A land acknowledgement creates a more accurate picture of the history of the lands and waterways we call home and pays respect to the Indigenous People who have stewarded them from time immemorial. In 2020, Geva is beginning the practice of offering this statement as part of our anti-racist values and to help us all unlearn and re-learn the history that has brought us here to the land we now call the United States. With this understanding, we can envision a new path forward, led by the principles of equity and justice.

Usually, a land acknowledgement is a short statement and it often doesn’t include a very complete history of that land. So today I want to explore that here – with the knowledge that I am not an expert in this historical field, so I welcome clarification on this information.

Any history of land in this country begins with understanding who was here first. What we now call Rochester is the ancestral home of the O-non-dowa-gah, (pronounced: Oh-n’own-dough-wahgah) or “the people of the Great Hill.” In English, they are known as Seneca people, “the keeper of the western door.” Together, with the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Tuscarora, the Seneca make up the sovereign Haudenosaunee (ho-dee-no-SHO-nee) Confederacy. We pay respect and give thanks to their elders past and present. 

When we examine the arrival of colonizers to this continent, we must acknowledge the genocide, betrayal and theft which occurred as a result. Even a cursory reading of history clearly depicts that, leading up to the American Revolution, colonists disregarded treaties between the Indigenous people and Great Britain. In our region, the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) set a boundary line between Haudenosaunee land and British land (the treaty ceded land along the Ohio River in what is now Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia to the British). The Six Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora) hoped that this would protect their land in what is now New York. But the treaty was not upheld by early settlers, so the land of the Six Nations was taken from them by American settlers. 

And while the Seneca initially tried to remain neutral in the American Revolution, George Washington’s 1779 Clinton-Sullivan campaign destroyed 40 neutral Seneca towns and surrounding fields, and made the Seneca refugees of the British, at Fort Niagara. And so the Seneca eventually fought with the British against American independence. After the Revolution, Great Britain was forced to give up its claim on the thirteen colonies, and many former colonists claimed that the Seneca had also ceded their land in New York. However, the land was never ceded by the Seneca. 

Fast forward a few years to 1788, when Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham bought from Massachusetts all of the land in Western New York – the land had been “granted” to both the Massachusetts and New York colonies in conflicting charters from English kings. In order to do anything with the land, however, Phelps and Gorham had to actually purchase the rights from the Seneca – an act that is referred to as “extinguishing Native American titles to the land.” 

After much negotiation, the Seneca sold the rights to 2,600,00 acres of land east of the Genesee River in what historians call the Phelps-Gorham purchase[1]. The purchase also included 200,000 acres west of the Genesee River, which Phelps negotiated into the agreement for the purpose of building a mill which the Seneca would be allowed to use – a 100-acre tract of this portion of the land was deeded to Ebenezer “Indian” Allen. History books might cover some portion of this negotiation, but they are often told from the White man’s point of view. 

Map of the “Phelps-Gorham purchase”

But we don’t have to rely on published history books from a White perspective. We have documentation from a primary source. In 1790, three Seneca Chiefs – Cornplanter, Halftown and The Great Tree – addressed George Washington, and told him their side of the story. According to the report preserved in Washington’s papers, they told Washington that Oliver Phelps claimed that their land had already been ceded by the King, and threatened them with war. When they consulted a trader they trusted (named Street), they were again advised to give up the land. So they reluctantly agreed to a sale, because they felt they had no other options. Here’s how the explained the deal they were offered:

“For this land Phelps agreed to pay us Ten thousand dollars in hand and one thousand dollars a year for ever. He paid us two thousand and five hundred dollars in hand part of the Ten thousand, and he sent for us last Spring to come and receive our money; but instead of paying us the remainder of the Ten thousand dollars, and the one thousand dollars due for the first year, he offered us no more than five hundred dollars, and insisted he had agreed with us for that sum only to be paid yearly. We debated with him six days during all which time he persisted in refusing to pay us our just demand; and he insisted that we should receive the five hundred dollars, and Street from Niagara, also insisted on our receiving the money as it was offered to us. The last reason he assigned for continuing to refuse to pay us was, that the King had ceded the lands to the thirteen fires[2] and that he had bought them from you and paid you for them.[3]

In addition to refusing to pay the Seneca what he had agreed to, Phelps defaulted on the second and third payments to Massachusetts. As a result of that default, the land he’d purchased changed hands a number of times until it was owned by the Pulteney Association (a British company), who also eventually bought the 100-acre tract back from Ebenezer Allan, and that land was later sold to Nathaniel Rochester.

So, while the land that began the city of Rochester was technically purchased from the Seneca, the details of the deal were clearly underhanded, and the agreement was not even upheld. Additionally, the Seneca later discovered that Phelps had promised their “great friend” Street a large tract of land for his assistance. “No doubt he meant to deceive us,” they concluded.[4] Washington’s reply to this part of their claim was what we’d call gaslighting today. Washington claimed that that “it does not appear from any proofs yet in possession of government, that Oliver Phelps has defrauded you”[5] and so, in effect, it hadn’t happened.

All of these events led to the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which intended to create a “lasting peace and friendship” between the Six Nations and the United States. The treaty claims that it “recognizes the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee and the United States and establishes in writing that the aboriginal lands belonging to the Haudenosaunee are theirs.”[6] And the treaty restored to the Six Nations their land south of Lake Ontario to outside of Erie, Pennsylvania – but the land sold to Oliver Phelps remained lost to them, regardless of his failure to uphold the purchase agreement.

In his forward to Treaty of Canandaigua 1794, historian Peter Jemison (Seneca, Heron Clan) reminds us that “treaties are solemn agreements between nations: they truly test the integrity of those who sign such agreements. Native Americans have not fared well when the United States government has been relied upon to uphold its word.”[7] And this treaty, while still in effect between the two nations, has been continually infringed upon.

In a commemoration of the treaty in 1994, Haudenosaunee lawyer and historian Paul Williams spoke about the way the U.S. disrespects these treaties, saying “Most people in this country today, their parents, or their grandparents, came to this continent from another land. This tells us that something, to them, to those who left, was stronger than their attachment to their land. To people who can leave their own land, it becomes easy to leave another land afterward. It becomes part of their heritage. It becomes easy for them to accept the idea that land is a commodity that can be bought and sold, that land can be used and exhausted, and left for other lands, other greener pastures. It gives rise to the way of thinking that says treaties can be abrogated, and what comes instead is a right to compensation. But money is not land. Money doesn’t replace land. There is no replacement for land. We now see that this way of thinking, that land and money are the same thing, is dangerous to all human life, as well as all other life, because it ignores our responsibility to the land, and therefore to future generations of humans and all parts of the natural world.”[8]

References and Resources to Consider

Ganondagan State Historic Site – the original site of a 17th century Seneca town, that existed there peacefully more than 350 years ago, and the only New York State Historic Site dedicated to a Native American theme.

Fadel, L. (2019, October 14). Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

Jemison, G. P., & Schein, A. M. (2000). Treaty of Canandaigua 1794: 200 Years of Treaty Relations between the Iroquois confederacy and the United States. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.

McKelvey, B. (1939, January). Historic Aspects of the Phelps and Gorham Treaty of July 4-8, 1788. Rochester History.

Silverman, D. J. (2019). This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Williams, P. (2000). Treaty Making: The Legal Record. In G. P. Jemison, The Treaty of Canandaigua 1794 (pp. 35-42). Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.


[1] Hyperlink is to a Rochester History article on the subject from 1939 – the language is clearly dated, but the article is the best I’ve found so far at describing the complexity of this land purchase.

[2] The thirteen original colonies

[3] (Jemison & Schein, 2000) 238

[4] (Jemison & Schein, 2000) 238

[5] (Jemison & Schein, 2000) 241

[6] (Jemison & Schein, 2000) p2

[7] From Peter Jemison’s forward to Treaty of Canandaigua (Jemison & Schein, 2000)

[8] (Williams, 2000) p41

5 thoughts on “Whose Land Are We On?

  1. Not only are land acknowledgements morally appropriate, they are a tremendous tool for learning…

  2. Thank you for your important work on this, Jenni. It’s been a long time coming, but I do see the start of a reassessment of land history. Has the city or county made a formal land acknowledgment of which you are aware?

    1. Hi Jeff! You know, I’m not sure about that. I found this article from 2018, in response to the city declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day – https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/opinion/guest-column/2018/10/05/essay-indigenous-people-day-proclamation-rochester/1509421002/. But I don’t see a formal land acknowledgment from either the city or the county. At least not yet. Many of the other cultural and educational organizations in our area have formal land acknowledgements as well, and I’m sure that this will continue as we all work to learn a more accurate history.

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