When the title to the lands of the Glen Iris Estate were transferred to the State of New York in 1907, it was just one of many important land transactions in Letchworth Park history. Long before Mr. Letchworth ever arrived along the Genesee, the lands of the Valley had been the subject of a variety of claims and transactions.
When the Europeans came to North America, they used the "right of discovery" to lay title to the lands inhabited by the native people. The original inhabitants, according to the legal theory that developed and was handed down to modern times, held the right of occupancy, or "Indian Title" to the lands where they lived. This title could only be extinguished by the sovereign power that held the right of discovery. So in this view there were two title holders to the lands of the Genesee Valley - the Seneca People and whatever sovereign power held claim to the land.
For over a century, both the French and British crowns claimed ownership of the Park's lands. Although it was the French explorer Etienne Brule who is given credit to being the first European to cross the Genesee River,France relinquished their claims to the English after the French and Indian War, beginning the series of land transactions and treaties that are outlined below.
The Treaties and Transactions
The following list covers the major land dealings in the 18th and 19th centuries. The links provided will take you to the actual text of the treaty. Some of these links will take you to the Kappler Project site at Oklahoma State University. (see sources below)
1763 - October, Royal Proclamation issued by George III
Proclaimed soon after the French relinquished their claims, it included a "Proclamation Line" which marked the western boundary of permitted colonial settlement. The Genesee Valley was west of the line and off limits for colonial settlement.
1768 October-November, Treaty at Ft Stanwix held by Sir William Johnson with the Six Nations (Iroquois) and other tribes
Boundaries of the English Colonies and the Indian Nations were drawn. Present park lands remained in the hands of the Seneca, though the colonies of Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts all claim the lands to be within their western boundaries.
1783 September, Treaty of Paris
Great Britain and the new United States ended the Revolution with Great Britain ceding sovereignty of all the territory east of the Mississippi. The lands of the Genesee Valley are now within the boundaries of the United States. The question as to which state remained open. All mention of the Seneca and other Iroquois tribes were omitted from the treaty, although Indian title to the lands was implied.
1784 October, Treaty of Fort Stanwix
Held between US commissioners for Indian affairs. agents for Pennsylvania and New York States, and representatives of the Six Nations. Based upon an assumption of "rights of conquest", the US demanded harsh terms and territorial concessions from the unbeaten Iroquois. The Genesee Valley remained in Seneca hands. Several states also continued their colonial claims to the lands.
1786 December, Treaty of Hartford
In an agreement between states of Massachusetts and New York over the lands stretching from the Finger Lakes to Lake Erie. the Pre-Emption line was drawn from Lake Ontario through present day Geneva to the PA border. Lands east of the line went to New York State, while Massachusetts held pre-emption rights to the lands west. So the Genesee Valley was "part" of Massachusetts until sold to land speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham in April of 1788. At that time Massachusetts gave up all rights to the lands and passed the right to extinguish the Indian claims to the two speculators. The future parks lands are now in New York State, but the Indian Title is intact.
1787, "Livingston Lease" exposed
Iroquois and New York State officials exposed a fraudulent lease signed by Cornplanter and land speculators Robert Livingston, Peter Schuyler, and 80 stockholders. Livingston and his partners had "leased" from the Iroquois all the lands west of the Pre-emption line for 999 years. It was declared null and void in February 1788. It would have included the Genesee River lands.
1788 July, Treaty of Buffalo Creek
Phelps and Gorham extinguished the Indian title from all the lands to the east of the Genesee River to the Pre-Emption line for two thousand one hundred pounds New York Currency, and an annuity of $500. Senecas retained the rest of the lands, including the Valley within present day Letchworth Park.
1794 October-November, Pickering Treaty ( See Text )
Held at Canandaigua between Thomas Pickering, representing the United States Government, and the Iroquois. Lasting peace and friendship between the Six Nations and U.S was promised, and the Iroquois gave quit claims to all lands previously ceded or reserved. Their remaining lands, (including those of the future Park) "shall remain theirs until they choose to sell the same to the people of the United States who have the right to purchase."
1797 September, Big Tree Treaty (See Text)
The Senecas sold most of their remaining lands for $100,000 and individual cash payments to specific Seneca leaders. Held at Geneseo NY by Robert Morris with representatives of the United States present, the Treaty reserved twelve tracts of land. Two of these reservations - Squawkie Hill and Gardeau, were in the present boundaries of the Park, another, Caneadea, was a few miles south. The rest of the lands were now open to settlement. At this time Mary Jemison received a grant of the Gardeau lands from the Seneca leaders. (See Gardeau Grant)
1802 June Buffalo Creek Treaty (See Text)
At a meeting between Seneca leaders, land speculators, and a Commissioner "appointed by the President of the United States", the Senecas sold the Little Beards Reservation established at the Big Tree Treaty for $1200.
1823 September 23 Treaty of Moscow (See Text)
At this treaty held at Moscow (now Leicester NY, land speculators John Greig and Henry Gibson purchased most of the Gardeau Reservation from a group of Seneca leaders for $4286. A parcel of a little over twelve hundred acres was reserved. Mary Jemison is not mentioned - the remaining Gardeau lands would "remain the property of the said parties of the first part" - the "sachems, chiefs and warriors" of the "Seneka Nation of Indians".
1826 August Treaty of Buffalo Creek (See Text)
This treaty brought an end to the Genesee Valley Reservations. The agreement sold the Big Tree, Canawaugus, Caneadea, Squawkie Hill, and the remaining lands at Gardeau, in addition to parts of the Buffalo Creek, Cattaraugus, Tonawanda Reservations west of the Valley. According the Jennings book, this Treaty was never ratified by the US Senate. The Senecas tried to overturn in court, but failed.
The 1826 Treaty of Buffalo Creek was the last to directly effect the lands within Letchworth Park. The Jemisons lived at Gardeau until 1831 - then moved to the remaining lands of the Buffalo Creek Reservation. That reservation, along with the rest of the Seneca lands, were sold in the controversial Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1838. (See Text) That Treaty, had it gone in effect, would have forced the removal of the Seneca People to the west. With the help of Quakers and other allies, they fought to have the treaty declared null and void. The resulting Compromise Treaty of 1842 (See Text) restored some of the Seneca lands.
Although it can be argued that the last of the "Indian Title" to Letchworth Park was passed to the white man in the 1826 Treaty or when Dehgewanus left her lands in 1831, it can also be said that the Native connection to these lands have not, and never can be, extinguished.
Glimpse of Sehgahunda
Glimpse of Seneca Villages in Letchworth Park
Jennings, Francis,The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy. Syracuse University Press, 1985.
Kappler Project, Oklahoma State University
Starna, William, "Aboriginal Title and Traditional Iroquois Land Use" in Iroquois Land Claims. Syracuse University Press, 1988.