Land rights history in New York is complex

‘A History Of Native American Land Rights In Upstate New York’ by Cindy Amrhein

A newly-published book entitled, “A History of Native American Land Rights in Upstate New York,” by Cindy Amrhein, addresses age-old issues about claims made by modern Native American groups to their ancestral lands. The treatment of Indian (and the author surprised me with her comment in the introduction that most of these tribes do prefer to be called “Indians”) rights is certainly not a proud part of our nation’s history.

This book brings the issue closer to home. The first section addresses concerns of the St. Regis Indians; the other two sections concern Western New York.

First, let me make clear that this volume doesn’t make for easy bedtime reading. The material is densely laden, and I had to work a bit to keep everything straight in my mind. Second, I’ve learned that delineation of old land claims is not for the faint of heart. Now I understand better why I periodically read about highly contested claims even today in the Adirondack region.

Though I always assumed government officials were uniformly unfair in their dealings with native peoples, I was gratified to learn that a few, like George Washington and John Quincy Adams, worked to create policies protecting Indian interests. One sensible decision was Washington’s insistence that federal officials always be present in negotiations between a sovereign tribe and a state or private entity seeking to purchase its land.

If you begin to feel confused about the status of some land, let me add this to your uncertainty. Early in our colonial history, New York and Massachusetts both lay claim to what we think of today as Western New York. A compromise gave New York governing rights while Massachusetts retained pre-emptive rights. That meant Massachusetts was free to sell the land (which wasn’t theirs anyhow!), but once sold, owners became subject to the laws of New York.

Naturally, many politicians and land speculators found ways around every obstacle. One disturbing assertion is the general disposition to ignore the usual processes of registering deeds. Notably in the situation of the St. Regis Indians, only a single 144-acre tract was appropriately filed. But that’s enough to show knowledge that such formalities were understood -?and by both sides. And, the author frequently reminds, a treaty is not a deed. Agreements like the Big Tree Treaty of 1797 or the Removal Treaty of 1838 are in themselves not sufficient to fulfill a land transfer.

Later the author introduces assertions of signatures being added to agreements after the fact, arrangements for so-called Indian representatives who were anything but concerned about a tribe’s rights, situations in which natives were misled as to the nature of a document, and plenty of evidence that bribery was employed to get things done. However, I’m nonetheless left uncertain if the author herself is fully impartial on all her analyses.

Still, it’s difficult to reach any conclusion but that Native Americans were treated less than fairly. Once white settlers began squatting in a given region, the stipulations of prior treaties were conveniently forgotten. I hadn’t realized that a specific land tract in Kansas had been designated for New York Indians, meaning those cajoled, persuaded or worse into leaving behind their traditional lands in the Empire State. Even those purportedly low- value plots, though, were encroached upon. Nothing, it seems, was to get in the way of Manifest Destiny.

One person pops up surprisingly frequently when I’m researching 19th century New York state, and that’s Eleazar Williams. He played a role in the War of 1812 as a spy for American forces. Later he surfaced with claims of being the so-called “Lost Dauphin,” son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. And here he is in this book, first working to persuade members of the Oneida tribe into moving to Wisconsin, and later negotiating self-serving deals to obtain his own property. This man merits a definitive biography.

Reading the book has given me a better appreciation of the complexity of the matter. It will also leave me uneasy the next time I need a title search for my own purposes.