Treaties

Over time, and through increasing pressure from an ever expanding and encroaching post-Revolutionary War United States, the Seneca signed a series of treaties with the federal and state governments, which were designed to ensure the Seneca exclusive ownership of territories - admittedly, significantly reduced tracts of land from their earlier vast holdings as the largest member nation of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Rather than being vanquished and subjugated by the United States, the Seneca negotiated treaties that would ostensibly enable them to conduct their lives without the imperious hand of a conquering American government - either state or federal.

Significant treaties between the Seneca Nation and federal and state governments, along with associated relevant activities, are:

1784 The Fort Stanwix Treaty, the very first treaty entered into between the Six Nations and the United States, is signed. It illustrates that the parties regarded each other as sovereigns who were both claiming a right to possess the same land. In this first treaty the parties agree to divide up lands and thereafter live in peace.
1787 The U.S. Constitution is adopted. Article VI Clause 2 calls treaties "the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby."
1789 A second Treaty, the Fort Harmar Treaty, is executed, which further defines boundaries and provided that "the said boundary line" shall "remain as a division line between the lands of the said Six Nations and the territory of the United States, forever."
1794 The Canandaigua Treaty of Peace is signed. This treaty between the United States and the Six Nations recites that it is made for the purpose of removing from the Six Nations' mind "all causes of complaint and establishing a firm and permanent friendship." The United States acknowledges the boundaries of the lands belonging to the members of the Six Nations.
1820 Governor Dewitt Clinton, Albany, Feb. 11, 1820 Meeting Minutes with Representatives of Seneca Nation:

"You have an absolute and uncontrolled right to those lands, to all that they contain, and to all that they can produce...

"This state will protect you in the full enjoyment of your property."

"We shall watch over your interests."

1838 Efforts to remove Senecas from their lands culminated in the Treaty of Buffalo Creek in 1838, by the terms of which the four remaining Seneca reservations'buffalo Creek, Tonawanda, Cattaraugus, and Allegiant¬∑ere sold and provisions were made for the Senecas to remove to Kansas. The corrupt proceedings were protested, however, and a new Treaty of Buffalo Creek was signed in 1842. The new agreement stipulated the sale of Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda, but retained Allegany and Cattaraugus. As a result of the Buffalo Creek treaties, some Senecas moved to Kansas. Most did not, however, and of those who did, all but two returned.
1842 The Buffalo Creek Compromise Treaty is signed. The Seneca Nation, the United States, the State of New York and Massachusetts were parties. The Treaty provisions' explicit language prohibits New York State from taxing Indian Reservation activities.
1857 New York State Legislature acknowledges that based on the treaties, the Seneca Reservation is beyond the reach of New York State for taxation for any purpose whatever. The tax exempt language was enacted as Ch. 45, Sec. 4 of the Laws of

"No Tax shall hereafter be assessed or imposed on either said reservations or on any part thereof, for any purpose whatever, so long as said reservations remain the property of the Seneca Nation; and all acts of the legislature of this State conflicting with the provisions of this section, are hereby repealed."

1861 In Fellows v. Denniston (23 NY 240), the New York Court of Appeals recognizes the Seneca Nation as a "distinct Community" separate from the "body politic" of New York and holds that general state laws do not extend to Indian reservations.
1866 The Uniqueness of the Seneca Treaties is conclusively established by the United States Supreme Court in 1866 in The New York Indians.

The United States Supreme Court has already examined the New York Indian treaties and has reached the same conclusion as Felix Cohen, Governor DeWitt Clinton, and the New York legislative documents - namely that the New York Treaties place the Seneca land beyond the reach of the State of New York.

1915 Document of the U.S. House Committee on Indian Affairs, Secretary of the Interior (Communication, Jan. 22, 1915).

 

"The situation respecting the Indian lands in New York is somewhat peculiar....Congress by treaty with these Indians has guaranteed them peaceful possession of the soil (treaty of Nov. 11, 1794, 7 Stats., 44), and the Supreme Court of the United States has denied the State the right to tax their lands. (The New York Indians, 5 Wall., 761)."

 

"The State, therefore, is powerless to compel an adjustment of the situation, has been denied the right to tax, and can take no steps to make these lands subject to taxation without the assent of the Federal Government, ..."

 

Included in the Report to the Committee was a quote from Ogden v. Lee (6 Hill 540, 546):

 

"... Their right  (the Indians') is as perfect now as it was when the first European landed on this continent,  with the single exception that they can not sell without the consent of the Government. The right of occupancy to them and their heirs forever remains wholly unimpaired. They are not tenants of the State, nor of its grantees. They hold under their own original title ..." (House Document 1590 [1915])."

1917 The Annotated Consolidated Laws, Board of Statutory Consolidation,

 

Vol. III, (1917), Article I, Indian Law, Ch. 26, Consolidated Laws:

"Status of the Indian nations or tribes is anomalous, they are not citizens of the state and their nations, although not treated as independent foreign nations, are not subject to the jurisdiction of the state to the same extent as citizens of the state or other states."

"Relation of Indians to state and federal governments.-As long as the United States recognizestheir national character, the Indians are wards of the nation, under the protection of treaties and the laws or Congress.  (See The Cherokee Nation v. The State of Georgia [1831], 5 Pet. 1,8 L. ed. 25; opinion of Justice Marshall in Worcester v. State of Georgia [1832], 6 Pet. 520; 8 L. ed. 483; The Kansas Indians [1866]), (12 other cases cited)."