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Our Undying Past

"Airey purchases" of Indian land

Lust for land can turn a people ugly, as the American Indians learned the hard way in their dealings with settlers. During the 1790 peace council at Teaoga in Pennsylvania – the fateful U.S.-Seneca summit depicted in my new historical novel Visions of Teaoga – President Washington’s negotiator, Timothy Pickering, acknowledges as much.

“Brothers, in times past, some white men have deceived the Indians, falsely pretending they had authority to lease or purchase their lands,” Pickering declares. “And sometimes they have seized on more land than the Indians meant to sell them; again falsely pretending that those lands were comprehended within the purchase. Such fraudulent practices have made our brothers angry, and sometimes occasioned hostilities, war and bloodshed. Yet Indians will always be exposed to such deception and imposition while they continue to sign and seal papers which they cannot read.

“Now, Brothers,” Pickering continued – and these are his actual recorded words -- “to prevent these great evils in the future, the Congress declared that no sale of lands made by any Indians, to any person or persons, or even to any state, shall be valid unless the same be made at some public treaty held under the authority of the United States. For at such public treaty, wise and good men will be appointed by the President to attend to prevent all deception and fraud. These wise and good men will examine every deed before it is signed and sealed, and see that every lease or purchase of the Indians be openly and fairly made.”

What was all this about? Well, it was complicated.

During the 1780s, in the wake of the Revolutionary War, there had been mounting hunger for land in western New York, just north of Teaoga, particularly among New England residents looking to migrate out of their crowded region. The Indian nations had been fully dispossessed from Pennsylvania in the so-called Final Purchase of 1784, but land rights were still being sorted out in New York state, where the Iroquois Confederacy held much land and remained a mighty force.

It must be said that large swaths became available through the confiscation of property belonging to the British Crown or to Tory landowners. But that was far less than the land that remained in Iroquois hands west of the old 1763 Proclamation Line.

The new U.S. government had given itself exclusive rights to handle Indian affairs, including land treaties. But first it had to sort out an old competing claim by both Massachusetts and New York for the stretch of western New York known as “Genesee Country.” Massachusetts finally surrendered her claim in 1786, opening 6 million acres of land to possible purchase from the Iroquois tribes. Massachusetts retained some purchase rights, but then sold them to an investor syndicate, which set out to persuade the Indians to surrender their title to the land. The pressure on the Iroquois mounted from many directions.

To bone up on some basics in preparations for my author appearances, I’ve been re-reading one of the best books in my research library, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, by UCLA law professor Stuart Banner. He unpacks this troubled history decade by decade, region by region, group by group. Professor Banner’s account of the land rush in Genesee Country is intense. He quotes from the journal of an English gentleman, William Strickland, who visited the area in the 1790s and noted that “land speculations are carried on to a degree of madness.” A few New York speculators told Strickland how it worked: much of the land still belonged to the Indians, meaning what the speculators were buying and selling “was not land, or even the right to buy land from the Indians,” Banner writes, “but rather the prospect of being the owner once the government bought the land from the Indians.” They were angling to obtain the so-called preemption rights to specific parcels of property that the government would grant once it had secured the land—“airey purchases,” in Strickland’s words. In their land lust, these speculators hoped for “a fortunate war, or invasion of the smallpox” or other devastation that would serve to “extirpate the much injured owners of the soil,” Strickland lamented. The destruction of the natives, he said, “is persued [sic] with remorseless perseverance and their annihilation spoken of with atrocious pleasure.” Short of annihilation, there were documented instances of speculators using bribery, coercion, fraud, manipulation and demon rum to produce many sales that were illegal under federal law. Timothy Pickering’s highest hopes notwithstanding, these rampant misdeeds served to relieve the Iroquois of most of their land.

Over the course of the 1700s, the general recognition of Indian land rights and the policy of controlled property transfers was giving way to the ideology of white Christianity’s Manifest Destiny to rule the land. That, coupled with the hardened race hatred that is captured in Visions of Teaoga, fueled the “remorseless perseverance” of the land-grabbers that Strickland observed. As author Banner notes, “The market in preemption rights had the perverse effect of bringing speculators’ financial incentives into alignment with their racism.”
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