Cornplanter (John O'Bail, ca. 1735–1836) was a major Seneca leader during the late eighteenth century who figured prominently in the shifting alliances that accompanied the American Revolution. He became a personal friend of George Washington through the Tammany Society, a fraternal order that adopted some Native costumes and rituals and which observed the fusion of European and Native American cultures in America.
Cornplanter's father was a white trader, John O'Bail (sometimes Abeel). Some sources contend he was Irish; others say he was Dutch. All agree, however, that he was one of the biggest sellers of liquor to the Senecas. O'Bail had been heard to boast that his trade had a profit margin of 1,000 percent. While some Englishmen detested O'Bail, they relied on his intelligence about the French, gathered from Indians with whom he did business.
Cornplanter was raised by his Seneca mother; he knew his father only slightly, having met him a few times as a child. In 1780, Cornplanter led a raiding party in the Schoharie Valley that took a large number of prisoners, his father included. Cornplanter released his father, who still made his living by bartering guns, rum, and other goods for furs. Corn-planter invited O'Bail to join his Seneca family in his old age, but the elder O'Bail chose to return to his European-American family at Fort Plain, New York.
As an ally of the French in the French and Indian War (1754–1763), Cornplanter's warriors raided several British settlements. He may have been part of the French force that defeated British General Edward Braddock and his aide George Washington at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh).
During the American Revolution, the Iroquois Grand Council could not reach consensus on alliance. Cornplanter generally favored neutrality. Joseph Brant spoke eloquently about the necessity of going to war in alliance with the British, stating that neutrality would lead to disaster and that the Americans or the British might turn on the Confederacy with a vengeance. Red Jacket and Cornplanter argued against Brant. They insisted that this quarrel was among the whites; interfering in something they did not fully understand was a mistake. As the meeting broke up in a furor, Brant called Cornplanter a coward. The people gathered at Irondequoit divided into two camps and discussed the issue of going to war. In general, the Senecas were disposed to neutrality. However, the words of Brant stung the ears of the Senecas, who could not bear to be called cowards. Finally, after lengthy discussion, the Senecas were swayed along with other wavering groups to take up the British cause.
After the Revolution, Cornplanter secured for his people a tract of land along the Allegheny River. He brought in Quaker teachers and helped sustain a prosperous agricultural community that included large herds of cattle. Cornplanter signed several treaties on behalf of the Senecas, including those concluded at Fort Stanwix in 1784 and others at various locations in 1789, 1797, and 1802. Through his many associations with Euro-Americans (including a trip to England), Cornplanter sometimes wore English clothing and displayed English mannerisms. On one occasion, fellow Senecas tore off Corn-planter's English clothes, greased his body, and dressed him in traditional attire.
In April 1786, the Tammany Society welcomed Cornplanter and five other Senecas to Philadelphia. In a remarkable ceremony, the Tammany sachems escorted the Senecas from their lodgings at the Indian Queen Tavern to Tammany's wigwam on the banks of the Schuylkill River for a conference. Within a few days, Cornplanter and the Senecas proceeded to New York City to address Congress.
In Philadelphia on May 1, 1786, St. Tammany's Day was marked with the usual celebrations and feasts, after which a portrait of Cornplanter was presented. More than a dozen toasts were given, including: "The Great Council Fire of the United States—May the 13 fires glow in one blended blaze and illumine the Eagle in his flight to the stars," "Our great grand sachem George Washington, Esq.," "Our Brother Iontonkque or the Corn Plant—May we ever remember that he visited our wigwam and spoke a good talk from our great-grandfathers," and "The Friendly Indian Nations—our warriors and young men who fought, bled and gave good council for our nation."
Later in his life, Cornplanter lost some of his prestige among the Senecas because of his easy agreement to land cessions. He retained enough influence, however, to bring the Senecas to the American side in the War of 1812. Shortly before he died in 1836, Cornplanter had a dream that indicated his friendship with all Euro-Americans had been mistaken. After the dream, he destroyed all the presents that had been given him by non-Indians.
Cornplanter's people occupied the 1,300-acre piece of land along the Allegheny River that had been given them by George Washington until the midtwentieth century, when the Army Corps of Engineers decided that the land better suited the public convenience under water. The scope of the Army's engineering projects had grown grandiosely since Washington himself helped survey the mountains that now comprise West Virginia, long before the pursuit of electricity became a legally valid reason for the state to seize land. In 1964, the bones of Corn-planter's people were moved from their land to make way for rising waters behind the Kinzua Dam. In the valleys at the Western Door, Senecas still ask sardonically if George Washington had ever asked Corn-planter if he knew how to swim.
Bruce E. Johansen
Grinde, Donald A., Jr. 1977. The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.; Parker, Arthur Caswell. 1927. Notes on the Ancestry of Cornplanter. Rochester, NY: Lewis H. Morgan Chapter, New York State Archaeological Association.; Stone, William Leete. 1841. Life and Times of Red-Jacket, or Sa-go-ye-wat-ha: Being the Sequel to the History of the Six Nations. New York: Wiley and Putnam.; Wilson, Edmund. 1960. Apologies to the Iroquois. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy.