Diane Rothenberg: 'On the Insanity of Cornplanter' (part one)

One of the recognized problems in research, any kind of research, is the repetition of a single original finding or opinion by other, later researchers as if those others had arrived at the finding or opinion independently.  This, then, may result in an extensive bibliography of secondary sources for a position that, in fact, has only a single source.  Obviously there is no problem with building on the work of others, but there isa problem if the original source was flawed.

In 1986 I gave a paper at the Anthropological Association Meetings in Philadelphia entitled “On the Insanity of Cornplanter.”  My work during the previous ten years had been concerned with various aspects of the Seneca Indian/Quaker missionary relationship  during the early reservation period (1798-1824), but Chief Cornplanter had been a tangential figure for me largely because he lived on his own land downriver from the reservation.  Still I was aware that Cornplanter was  accepted by various scholars to have had a “psychotic episode” in some accounts and a “depression” in others in the year 1820, and that, of course, was based on missionary accounts. Because I had frequently called into question the judgments and conclusions of the missionaries, I decided to look back at the evidence presented on the mental state of a dynamic and pragmatic individual who was in his mid-eighties in 1820.  He lived until 1836, active until the end and was described in 1830 by a white reporter as “a smart, active man, seemingly possessed of all his strength of mind and perfect health.” 

So, how to explain the “psychosis?” 

I believe his behavior can alternatively be read  as that of a man in control of himself, responding in a strategic and culturally appropriate way to a difficult socio-political situation. Further, I would suggest that a judgment that he was crazy, while enlivening history in a literary manner, is the least interesting conclusion that can be drawn from the material and a closure of the possibility of comprehending the historical situation while ignoring the biases of the primary sources. 

Cornplanter, a chief by virtue of achievement and not by traditional ascription, was born sometime between 1732 and 1740 at Conewaugus on the Genessee River in New York.  His father was a white man (John O’Bail or Abeel) from an Albany family with whom Cornplanter had only incidental and anecdotal contact.  His Seneca affilitation through his mother was apparently total, as was appropriate in this matrilineal society, and his mixed-blood status is never noted as informing his own behavior or that of others to him.  Handsome Lake, the Seneca visionary and prophet, was his half-brother and, in 1799 when the Quaker missionaries first arrived through Cornplanter’s invitation to the settlement on the Allegheny River, the two brothers and their families were sharing a single residence on Cornplanter’s private land.  That Cornplanter had private land granted by Pennsylvania  on which he and his heirs continued to reside is a testimony of Pennsylvania’s gratitude to him.  His reputation for cooperating with whites was additionally built on his role in the signing of two treaties, both opposed by the famous chief Red Jacket, the great Seneca orator.  The first of those treaties, in 1784, fixed the western boundary of Iroquois lands, and the second in 1794, relinquished Ohio lands.  The dichotomized strategies of Cornplanter and Red Jacket were further reflected in their response to Indian involvement with agencies of white power.  Cornplanter frequently sought accommodation to enhance the position of the Seneca and Red Jacket urged separation.  It seems likely that the tension between the two men was personal as well as political and that Cornplanter was responding to this personal competition with Red Jacket in some of his statements in 1820.  Certainly the attitudes he expressed at that time were more congruent with the consistent position that Red Jacket had expressed.  It should be remembered, however, that they were leaders living at some considerable distance from one another and influencing separated populations, hence not necessarily competitive for the same followers except in a larger political sphere.

Reservation lines were established at the turn of the 19th century and the Seneca populations settled onto various segments of land for which the Holland Land Company held the preemption rights, i.e. the exclusive rights to purchase Indian land.  These rights were sold in 1809 to the Ogden Land Company, and no profit from this investment could be made unless the Seneca could be induced to vacate the land.  From 1809 the pressure to sell was intense and Cornplanter is referred to as saying “some of the young warriors had said they would kill any chief who should sell any more of their lands, and for his part he thought it would be right.”  Every means which the politically influential investors could use to bring pressure on the Indians to sell was used.  They manipulated federal and state political opinion to remove the Indians to western lands in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Kansas; they bribed individual Indians and advisors of Indians; and they offered a series of alternative plans by which they would acquire the more valuable lands in the northern part of the state, particularly Buffalo and Rochester, by removing all the Senecas to the comparatively worthless land of the Allegany reservation which was Cornplanter’s center of influence.  My own analysis leads me to believe that the Ogden Company was working on “insider information” about the impending building of the Erie Canal and their strategies were tied to that project.  By 1819 the pressure toward the Allegany relocation of the total Seneca population was intense.

The Quaker missionaries whom Cornplanter had invited to Allegany as trusted intermediaries consistently supported the Senecas in the goal of preserving their lands, but their judgment was that the best way to do this was to divide the land into private allotments rather than to continue to hold it collectively.  The Quakers had originally anticipated that a desire to hold land “in fee simple,” i.e. as private property, would evolve naturally out of their proposed restructuring of the Seneca community into that of male agriculturalists, but, when this program bogged down, they attempted to approach their goal from another angle, that is, directly from that of land divisions.

The on-site Quaker senior representative, Jacob Taylor, was an assertive man and often Cornplanter’s adversary.  In 1815 Cornplanter invited the Presbyterians to found a mission on his land because, Taylor writes, “he said friends had forsaken him and that one of us [Jacob Taylor] had said he formerly was like a bright star and gave light to his people, but that he is now a dark lamp or like a rattlesnake that poisons them.  However just the simile, it gave great offense for he alleges that such a sentiment coming from a Quaker causes the Indians to think light of his judgment and they sometimes decline to follow his counsel and that he wanted somebody that would not forsake him.”  Similes like “bright stars and dark lamps” would be expressed several years later by the Presbyterian, Timothy Alden, but his causal analysis was psychological derangement evidenced by Cornplanter’s rejection of Christianity, and it  is Alden who is the primary source on which the secondary sources rely.  In 1818, Jacob Taylor arranged, presumably on his own authority,  to have the reservation at Allegany surveyed in order to facilitate allotments, but the surveyors were met by a delegation headed by Cornplanter who ordered them off.  There were strong factional divisions at Allegany over this issue and Cornplanter was regarded as a strong and rational leader of one of these factions along with his younger relative Blacksnake. The unresolved pressures over land divisions and removal continued to mount and were not quieted for about another 25 years.

By 1818 the socio-political environment was strewn with missionary presence and with conflicting opinions about appropriate strategies for the salvation of the Indians both here and in the hereafter.  All the missionaries of whatever persuasion were firmly in agreement with prevailing United States governmental sentiment that the Indians must be civilized and assimilated, but, by around this time, it has been suggested that the Jeffersonian enlightenment view of the noble savage being led on the path to civilization by instruction was being perceived as a failure and alternatives of coercion and separation through removal were gaining ground. 

Whatever effects this change of sentiment was having on the Seneca, in 1818 there was a revival of nativistic expression  and interest in the teachings of Handsome Lake and a large council was held at Tonawanda to renew the teachings.  Timothy Alden related that, at this council, a man arose in the ordinary course of things, who said that he had a dream to tell in which the sun spoke to him and told him to instruct the Indians to repent their wicked ways or disasters would follow. Alden remarks that “he did not however assume the character of a prophet.  He simply related his singular dream; yet he appeared to feel as if it should be regarded like a communication from the Great Spirit.”  Alden, himself, had no great trouble with verbalizations suggesting spiritual communications as positive events, except when the communications gave instructions contrary to his own opinions.  When he visited Cornplanter in 1817 he quotes Cornplanter as saying, “I have long been convinced that we are wrong and that you are right.  I have often told my people that we must be wrong and that you must be right because you have the words of the Great Spirit written in a book.”  Alden goes on to say that Cornplanter had said that, if it would do any good, he would personally intervene with Red Jacket in favor of Christianity.  At this Alden remarks with praise: “Must he not have been blessed with some special communications from the Holy Spirit?”

This, then, is the socio-political climate in which Cornplanter’s behavior around 1819-1820 must be analyzed for its rationality, and the analysis must not rest on the opinions of invested white men, but on the cultural congruence and appropriateness of Cornplanter’s own behavior.  We cannot know the state of his mind; we can only analyze the fragmentary bits of information we have about what he did and said and decide whether these are sufficiently bizarre in the historical and cultural context to be judged psychotically inappropriate.

  And, of course, there is the continual problem that the behavior is being selected for reportage by white men who may have been predisposed to consider Indian behavior in general as bizarre or, at least, perverse.  Considering Cornplanter’s age, it is perhaps astonishing that there was so much public behavior and encounters with white men as were reported.  He continued until his death in 1836, certainly past 100 years old, to have occasional public meetings and the white reporters were invariably impressed with his dignity and demeanor.  In 1821-22, when the state of Pennsylvania decided to tax his land, he successfully resisted this taxation and delivered a speech at the courthouse in Warren which were in essence another version of his “visions” [those that Alden viewed as deranged and that will be discussed below] but which were here judged not only legally persuading, but appropriate, effective and characteristic of Indian discourse.

  (To be continued,)

[NOTE: A professional anthropolgist & an active player in the emerging discourse around an ethnopoetics, Diane Rothenberg is the co-editor of Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (University of California Press, 1983) & the author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis (University Microfilms International, 1976).

Copies of her book, Mothers of the Nation, are still available through Ta’wil Books, joris@albany.edu.  Two essays from the same collection, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread" & “The Economic Memories of Harry Watt, were posted earlier in Poems and Poetics, blogger version (December 5, 2008, March 12. 2009, March 24, 2009, & April 8, 2009).  “On the Insanity of Cornplanter,” a historical account that touches also on the poetics & problematics of vision in traditional Indian cultures, has only recently been reassembled.]