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Special Message

January 13, 1840

To the Senate of the United States.

I again submit to you the amended treaty of June 11, 1838, with the New York Indians. It is accompanied by minutes of the proceedings of a council held with them at Cattaraugus on the 13th and 14th days of August, 1839, at which were present on the part of the United States the Secretary of War and on the part of the State of Massachusetts General H. A. S. Dearborn, its commissioner; by various documentary testimony, and by a memorial presented in behalf of the several committees on Indian concerns appointed by the four yearly meetings of Friends of Genesee, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In the latter document the memorialists not only insist upon the irregularity and illegality of the negotiation, but urge a variety of considerations which appear to them to be very conclusive against the policy of the removal itself. The motives by which they have been induced to take so deep an interest in the subject are frankly set forth, and are doubtless of the most beneficent character. They have, however, failed to remove my decided conviction that the proposed removal, if it can be accomplished by proper means, will be alike beneficial to the Indians, to the State in which the land is situated, and to the more general interest of the United States upon the subject of Indian affairs.

The removal of the New York Indians is not only important to the tribes themselves, but to an interesting portion of western New York, and especially to the growing city of Buffalo, which is surrounded by lands occupied by the Senecas. To the Indians themselves it presents the only prospect of preservation. Surrounded as they are by all the influences which work their destruction, by temptation they can not resist and artifices they can not counteract, they are rapidly declining, and, notwithstanding the philanthropic efforts of the Society of Friends, it is believed that where they are they must soon become extinct; and to this portion of our country the extraordinary spectacle is presented of densely populated and highly improved settlements inhabited by industrious. moral, and respectable citizens, divided by a wilderness on one side of which is a city of more than 20,000 souls, whose advantageous position in every other respect and great commercial prospects would insure its rapid increase in population and wealth if not retarded by the circumstance of a naturally fertile district remaining a barren waste in its immediate vicinity. Neither does it appear just to those who are entitled to the fee simple of the land, and who have paid a part of the purchase money, that they should suffer from the waste which is constantly committed upon their reversionary rights and the great deterioration of the land consequent upon such depredations without any corresponding advantage to the Indian occupants.

The treaty, too, is recommended by the liberality of its provisions. The cession contained in the first article embraces the right, title, and interest secured to "the Six Nations of the New York Indians and St. Regis tribe" in lands at Green Bay by the Menomonee treaty of 8th February, 1831, the supplement thereto of 17th of same month, and the conditions upon which they were ratified by the Senate, except a tract on which a part of the New York Indians now reside. The Menomonee treaty assigned them 500,000 acres, coupled with the original condition that they should remove to them within three years after the date of the treaty, modified by the supplement so as to empower the President to prescribe the term within which they should remove to the Green Bay lands, and that if they neglected to do so within the period limited so much of the land as should be unoccupied by them at the termination thereof should revert to the United States. To these lands the New York Indians claimed title, which was resisted, and, for quieting the controversy, by the treaty of 1831 the United States paid a large consideration; and it will be seen that by using the power given in the treaty the Executive might put an end to the Indian claim. Instead of this harsher measure, for a grant of all their interest in Wisconsin, which, deducting the land in the actual occupancy of New York Indians, amounts to about 435,000 acres, the treaty as amended by the Senate gives 1,824,000 acres of lands in the West and the sum of $400,000 for their removal and subsistence, for education and agricultural purposes, the erection of mills and the necessary houses, and the promotion of the mechanic arts. Besides, there are special money provisions for the Cayugas, the Onondagas, the Oneidas of New York, the Tuscaroras, and St. Regis Indians, and an engagement to receive from Ogden and Fellows for the Senecas $202,000; to invest $100,000 of this sum in safe stocks and to distribute $102,000 among the owners of improvements in New York according to an appraisement; to sell for the Tuscaroras 5,000 acres of land they hold in Niagara County, N.Y., and to invest the proceeds, exclusive of what may be received for improvements, "the income from which shall be paid to the nation at their new homes annually, and the money which shall be received for improvements on said lands shall be paid to the owners of the improvements when the lands are sold." These are the substantial parts of the treaty, and are so careful of Indian advantage that one might suppose they would be satisfactory to those most anxious for their welfare. The right they cede could be extinguished by a course that treaty provisions justify and authorize. So long as they persevere in their determination to remain in New York it is of no service to them, and for this naked right it is seen what the United States propose to give them besides the sum of $202,000, which will be due from the purchasers of their occupant right to the Senecas, and $9,600 to the Tuscaroras for their title to 1,920 acres of land in Ontario County, N.Y., exclusive of the 5,000 acres above mentioned.

But whilst such are my views in respect to the measure itself, and while I shall feel it to be my duty to labor for its accomplishment by the proper use of all the means that are or shall be placed at my disposal by Congress, I am at the same time equally desirous to avoid the use of any which are inconsistent with those principles of benevolence and justice which I on a former occasion endeavored to show have in the main characterized the dealings of the Federal Government with the Indian tribes from the Administration of President Washington to the present time. The obstacles to the execution of the treaty grow out of the following considerations: The amended treaty was returned to me by your body at the close of its last session, accompanied by a resolution setting forth that "whenever the President of the United States shall be satisfied that the assent of the Seneca tribe of Indians has been given to the amended treaty of June 11, 1838, with the New York Indians, according to the true intent and meaning of the resolution of the 11th of June, 1838, the Senate recommend that the President make proclamation of said treaty and carry the same into effect." The resolution of the 11th of June, 1838, provided that "the said treaty shall have no force or effect whatever as relates to any of the said tribes, nations, or bands of New York Indians, nor shall it be understood that the Senate have assented to any of the contracts connected with it until the same, with the amendments herein proposed, is submitted and fully explained by the commissioner of the United States to each of the said tribes or bands separately assembled in council, and they have given their free and voluntary consent thereto." The amended treaty was submitted to the chiefs of the several tribes and its provisions explained to them in council. A majority of the chiefs of each of the tribes of New York Indians signed the treaty in council, except the Senecas. Of them only 16 signed in council, 13 signed at the commissioner's office, and 2, who were confined by indisposition, at home. This was reported to the War Department in October, 1838, and in January, 1839, a final return of the proceedings of the commissioner was made, by which it appeared that 41 signatures of chiefs, including 6 out of the 8 sachems of the nation, had been affixed to the treaty. The number of chiefs of the Seneca Nation entitled to act for the people is variously estimated from 74 to 80, and by some at a still higher number. Thus it appears that, estimating the number of chiefs at 80--and it is believed there are at least that number--there was only a bare majority of them who signed the treaty, and only 16 gave their assent to it in council. The Secretary of War was under these circumstances directed to meet the chiefs of the New York Indians in council, in order to ascertain, if possible, the views of the several tribes, and especially of the Senecas, in relation to the amended treaty. He did so in the month of August last, and the minutes of the proceedings of that council are herewith submitted. Much opposition was manifested by a party of the Senecas, and from some cause or other some of the chiefs of the other tribes who had in former councils consented to the treaty appeared to be now opposed to it. Documents were presented showing that some of the Seneca chiefs had received assurances of remuneration from the proprietors of the land, provided they assented to the treaty and used their influence to obtain that of the nation, while testimony was offered on the other side to prove that many had been deterred from signing and taking part in favor of the treaty by threats of violence, which, from the late intelligence of the cruel murders committed upon the signers of the Cherokee treaty, produced a panic among the partisans of that now under consideration. Whatever may have been the means used by those interested in the fee simple of these lands to obtain the assent of Indians, it appears from the disinterested and important testimony of the commissioner appointed by the State of Massachusetts that the agent of the Government acted throughout with the utmost fairness, and General Dearborn declares himself to be perfectly satisfied that were it not for the unremitted and disingenuous exertions of a certain number of white men who are actuated by their private interests, to induce the chiefs not to assent to the treaty, it would immediately have been approved by an immense majority--an opinion which he reiterated at Cattaraugus. Statements were presented to the Secretary of War at Cattaraugus to show that a vast majority of the New York Indians were adverse to the treaty, but no reasonable doubt exists that the same influence which obtained this expression of opinion would, if exerted with equal zeal on the other side, have produced a directly opposite effect and shown a large majority in favor of emigration. But no advance toward obtaining the assent of the Seneca tribe to the amended treaty in council was made, nor can the assent of a majority of them in council be now obtained. In the report of the committee of the Senate, upon the subject of this treaty, of the 28th of February last it is stated as follows:

But it is in vain to contend that the signatures of the last ten, which were obtained on the second mission, or of the three who have sent on their assent lately, is such a signing as was contemplated by the resolution of the Senate. It is competent, however, for the Senate to waive the usual and customary forms in this instance and consider the signatures of these last thirteen as good as though they had been obtained in open council. But the committee can not recommend the adoption of such a practice in making treaties, for divers good reasons, which must be obvious to the Senate; and among those reasons against these secret individual negotiations is the distrust created that the chiefs so acting are doing what a majority of their people do not approve of, or else that they are improperly acted upon by bribery or threats or unfair influences. In this case we have most ample illustrations. Those opposed to the treaty accuse several of those who signed their assent to the amended treaty with having been bribed, and in at least one instance they make out the charge very clearly.

Although the committee, being four in number, were unable to agree upon any recommendation to the Senate, it does not appear that there was any diversity of opinion amongst them in regard to this part of the report. The provision of the resolution of the Senate of the 11th of June, 1838, requiring the assent of each of the said tribes of Indians to the amended treaty to be given in council, and which was also made a condition precedent to the recommendation to me of the Senate of the 2d of March, 1839, to carry the same into effect, has not, therefore, been complied with as it respects the Seneca tribe.

It is, however, insisted by the advocates for the execution of the treaty that it was the intention of the Senate by their resolution of the 2d of March, 1839, to waive so much of the requirement of that of the 11th of June, 1838, as made it necessary that the assent of the different tribes should be given in council. This assumption is understood to be founded upon the circumstances that the fact that only sixteen of the chiefs had given their assent in that form had been distinctly communicated to the Senate before the passage of the resolution of the 2d of March, and that instead of being a majority that number constituted scarcely one-fifth of the whole number of chiefs, and it is hence insisted that unless the Senate had so intended there would have been no use in sending the amended treaty to the President with the advice contained in that resolution. This has not appeared to me to be a necessary deduction from the foregoing facts, as the Senate may have contemplated that the assent of the tribe in the form first required should be thereafter obtained, and before the treaty was executed, and the phraseology of the resolution, viz, "that whenever the President shall be satisfied," etc., goes far to sustain this construction. The interpretation of the acts of the Senate set up by the advocates for the treaty is, moreover, in direct opposition to the disclaimer contained in the report of the committee which has been adverted to. It is at best an inference only, in respect to the truth of which the Senate can alone speak with certainty, and which could not with propriety be regarded as justifying the desired action in relation to the execution of the treaty.

This measure is further objected to on the ground of improper inducements held out to the assenting chiefs by the agents of the proprietors of the lands, which, it is insisted, ought to invalidate the treaty if even the requirement that the assent of the chiefs should be given in council was dispensed with. Documentary evidence upon this subject was laid before you at the last session, and is again communicated, with additional evidence upon the same point. The charge appears by the proceedings of the Senate to have been investigated by your committee, but no conclusion upon the subject formed other than that which is contained in the extract from the report of the committee I have referred to, and which asserts that at least in one instance the charge of bribery has been clearly made out. That improper means have been employed to obtain the assent of the Seneca chiefs there is every reason to believe, and I have not been able to satisfy myself that I can, consistently with the resolution of the Senate of the 2d of March, 1839, cause the treaty to be carried into effect in respect to the Seneca tribe.

You will perceive that this treaty embraces the Six Nations of New York Indians, occupying different reservations, but bound together by common ties, and it will be expedient to decide whether in the event of that part of it which concerns the Senecas being rejected it shall be considered valid in relation to the other tribes, or whether the whole confederacy shall share one fate. In the event of the Senate not advising the ratification of the amended treaty, I invite your attention to the proposal submitted by the dissentients to authorize a division of the lands, so that those who prefer it may go West and enjoy the advantages of a permanent home there, and of their proportion of the annuities now payable, as well as of the several pecuniary and other beneficiary provisions of the amended treaty.


Martin van Buren, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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