Today’s post was written by Grace Schultz, archivist at the National Archives at Philadelphia.
On September 16, 1966, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) drowned over 10,000 acres of Seneca land in northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York. The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, signed by George Washington as well as Native and federal delegates, confirmed peace and recognized that this land belonged to the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations). How and why did the U.S. Government seize and flood land that belonged to the Haudenosaunee for 172 years? NARA’s holdings shed light on this history.
One of the many functions of the USACE is to reduce flood damage through civil works projects. The Corps was aware of the need for a flood control project on the Allegheny River for decades before the devastating Pittsburgh Flood of 1936 (also known as the St. Patrick’s Day Flood), which wrought widespread destruction across Pittsburgh on March 17 and 18, 1936. In response to the worst flood in Pittsburgh’s recorded history, the U.S. Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1936, paving the way for flood control projects across the United States including the eventual construction of the Kinzua Dam.
In October 1956, engineers from the Pittsburgh District of the USACE began surveying land surrounding the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania and southwestern New York with the intention to build a dam. Most of the land under consideration belonged to the Seneca Nation as detailed in the aforementioned Treaty of Canandaigua. The treaty, ordered by President George Washington, declared of the land that “The United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneka [sic] Nation … in the free use and enjoyment thereof: but it shall remain theirs, until they choose to sell the same to the people of the United States, who have the right to purchase.”
Seneca leaders immediately organized in 1956, challenging the U.S. Government’s right to even consider surveying or condemning their land and requesting the USACE to consider alternatives. The Seneca Nation asserted that the Treaty of Canandaigua was legally binding, and had been for over a century and a half. Cornelius Seneca, President of the Seneca Nation, released a statement on March 10, 1957 urging the public to oppose the Allegheny River Project (later known as the Kinzua Dam), which can be see in the Indian Affairs: Newsletter of the American Indian Fund and the Association on American Indian Affairs, Inc.:
Soon after, as letters from across the country were received by the offices of the president, USACE, members of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court, and more protesting the construction of the Kinzua Dam. Many of these letters were forwarded from the President’s office to the USACE Pittsburgh District for response. Most responses sent by the USACE consisted of the same standard language and enclosed their official “Statement on the Relationship between the Allegheny Reservoir Project and the Allegany Indian Reservation.”
Despite the boilerplate responses sent by the USACE, letters continued to pour in from private citizens as well as religious, academic, professional, and local government organizations. These letters were wide ranging in their pleas, citing the Treaty of Canandaigua, requesting that a new survey be conducted exploring alternative flood control options, challenging the cost-benefit ratio of the Kinzua Dam, and more. Below are just a few of the letters received by the offices of the President (both Eisenhower and Kennedy) and USACE.
The following is a letter sent from Isaac C. Sutton, Attorney for the Indian Rights Association, to Major Richard L. Seidel of the USACE Pittsburgh District urging the USACE to conduct another survey, citing that reputable engineers from outside the government have reported that there are several other options for flood control projects that would not break the Treaty of Canandaigua and would actually be more cost effective:
Similarly, Mrs. Mildred F. Garlow, Deer Clan Mother of Seneca Nation, Allegheny and Cattaraugus Reserves, Chair Lady of Iroquois Mother Heritage, sent a statement to Colonel Roy S. Kelley of the USACE Pittsburgh District on May 4, 1957:
Anita de Frey, Secretary of the Indian League of the Americas, wrote to President Eisenhower to halt the survey and construction of the Kinzua Dam:
The President of the Archeological Society of Ohio (ASO) wrote to President Eisenhower imploring him to prevent the construction of the Kinzua Dam, attaching a resolution passed by the ASO concerning the “proposed theft of the lands of the Seneca Nation:”
The Allegheny County Sportsman League disseminated pamphlets and statements about their opposition to the construction of the Kinzua Dam:
Even school aged children expressed their opposition to the dam. Anton Joseph Mikofsky of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania wrote to President Eisenhower asking: “If we believe that we must have honor in the world, in our dealings with both small and large nations abroad, have we the right to apply less honor in our dealings with a small nation at home?”
Elizabeth Lynde, aged 10, wrote an impassioned letter to President Kennedy on March 27, 1961 (at this point, the USACE had already begun construction on the dam) about the breaking of the Treaty: “So you’re nothing but a little man if you break a promise! I hope you undersand [sic]! And I am not trying to act like a smarty pants or big guy who thinks she knows everything, but no-one should ever at any time break a promise!”:
While members of the public attempted to appeal to the President, Congress, USACE, and other government officials, the Seneca Nation fought for their land in court. In early 1957, however, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York ruled in favor of the U.S. Government. In United States v. 21,250 Acres of Land Etc., the judge determined that the Seneca Nation could not bar federal agents from entering its territory and could not resist the taking of its land via eminent domain (2). The Seneca Nation appealed and continued to argue their case in federal courts, but ultimately lost their legal battle. The USACE moved forward with the Kinzua Dam as planned and construction began on October 22, 1960. Over 10,000 acres of Seneca land was drowned on September 16, 1966 when the dam became operational.
The letters featured in this blog post are a small sample of the letters that the USACE received during this time period. Correspondence Received Regarding Public Opposition to the Construction of the Kinzua Dam is a small, significant series of USACE Pittsburgh District holdings, but there is so much more to explore within this record group and beyond. To learn more about USACE Pittsburgh District holdings at the National Archives at Philadelphia, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Related records can be found across NARA, including but not limited to: Cartographic and Architectural Records at the National Archives in College Park, MD, Photographs and Graphic Works at the National Archives in College Park, MD, National Archives at Kansas City, Missouri, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. To learn more about the Kinzua Dam controversy, visit NARA’s Online Catalog for more information.
(1) Correspondence Received Regarding Public Opposition to the Construction of the Kinzua Dam, Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Archives at Philadelphia.
(2) United States v. 21,250 Acres of Land Etc, Civil Case Files, U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, National Archives at Kansas City.