During the American Revolution, the Seneca Nation’s lands covered practically the entire Niagara Frontier. But by 1819, their territory had dwindled to five tracts covering only about 130 square miles. All along, the Seneca clan chief Red Jacket opposed the sales, as well as what he saw as other encroachments on Indian self-determination.
In 1792 he and other Iroquois leaders negotiated a peace treaty in Philadelphia with the new American government, and received a medal from George Washington himself. In 1798 he voiced his vehement opposition to the Treaty of Big Tree, which confined the Senecas to reservations. In 1805 he argued to the U.S. Senate against the presence of Christian missionaries on Seneca lands (“We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you,” he said, employing some clever oratorical jiu-jitsu; “we only want to enjoy our own.”)
Refusing to speak English, Red Jacket made all his speeches in the Seneca language. They were translated into English and widely read in early 19th-century America, proving the aptness of his Seneca name, Sagoyewatha – He Keeps Them Awake.*
The Senecas fought briefly in the War of 1812 on the American side, but that did little to dissuade real estate speculators intent on acquiring their territory. In 1819, the Ogden Land Company obtained New York State’s approval to buy the Tonawanda and Buffalo Creek tracts and relocate the Senecas living there to the Allegany tract on the Pennsylvania border. David Ogden, a former Congressman who headed the land company, convened a council near Buffalo to present the offer.
Red Jacket’s reply, which took an hour to deliver, was scathing – especially his conclusion:
Dare you pretend to us that our Father the President, while he sees our blood running yet fresh from the wounds received while fighting his battles, has sent you with a message to persuade us to relinquish the poor remains of our once boundless possessions -- to sell the birthplace of our children, and the graves of our fathers? No! Sooner than believe that he gave you this message, we will believe that you have stolen your commission, and are a cheat and a liar.
You tell us of your claim to our land, and that you have purchased it from your State. We know nothing of your claim, and we care nothing for it. Even the whites have a law, by which they cannot sell what they do not own. How, then, has your State, which never owned our land, sold it to you? We have a title to it, and we know that our title is good; for it came direct from the Great Spirit, who gave it to us, his red children. When you can ascend to where He is and will get His deed, and show it to us, then, and never till then, will we acknowledge your title. You say that you came not to cheat us of our lands, but to buy them. Who told you that we have lands to sell? You never heard it from us.
Did I not tell you, the last time we met, that whilst Red Jacket lived you would get no more lands of the Indians? How, then, while you see him alive and strong, do you think to make him a liar?
Red Jacket’s rejection sent Ogden home empty handed. In 1826 Ogden tried again and succeeded, buying the Tonawanda, Buffalo Creek and Allegany Reservations for 53 cents an acre. But two years later, Red Jacket helped convince President John Quincy Adams to nullify the sale.
Red Jacket died in 1830, having kept his people’s Buffalo Creek lands intact, and was buried in the Seneca cemetery off Indian Church Road. “Be sure that my grave be not made by the white man,” he asked his supporters in his last days. “Let them not pursue me there!”
But eight years after his death, Buffalo Creek was sold to the Ogden Land Company in a deal approved by President Martin Van Buren. Soon the Senecas were gone, and South Buffalo, Lackawanna, West Seneca, Cheektowaga, Lancaster, Elma, and Marilla grew where the reservation had once been.
Red Jacket, spared seeing the dissolution of the Buffalo Creek lands, did not rest in peace. Despite his wishes, his remains were disinterred in the 1850s and reburied in 1884, with great ceremony, at Forest Lawn Cemetery. But the impassioned, eloquent words he spoke two centuries ago continue to resonate today. Sagoyewatha still keeps them awake.
* Red Jacket’s oratory is reproduced from original documents in “The Collected Speeches of Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket,” edited by Granville Ganter.
Cast (in order of appearance)
Red Jacket: Eric Gansworth
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)
Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)
Special thanks to:
Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein