Review: ‘A History of Native American Land Rights in Upstate New York’
When I first learned of Cindy Amrhein’s book “A History of Native American Land Rights in Upstate New York,” my skepticism was as piqued as my interest. The absence of Haudenosaunee, or even Iroquois in the title had me prepared to read an egregious book. According to a post on her blog, Amrhein’s working title was “Right of the Soil.” The cover art, “Dreams of No Flight,” is credited to Frank Vando. It features an indigenous-looking man with an eagle tied to his wrist pulling him from a seated position while his other arm is stretched out holding trees as they are pulled from their roots. A fine piece, but those are not white pines he’s holding, I don’t see the Hiawatha belt anywhere on the cover either.
I open the cover and there it is. A Seneca man, wearing sunglasses and a closed lipped smile. He’s wearing a Seneca Gustoweh (headdress), a ribbon shirt, and the background shows he is among his community at an outing. Seeing Henry Lloyd Jacobs, Seneca-Hawk Clan, a memorial page on the inside cover thanking him for his friendship and wisdom gave me a better feeling.
Amrhein is currently the Wyoming County, New York historian and has freelanced as an abstractor. An abstractor researches land titles to make sure there are no debts or hindrances to sales of lands for the security of bank loans. The nature of Amrhein’s work would undoubtedly lead her to Indian country. Her work as a historian documenting some of the history of the Tonowanda Senecas’ led her to write for the now defunct Akwesasne Phoenix Sundays newspaper under the pen name “History Sleuth.” In her preface I am impressed with the fact that she lays out where part of her research comes from, allowing others to look at the information that is publically accessible.
The introduction is a pointed one on sovereignty. Amrhein acknowledges that the land the Six Nations do have is the same land that has been under Haudenosaunee control for time immemorial. She makes it a point to let the reader know maps before America was formed and after it was formed read, “Territory of the Iroquois” or “Counties of the 5 Nations.” There are a couple of maps in the beginning and a few throughout the book. The maps are best viewed in a larger format, but are a good addition to the book. Older readers, grab your magnifying glasses for some of these maps.
The book begins with “The Treaties Between the St. Regis Indians and the State of New York 1816-1845.” Amrhein starts the chapter in 1787 giving background on the Livingston Transaction that would ultimately be voided by the United States government. The Livingston purchase was a 999-year lease for 8 million acres of Haudenosaunee land primarily in what would become western New York. The United States would go on to introduce the Indian Nonintercourse Act of 1790. In December of 1791, George Washington would write a letter to the Seneca Chief, Cornplanter. In this letter Washington wrote:
“No State nor person can purchase your lands unless at some public treaty held under the authority of the United States.”
In 1791, New York State “sold” over 5 million acres with over 3.5 million in northern New York to one man, Alexander Macomb. New York was in defiance of the federal government and even those in the NY legislature were talking corruption. This was only because the state could have made a larger profit by selling small parcels instead of the one large parcel. Not because of violating federal requirements for land purchases at the time. The New York legislature ignored land claim assertions from the St. Regis and Caughnawagas between the years 1792 and 1794.
In detailing the Treaty of 1816 with the St. Regis Indians, Amrhein notes the absence of the United States government. This would be in violation of the federal law at the time. The Treaty of 1816 granted 5,000 acres off the St. Regis reserve and one square mile of the Salmon River. A river that leads from Northern New York to the St. Lawrence River through the town of Fort Covington, New York. Amrhein tells how the three signators that represented the St. Regis—Jacob Francis, Peter Tarbell and Thomas Williams—all signed with an X. This indicates that they could not sign their name in English. Amrein also points out that an interpreter was not present at the signing.
Furthermore, the notary Supreme Court Justice Smith Thompson did not witness the signing. Instead, Justice Thompson took the word of Michael Hogan, who witnessed the signing. That man would be discussed later in the book in regards to 144 acres of land that would eventually lead to the formation of Hogansburg, New York—land that turns out to be water rights for a ferry and not actually land to build on.
I was a little disappointed to not see the Doctrine of Discovery mentioned in the book, but there is a wealth of good information presented here. Amrhein does an excellent job of organizing and laying out her information in a straightforward manner. The appendix consists of the treaties of the St. Regis as they are not as accessible on the Internet as some of the other treaties mentioned in the book.
There are also several photos throughout the book, some I have seen and others less common.
I would recommend this book published by The History Press.
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