On April 2, 2021, Erie County celebrated its bicentennial anniversary, kicking off a year of celebration. This significant milestone is an opportunity for the community to reflect on the history, stories, and legacies of the many men and women who came before us.
The entirety of Erie County was once the home to the Seneca Nation. As colonists and immigrants slowly came to the area, the land of the tribe slowly diminished. Located on the outskirts of Erie County sit the Seneca Nation Cattaraugus Territory and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation Territory. The historical Seneca occupied territory throughout the Finger Lakes area in Central New York, and in the Genesee Valley in Western New York, living in longhouses on the riversides. The villages were well fortified with wooden stake fences, just one of the many industrious undertakings.
The people relied heavily on agriculture for food, growing the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash, which were known as Deohako,(pronounced: Jo- hay- ko) “the life supporters.” In addition to raising crops, the early Seneca were also subsistence hunters and fishers.
The Senecas were also highly skilled at warfare, and were considered fierce adversaries. But the Seneca were also renowned for their sophisticated skills at diplomacy and oratory and their willingness to unite with the other original five nations to form the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations.
Today the Seneca Nation supports its own people and benefits surrounding communities with a variety of cultural, educational and economic efforts. Its varied enterprises include: world-class casino gaming, hospitality and entertainment, which employ over 3,500 people, as well as a convenience store chain (5 stores), construction management, and diverse holdings in business ventures.
Seneca culture and values remain strong and intact. Language, song, art, dance, and sports are all vital aspects of Seneca culture. Although the number of fluent Seneca language speakers is diminishing and the language is considered at-risk, there are language programs at the Seneca Nation in place to help protect, preserve and develop a new generation of Seneca language speakers to keep the Seneca language alive.
With a proud and rich history, the Seneca were the largest of six Native American nations which comprised the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, a democratic government that pre-dates the United States Constitution.
This territory was officially confirmed by the Big Tree Treaty of 1797. In exchange for $100,000 and 200,000 acres of land to be divided into 11 reservations, the Seneca Nation relinquished
ownership of the remainder of their territory to Robert Morris. Unlike other tribes, who lease their land from the U.S. government, the Seneca actually own their property.
Located along Cattaraugus Creek from Gowanda to Lake Erie, the territory encompasses 22,061 acres in Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Erie counties. It is primarily residential, however there are a number of private and Seneca Nation enterprises as well as governmental administrative buildings, health services and many other community-based programs and services.
Several communities can be found in the territory, including Newtown, Bucktown, Pinewoods,
Eleven Acres, Ozarks, Bush Road, Irving and Indian Hill. Newtown was established by those forced to leave the Buffalo Creek Territory. Named for the gas that bubbles from the rocks below Burning Springs Falls, Burning Springs Indian Fort covers approximately one acre near the mouth of Big Indian Creek.
Long documented as “the Old French Fort” because many thought Native people could not build such a fort, archaeological evidence has revealed only Native artifacts at the site.
The Thomas Indian School, officially named the Thomas Asylum of Orphan and Destitute Indian
Children, was established in 1855 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Closed in 1957, it is now the site of the Seneca Nation of Indians governmental and health complexes, including elder housing and services. The SNI Court Building is the former school infirmary. A few other buildings remain, however the memory of the school in the community is generally not a good one due to students’ mistreatment and forced assimilation. It was part of a broad effort under federal policies in the United States and Canada to “kill the Indian, save the man” through
Several prominent Native athletes hail from the territory. Hawley Bemus attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School where he would play football under a new coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner. He also excelled at the pole vault and discus in track and field and then played professional football for various athletic clubs. Hawley is given credit for having a hand in the creation of the forward pass. Western New York has a long railroad history and Hawley is also considered
to be the first Native American railroad engineer in the U.S. Another notable athlete was Lewis
“Deerfoot” Bennett, a long-distance runner who set a record in London when he ran 10 miles in 52 minutes.
Ecology plays an important role in the territory today. Natural gas can be found in abundance.
Cattaraugus Creek is renowned for its steelhead trout fishing. Many nesting eagles are making a strong recovery after being polluted by an upstream glue factory in the early 1900s.
In addition, you can visit the Onöhsagwë:de’ Cultural Center, located in Salamanca. Learn about the history of the Senecas through their exhibitions, from their traditionally crafted items in “They Make to The Creation Story in When It Began.” You can also learn about their antler carvings or ornate beadwork in their collections. You can also view their entire collection at their website.
Situated 30 miles east of Buffalo, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation is the Keeper of the Western Door of the Haudenosaunee. Despite losing all lands in the Buffalo Creek treaties of 1818 and 1842, the Tonawanda Senecas were able to fight the illegal land cessions that had taken place between the United States and illegal Seneca representatives. Ultimately, the US-Tonawanda Seneca Treaty of 1857 allowed for the repurchase of 7,549 acres that constitute the territory today, although being only a fraction of a once more significant land base. This was indicative of the strong determination to remain within traditional homelands and to avoid removal to lands in Kansas. Because of this effort, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation was afforded the right to perpetuate its traditional political, social and cultural ways of life.
The Tonawanda Seneca Nation, Council of Chiefs represents the Seneca (onondowaga, People of the Great Hill) in Grand Council at Onondaga and constitutes the sole governmental system at Tonawanda. There are eight clans within Tonawanda society: Snipe, Heron, Hawk, Deer, Turtle, Wolf, Beaver and Bear. The ceremonial cycle is still adhered to and performed at the longhouse within the territory.
Despite being a small community, there is much emphasis on maintaining and preserving traditional Haudenosaunee teachings and ways of living. The programs that exist within the community evidence this. Honotao:ni’ Heno:deya:sdahgwa’, “They are making the path” is a school for elementary-age children that focuses on Seneca language and traditional teachings. Ongweo:weka’ Weno:jada:ge’ has assisted the elders within the community with their everyday needs.
Seneca Language Immersion is a language program for adults, whose main focus is revitalizing Seneca language in everyday life conversation. Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force assists environmental issues that threaten our community and neighboring territories. The Nation funds all programs previously mentioned, as well as many additional programs. The Tonawanda Seneca Nation is both politically and economically independent and sovereign. The Nation has those rights exercised to their full extent. The Tonawanda Braves lacrosse program fields both minors and men’s Senior B teams. They compete against other Haudenosaunee communities each summer.
Famous members include Ely S. Parker who was Wolf Clan chief and secretary to Ulysses S. Grant. He wrote the final draft of the Confederate surrender terms at Appomattox. Parker was also the first Native appointed to be Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Jesse Complanter served as the territory’s chief, was a World War I veteran and also a Purple Heart recipient. He was a
renowned artist and singer, Cornplanter was the lead actor in the 1913 film, Hiawatha.
The Tonawanda Reservation Historical Society was established in 1998 for the purpose of preserving and disseminating the history of the Tonawanda Seneca Indian Reservation for their people, for the generations yet unborn, and for the education of non-Indians about their culture.To achieve this purpose, the Historical Society’s goals are:
- To collect and preserve materials pertaining to the history of the Tonawanda Reservation and their people, to record and document historically valuable information
- To make such materials available to researchers, the public, and especially to Tonawanda Reservation residents and their descendants
- To sponsor exhibits, publications, and other methods to inform and educate people about the history of the Tonawanda Reservation.
To view the collection be sure to check out their website.
WNY Heritage Magazine has for the 2021-2022 Erie County Bicentennial published an 80-page legacy publication that highlights events, people, and places across Erie County’s history. This includes profiles of towns, cities, and Native territories, and never before published images. WNY Heritage has the goal of fostering a pride of place through the knowledge and appreciation of the art, architecture and history of Western New York. When you purchase a 2 year subscription to WNY Heritage Magazine (a bargain at $60),you will receive “Erie County, 1821-2021: A Bicentennial Profile,” this Erie County Bicentennial Commemorative publication. You can also pick up a copy at their website for $10, at Talking Leaves, the History Museum Shop, and other select retail locations.