugos, beginning at the shore of lake Erie, on the south side of Cataraugos creek, at the distance of one mile from the mouth thereof, thence running one mile from the lake, thence on a line parallel thereto, to a point within one mile from the Connondauweyea creek, thence up the said creek one mile, on a line parallel thereto, thence on a direct line to the said creek, thence down the same to lake Erie, thence along the lake to the place of beginning.

Also one other piece or parcel of forty-two square miles, at or near the Allegenny river. [Allegany Indian Reservation]

Also, two hundred square miles, to be laid off partly at the Buffalo and partly at the Tonnawanta creeks [Buffalo Creek Reservation, Tonawanda Reservation Ta’-na-wun-da, Swift Water[3]]. Also, excepting and reserving to them, the said parties of the first part and their heirs, the privilege of fishing and hunting on the said tract of land hereby intended to be conveyed.

Buffalo Creek Reservation as of 1826 showing original survey and later changes

The treaty left the exact location and sizes of the Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda Creek reservations undefined. In October, 1798, Augustus Porter, acting on behalf of Joseph Ellicott and the Holland Land Company, conducted a survey of the area. He fixed the boundaries and defined the extent of the Buffalo Creek Reservation at 83,557 acres (33,814 ha). In the course of the survey he caused the north-west corner of the tract to be bent so that the mouth of Buffalo Creek would be outside the reservation.[4]

See also


  • Livingston County Historical Society (1897). A history of the treaty of Big Tree. Livingston County historical society. Retrieved Oct 25, 2015. 
  • “Red Jacket; Iroquois Diplomat and Orator”, by Christopher Densmore, Syracuse University Press, 1999
  • "Robert Morris and the Treaty of Big Tree", by Norman B. Wilkinson, Organization of American Historians, 1953
  • “The Wadsworths of the Genesee”, by Alden Hatch, Goward-McCann, Inc., New York 1959
  • Laurence M. Hauptman, Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State (2001).

External links

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