Treaty of Big Tree

My ancestor William4 (John3, John2, William1) SHEPARD was fortunate in that during his lifetime he partook in three major historical events in the history of our county and helped to affect their outcomes. He was one of the major players in the Revolutionary War, Shay’s Rebellion and the Big Tree Treaty, (which resulted in America’s legal possession of the western half of the State of New York).

The Treaty of Big Tree is not a well known event. I certainly don’t remember learning anything about it in my history classes, but its outcome helped to greatly enhance America’s land holdings and was possibly the incentive for many of my JOHN ancestors continued westward migration through the state of New York, on to Michigan, eventually ending in Wisconsin.

This particular treaty came about because Robert Morris needed money, badly.

Robert Morris was considered, apparently by many, to have been the richest man in America at the time. He had acquired a large majority of his riches by stealing them from the British during the Revolutionary War, although being a privateer during wartime was considered legal theft. His money making schemes after the war were relegated to land speculation, enough so that he ended up losing the majority of his wealth and ended up greatly in debt. This treaty was to be his last ditch effort to pay back those debts and get himself back on his feet again. Due to his ill health and his age he sent his son Thomas in his place to negotiate.

In 1791 Morris had acquired the rights to buy land from the Seneca, from Massachusetts, but the sale was contingent upon clearing the land title from the Senecas. It wasn’t until 1797 that he was ready to open negotiations to do so because he had sold much of the property to a group of Dutch bankers, but could not get his money until he cleared the land title.

After much correspondence with government entities, the date of August 20, 1797 was set for the start of this momentous event. The location, Big Tree, a small indian village, was chosen only because of its convenient location as a meeting place for everyone involved in the negotiations. The meeting place itself was in a large temporary shelter, that had been built for the occasion, in a meadow between Wadsworth’s cabin and a gigantic oak by the river.

A list of instructions was provided by Morris to his son proposing how the negotiations should start. One of the items on the list was: “the business of the treaty may be greatly propelled probably by withholding liquor from the Indians” but, it went on to suggest, “with the promise of its procurement after the treaty was signed.”1 [p18]

To prepare for the event provisions had to be made, and due to the large contingent expected to be at the treaty grounds,  a large herd of cattle, along with a huge amount of supplies needed to be on hand, all of which had to be transported to Big Tree over very bad roads.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.35.36 AM
Items in provision list.1[p19]
A large majority of the American negotiators arrived late due to the inclement weather. Among this group was General William Shepard who had been appointed by the state of Massachusetts to represent the commonwealth.1[p20] They were all housed in log cabin that had been built by the Wadsworths.

There were over three thousand Seneca in attendance most of whom were reluctant to give up any more land to the “white man”, but they were looking forward to the “big kettles that would be hung”, that would provide “a feast of fat things”and the free rum. Many were merely curious about this extremely wealthy white man Mr. Morris who was to be there. They had been told he would be handing out many lavish gifts. Also in attendance was one of their leaders, Chief Red Jacket, who was regarded as the greatest orator of the whole six nations, and would be speaking on behalf of the Seneca along with several other notable Seneca chiefs and the Clan Mothers of the nation.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.40.33 AM

On the first day Thomas Morris opened the negotiations by speaking first then William Shepard made his address, which went as follows:

     “Brothers, Your brother, the governor, and the executive Council of the state of Massachusetts, desirous that justice should be done to people of every color, and particularly to their brothers of the Seneca nation, have sent me with power to attend this treaty on their behalf.
And I shall make it my business to see that the negotiation between you is carried on upon principles of justice and fairness. Brothers, I am an old man, much accustomed to do public business for the state to which I belong. I have always observed when thus employed, that a spirit of harmony and conciliation was attended with happy effect among us, therefore, brothers, I hope that your mind will be united, And that the voice of one will express the sentiments of all. Brothers, I have now said all that I have to say to you at present. May the Great Spirit take you under his protection, and give wisdom and unanimity to your councils.”1

Over the course of the negotiations Wadsworth was generally in charge of the events of the day, however, on the 10th William Shepard oversaw the negotiations as Wadsworth had become ill and could not attend.

Because the Senecas had been cheated in questionable negotiations in an earlier treaty when they sold most of their land east of the Genesee, they were resolved that this wouldn’t happen again. Many people spoke and debates on both sides were instrumental in the negotiations became stalemated. A break was eventually called. The next day Morris offered more money, but Red Jacket made clear that the Indians had already lost much of their land and no amount of money could make them part with any more. Red Jacket continued to remain a sticking point in the negotiations as the rest of the Senecas listened to his silver-tongued oratory against any land giveaway. Another Chief, Cornplanter, asked Morris to check his Bible to see if the White Man’s Great Spirit directed them to intrude on Indian property.

Discussions stalled again when Red Jacket, and several other chiefs refused to sign the treaty. Morris then tried a new tact, outright bribery, and appealed to the Clan Mothers by promising to give Seneca women 60 cows, and annuities to some of the chiefs. This was a major motivator in ending the negotiations. After over two weeks of, sometimes, heated back and forth negotiations in the end it was bribery that sealed the deal, the treaty was signed September 15, 1797. [link to web page with transcription of treaty]

With the signing of the Treaty of Big Tree, Morris transferred the cleared land title to the Holland Land Company. The final result?

It “opened up the rest of the territory west of the Genesee River for settlement and established ten reservations, perpetual annuities and hunting and fishing rights for the Seneca in Western New York.”2

Now that the negotiations were finally over William Shepard went back home to the comfort of his hearth. Robert Morris died a short time later still poor. His greed led him to make bad speculations, which lost any profit he might have made on this endeavor.

There is much more of interest regarding this event, which I have, of course, heavily edited, including the book “A history of the Treaty of Big Tree…” see link below, which I used as one of my sources.


  1. A history of the treaty of Big Tree, by Livingston County historical society, Genesco, N.Y. [from old catalog]; 1897:Publisher [Dansville, N.Y.] Livingston County historical society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s