1848 Political Revolution
By Randy John. Originally read at observance of the Seneca Nation 163rd Anniversary
In 1848 the Seneca Nation of Indians, as we know it today, was created. The hereditary, lifetime chiefs were removed from power on December 4th and a republic form of government was created.
The Chair of the 1848 convention was Solomon Mclane (Solomon William Lane). He was turtle clan and he was a member of Asher Wright’s Presbyterian Church on the Cattaraugus Territory. He became the first SNI President at the age of 29.
The first Treasurer was Andrew John, the father of the famous Andrew John, Jr. of the Salamanca lease era. The first Clerk was William Jemerson.
When this new government was formed, the original voters were only the adult men on the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories. The Council was elected by a majority vote. There were 18 councilors. This changed to 12 and later 5 council members until 1865 when the 16 member council was established in President Henry Silverheels term. Ten years later the tradition of rotating the presidency would occur.
One of the prominent reasons for this political rebellion was the nature of federal annuity payments. The traditional system allowed the Chiefs to accept the treaty payments. The Chiefs distributed the monies after taking a portion for governmental expenses. There were accusations of fraudulent practices by the Chiefs. The new party method was to distribute the monies directly to the heads of the families. A second cause was the loss of all the Senecas land in the 1838 Buffalo Creek Treaty.
The loss of our homelands and the planned removal of the Seneca people out west to Kansas damaged the trust of the traditional Chiefs even though some our territory was returned in the 1842 Compromise Treaty.
A third factor was the political maneuvering of the Hicksite Quakers, they actively promoted social assimilation and the political revolution. The political revolution fit into their plans to assimilate the Senecas. In 1843 they stirred the pot in a council meeting at the Cattaraugus Territory. The main Quakers were Ambrose Spencer, Benjamin Ferris, and Philip E. Thomas. They openly questioning the Chiefs’ political role on the transfer of Seneca lands and they suggested a 2/3’s vote of all adult males should decide the alienation of Seneca lands.
A central Seneca figure during this era was Maris B. Pierce. He was a Traditional Chief from the Cattaraugus territory who was educated at Dartmouth College. He signed the original 1838 Buffalo Creek treaty. Maris served three significant roles during this era of treaty making and political revolution. He was a Seneca Chief, the Friends Indian Spokesman, and the federal interpreter from 1838 to the 1842 compromise treaty. The interactions of Maris B. Pierce with the Quakers and governmental officials could be characterized as a spy vs. spy relationship. The Quakers, New York State and the Federal Government on one side were promoting assimilation and the sale of Seneca land while Marist was on the other side of the ‘lobby.’. He became the spokesman for the Old Chiefs party who lobbied against the 1848 revolution.
This revolution was not without contest, the Federal Indian Bureau and New York State recognized the new government based on two factors: the acceptance of annuities payments by household heads and the views of the Quakers.
A majority of the household heads did accept the payments supporting the elective form of government.
The Quaker view relied upon the opinion of Peter Wilson, a Cayuga Chief and he was a leader for governmental reform. This is illustrated in his speech on Oct. 29th, 1848 to the Committee of Baltimore Yearly meeting of Friend on Indian Concerns, he stated:
THE INDIANS AT CATT. AND ALL. ARE NO LONGER THE IGNORANT LISTLESS PEOPLE THEY FORMERLY WERE, BUT THEY HAVE BECOME A REFLECTING AND INTELLIGENT COMMUNITY, CAPABLE OF INQUIRING INTO THEIR SITUATION, AND OF PERCEIVING THE GRIEVANCES AND OPPRESSION THEY HAVE SUFFERED FROM THE BAD ADMINISTRATION OF THEIR AFFAIRS BY THE CHIEFS, WHO HOLD THEIR POWER WITHOUT RESPONSIBILITY OR LIMITATION, AND HAVE FREQUENTLY, BETRAYED THEIR TRUST, EVEN SO FAR AS TO SQUANDER THE PUBLIC FUNDS WITHOUT REGARD TO THE GENERAL GOOD, AND THROUGH CORRUPT INFLUENCES HAVE SOLD AND ALIENATED THE LAND OF THE NATION BY FRAUDULENT TREATIES.
So, the Quakers aligned with the pro-revolution Cayuga Chief. Wilson was an educated man and he makes reference to the revolutions in Europe the same year.
THIS AGE IS A PROGRESSIVE ONE. THE OLD ESTABLISHED MONARCHIES OF THE EASTERN WORLD ARE DAILY TUMBLING INTO RUINS, AND THE PEOPLE LONG SUBJECTED TO DESPOTISM ARE METAMORPHOSED INTO REPUBLICANS AND CITIZENS.
On Dec. 4th, 1848, the Seneca Revolution happened at the Cattaraugus Territory. The new government maintained control of the government for the first three annual elections. However, the split between the New Republic Party and the Old Chiefs party did not wane.
The Old Chiefs coalition petitioned the federal government to reconsider their decision to recognize the new government, unsuccessfully. On Dec 16, 1850, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior wrote a letter to the SNI President.
THE U.S. PRESIDENT (MILLARD FILLMORE) RECEIVED TODAY BY THE HANDS OF YOUR FRIEND AND AGENT PHILIP E. THOMAS YOUR MEMORIAL. HE HAS NO DESIRE TO INTERMEDDLE WITH YOUR FORM OF GOVERNMENT.
In the May 1851 election, the Old Chief regained control of the Council and abolished the new governmental form. They reinstated the traditional form of government. The political capitals of the federal and state government did not act to recognize this reversal.
The Old Chief Party won again in 1852, this time the state and federal governments responded. They took a poll of the people living on the territories.
The New Government Party refused to vote. Thus, the results were in favor of the Old Chief system, however, it was not a numerical majority of all the Seneca residents on both territories.
Again, the federal government took no action to reinstate the Old Chiefs. In the 1853 election, the New Government party returned to power. The Hicksite Quaker view continued to support the new governmental form.
This battle continued and there was a reversal once again in 1854 with the Old Chiefs winning by two votes, 105 to 103. During this same convention, the 1848 constitution was voted down 102 to 96. However, it was not the required two-thirds majority.
The political fray lay dormant for 10 years until October 4th, 1864 when the new government was voted down 34 to 11. By this time, the council was a five-member body. The five-member council voted 4 to 1 to return to the traditional system.
In November of 1864, 35 Chiefs were installed by the Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida and Tuscarora delegates from the Confederacy. Once more time, the New Party Government fought back and President Henry Silverheels rejected the change. He appointed new councilors and overrode the Old Chief’s resolution.
The advocacy of the Hicksite Quakers was very influential on the federal level. The federal government once again supported the new form of government. This would mark the end of the schism between the Old Chiefs party and the New Government.