Cornplanter in Disrepute

Not long after the large sale of their domain to Robert Morris, which had been negotiated at Big Tree, the Seneca began to realize that they had committed a great mistake. The broad lands, mountain, hill, and valley, over which they had roamed, the springs and streams of water by whose side they had been wont to encamp, and above all the graves of their sires, where affection’s altar had been hallowed by their sighs and tears, these were still in view, but they appeared not as in days gone by, to wear for them the smiles of old and long tried friends. They seemed to present a look and utter a voice of reproach, as though chiding them for having broken in upon the harmony of those time honored arrangements, which had bound them together, and the thought of this filled their minds with anxiety and grief. Had they been aware of the sorrow they would experience in looking upon these lands, as no longer their own, their consent to part with them would not so readily have been given.

The reverse which thereupon took place in their minds, fell heavily on those who had taken the most active part of the business of selling their country. Cornplanter, having borne a prominent part in these proceedings, fell deeply under the displeasure of his people. Their displeasure was so marked as to lead him to cast about for some means of relief. Aware of the credulity and superstition of his people, he resolved to avail himself of these characteristics of his nation, to accomplish the end he had in view.

For this purpose he was in consultation with his brother Ga-ne-o-di-yo, who on one occasion terminated a scene of great dissipation, by the announcement that he had been delegated by the Great Spirit, with a new revelation, and with supernatural gifts. A severe illness became the occasion during which he made a visit to the unseen world, where visions and revelations of a most extraordinary nature, had been made known to him. The happiness of the good, and the tortures of the wicked, had thus become matters of personal observation. The announcement of these, in language and gesture indicating his assurance of their reality, gained for him credence among the people, as well as chiefs of his nation, and he was received as a prophet.

His earliest attempts were successful in accomplishing a desirable reform, especially among the Onondaga, the most profligate of the Six Nations, from the degrading vice of intemperance. His influence in this direction was salutary, and had he confined his efforts to the recovery of his people from drunkenness, his mission would truly have been one of mercy, and his career might have terminated with the highest usefulness and honor.

But sympathizing with Cornplanter, his brother, he conceived the idea of instituting against their enemies, the charge of “witchcraft”. In this the Indians generally believed, and a charge of this nature, coming from such a source, was a very grave matter. Through the instrumentality of Congress selected by himself, the sentence of death was procured against certain “familiars of Satan,” and this sentence would have been executed, had there been no interference, from the knowledge of it coming to the whites, living in the vicinity.

In no way discouraged, but rather emboldened by their success, they proceeded so far as to bring such a charge against Red Jacket himself, who was thus publicly denounced, at a great council held at Buffalo Creek, and put upon trial.

A degree of rivalry had hitherto existed between Cornplanter and Red Jacket, and as the former descended in the estimation of his people, for the part he had taken in the sale of their lands, the latter rose for the same reason, so that the highest aim of Cornplanter was reached, when he could, by this means, affect materially the character, and influence of his distinguished rival.

The orator was thus placed in circumstances the most critical and trying, of any that had hitherto met him in life. He perceived at a glance, that his entire history in the future, would depend on the decision that would then and there take place. He might be doomed, if his life were spared, and this was not altogether certain, to be the victim of surmises and superstitions, that would be annoying, if they did not prove to be utterly destructive of his happiness. He accordingly summoned himself for an effort as great, as his position was dangerous.

He conducted the trial in his own defense. In this he exhibited the exceeding wariness, which was ever a prominent characteristic of his nature. The slightest circumstance affecting the character, or bearing suspiciously upon his adversary was not overlooked, and his history was scanned with the searching scrutiny of a mind, that seemed to grasp intuitively, the secret springs, which had influenced his conduct. One by one the professions that had formed his garb of sanctity, were exposed to the burning power of his keen satire, and step by step he advanced to a point, where, from the full assurance he had established this conviction in the minds of his people, he pronounced him AN IMPOSTER,–A CHEAT 1 .

His speech riveted the attention of his hearers for nearly three hours. He prevailed. “THE IRON BROW OF SUPERSTITION RELENTED UNDER THE MAGIC POWER OF HIS ELOQUENCE.” The Indians divided and a majority appeared in his favor.

“Perhaps, “says the distinguished author just quoted, “the annals of history cannot furnish a more conspicuous instance of the triumph and power of oratory, in a barbarous nation, devoted to superstition, and looking up to the accuser as a delegated minister of the Almighty 2 .”

The victory which Red Jacket thus achieved recoiled heavily on Cornplanter, and gave him a blow, from which he never afterward fully recovered. He retired to his reservation, on the waters of the Alleghany river, within the boundaries of Pennsylvania, where he devoted himself, during the remainder of his long life, to the elevation and improvement of his people. He did not, after the example of his great rival Red Jacket, spurn the improvements of civilization, but engaged in agriculture after the example of the whites, and welcomed to his abode the teachers of Christianity, and himself openly avowed his belief in its doctrines.

Cornplanter was a native of Ca-na-wan-gus, on the Genesee river, a half breed, the son of an Indian trader, from the valley of the Mohawk, a white man named John O’Bail. Of his early life little is known further than he himself intimated, in a letter written long afterward, to the governor of Pennsylvania:–In which he said,–“When I was a child I played with the butterfly, the grasshopper, and the frogs; and as I grew up, I began to pay some attention, and play with the Indian boys in the neighborhood; and they took notice of my skin, being a different color from theirs and spoke about it. I inquired of my mother the cause, and she told me that my father was a resident in Albany. I still ate my victuals out of a bark dish. I grew up to be a young man, and married me a wife, and I had no kettle or gun. I then knew where my father lived, and went to see him, and found he was a white man, and spoke the English language. He gave me victuals, while I was at his house, but when I started to return home, he gave me no provision to eat on the way. He gave me neither kettle or gun.”

He was with his people when they fought in alliance with the French in the year 1755. The principal part of the force which met and defeated the English under General Braddock was Indian, and it was through their prowess mainly, if not entirely, that the victory was gained.

What part Cornplanter took in that engagement is not known, but in the war of the Revolution, he was a war-chief, and ranked high in the estimation of his people.

In a speech addressed to President Washington in 1790, he related the manner in which the Indians came to be in alliance with the English.

“Many nations inhabited this country; but they had no wisdom, therefore they warred together. The Six Nations were powerful and compelled them to peace; the lands to a great extent were given up to them; the French came among us and built Niagara; they became our fathers and took care of us. Sir William Johnson came and took that fort from the French; he became our father and promised to take care of us, and did so until you were too strong for his king.

“When you kindled your thirteen fires separately, the wise men that assembled at them told us that you were all brothers, the children of one great father, who regarded the red people also as his children. They called us brothers, and invited us to his protection; they told us that he resided beyond the great water, where the sun first rises; that he was a king whose power no people could resist, and that his goodness was as bright as that sun. What they said went to our hearts; we accepted the invitation, and promised to obey him. What the Seneca Nation promise, they faithfully perform; and when you refused obedience to that king, he commanded us to assist his beloved men, in making you sober. In obeying him we did no more than yourselves had led us to promise. The men that claimed this promise told us that you were children, and had no guns; that when they had shaken you, you would submit. We hearkened to them and were deceived.”

As a leader he was very active and brave, and as a partisan of the English, bore a prominent part in all of the principal engagements, in which the Indians were concerned during that war. He was on the war-path with Brant during the campaign of General Sullivan against the Indian towns in the Genesee country in 1779, and also when under the command of Brant and Sir John Johnson, the Indians subsequently avenged the invasion of Sullivan, by the fearful destruction they wrought in the valley of the Mohawk.

It was during this expedition that Cornplanter visited his father a second time. He was residing then in the vicinity of Fort Plain, and ascertaining where he lived, Cornplanter watched his opportunity and made his father a prisoner, but managed so adroitly, as to avoid recognition. He marched his sire ten or twelve miles up the river, and then stepped in front of him, faced about, and addressed him in the following manner:

“My name is John O’Bail, commonly called Cornplanter. I am your son! You are my father! You are now my prisoner, and subject to the customs of Indian warfare. But you shall not be harmed: you need not fear. I am a warrior! Many are the scalps I have taken! Many the prisoners I have tortured to death! I am your son! I was anxious to see you, and greet you in friendship. I went to your cabin, and took you by force. But your life shall be spared. Indians love their friends and their kindred, and treat them with kindness. If now you choose to follow the fortunes of your yellow son, and to live with our people, I will cherish your old age with plenty of venison, and you shall live easy. But if it is your choice to return to your fields, and live with your white children, I will send a party of my trusty young men to conduct you back in safety. I respect you, my father: you have been friendly to Indians, and they are your friends.”

The father preferred to return to his white children, and was therefore set at liberty, and escorted back in safety to his own home.

In another address to the governor of Pennsylvania, he used this language: “I will now tell you, that the Great Spirit has made known to me that I have been wicked; and the cause was the Revolutionary war in America. The cause of Indians having been led into sin, at that time, was that many of them, were in the practice of drinking and getting intoxicated. Great Britain requested us to join with them in the conflict against the Americans, and promised the Indians land and liquor. I myself was opposed to joining in the conflict, as I had nothing to do with the difficulty between the two parties.

“They told me they would inform me of the cause of the Revolution, which I requested them to do minutely. They then said it was on account of the heavy taxes, imposed on them by the British government, which had been for fifty years increasing upon them; that the Americans had grown weary thereof, and refused to pay, which affronted the king. There had likewise a difficulty taken place about some tea, which they wished me not to use, as it had been one of the causes that many people had lost their lives. And the British government now being affronted, the war commenced, and the cannons began to roar in our country.

“The white people who live at Warren, called on me, some time ago to pay taxes for my land; which I objected to, as I had never been called upon for that purpose before; and having refused to pay, the white people became irritated, called upon me frequently, and at length brought four guns with them, and seized our cattle. I still refused to pay, and was not willing to let the cattle go. After a time of dispute, they returned home, and I understood the militia was ordered out to enforce the collection of the tax. I went to Warren, and to avert the impending difficulty, was obliged to give my note for the tax, the amount of which was forty-three dollars and seventy-nine cents. It is my desire that the governor will exempt me from paying taxes for my land to the white people; and also cause that the money I am now obliged to pay, may be refunded to me, as I am very poor.”

This appeal was brought before the Legislature of Pennsylvania, and an act was passed by which the chief was exonerated from the tax.

One writer speaks of him as possessing uncommon genius, a strong and discriminating mind, and as having the power of enduring great mental application. He anxiously inquired into the evidences in support of the scripture account of creation, and of the scheme of doctrines which Christianity unfolded.

President Alden of Alleghany college, speaks with delight of a visit he made to the old chief. He found him on the banks of the Alleghany, on a piece of first rate bottom land, a little within the limits of Pennsylvania. He was the owner of thirteen hundred acres of land, on a part of which stood his village, whose inhabitants gave signs of industry and thrift.

He found it pleasant to behold the agricultural habits of the place as appeared from the numerous enclosures of buckwheat, corn and oats. He also speaks of seeing a number of oxen, cows and horses; and many logs designed for the saw mill, and the Pittsburgh market. “Cornplanter had for some time been very much in favor of the Christian religion, and hailed with joy such as professed it. When apprised of Mr. Alden’s arrival he hastened to welcome him to his village, and to wait upon him. And notwithstanding his high station as a chief, having many men under his command, he chose rather, in the ancient patriarchal style, to serve his visitors himself; he therefore took care of their horses, and went into the field and cut and brought oats for them 3 .”

He died at his reservation March 7th, 1836, a hundred winters having passed over him, and was buried beneath the sheltering branches of a noble tree standing in his field. No other monument marks his grave.Citations:

  1. Conversation of the author with Wm. Jones, a chief among the Seneca, and a son-in-law of Red Jacket.[]
  2. Governor Clinton’s Historical Discourse.[]
  3. Drake’s book of the Indians.[]

Hubbard, John Niles. n Account of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket, and His People, 1750-1830. Self Published. 1885.

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