John Abeel, father of the famous Seneca chief Cornplanter, had ties to our area. Abeel was born in Albany around 1724. His father, also named John Abeel, and Ebenezer Wilson were granted a one square mile land patent in what is now the city of Amsterdam.
Young Abeel was on the frontier in the 1740s trading with the Senecas, one of the members of the Iroquois confederacy of nations. He and Seneca princess Aliquipiso were the parents of Cornplanter, born in a village near the Genesee River. Abeel lived among the Senecas for around three years, trading rum for furs.
Historian Jacqueline Murphy wrote, “The spirits brought so much misery and drunkenness to the tribes that the intervention of (British Superintendent of Indian Affairs) William Johnson forced (Abeel) to relinquish his business among the Iroquois. John Abeel settled at Sand Hill just below the fort at Fort Plain and married Mary Knouts. Abeel was mentioned about eight times in the Johnson papers and not in a good light. Johnson labeled him a villain.”
His son Cornplanter, however, became a major historical figure. As a war chief he at first fought with the French against the English. As the American Revolution approached, Cornplanter urged the Iroquois to maintain neutrality. But when four of the Iroquois nations voted to side with the British, Cornplanter joined the fight.
Cornplanter fought with Chief Joseph Brant and Walter Butler when they burned the Mohawk Valley. Murphy wrote, “John Abeel’s house in Fort Plain was set on fire and he was taken prisoner by the Senecas.”
Murphy said the warriors were amazed that Abeel spoke their language, “Cornplanter soon met with his father and offered to take care of him for the rest of his life if he returned to Seneca country. However, he also offered him safe return if he chose to go back to his white family.”
Abeel stayed in the Mohawk Valley and Cornplanter visited his father on occasion and was received by his Fort Plain relatives with the civilities due his rank and manly bearing, according to French’s Gazetteer of New York.
Murphy wrote, “After the war, Cornplanter led negotiations with the fledgling government and signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. Also, he was instrumental in keeping the Iroquois neutral during the Northwest Indian Wars.
“Known for his diplomacy he pleaded for better treatment of his people with both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. During the years after the Revolution, he worked to learn the European-American ways and invited Quakers to establish schools among his people. He built sawmills and encouraged the men to join the women in the field.”
John Abeel, Cornplanter’s father, died in Fort Plain in October, 1794. Two years later Pennsylvania granted Cornplanter 1,500 acres of land on the west bank of the Allegheny River. By 1798 hundreds of Seneca were living there.
Cornplanter’s half-brother, Handsome Lake, a religious leader, encouraged the Senecas to return to their former ways. Cornplanter too eventually became disillusioned by America’s poor treatment of his people and their broken promises and returned to his Seneca lifestyle.
Cornplanter burned his military uniform, smashing his sword and medals. He died in his 86th year, March 1836.
In 1866 Cornplanter was honored by the State of Pennsylvania with an obelisk at his grave referring to him as the son of John Abeel, although the name is spelled “O’Bail.” The land was flooded by the Kinzua Dam in 1964 and the Senecas who lived there relocated to a reservation in New York. Cornplanter’s remains were moved to a spot above the dam near the New York border where a new marker was erected.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.