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Saturday Art: Portrait of Cornplanter

Ki-On-Twog-Ky by F. Bartoli
Ki-On-Twog-Ky by F. Bartoli(1796)

This wonderful portrait is in the collection of the New York Historical Society. The artist was Frederick Bartoli, and you can see his signature with the date, 1796, just to the right of Cornplanter’s shoulder.
Judging by his name, the artist is Italian, but I have not been able to find out anything more about him.

However, there is a lot of historical documentation about the subject of the painting. Cornplanter was an important war-chief and leader of the Seneca tribe. According to Wikipedia, his Iroquois name Gaiänt’wakê (often spelled Gyantwachia), means “the planter,” and another variation, Kaintwakon, means “by what one plants.” However, the New York Historical Society renders his name as Ki-On-Twog-Ky. He was commonly known in English as Cornplanter. His exact birth year is unknown but it was likely sometime between 1740 and 1750 in Canawaugus (now Caledonia, New York) on the Genesee River. His mother, Aliquipiso, was Seneca, and his father was a Dutch fur trader, Johannes Abeel. He lived to a ripe old age, till 1836.

The portrait was painted to commemorate his meeting with the U.S. Congress ten years before and his role as a mediator between native and non-native cultures, therefore he is holding the symbolic peace pipe. He is wearing an earring, and his earlobes are cut in a way that was common at the time among Native Americans. It is believed that the silver medal and armbands and the scarlet cloth with which he draped himself were gifts from the Confederation Congress presented during his visit to New York City in May 1786, three years before the Inauguration of George Washington.

Most of the Iroquois confederacy sided with the British during the American Revolution, and Cornplanter, who had been appointed by his tribe to lead the Seneca warriors, took part in battles including what are known as the the Battle of Wyoming(meaning the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania near the present-day city of Wilkes-Barre) and the Cherry Valley massacre (in Otsego County New York, near present-day Oneonta). Following the war, he became a negotiator in disputes between the Americans and the Seneca as well as other indigenous tribes, and spent decades seeking a peaceful resolution of disputes between the United States and the Six Nations. Sometime in the 1790’s, the Pennsylvania General Assembly awarded him a land grant of about 1,500 acres in Warren County that would be the last Indian-owned land in Pennsylvania. The Seneca continued to live there until 1965, when Pennsylvania permanently flooded the Cornplanter Tract to create the Allegheny Reservoir. The moving of his grave (which conflicted with the promise that his land grant would be his and his heirs “forever”) was commemorated by the song, “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow” written by Peter LaFarge and recorded by Johnny Cash in 1964; you can hear Johnny performing it on YouTube here.

For those who are not familiar with the natives of eastern North America, the Seneca were a tribe living primarily in western upstate New York. They were part of a group known as Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois because their common language group was Iroquoian) that covered most of upstate New York, with some tribes going as far as the Ohio Valley and Wisconsin. They were farmers, and also hunted, gathered, and fished for food. The clans were matrilineal, that is, clan ties were traced through the mother’s line.

The Iroquois League was a confederation formed in the 16th century, or possibly even earlier. It included the Mohawk(Kanien’gehaga), Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations, and was also known as the Five Tribes. After the Tuscarora nation joined the League in 1722, the Iroquois became known as the Six Nations. The League still exists, and the Iroquois hold a unique position, because unlike other natives of North America, their rights to land, and as sovereign entities within the United States were established by the Treaty of Canandaigua signed in 1794. The treaty is still actively recognized by the United States and the Six Nations, and the tribes issue their own passports. There was a bit of an international incident last year, when the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, traveling to an international tournament in England, was not allowed to enter because the British government refused to recognize the Iroquois passports. Iroquois law was an inspiration to America’s founding fathers when writing the Constitution. George Washington, after a visit to the Iroquois, expressed “great excitement” over the Iroquois “two houses and Grand Council”. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “”It would be strange if ignorant savages could execute a union that persisted ages and appears indissoluble; yet like union is impractical for twelve colonies to whom it is more necessary and advantageous.” There is also evidence that Thomas Jefferson adopted the specific symbols of the Iroquois; their Tree of Peace became the Tree of Liberty; the Eagle, clutching a bundle of thirteen arrows, became the symbol of the new American government.

Just for fun, if you want to read some good fiction featuring an Iroquois woman, I highly recommend Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield thriller/mystery series. Jane Whitefield is a Seneca who lives in Tonawanda, New York and her native culture plays a big role in the books.
Well, I seem to have wandered far off my original topic, but I hope you enjoy it.

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I am a baby boomer, born, raised and still living in New Jersey. I have been a waitress, programer/systems analyst & paralegal, among other jobs.
Interests: art, music, politics, reading, cooking.